of us in the business will agree that 2009 was not the best of years. But the
good thing about it was that the world of business learnt the hard way that business
is not just about excel sheets and that the valuation on those excel sheets does
not attract attention in a hurry.
Media was possibly one of the worst
hit sectors across the world. Quite logically so; one of the first cost cutting
steps, if not the first, is usually, if not always, slashing of advertising expenses.
More often than not, in recessionary circumstances, advertising is no more considered
as an essential investment.
industry in India, however, was not that badly hit as the country went through
a General Election. But theres much more in the news on TV News industry!
television is supposed to have two distinct identities. As the fourth estate,
it is supposed to inform and empower the viewers, work as a watch dog to the policy
makers and implementers. It is supposed to perform the role of a facilitator for
our citizens, many of whom are disadvantaged and aggrieved, or for those groups
which believe they have a legitimate and justifiable grievance against the powers
that be. All this requires us to act as custodians of public interest. The other
identity is as private sector organisations we are bound by the rules of the big
bad market of balance sheets and ROI.
Most people seem to think that these
two distinct identities are at conflict, but I'm willing to take a bet that they
are not. But we sure have a lot to worry about - both our public and private interests.
First about our reducing role in the public interest space. The viewership
(GRP) figures of news television in India paint a disquieting picture. The GRPs
slipped from 236 in 2007 to 221 in 2008 and to 166 last year, a 30 per cent shrink
in just two years. I am at a loss to pinpoint a particular reason for the slide.
However, regional channels are robustly augmenting. As a thumb rule, a regional
news channel should have 70 to 80 per cent local news. Are audiences then more
interested in closer home realities than the larger canvass?
deserting news channels? Is there a significant change in rating base which has
caused this decline? Does our gut-feel endorse these slipping numbers?
me cite a small anecdote. Once when former US president Lyndon B Johnson was asked
his views about the media, he had quipped: If one morning I walked on top
of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read:
"The President Can't Swim."
He may have said this decades ago but
it captures to a great extent how Indian media too can influence or draw interferences
from a simple and straightforward piece of news. In the spider-web of competition,
the truth sometimes gets strangled. But is that all? I wish, it was.
for instance, what would you call Breaking News in todays context?
Before that, how would you define News ? In my own understanding,
reporting of any incidence that is topical and relevant
is news. Tabloid journalism possibly compromises with the relevance factor, but
still remains topical. And thus breaking news would be an initial
(ideally first!) reporting of an incident or development which would be relevant
for a certain section of audience.
But the Indian news media has redefined
Breaking News. It could be anything from what the babas and tantriks
have to say to what the astrologers take on eclipses is, what the cats,
dogs, snakes and the likes are engaged with! This unthinking, wavered ways of
the news channels has taken the sheen away from the respect we used to command
as organisations with social responsibility.
Thankfully, we in our ( Zee
News Limited) news channels do not have such wide canvas for Breaking News
and our editors still stick to the literal translation of the two words under
reference. And it was thus with some sense of concern, as also with an equal feeling
of social responsibility, that in May 2008 Zee News took a conscious decision
to break free from the trend of hype and hoopla. Respecting the intellect of Indian
audience, we brought our focus back to facts, analysis, perspective, reportage
and the likes. I can say today, with some satisfaction, that we have not wavered
from our path since, despite pulls and pressures from the policies of competition.
We held steadfast in dishing out for our viewers news that was accurate and relevant,
across all bands and in all languages that we deal with. Clearly, our guiding
principles worked and we witnessed all-round growth across channels.
now look at the business of news. Did you notice that the sole criterion that
a media brand or organisation is evaluated in India is nothing but the TRP numbers?
Logically theres nothing wrong in it as higher TRP would lead to higher
advertising. Advertising is still about 80 per cent of the broadcast sector's
revenues in India and hence that should lead to higher profitability. However,
in India, as known to most by now, profitability is not just TRP numbers. Rational
cost structure, innovative strategy, network economy of scale etc have significant
influence on the way business is done and hence on the bottom-line of any business.
Thankfully, the economic recession has brought the attention back to current bottom-line.
Valuation is no more the buzzword. Current deliveries are at the core of all decisions
with respect to a business outfit. While the marketing and programming departments
still get credit for the TRP numbers, the business leaders would have to wake
up to serious questions on returns and profitability from those who are funding
the businesses. I assure you that the TRP rankings and profitability do not always
have a direct corelation. At least in our case the latter far out-performs the
Yet, I'm not without hope. As an eternal optimist, I feel that
the future of news TV is far more promising than what seems on the surface. The
industry body, the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), has come up with commendable
achievements in its effort to self-regulate. It is encouraging for NBA to get
significant acknowledgement from the Ministry of Information and broadcasting.
I firmly believe that the most potent regulator has always been the market.
Here in our case, finally the audience has the last say on what they want from
news TV and they would make their verdict loud and clear, eventually. And then
digitisation would ease out the distribution bottle neck and the news genre would
experience explosive growth. As I have always mentioned, regionalisation of TV
would be a primary growth driver.
As I debate the minutiae about dropping
viewership trends in my mind, I feel that there is no one distinct phenomenon
for the present exodus and it is possible that it just a matter of perspective.
So I leave it to you to mull it over as well.