WPP in the hot seat as New Delhi Television launches $1bn plus claim over “corrupt” TV ratings

This is a funny one. TV ratings in India are produced by a joint venture between Neilsen and Kantar Media, the latter being owned by WPP and (including as it does the former TNS Sofres) Nielsen’s deadliest rival in the TV ratings game.

New Delhi Television boss Vikram Chandra (left) has been claiming for ages that the JV’s meter ratings system is under-funded and that it is too easy to tamper with the meters, meaning that it fails to measure audiences accurately. He further alleges that competitors, some of them owned by Indian politicians, have been doing just this for their own nefarious ends. There’s a full account by Steve McLellan in MediaPost here.

NDT’s write has been filed in a New York court and WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell may find himself involved as he attended a meeting a year at which he is alleged to have promised to mend the system – and then didn’t. WPP says the case has no merit, as you do.

WPP is the biggest western marcoms investor in India with creative, media and digital agencies all over the place. It is also trying hard to leverage its investment in Kantar (it paid £1.1bn for TNS in 2008) in emerging markets, being blocked out of the US TV ratings market by Nielsen. So the US court may take a keen interest in this rather unlikely JV.

Largely overlooked in the coverage of New Delhi Television’s $1 billion-plus lawsuit against Nielsen and Kantar Media is the fact that Kantar parent WPP is also named as a defendant in the suit. Although WPP CEO Martin Sorrell is not specifically named as a defendant, the suit outlines a meeting he attended in India last year where NDTV executives complained vociferously about the shoddy and corrupt TV ratings product being delivered by a Nielsen-Kantar joint venture known as Television Audience Measurement (TAM) that measures TV audiences in India.

According to the suit, filed in New York State Supreme Court July 26, Sorrell made promises to look into the problems. The suit also suggests that he didn’t follow up, given the fact that TAM kept issuing what the suit alleges were reports with inaccurate and falsified data.

The basic complaint from NDTV is that Nielsen and Kantar underfunded its India TV ratings service to such an egregious degree that competitors — some owned or partially owned by unnamed Indian politicians — could easily take steps to manipulate the data, often with bribes to household members where TAM ratings meters are located. According to the suit, some households, for example, would tune sets linked to meters to channels other than NDTV and then actually watch TV on sets not connected to the meters.

“The lack of funding by Nielsen and Kantar is the underlying cause that has led to the corruption of TAM data,” the suit alleges. “The primary reason that data could be so easily manipulated in India was due to the persistent refusal of Nielsen and Kantar to provide adequate funds for TAM to increase its sample size and invest in the systems/quality/security procedures.”

The suit details a meeting that Sorrell attended in New Delhi on Aug. 19, 2011. At least 20 people were in attendance including NDTV CEO Vikram Chandra, who expressed the view that many broadcasters favored some sort of government “intervention” into India’s audience measurement business, “because the TAM system was broken.” The suit alleges that “Sir Martin assured Vikram that he would look into the complaint. Despite the said assurance and knowledge regarding the tampering of TAM data, publication of such data continues.”

WPP issued this reply in response to the suit: “Our lawyers are reviewing the claim but we are satisfied that there is no merit in any claim against WPP.”

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