Billion Screens and a Blinkered Perspective

An account of Indian television that is overly influenced by big industry players like Star.

It is one of the ironies of India’s broadcast history that while the Indian media, both print and electronic, thrive in a multitude of languages and dialects, academic literature on the growth, development and nature of the media is scarce to non-existent.

There are a number of reasons for this.

Through much of pre-liberalisation India, broadcasting was closely tied to the broader Nehruvian goal of deploying the largely state run media – All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan (DD) – for purposes of development and poverty alleviation. Post-liberalisation, not much of significance has emerged out of the academic establishment within India. The few really significant works to have emerged came from universities abroad. The one that readily comes to mind is Arvind Rajagopal’s ground breaking work, Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India.

The reasons for this academic aridity are clear. While all manner of media teaching/training has mushroomed in the chaotic private sector across India, public-funded universities have lacked trained faculty in media studies, since most have been sourced from diverse disciplines such as sociology, history, political science etc. Compounding the problem are UGC norms that have erected insurmountable barriers between academia and journalism, resulting in a situation where there is no dialogue between the two. Both run on parallel tracks, as it were.

Nalin Mehta, a former TV journalist, currently Associate Professor at Shiv Nadar University in the National Capital Region, in this sense has the perfect pedigree – straddling both academia and journalism. So what is he offering?

The problem according to Mehta

Behind a Billion Screens: What Television Tells Us About Modern India examines four themes. These include

  • The business of television and its impact on content
  • The back end of TV regulation
  • The largely ignored nature of public broadcasting,
  • Digital and mobile futures

These four themes are examined in the course of seven chapters that look at a ‘billion screens’ (both television and mobile), tied together by the objective of ‘opening up’ the media sector and curtailing the stranglehold of the state. According to Mehta, existing media regulations are a ‘mishmash of contradictory controls and confused policies’.

I propose to look at the first two themes that are closely tied up with public interest and democracy – the ‘business of television news and its impact on content’ and ‘back end regulation’, i.e. the regulatory regime that is currently in place. I will also only look at the news and current affairs segment and not entertainment since that is, quite simply, another cup of tea.

Democracy threatened

The main reason for the on-going crisis in Indian television industry is the unsustainable number of players, especially in the news market, that is straining the available revenue resources. ‘The real threat to democracy is when news media is underfed and undernourished,’ Mehta writes. The players threatening India democracy are the ‘power elite’ (a term he borrows from the American sociologist C. Wright Mills) who have emerged post-1991, i.e. post-liberalisation, and largely comprise ‘politicians, businesses with interests in real estate, chit funds or personal finance schemes.’ These players have made the market ‘over-competitive’, quite like the end of 19th century America populated by the eponymous ‘robber barons’. So is the ‘Indian power elite’ the equivalent of the American robber barons? That tantalizing question, however implausible it may sound, is not answered or explained by Mehta.

This ‘power elite’, according to Mehta, is injecting ‘easy money’ into the media economy, making it very difficult for genuine players to hold on to their bottom lines. This is the kernel of his thesis, but he does not explain it in any detail and fails to go beyond the anecdotal.

It is the continuing impact of ‘easy money’ that has kept the television industry in the red – but also afloat – for the last several years. The huge number of channels and bandwidth scarcity make it difficult for cable/DTH operators to carry all of them. This has forced broadcasters to cough up astronomical ‘carriage fees.’ The scourge of under-reporting of subscribers by Local Cable Operators (LCO) remains, though the situation has improved post-digitization. That is why broadcasters continue to depend on advertising instead of subscription revenues. This, in turn, has fuelled a deep crisis in content since broadcasters are in no position to invest in superior programming. Also, because of the haphazard growth of the broadcast industry, the quality of personnel is abysmal and is continuously fuelling the crisis that also adversely impacts content.

Adding to the industry’s woes, Mehta believes, is a very ‘Nehruvian’ regulatory regime in the form of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, that has erected a raft of insurmountable hurdles that need to be overcome or subverted.

Mehta’s cures

Bad Reception. Photo by Kristian Niemi

Bad Reception
Photo by Kristian Niemi, CC by NC-ND-2.0.

