Memes on the Indian media have become a daily feed for us. According to a lot of journalists themselves, Indian media is in its worst state at this point in time. There is a lot for one to be frustrated about in all of this. In times when we want quality information more than the drama we see on our news channels, it makes us change our preferred source of information from these conventional sources to digital media channels.
In this piece, we try to understand what is responsible for the current state of Indian media. Let's look at history. We all remember the cable operators who used to be local 'gundas' with support from the police; they decided what people in their area would watch. Then came the era of DTH operators which started the worst phase of Indian media. Be cautious, DTH operators did nothing wrong, it's something else. Some also say that Indian media has its own self destruct model. Although I think it's completely wrong to blame our TV journalists. Indian news media has never been in a good phase for the last 15 years. The childhood of Gen-Z definitely had more engrossing stories to watch on Indian television channels than those our usual cartoon channels, that saw the same cartoons as early millennials watched. The stories of kids falling in pitfalls, cats standing on a tree, and being broadcasted on television channels for hours until they got them rescued. Then is this phase, where all this won’t work, so came the era of Arnab syndrome in Indian journalists.
What has stopped Indian journalists to do quality journalism. Is it all about a TRP war? It is actually, but in a different way, not the usual way we think. Swedish Economist, Assar Lindbeck said, “In many cases, rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently to destroy a city except for bombing”. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India did something almost similar to rent controls in the Indian media industry in 2006. It released an order which directed price caps on the Indian media industry. The order states that news channels based in India cannot charge more than 5 rupees (this price cap has ranged between 5-12 rupees) from the customers. This shows the lack of knowledge in the regulatory authorities to understand what it takes to produce content. These extremely low prices provide no incentives to Indian news media houses to deliver quality journalism. Anyway, economic incentives sit at the core of the performance that the media industry gives. The news media industry gave way with its revenue from subscriptions and also the dream of Indians to have access to quality journalism.
Now you might wonder if the news media is not dependent on these subscriptions then where does it earn from? Why this TRP war? Indian news channels in the early 1990s opted for an advertisement-driven business model. In those days when there was the 'raaj' of a local cable TV operator, the way business ran was quite informal, at least in the penetration of local consumers and nor were there too many news channels. Things have changed since 2006. TRAI consulted with the broadcasters and operators on how to go about the regulation of the media industry and the majority of them preferred free-market pricing. Yet, the TRAI went for price caps. Price Caps are anti-competition and have jeopardized the business model of small channels. 70% of the revenue source for the channels comes from advertisements and now, in this digital age when a lot of new other sources have entered the market, the revenue from advertisements has also gone down. This has led to the dependence of these news channels on government ads. Government advertisements serve about 40% of the total revenue that they earn from the advertisement and this is how the government controls these news channels. We all remember the episode between the government and Prasoon Bajpai. If Bajpai had not quit from the channel the channel could not have sustained economically, as the government had the power to stop giving ads to ABP. In times when the party in power is busy setting its propaganda, changing this regulation won’t give them any benefits.
Also, the latest news asks, why are media channels so mad about TRP? There is a simple answer to this question. We all know who owns the media and the close nexus between these business houses and parties in power during the elections. There are very few that are owned by the journalists or maybe a business family who is not as big to join the club of crony capitalists who are looking for TRP ratings as a way to receive ads from the government.
There is a need for serious reforms in the Indian media industry. The key to reforms here is not regulation, but deregulation. There is an urgent need to remove these price caps even though it would lead to increased prices and lesser availability of information to the people. The customers can prefer to watch just 2 channels but can have access to quality news. If the media industry is deregulated and free competition is allowed, these private entities will have an option to choose how they want to set the price in accordance with the efforts they would put into their content. The deregulation is important for the industry to survive not just for the quality news that Indians want but also for the sustenance of democracy in India.
Amit Varma, 2019, Television Price Controls, Podcast series, The Seen and the Unseen
- Sakshi Yadav (firstname.lastname@example.org)