Prepared by: Alaa Kulaib and Jihan Fady
Viewership surveys have been banned in Egypt by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) since June 2017. Viewership research is an essential tool in the advertising market, through which advertisers can choose the most viewed television networks to contract with to broadcast their ads. Thus, it influences the resources of television networks and channels, as well as the competition between media outlets for audience shares, and the profits they make.
In general, competitiveness in the media market has been negatively affected, after companies established by sovereign bodies in cooperation with some pro-government businessmen acquired the largest share of private television networks. They also acquired drama production companies, newspapers, advertising agencies and news websites. All these companies are affiliated to the United Media Services Company.
Therefore, the SCMR should allow viewership research firms to resume their work in Egypt, and stop seeking to control the results of viewership surveys. It should comply with its legal role in “guaranteeing the exercise of economic activity in the field of journalism and media in a manner that does not prevent, restrict or harm freedom of competition”.
The media landscape in Egypt has been controlled by the government for decades, whether through ownership or regulatory legislation and limiting the scope of investments in the field. In the last years of the rule of late President Mubarak, the media market in Egypt witnessed several developments, as businessmen began to establish satellite TV channels and invest in print newspapers and news websites. The digital media, especially social media, also developed. In the aftermath of the January 2011 revolution, the media market in Egypt was revitalized through major investments, increased competitiveness and diversified media ownership.
Although there are general indicators about the media market and the related legislative and policy changes in Egypt, the bulk of this market is shrouded in ambiguity, as there is no law for the circulation of information, and therefore there is no obligation for the authorities to publish information. This applies to the field of viewership research.
France’s Ipsos, a leading market research company, has operated in Egypt since 2006, offering advice to advertisers. The surveys conducted by the company to determine viewership rates have become a primary source on which advertisers build their contracts with TV channels.
In 2016, viewership research companies had to obtain a license from the SCMR to work. In 2017, the SCMR issued a decision banning viewership surveys, then it issued several statements indicating that it formed a committee to set standards for the work of viewership research companies, and its contribution to the establishment of a state-owned company to conduct viewership surveys. However, these standards have not been released so far, which means that viewership research has been disrupted for more than four years.
This policy leads to monopoly in the media market, as the majority of private television networks are owned by one parent company, namely the United Media Services. This company owns an advertising agency, through which the fees paid by advertisers are determined according to the parent company’s assessment of the rates of viewership of its television networks.
It can be said that the main problem lies in granting the SCMR the authority to prevent viewership surveys and censor their results. The SCMR, moreover, failed to perform its role in monitoring the financing of the media.
Background: Banning viewership surveys
Following the ouster of late President Morsi in July 2013, some private TV channel owners criticized the results of Ipsos’ viewership research. In early 2014, some businessmen announced during a press conference organized by the Chamber of Media Industry that they would stop contracting with Ipsos. The main reason for the move was the fact that MBC Masr TV came on top of the most viewed channels. In that period, television network owners announced that they were seeking to contract with two international market research companies.
In 2016, satellite channel owners criticized Ipsos again, and the company made it clear that it provides its services to its customers only and does not reveal the results of its research to the public. In late 2016, a law on the institutional regulation of the press and media was issued, defining the competencies of the SCMR, which – according to the 2014 constitution – is an independent body entrusted with regulating media affairs in Egypt. The law grants the SCMR the authority to “license the companies verifying the spread, viewership and listening, or their agencies or institutions, follow up on all stages of the verification process and approve the results, in accordance with the rules it sets”. Thus, the law placed restrictions on the work of viewership research firms.
The controversy over viewership research resurfaced again in June 2017, when “ON TV”, “Al-Mehwar” and “CBC” TV stations filed a complaint with the Egyptian Competition Authority against Ipsos, accusing the company of manipulating viewership reports in favor of the Saudi-funded MBC channel at the expense of Egyptian local channels. In their complaint, the three TV stations asked the Competition Authority to refer Ipsos to the Public Prosecution.
In the same month, the SCMR decided to stop the viewership surveys conducted by private companies or agencies. The head of the SCMR at the time, Makram Mohamed Ahmed, said the decision came after TV channels complained about the large number of surveys on soap operas and programs conducted by companies that do not adhere to professional rules. The decision was based on Article 4 of Law No. 92 of 2016 regarding the institutional regulation of the press and media.
The SCMR then formed a committee comprising some of its members and experts in public opinion research to set standards defining the research methodology and target samples to oblige viewership research companies to work according to them. Simultaneously, the SCMR formed a committee to consider the establishment of a national viewership research company.
On 15 July 2017, the Ministry of Manpower decided to close Ipsos office due to the company’s failure to comply with the health and safety rules and secure the work environment.
In September 2017, the SCMR announced that it had discussed the criteria and standards of the establishment of viewership research companies with representatives from the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, and the Competition Authority.
Viewership surveys have remained prohibited, and the SCMR has not issued any standards to regulate the work of the companies operating in this field. The law regulating the press and media and the SCMR’s work, issued in 2018, granted the SCMR the same authority to license viewership research companies and approve the results of their research.
In February 2019, the SCMR formed a new committee to study the proposed criteria of viewership research. The committee adopted sample forms and undertook the follow-up of the scientific methodology applied in viewership research, as well as the work of the bodies operating in this field. It also undertook the approval of research results and proposed recommendations.