The most important goal, according to Mehta, is to ‘open up the caps on foreign funding.’ Currently there is a 26 per cent cap on FDI in news networks. This, according to him, ‘is the only way to release [TV news] from the clutches of politicians and dubious financers.’

Secondly, restrictions on ‘vertical integration’ i.e. broadcasters owning cable/DTH companies, according to Mehta, ‘has completely distorted the economy of the industry, weakened it financially’ and created ‘unhealthy’ political monopolies in this sector. The restrictions had been originally put in place in order to make sure that broadcasters share content equitably with all cable/DTH distribution companies. However, they have hardly been implemented; broadcasters like Zee have both cable and DTH distribution interests (Siticable and Dish TV respectively).

Thirdly, Mehta argues against cross-media restrictions, i.e. broadcast owners having interests in print and vice versa. He presses his case on the grounds that India’s regional and linguistic diversity is such that monopolies are simply out of the question. That picture, however, I believe is about to change with Reliance buying out 15 regional networks owned by the Ushodaya group that owns ETV, along with its acquisition of TV 18 for the conglomerate’s 4G mobile project that is slated to launch this year. A Competition Commission of India order upholding this merger as not monopolistic in nature, in my view, does not alter the picture, considering Reliance also has interests in cricket, football and films. Curiously, Mehta does not see any problems here.

Then there are the relatively ‘minor’ suggestions that Mehta makes, such as scrapping the 12-minutes-per-hour cap on advertisements, which is enshrined in the Cable Network Act 1995. However, consumer groups have complained to the TRAI  that advertisements often impinge on ‘live’ programming, eg. cricket telecasts. Secondly, Mehta advocates doing away with price caps on tariffs charged by broadcasters, though to the best of my knowledge these restrictions only stand for analogue cable areas and not in areas that have been digitised. Last November, Star TV was able to hiked its cable rates from Rs 320 to Rs 600 per month quite easily.

Regulation matters

The problem with Nalin Mehta’s book is three-fold.

First, he advocates a sweeping change in the broadcasting regime that amounts to effective de-regulation of India’s media sector. But the data and the arguments that he marshals to push for this are largely anecdotal. There are both economic and editorial issues relating to regulation that need to be addressed. The issue that is paramount is – how to separate ownership from editorial? Scandinavian countries like Norway have shown the way forward. Also, what are the implications for diversity in news content? The bottom line is that news is not a product like toothpaste but lies at the very core of democracy, something which TRAI has already made clear.

Secondly, though Mehta says Behind a Billion Screens is based on ‘wide ranging conversations with industry leaders, channel heads, policy makers,’ his perspective is blinkered because only one of the stakeholders – the broadcasters – finds a voice in the book. What about the consumer in whose name much of the digitisation policy has been pushed?

Finally, way too many of Nalin’s prescriptions converge with what Star TV has been lobbying for with the government – from a hike in FDI that ‘brings parity between Indian and foreign players’ (Star backed out of the news business because of the 26% ceiling), to doing away with restrictions on vertical integration (Star already has a 20% stake in Tata Sky), to lifting curbs on cross-media restrictions; to even removing the cap on advertisements. I am not imputing motives, merely pointing out facts.

As is clear from the book, Mehta is impressed by Uday Shankar and his Star TV to an extent that it detracts from the objectivity of his study. Shankar is not a private individual and has Star’s agenda of ‘opening up’ the media sector as his top priority. In his own words he ‘reports to James Murdoch (Rupert’s son) in the London office who is the chairman of Europe and Asia.’ Star has already made some acquisitions in the digital space that has been followed by a meeting between James Murdoch and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March this year.

I am, of course, not suggesting that Zee’s money is ‘nationalist’ and therefore deserves protection against that of ‘imperialist’ Murdoch’s. But the  problem of the role of big money in the Indian media industry – whether native or foreign – has been insufficiently analysed.

Through the book, Mehta asserts that he is looking at facts, ‘not theories’. But facts, as the great historian EH Carr told us years ago, are not value free. They are selected by the scholar. In Mehta’s case, all the ‘facts’ contained in the book have a theory behind them – the theory of neoliberalism.

Sandeep Bhushan teaches media studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi