TVMR GE, the only television viewership measurement company in Georgia, said on March 20 it is temporarily suspending operations due to “unbearably” intense scrutiny from Finance Ministry’s Revenue Service and unexpected technical problems caused by reasons beyond company’s control.
TVMR Georgia, which is AGB Nielsen Media Research’s official licensee, is locked in battle with the Revenue Service for almost a month already as the latter demands from the company to hand over addresses of those households where TVMR GE holds its devices through which the company gathers data on audience viewing behavior.
TVMR GE says that giving out requested confidential information about location of “people meters”, devices which capture information about what’s being viewed and when on TV sets, will be fraught with a risk of ratings being tampered.
The Revenue Service (RS) requested the company to share the data on February 25. RS says that it is demanding data as part of a stocktaking process it launched in the company. It argues that it is authorized to request inspection of a company’s items in this process, among others also including people meters, on the spot where they are currently located. The current inspection comes less than a year after the company went through an extensive fiscal audit by the authorities.
Disclosure of addresses of families participating in the survey to a third party, TVMR GE fears, will undermine credibility of the company and of the ratings it produces.
These fears are shared by many of TVMR GE’s clients, which include eleven TV channels and eighteen advertising agencies, as well as by some civil society organizations.
“If any interested party, including the government of Georgia, were to have access to the addresses of households, there is a risk that the rating results will be influenced or manipulated, including by households exercising self-censorship by avoiding to watch channels critical [towards the authorities], fearing repercussions. Without rating measurements, it is impossible to objectively assess the popularity of TV programs and to provide advertisers and advertising agencies with credible data, which may result in the financial collapse of the television sector,” reads March 18 statement by five civil society organizations.
In a joint statement five television channels (Rustavi 2; Maestro TV; Tabula TV; Comedy Channel and TV11) and over dozen of advertising agencies have warned that giving out this confidential information would damage not only the ratings company, but its clients as well by undermining TV ad market. Imedi TV released its statement separately saying that it cannot meddle in a dispute between a private company and the state, but also warned that leak of confidential information would undermine credibility of ratings and eventually entire television ad market in the country.
In case of handing out all the addresses to the authorities, the company says, it will have to select new households for study panel, which will result not only into additional financial expenses, but also into suspension of operations for several months. TV MR GE offered the Revenue Service to hand over addresses of randomly selected 5-10% of households, a proposal not yet accepted by the authorities.
Company’s audience measurement panel consists of 330 households – these are the families where people meters are installed; 190 households are in Tbilisi and 140 in six other cities: Kutaisi, Batumi, Rustavi, Gori, Zugdidi and Poti.
In a statement on March 20 TVMR GE said that it had to temporarily suspend operation because of two reasons.
“First – recent developments, among them late night questionings [by RS employees] in our office, permanent presence of 5-7 individuals/investigators in our office, permanent review of documentation in all the rooms in our office, created unbearable conditions,” the company said.
The second reason cited by the company is related to technical difficulties, which it said, was caused by reasons beyond its control. The company said that nine out of its ten modems through which it receives data from households have failed to get data.
“We do not want to put blame on anyone without a comprehensive examination of the problem, so we will provide information as soon as we will find out exact causes,” it said.
“We will resume our operation from the day when the Revenue Service stops examination in our office the way it is being currently carried out now, and when we are able to resume our daily, normal relation with our partner households,” the company said.
A spokesperson for the Revenue Service, Khatia Moitsrapishvili, said that the ongoing inspection in the office of TVMR GE could not have become a reason for suspension of its operation as auditors are inspecting documentation, creating no problems to company’s employees.
“I completely rule out role of Revenue Service employees in hindering working process of the company,” she said.
Managing director of TV MR GE, Nino Gogoladze, met officials from the Revenue Service nn March 20 in an attempt to find a compromise solution in the dispute. “We will know tomorrow what the result of this meeting might be,” she said after the meeting.
The dispute took a political twist as well; allegations are being voiced that the Revenue Service is trying to obtain addresses of households as the authorities want to manipulate with TV ratings. UNM opposition party claimed that GDS TV (Georgian Dream Studio), an entertainment channel, run by former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili’s son, Bera, was trying to obtain data in order to “discredit” TV ratings and to undermine ad market.
Chief executive of Rustavi 2 TV, Nika Gvaramia, who is the most vocal critic of Revenue Service’s efforts, said that moves against the TV rating company represents authorities’ “dirty game with an eventual goal to destroy media.”
Gvaramia, who was a government member till late 2009, said that the authorities’ moves also represent “a step towards dictatorship.” “You are burying media,” he said. Gvaramia says that Rustavi 2 TV, which according to ratings is the most watched channel, will be the biggest loser if ratings are tampered.
In a statement on March 18 TVMR GE called on all the stakeholders not to use developments surrounding the company for “political statements.”