In April 2019, the committee announced five conditions for the work of viewership research companies, as follows:
- The company shall take the form an Egyptian joint stock company, with the exception of scientific research centers inside and outside universities, established in accordance with Egyptian law and operating in Egypt.
- The company’s issued capital shall not be less than five million Egyptian pounds, and its managing director or executive director shall be one of the experts who have been working in this field for at least ten years.
- The company shall abide by the terms of work, including following up on the work of these companies at all stages to ensure that they meet the conditions and obligations stipulated in the contract.
- The company shall inform the SCMR of any changes in the structure of ownership, capital, or funding sources, so the SCMR would approve these changes.
- The results of the research or part of it shall not be published except after obtaining a written approval from the committee to ensure that the company is committed to the agreed research methodology.
Thus, it seems that the SCMR did not discuss the use of “People Meter”, a piece of electronic equipment used in people’s homes to measure the number and type of people watching particular television programs. This device is not used in Egypt, as the authorities ban its entry to the country for reasons related to national security.
Policy alternatives: Enabling viewership research firms to operate freely
Three specific policy options related to viewership research can be addressed in this regard. The first is to continue the current policy of banning viewership research until binding standards are set for the companies operating in this field. In its third annual report that covers the second half of 2020, the SCMR did not mention the viewership research committee. The report mentioned specialized studies that depend on opinion polls and research as one of the axes of the SCMR’s strategy. It noted that these studies aimed to identify the audience’s trends so that the media would express them.
This policy exacerbates the problem, as some satellite channels reveal rates of viewership of the dramas they broadcast without explaining how they reached these results. Accordingly, news websites publish these data as a form of propaganda for these dramas. Some actors also promote their works as the most viewed. This situation causes confusion to advertisers, thus depriving the media industry of financial resources, and weakening competition among television networks. Therefore, advertisers cannot find an impartial source to assess viewership.
If the SCMR sets standards for the work of viewership research companies in line with the same previous policy, it will have the authority to refuse to publish the research results according to what the competent committee deems appropriate. This will deprive advertisers and the public of having various results of measuring viewership, according to the methodologies used in that research. Consequently, the research results might become limited to a particular body, which further wastes the guarantees of competitiveness in the media field.
The second option is for the SCMR to participate in the establishment of a state-owned viewership research company. But this will violate the SCMR’s competencies stipulated in the law, as the role of the SCMR is limited to regulation only, and it can form committees to regulate the press and media. In the event that the SCMR participates in the establishment of such a company, it will therefore become a supporter of that company and will monitor its work at the same time.
This will lead investors to abstain from establishing or owning satellite channels, not to mention the fact that the United Media Services Company has owned the majority of key television networks in recent years.
This option, meanwhile, shows how far the SCMR is linked to the executive authority. Some businessmen who demanded the establishment of a national viewership research company referred to their demand as a matter of national security. This vision is espoused by the sovereign bodies that have invested heavily in the media field and have taken control of the majority of television networks.
The third option is for the SCMR to adhere to its legal competences only, in terms of accelerating the process of setting the standards necessary for the work of viewership research companies and granting them work licenses. The SCMR can also limit the approval of research results to verifying the compliance of each company with the methodology it uses, rather than rejecting or approving the results while influenced by the objection of some satellite channels to the advance of non-Egyptian channels in the viewership rating.
But this option is not sufficient in the long run, as the legal powers granted to the SCMR need to be amended on several levels. The SCMR’s role should be limited to matching the research results with the methodology used in the research, by forming a committee composed of independent specialists and experts. Thus, all viewership research companies will be able to work without the need to obtain a license from the SCMR. Moreover, the SCMR should not interfere in the work of these companies during the stages of conducting surveys and preparing research methodologies.
This policy will have many good impacts, as multinational, foreign, and local companies – whether private or state-owned – will be able to work freely in the field of viewership research. Thus, advertisers can assign any of these companies to conduct viewership research for them. There will be also science-based sources for audience measurement, and the financial resources allocated to advertising will increase. On the other hand, satellite channels will benefit from reaching out to the audiences by enhancing their financial resources, and competitiveness in the media field will increase as well.
The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) presents the following recommendations to the concerned bodies:
The SCMR should abide by its legal competencies and not participate in the establishment of a viewership research company.
The SCMR should accelerate the process of setting the standards necessary for the work of viewership research companies and granting them work licenses.
The SCMR’s role in approving the research results should be limited to verifying the compliance of each company with the methodology it has previously set, without oversight interference in the content.
The House of Representatives and the Senate should amend Paragraph 13 of Article 70 of Law No. 180 of 2018 regulating the press and media, so that it reads: “Making sure that the viewership research companies are committed to the methodology that has been set previously”. Thus, these companies will not have to obtain work licenses and the SCMR will not interfere in the stages of preparing research.
Through this paper, AFTE aims to help decision-makers and legislators understand the risks of lack of competitiveness in the media field, and its impact on media pluralism and investments. It also aims to help them develop practical policies to provide advertisers and the public with indicators and data about viewership rates, and provide guarantees for competition in the media market. AFTE also presents these recommendations to observers and those interested in media freedom, in order to strengthen the collective efforts aiming to protect media freedom in Egypt.
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