On Wednesday, captains and editors from various news networks in the country will congregate in the Capital for NewsNext 2009, the news television industry’s apex event organised by exchange4media. There’s a fair bit planned with Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni making her opening remarks, followed by a day full of special addresses and panel discussions. Even as the fraternity gets set to deliberate on issues, there are a few, which, according to me, require immediate attention.
1) The numbers: Is there money to be made in the news television business? Yes and no. For a new entrant, I am not very sure if there is any room in this space. Those not in the Top 5 in ratings will be forced to either change tack, consolidate or exit. News channels may not be money guzzlers like GECs, but do require deep pockets.
2) Content self-regulation: There is need for a significant amount of self-control on content, especially amongst those in Hindi. Although everyone cries foul about the government playing big brother (even I do!), channels, too, have been messing up repeatedly. Assurances have sadly had no results. It’s critical that our news channels have strong gatekeepers for their news who do not carried away in their race for ratings. There should be a clear internal policy on what kind of stories should be used and how certain stories must be (or must not be) treated.
I’m sure all of this exists already, but we don’t see it happening in earnest. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry has decided not to push through regulation. However, and this is what’s important to note, there is a sentiment in the Government that the channels are not doing enough. The fact is that if the Minister wants to, she can easily use the damning recommendations of a report by the Venkaiah Naidu-headed committee of Rajya Sabha members to effect changes: “The Committee is of the view that self-regulation is an ideal situation, but it may not be effective to regulate the media, particularly in the scenario of growing competition amongst the channels for supremacy in the business of ratings. The Committee is, therefore, in favour of having statutory regulations in place covering the print and electronic media, in the larger interest of the society, on the model of the Press Council of India vested with more powers.”
I had to stop short in arguing my case for news television with my I&B contacts when I was presented with four recent instances where the current crop of channels could have crossed the line. I don’t think they had, but could be called borderline cases. So, even as I will still insist on a hands-off policy on regulation, the newswallahs must get their act together really fast. I do not see this honeymoon extending beyond next year. The Minister and the Secretary will be compelled to act on complaints that Parliamentarians will come up with.
3) Don’t stop investing on talent: Okay, we know how news companies which have been hot on staff welfare and training have found the going tough with falling revenues. But it’s vital that these continue as that’s possibly the only way in which you retain good talent and ensure on-air quality. Regrettably, staff welfare isn’t an issue that news television owners would like to spend on.
4) Use Convergence and Mobile telephony to promote and grow: Social networks, etc., may still be an urban phenomenon, but mobile phones are not. Most news channels have used text alerts via mobile phones to build viewership, but there is need to do this on a sustained basis. A good web presence is also imperative to reach out to growing youth audiences.
5) And plenty of patience!: Cash registers don’t start ringing overnight. Carriage fees will not go away in a hurry, and costs on newsgathering and marketing can’t be compromised on. Whatever be the form – print, web or television – news media requires loads of patience for content to get accepted and for adequate returns on investments. Now that’s a virtue which not many investors have.
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