City City Bang Bang, Columns

The perils of measurement?

One of the reasons why Television news and indeed most television programming in India is sub-standard has to do with the way its success is measured. Today, the only measure of quality is viewership and that too is measured on a minute-by-minute basis. Thanks to the measurement technology which can record viewer attention at every moment, channels know exactly what keeps audience watching. The urge is thus to load every second with something dramatic, lest the eyeball flicker elsewhere. Disinterest is television’s greatest enemy, not distaste.

This sets in motion a domino effect whereby all channels chase the same formula regardless of whether they peddle news or entertainment. Constant stimulation is the name of the game. Truth, balance, intelligence, reflection, analysis become irrelevant. Which is why while we might single out one or two channels as being especially guilty of the most egregious misdemeanours, virtually all of television follows the same codes in India, barring very few exceptions.

It is instructive that while this is true of newspapers too, the degree to which it is so is of a substantially lower order. One of the key differences lies again in the method of measurement. While newspaper circulation and readership are measured just like TV viewership is, the metrics used are of an aggregate nature. We don’t know for sure how much time who spent reading what part of a newspaper. The newspaper is measured in its entirety, and not through its individual parts. Had that been the case, most editorials and columns like this one would have disappeared long ago, considering their insignificant readership. While may or may not be considered a significant loss, the fact that newspapers have more room to cover stories without having to deliver readership for every column inch gives it considerable breathing space as compared to TV.

The relationship between measurement technique and quality can be seen even more clearly when it comes to the OTT platforms. The kind of programming content that we see on these platforms is of a completely different texture. Free of the pressures of narrow measurement, at least for now, they can explore a different kind of stories, use interesting narrative techniques, and cater to very different tastes, without pandering to a single set formula. Their allegiance is of a longitudinal nature and of an aggregate kind. They want to serve all the needs of their viewers, by providing service over time.

The power of the subscription model is that it locates itself not in transactional time but in longitudinal time. Time is integrated, not atomised. Memory is restored to the market. Subscription is continued depending on the totality of the experience. Every individual event does not need reek of anxiety and can afford not to pander to the lowest common denominator. Programmes can take some time to find their audience. As a result, even documentaries and unusual themes get reasonable traction. Interestingly, television in India has been in theory essentially a subscription service, but till recently, consumers did not have a real option in terms of choosing individual channels

The subscription mindset works even where there might not be any subscription as such. Uber rates both drivers and passengers. It makes behaviour of both parties a variable in the future quality of service and patronage that one can hope to receive. It acts as a spur to quality on both sides, for everything is added up and allowed to play a role. The market mechanism works beyond pricing, and calibrating supply and demand, it now serves to shape the quality of one’s experience by allocating a price-like mechanism to it. The same is true for food delivery sites. User ratings make and destroy reputations in an entirely new way. Unheralded places can become exceedingly popular if they provide a good quality experience and well-known options can decline in no time.

Of course, while these new platforms and this mode of engagement has been created by the market, it is yet to be fully tested. These are lavishly funded by venture capitalists in the hope that, these will become massively profitable businesses overall. The willingness to lose vast sums of money in the here and now is an important reason why we are seeing the quality that we are. It is interesting that this approach which is rooted in a balance-sheet inspired view of the world, where long-term assets are privileged over short-term profits, is itself a subscription-based view of the world. A more transactional view would have found it difficult to look beyond immediate losses, and take a bet of this kind.

A subscription model is more closely aligned to our lived experiences. Relationships are a form of subscription, in fact, the very idea of relationships are rooted in the idea of a generalised form of reciprocity that unfolds over rather than a more specific transactional version in the here-and-now. In any relationship, we are forever drawing on and building trust and goodwill, familiarity and understanding, experiencing emotions of a varied kind. A relationship is about something left over, something incomplete that gets deferred forever into the future.

Similarly, we look to the next Amazon Prime, Hotstar or Netflix show, as the platform tries to further understand what interests us. The mutual quest from both sides continues, both satisfied and yet unquenched. There is always the anticipation of what comes next as both programming and individual tastes evolve. There is an investment that both sides make into each other. With better data analytics, the sense of intimacy will deepen on both sides.

The current situation may not last. With time, as the greater competition enters the fray, platforms will fragment and libraries will shrink and the pressure on the measurement will grow. But what has been demonstrated is that the more breathlessly and narrowly we measure things, the lower the incentive to build things of deeper and lasting value. Our impatience to be stimulated is the biggest enemy of our need to be satisfyingly informed or entertained.

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