Imagine it's 9 pm, the bumper rolls for the prime time news on TV and it goes "You are watching CNN-IBN, a Reliance group company…"
Oops! Is that too much in-your-face? Will it force you to switch channels? But then there may soon be no respite from getting to know the real people who own the channels.
For years, we wondered and debated about who really ran the Indian media. We had no answers, only speculation. Now it’s finally evolved from the old school media-type ownership to corporations owning and flaunting their new estate edge. It’s not quite just about being the big corporate connected to top dollar advertising or at the other end, politicians meddling with media through an unknown hand.
The question is, now that it is in the open, should we worry about this new trend of Ambanis owning TV18, Birlas trying to own Living Media (Aaj Tak, India Today, etc)? Should we lament that the last chance of getting unbiased news will cease to exist and there will be TV shows with plugs, or could this change the game altogether?
The Good News
The good news is, there is no reason to lose hope, though there is reason to tread cautiously. A clearly defined ownership can eventually benefit all - the media company, the corporate owners and the public at large. It may not be an easy ride but it could allow our media to emerge into a healthier, stronger and mature one. Let’s address the issues involved. First, the guessing game is likely to end as now owners and motives may be upfront. We now know (or will know) who is putting the cash behind the cameras! That will help end the cynicism and scepticism. We will now know who is funding what we are choosing to see. The decision to select the channel on the remote will be yours, like it is today, but you will do so knowing fully well who runs the network. It will surely demand more discretion from the viewer and I will come back to this point in detail later.
Second, content creation stands to benefit. Making good programmes costs a lot of money and the present owners and their approach to content has reduced Indian television to a talking head pow-pow match in prime time. The new, money-backed ownership may inject more funds and possibly trigger better news content and entertainment for India, which remains a largely under-entertained country. More quality in both news programming and general entertainment is always welcome.
Third, I think defined owners who treat media like a business may prove to be good news for journalists. There may be greater accountability and cost rationalization. But smart owners will also back good talent all the way and help create a secure environment which has been threatened in the past due to cash crunch. Just like in any other industry, good talent is recognized by management and protected at any cost, the same will now hold true for news media.
Lastly, and I will stick my neck out here, the move by corporations to buy into media, especially news media is likely to trigger a process of self-governance. It will bring the focus back on self-restraint with respect to blatant bias by any owner. Every time a company tries to influence the news process or excessively toe a particular line, the backlash will be severe. Media today isn’t just on TV, there are plenty of other checks in place. As viewers become more aware and discretionary in their consumption of media, it will be difficult for any single player to push an agenda. A crucial factor is that the Indian media space already offers multiple choices and even if entry of corporations leads to consolidation, the media space will always be a buyer's market.
India Inc's Big Moment
One also needs to remember that desire to own media is largely a perception game. The motives are clear, it is a deterrent against a possible attack. But like in combat, corporations will have to behave responsibly since media ownership not just gives power to inform, it also arms you with power to influence and at times instigate. If they cross the line, then the ugly side will play out faster than their desire to own media houses.
Today, our society is perched on a very fragile bend where the perception is that the trust in corporations is at an all-time low. The unwritten social contract between society and corporations has been hit due to various factors. If corporations start meddling in the sphere of influence, the social contract will break, the mistrust will grow and sadly the fourth estate will no longer hold a special place. It is in their own enlightened self-interest that new media owners now seize this moment.
Hitting Black On Air
I do have my source of discomfort. First, these buyouts are taking place when valuations of media companies are at an all-time low and balance sheets are weakest. Media giants have their backs towards the wall and are cash-strapped like never before. What the public doesn't know is the real rights of the new owners and how they will play out. While I still remain an optimist, it is surely an uncertain phase we are entering.
Second, just as media owners were set to see light at the end of the revenue tunnel thanks to digitization and a more stable earning model, why would they throw in their towel? Have they found it too hard to turn passions into profits? For years, carriage fees has been the bane of Indian television media and just when that unbearable cost factor was being addressed, why give up? If I can quote a recent conversation with a stock analyst who has suddenly turned bullish on media stocks, he said, "Imagine having a share of the Indian news market with steady assured revenue at these prices, it is a steal!" Such comments by stock experts always worry me, since I suspect what their real motives are. Corporations don't think differently, so I would keep an eye out!
My last concern is about those who bring the news. The journalists. They need to watch out more than ever before. Now that they are identified, branded or associated to a company, how far detached can they be from their agenda? Will they unleash their investigative eye on their owners? Unreal, but the challenge will be when such instances play out in real life. For example, were we all not running our sharp eyes over the reporting by Sky News and WSJ in the cases related to their owner Rupert Murdoch and The News of the World hacking scandal?
At the very start I said the new trend will also trigger greater discretion on the part of viewers. So if there is anyone who is set to gain, it’s the viewers. When you choose to consume television, you will do it with your eyes open. As adults, we must know what we choose, who it is backed by and what impact does it have on us. One of the important factors will be the overpowering presence of social media. Social media gives immense power to those who are unorganized and yet can disrupt the big plans of big boys. Good content, commentary and opinion of an average viewer will also shape how corporations behave. Viewers, it’s your chance to turn mature, make smart and conscious choices.
Hence, my optimism on corporations owning media houses remains high because more good content produced in an era of empowered social media will act as a system of self-checks and challenge the misdoings of big media. Independent voices will find their way into mainstream media even if it is owned by big corporations. The News of the World report was triggered by a 'trust-owned' media house. The Guardian eventually ate up one of its own peers. And now the three pigs television commercial by The Guardian is a good example of how a report triggered elsewhere can eventually result in big victims.
Big corporations will do well to remember the old theory of 'creative destruction'. If they seize the moment, then their ownership can help media play the role it is meant to play in a society. If they try any misadventures then the dream to own media companies will end faster than they can imagine.
(The author is Group president, Corporate Branding and Strategic Initiatives at Essar)
This Guest Column was first published in exchange4media Group publication IMPACT