How Ormax made it
The media research firm has become India’s arbiter for measuring success in the entertainment business. But how sound are its methods?
Good morning! If you’ve ever wondered how fame and popularity are measured, we have just the story for you. Ormax Media—India's only specialised media consulting firm (as it describes itself)—is the go-to tracker for everyone in the entertainment biz. It can simultaneously tell you what’s the most popular streaming show and who’s the biggest pan-India star in any given week. But how did it become so indispensable? Today’s richly-reported story not only walks you through the history of media research in India, but asks questions about research methodology in a metrics-obsessed world.
At the five-minute mark in the third episode of Koffee With Karan’s seventh season, host Karan Johar explains why he brought together an unusual guest pair—Bollywood hero Akshay Kumar and Telugu star Samantha Ruth Prabhu:
“Have you realised they are the biggest stars right now in the country? We have, like, an Ormax survey, and he’s [Akshay Kumar] been ruling as the number one movie star on that chart. And recently they did a pan-India survey that said which is the number one female actor across the country. Number one was Samantha Prabhu [sic].” In the backdrop is a slide titled Ormax Stars India Loves (All India): Most Popular Female Stars.
“I should be honest, I’m paying someone at Ormax,” Prabhu quips. “...You beat Alia Bhatt dude, how does that feel?” Johar asks. Prabhu replies, laughing, “Sorry. It was a high price to pay!”
In the financial year ending March 2021, Ormax Media made ₹5.72 crore (~$700,000) in revenue, down nearly a third of its previous year’s revenues, according to the company’s MCA filings. In March 2022, it made ₹13.75 crore ($1.67 million) and came back to a (slim) profit after tax.
Those aren’t blockbuster numbers. Yet, Ormax Media has surpassed marquee industry names—Nielsen, Kantar, and the entertainment industry’s own BARC—to become the benchmark for entertainment ratings. How did it get here? Why is it getting a shoutout from Karan Johar on his Bollywood talk show? And how does Ormax Media measure everything from audience engagement and song popularity to star power and over-the-top (OTT) viewership, (especially when streaming platforms are loath to share data)?
The Intersection spoke to producers, film and web show creatives, rival research agencies, and a participant in Ormax Media surveys to find the answers. At the heart of it is the media-savvy founder and CEO Shailesh Kapoor, who spurned convention to put the spotlight on the Ormax Media brand in an otherwise staid, ‘unsexy’, and frequently scandal-ridden industry of views, ratings, and TRPs.
Ormax Media did not respond to questions and requests for comment.
TV ratings are among the most crucial numbers on an advertiser’s dashboard. Until 2015, the business of measuring these ratings was dominated by TAM Media Research, a 50-50 joint venture between American and British consumer research firms Nielsen and Kantar. But the monopoly was saddled with accusations of data manipulation. In 2012, news channel NDTV sued TAM in a New York court, alleging that the agency tampered with its systems to boost ratings in favour of some over others.
Three years later, an industry body called the Broadcast Audience Research Council launched an alternative to TAM’s rating system. It quickly became the TV industry’s gold standard, more or less killing TAM’s ‘television rating points’, or TRPs. BARC was seen as a reliable, transparent alternative because it’s industry owned, run by top executives of the biggest TV studios and consumer companies that advertise with them.
That goodwill didn’t last. In October 2020, the Mumbai Police said it had busted BARC’s top executives who were rigging TV news ratings in favour of Republic TV; chief executive Partho Dasgupta was arrested for allegedly receiving bribes from the channel’s founder, Arnab Goswami, and BARC was forced to suspend ratings for news channels for almost a year and half.
Since then, several people and agencies tried to corner the market for entertainment data. ‘Trade analysts’ such as Taran Adarsh built their brand equity on predicting and later reporting box office collections per day, especially for hotly-anticipated, big budget films. More recently, film producers themselves have been reporting their numbers if a film does well. And a bevy of trade websites and gossip portals have also thrown their hat into the ring—from Pinkvilla to SpotboyE and even mainstream media websites like The Times of India and India Today.
But the entertainment business has evolved beyond simple box office collections and television TRPs. Today’s advertisers want data on engagement rates and streaming-everything. They want data on the brand value of not just film and TV stars, but social media influencers too, and people who straddle all three worlds. Who do you look to when there’s no industry body in India’s OTT and social media businesses?
Ormax’s story starts in 1985, when consumer research veteran Vispy Doctor set up Ormax Consultants, a full service consumer research firm that operates even today. Then in 2008, Doctor got together with Shailesh Kapoor to set up an offshoot that would focus on entertainment research, and a subsidiary, Ormax Media, was born.
Kapoor came to the venture as founder and co-owner. By then, he’d spent nearly 10 years in the TV business as a brand executive, marketing head, and the business head of Sahara Group’s Hindi film channel, Filmy. Some may remember the channel’s popular “Maa kasam, filmy hai” (I swear, it’s filmy) tagline.
“Shailesh has always been media-savvy and knows how to build a brand,” a media research industry executive told The Intersection, on condition of anonymity. “He has been building his brand for the last 10 years. Very few people have such clarity of vision.”
The Ormax of today owes its existence to streaming and social media. India’s OTT platforms took off after 2016, the year Netflix announced that it was launching across the world in one go. Soon, everyone was commissioning and acquiring content, and bidding for sports events. Then came the advertisers, and a need to measure viewership and engagement in a way that made it possible to compare metrics across a growing number of OTT platforms.
This also coincided with the growth of the creator economy, from where certain influencers crossed over to streaming. But unlike film and TV that have producers and exhibitors and an industry body, respectively, streaming had no arbiter for tracking viewership.
“For producers, measuring the performance of a piece of content on OTT is hard because everything is so fluid,” an executive producer for web shows told The Intersection, requesting anonymity. “Technology keeps changing, new platforms keep coming up or going away. Every platform will give you some data about how well your show has performed, but it’s all geared towards showing how well their platform is doing over rivals.”
Ormax grabbed the opportunity. It created listicles and reports that analysed OTT audiences and tracked the ‘most loved’ TV show characters, social media influencers, and film stars across India. Earlier (2016-2019), references to Ormax Media’s data featured in trade magazine articles (such as AdGully and exchange4media) and in marquee industry reports like the annual media and entertainment primer (pdf) produced by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI).
This limited exposure became a thing of the past after Covid-19.
India’s streaming industry saw its biggest jump in viewership and engagement since the pandemic, and that was when Ormax Media began sharing more data with the general public. It tied up with film journalism platform Film Companion to publish a weekly list of the top five most-watched OTT shows in India. The two also collaborated to publish two editions of a report, ‘O! Womaniya’, to measure the representation of women in Indian entertainment.
But on social media (and Koffee With Karan), Ormax Media’s most-talked about data is the company’s power rankings of shows and celebrities. This week, the agency reported that Amazon Prime Video’s Farzi was the most watched Indian OTT show of all time. The headline was picked up by news outlets and reposted by the show’s creators Raj & DK. And of course, fan pages of film stars (who often work with the celebrity’s PR team) constantly reshare Ormax data whenever their favourite shows up in the rankings. The comments section of Ormax Media’s star ranking posts on Twitter and Instagram become battlegrounds between rival fan clubs, and are rife with users raising doubts on the data’s authenticity.
For many, especially smaller players and newer entrants in the entertainment industry, Ormax is synonymous with media measurement. “There are many agencies doing the same work as Ormax,” says the research industry executive quoted above. “But if I’m a new production house, I may not know of them. But whose name do I see everywhere? Ormax.”
Like all media research firms, Ormax Media collects data using sample surveys and panels. These firms conduct studies—on recall value, audience response to content (such as ‘film testing’), etc.—specifically designed for clients, including OTT platforms and production houses. All of them publish reports and datasets for public consumption. This is the most common way to get industry recognition and generate business from potential clients.
But what makes your data credible? Design and execution.
“Design is a very important aspect. Who is your audience? What have you set out to know from them? Every study starts with these two questions. The sample size needs to be robust, and you need to be intuitive and proactive in manoeuvring biases,” Tarannum Fareed, director at consumer & media research firm Thinking Hats, tells The Intersection.
Next comes execution. How questions are framed, how they are asked, their sequence, and the ways in which a respondent can answer all have a bearing on survey outcomes.
“Is the question aided or unaided?” Fareed continues. “For example, when collecting data on actors who are top of mind for an audience, you could ask them directly (top of mind recall). Or you can ask, ‘who are the actors you remember from OTT shows?’ And then proceed to show them photos of some actors to narrow it down."
Here’s another example: “...asking 0-10 rating questions may not always work. Instead, we try to ask behavioural questions. For example, ‘how much would you want to watch this show?’ The options can range from ‘if I have time’ to ‘drop everything to watch it’. This helps respondents give more accurate and realistic answers.”
People in the business and an individual who has participated in several Ormax Media surveys told The Intersection that there are gaps in the way the agency designs its studies. Often, the shortcoming is in the first step itself: sampling.
“All these agencies, be it Ormax, its rivals, or even smaller data collection partners, get respondents in the same way,” a founder of a media measurement company told The Intersection on condition of anonymity. “You push a notification to a user on an Android app, say, a game. You ask if they can answer a few questions, and in return, you’ll get a coupon, a gift card, cash, or some other incentive.”
A typical sample size in this format is 10,000-15,000 respondents, when a robust sample for an audience study in India should be about 100,000 participants, the founder adds.
Why does this happen? Well, undertaking a robust study is expensive, and most agencies are bound by clients’ time and budgetary constraints. There is also pressure to generate headline-grabbing data and reports because they create brand awareness and generate business leads. “If I’m releasing such a report, it will catch the attention of advertisers, and of platforms,” this founder added.
Then there are the participants.
Vaibhav Suman, a Mumbai-based writer in the film industry, has been a respondent for several Ormax Media surveys, including a film testing. Suman is an avid chess player, a nugget of information that matters because it was during an online chess game that he spotted an ad for Ormax’s written surveys.
“It claimed to pay you for a free movie screening,” he tells The Intersection. “Also, for each survey filled, Ormax gave me 50-60 points. I don’t remember how much, but after accumulating a certain number of points, you could exchange it for Amazon vouchers.”
Pretty soon, the exercise became tedious. “These surveys were really long, at least 5-7 minutes for each. The questions were something like ‘Do you know about this upcoming film?’, and ‘Do you like this film star?’ I got tired of filling them out just for some 40-50 points.”
Eventually, Suman got a chance to earn many points in one go and attend a ‘film testing’, where they gauge audience reactions to a movie. He shares that individuals are screened on the basis of whether they are regular cinema-goers or not. “You first fill out a questionnaire on whether you’ve watched a particular film or not, and if you’ve seen it in a theatre or not. Then someone calls to question you about the film’s plot to verify if you’ve really seen it,” Suman elaborates. He was picked for a test screening of Drishyam 2 in South Mumbai, but ended up skipping it because it was delayed by an hour-and-a-half.
“̛It felt like a sarkari task. I was handed another survey to fill out, and a non-disclosure agreement. We kept waiting around, but I got tired and left. It was a horrible experience. I think you’ll need 5-6 hours of your day to watch a two-hour film for them,” Suman sums up.
Just keep swimming
It’s tough balancing robust methodology with brand-building. The former takes a backseat when the latter is prioritised.
“Considering where he [Shailesh Kapoor] is in terms of building his brand, what Ormax Media is doing does not go hand in hand with trust in that data,” says the research industry executive quoted above.
Some clients agree. “We’ve used Ormax Media data to measure the performance of our shows. The OTT platforms who acquire our shows don’t officially give us viewership data, but everyone gets figures from their teams unofficially. In my experience, while Ormax data would generally be in the right direction, the gap between their estimates and platform figures was too large for it to really be useful,” the founder of a production house specialising in web shows tells The Intersection, requesting anonymity.
Yet, Ormax Media’s prominence keeps rising. Last month, the agency launched subscription plans. The annual ‘Super Subscribers’ plan includes access to all Ormax Media research and reports, along with film, show, and trailer tests at a special discount. Questions over data sanctity don’t abound, because it’s all about incentives.
“As long as Ormax is careful not to have data favouring one platform or production house over another, things will run smoothly,” says the founder of the media measurement company quoted above. Platforms and producers get publicly-available data to show they are successful, celebrities get power rankings to boost their appeal, and everyone uses these numbers in discussions with advertisers. “Who’s going to challenge them? Is there an industry benchmark that can be used to say Ormax Media’s numbers are inaccurate, especially in OTTs?” they ask.
Ormax’s rise may have also influenced larger rivals, particularly Amazon-owned IMDb. The internet’s foremost movie database has published lists of top shows and movies for a long time. But last month, it launched a feature called ‘Popular Indian Celebrities’, seemingly an extension of its STARmeter property. The platform also gives out STARmeter Awards to celebrities that top its popularity rankings. In India, it was awarded last year to Mumbai 26/11 Diaries star Natasha Bharadwaj, and this week to Farzi star Bhuvan Arora.
As per the content head of a production house, IMDb India wants to be the determinant of not just what to watch, but who to watch out for. “There’s too much content now, and what viewers need is curation. These Ormax Media lists and the marketing done based on them is the fastest way to get an audience for your talent and content. IMDb has been around far longer, and it has access to far more direct user data. It’s getting into this in a big, serious way.”
Media research isn’t just about getting commissioned work from clients. It’s about becoming the arbiter of popularity and success in the absence of a common measurement system, and building a brand in the process. If India’s sullied history of TV ratings is anything to go by, there’s not likely to be a reliable BARC-like agency for streaming anytime soon.
That leaves the coast clear for Ormax Media and Shailesh Kapoor to keep the data, money, and Koffee rolling in.
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