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Vivid: Indian media – A problem of plenty

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Vivid: Indian media – A problem of plenty

There are more than 700 TV channels and 72,000 plus publications – perhaps all of us did not know the exact numbers, but we know that Indian media is a huge industry. We know it.
There’s never a dull day in the life of a newsman and his readers/viewers in India. A scam, scandal or a ‘ghapla’ becomes a newsbreak only to be taken over by another. Ah! We know it.
There’s never just ‘a headline’ in a day; there are always headlines – lead, second lead, belly, below fold, above fold, matter; there are always multiple ‘important news’ in a day – WE KNOW IT!

What we must know – and be concerned about – is that in this news environment there is a problem of plenty that’s befuddling the consumers.

According to Robin Jeffrey, a Professor of Politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, India is poised for a print revolution. “We need a Hindi version of Citizen Kane. The time is right for it. The Indian newspaper industry throbs with the buccaneer capitalism, Himalayan egos and desperate politics of New York in the 1890s. India is transforming itself, and the print revolution — and especially the daily newspaper revolution — of the past twenty years is helping to propel that transformation. ‘A million mutinies now’ was the best thing about VS Naipaul’s book of that title. Millions of mutinies are, indeed, going on, and the fact that people now read about them in their newspapers, and read about themselves in their newspapers, helps to explain the mutinous environment,” he writes in The Little Magazine.

A revolution or not, the Indian reader – and viewer – is a confused lot today. A new title – print, TV or online – enters the market every few months targeting both, the English and language audience. The consumer’s mind, in fact, is now cluttered by unending multilingual options in newspapers, periodicals, channels, portal, et al. As many of the players are already finding out, it’s indeed becoming an economically unviable in a crowded marketplace where there are too many titles and channels jostling for the reader’s attention.

The Indian television industry
The plethora of laughter challenges and comedy shows – now there’s a dedicated channel to laugh with – does not indicate the gloom the industry is reeling under. In fact, the problem of plenty is taking a slow but steady toll on the industry. Coupled with the unviable industry’s structure, and profitability in sight for just a handful of media companies, the broadcasting companies’ cumulative losses today exceed Rs 10,000 crore.
The Indian television market is huge, worth Rs 34,000 crore and 700 million viewers. But the potential is yet to be realised. Now, with the new Digital Addressable System (DAS) in top four metros from November 1, the industry is hopeful of a booster dose in purchase of multiple TV sets within Indian households and impetus to creation of niche content. For the moment, the industry is still under pressure as advertising rates on TV have not seen any desirable increase and lacks effective partnerships within.

As Subhash Chandra, the pioneer of cable and satellite broadcasting in India says, the industry follows a herd mentality with the same old programming concept for years, which has hurt it bad.

A case in point: Last month, 24 Gantalu,  ZEE’s Telugu TV channel was shut down, a retreat necessitated by about 15 ‘politically driven’ news channels in the regional market. quoted a senior ZEE executive as saying that “the entire Telugu TV news business is becoming unviable because of too many players and abnormally low ad rates. Other interests rather than business seem to be the primary motive”.

The Indian print media industry
On the other hand, India, unlike the West, continues to experience a thriving newspaper industry. In fact, circulation and advertising is rising. The newspaper industry has shown a growth rate faster than most other industries, including the far younger television industry. Factors such as cover price ranging from as low as Rs 1.50 to Rs 5 per copy, direct-to-home 24x7 vendor-driven distribution system, and clearly focussing on the majority of the masses – the youth of India, has increased print’s overall revenue share.

But there are alarm bells within this good news, as New Yorker extrapolates.  According to the American magazine published by Condé Nast – its other publications include Architectural Digest, GQ, Vanity Fair and Vogue – the newspaper industry here has been able to keep its head above the economic slowdown chiefly by “dismantling the wall between the newsroom and the sales department”. In other words, celebrities and advertisers pay to have in-house reporters write advertorials about their brands in supplementary sections of Indian dailies; the newspapers also enters into private-treaty agreements with advertisers, accepting equity in the advertisers’ firms as partial payment.
These may seem innovations, but who is to draw a line between the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, where business sense rules? Who is to ensure that the eulogistic articles are not meant to mislead the readers? Who will keep a tab on the erosion of journalistic ethics and how – particularly among the powerful, high-circulation newspapers? Who will ensure that such practices don’t go virulent among the smaller newspapers and are used as means to rake the moolah in?

At the turn of the Millennium, the Indian newspaper industry sold about 58 million copies of dailies in the country’s 13 major languages. This has more than doubled in the following decade. According to estimates, circulation in Hindi has more than trebled since the early 1990s, from under eight million copies a day to more than 25 million. In the same period, the Assamese newspapers have been the top gainers among other languages, with circulation grown from 45,000 to 320,000.

Such exponential growth in newspapers should be good news for a country like India, where close to half its 1.22 billion population continue to remain cut off from the mainstream. Ideally newspapers and TV  should serve as windows to not only rest of the country but also the world, thereby empowering the underserved,  making them aware, and bringing governance closer to them. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. Given the thousands of publications and hundreds of news channels, the masses find themselves at the receiving end, often relying on unreliable information passed on to them by pretenders and powermongers among journalists. Yes, there has been a rise of such ‘wrongdoers’ in this extremely imperative profession that determines a democratic, aware and vibrant society.
Look for yourself...

The crime files of the last few months reveal the grave danger journalism is in, in the hands of the unscrupulous. In September,  free-sheeter newspaper The Goa News editor and his wife were arrested in Jaipur for cheating investors to the tune of Rs 25 crore; the same month, the Bhadohi-based physiotherapist-turned-in-charge editor of monthly Vartamaan Kranti was arrested for publishing an article that alleged hurt the religious sentiments of a community; a journalist was arrested in Bangalore for suspected links with the Indian Mujahideen in August; the same month, a former journalist was nabbed in Jamshedpur for posting inflammatory messages online; and a news editor of the local Ruby Channel in Hyderabad for allegedly airing blasphemous content in July; another incident the same month, Guwahati-based News Live TV channel’s reporter was arrested for allegedly fabricating news by masterminding and filming the molestation of a girl by a gang of youths.

It’s time to recognise there is indeed a problem of plenty within the fraternity. It is time to cull the undesirable and give way to those with credibility and sense of values – for the sake of the nation. In this context, some harsh measures are imperatives for the weed-out, lest Indian journalists become a species posing – to borrow a line from former Resident Editor of The Times of India and the Indian Express in Mumbai, Darryl D’Monte – the most serious threat to journalism not only in this country but in the entire developing world.

The author is Chairman and Editor-in-Chief, exchange4media Group

Tags Vivid Annurag Batra India Media exchange4media

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