The year of the great tossing

The year Indian news television channels got a sneak peek at what Pi Patel must have experienced while battling the raging storm in mid-seas in Ang Lee's Life award winning Life Of Pi. Like Pi, news channels were tossed around, heaved up and down, had spear sharp rain and high waves buffeting them, got scalded by the hot sun, went through bouts of starvation and dying thirst - and they lived - at least most of them did - to tell the tale. It was a tough, tough year for them no doubt.

Rising inflation, a tough economic environment which saw advertising spends being slashed, rising costs for carriage on cable TV and DTH, further fragmentation and evaporation of viewership - all led to their top lines and even bottomlines being beaten black and blue. Net result: layoffs, restructuring, reorganisation, was the name of the game. To top it all, the regulators - the Information & Broadcast (I&B) ministry and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) - too got into the act. The I&B pushed ahead with its digitisation drive even as it cracked down on them for paid content, and the TRAI ordered a reduction in advertising time permitted on air on channels.

The news television industry has always had problems of plenty. More than 100 TV channels battle for a piffling Rs 2000 crore in ad spends. And more jumped onto the bandwagon during 2013 -an estimate is that around 25 new news channels made their debut. As though there wasn't enough competition for the small morsels of advertising available in the various states and languages all over the country. But what kept the whole industry gloomy was the heartbeat aka advertising revenue which stayed flat for the whole year; and for some it even dipped. The big players were the ones who got to taste a little blood while the others struggled to make money out of inventory.

The alarm bells started ringing out earlier in the year when TAM Media the viewership ratings agency did a rejig with its panels and started reporting on LC1 towns and also a new set of data reflecting the digitisation that was spreading across phase 1 towns. As an outcome, some of the channels ended up showing near zero viewership. TAM said this was because real viewership patterns were cropping up with deeper penetration of people meters.

NDTV India, one of the older news broadcast networks, tried in vain to prosecute TAM's parent AC Nielsen in the US on charges of fraud, but the NY court shooed it away, saying it should fight the legal battle on Indian turf. Allegations of TAM being rigged started rising to a cacophony and unanimously several channels decided to unsubscribe from TAM including NDTV, Times, CNN and Zee. A fierce battle issued between channels, advertisers and TAM that also saw support grow for the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC).Angry advertisers threatened to pull out advertisements from channels that had unsubscribed from TAM- including the seven big networks. After weeks of an impasse, resolution finally came about with rolling ratings of four weeks and silver, gold and platinum packs for clients. The major change coming about was the conversion of TRPs to TVTs. Satisfied channels finally went back to TAM but are still clinging on to the new lifeline-BARC.

It was in the second quarter of the year that a bunch of channels in Kolkata under the Saradha group went belly up with the financial and real estate group going bust. Questions were raised about the MIB's laxity in issuing broadcasting licences. In a bid to tighten its procedures, it wrote to all channels, asking them to provide them with details about their operations and to see if they were still complying with the licence terms. Some 67 channels did not; and had their licences revoked. The MIB also became stricter about norms relating to directorial appointments on news channels’ boards.

But the big big fight of the year was the one that blew up when the TRAI introduced a quality of service regulation that restricted advertising air time to just 12 minutes per hour. Broadcasters who were accustomed to showing 20 to 25 minutes of ads experienced a jolt when this came out. They all collectively revolted, specially the news channels claiming that their revenue would be affected in an industry that is already suffering much losses. The News Broadcasters Association (NBA) also met the I&B ministry to ask TRAI to go easy on this regulation.The industry seems to have pacified the ministry on the content front at least, with the NBA, the Broadcast Editors Association, and the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF)’s Broadcast Complaints Content Council (BCCC) in place. This despite, 2013 saw paid news being discussed very aggressively. Suggestions to set up a body to monitor broadcast - just like how the Press Council of India (PCI) does for the print media – were made. But the NBA opposed this strongly, saying that the self-regulatory mechanisms that are in place are enough to ensure that the news channels stay in line.

The news channels yelped that they feared a shut down if the ad cap were to be implemented right away. They suggested that the ad cap, if necessary to be implemented, should be concurrent with the completion of digitisation in the country as then there would be more revenue flowing in. I&B minister Manish Tewari seemed to concur and even came out in their support on this approach.

The interim order got smiles on some of their phases. The year 2013 was choppy to say the least for most of the news industry. High carriage fees, a slowdown in advertising growth, and extremely thin subscription revenues had forced even the older and long established news networks to look for solutions to keep their businesses viable. Almost all of them reorganized, consolidated their news operations which led to lopping off of bloated employee payrolls. The big buzzword during the year was the integrated newsroom – wherein a centralized bureau of journos and news crew helps service web, TV, and other online properties for a news network having several news channels.Finally the regulator decided to give the news channels some more time. A new advertising limit per hour was set. 20 minutes of ad time for news channels and 16 minutes for GECs till 30 September and after that everyone would have to together switch to 12 minutes and would have to submit compliance reports. But this formula did not go down well with the NBA even as the TRAI announced that it would rap violators on their knuckles. Some NBA members– along with some other niche channels – decided to take steps to protect themselves. They challenged TRAI’s mandate in the Telecom Disputes Settlement Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) which heard arguments from all the affected parties for nearly 20 days. The NBA’s appeal to the tribunal got them an interim order preventing the regulator from taking any action against erring channels, allowing them to heave a collective sigh of relief. Even as the TDSAT was about to deliver its judgment, a coincidental verdict was given by the Supreme Court which stated that the tribunal had no power to hear or adjudicate on challenges to TRAI regulations. Swiftly, the TDSAT dismissed the case and the NBA immediately moved the Delhi Court to hear its plea. The Delhi High Court after listening to the initial appeal decided to get into its details later, giving the next hearing date as 13 March 2014. It however gave an interim order disallowing the TRAI from taking any coercive actions against channels not following the 12 minute ad cap.

At the time of writing, Zee Media Corp was slated to take the same route following the announcement of the merger of DMCL - the company that produces the Times of India-challenger newspaper DNA – with it. It had prepared for the merger by donning a new moniker, dropping Zee News and naming itself as Zee Media Corp. The year saw it running a skeleton Telugu news channel, even as it launched Zee Rajasthan Plus.Network18, NDTV, UTV Bloomberg, BAG Network, among many others shed staff. Network 18 bid adieu to nearly 350 people, NDTV shut down its Mumbai bureau itself and Bloomberg handed over the much dreaded pink slip to 30 staffers. Roles of those retained were redefined and they were given additional responsibilities.

Several other new offerings are lined up for 2014 including an English news channel, English business channel and two regional channels for Odisha and Bihar-Jharkhand . The company also repackaged itself and came up with a new positioning which seeks to attract India’s youth to watch its news channels.

The year 2014 looks set to be an exciting one with national elections on the anvil. Even international channels have taken note of this with Al Jazeera, France 24 and BBC World News sprucing up their presence in the country. But there are challenges that the broadcast news sector will have to face: the ad cap situation needs resolution, carriage fees need further reduction, and the struggle to make money continues. But what’s keeping the sector hopeful is the scheduled completion of digitisation by end 2014. The hope is that the dark clouds will part to reveal a silver lining. And then clear skies.With controversy surrounding the Sahara group and its consistent clashes with the Securities Exchange Board of India, it decided to drop the Sahara name from all the channels, retaining the Samay as a brand. India TV too changed its complete look while it has also brought on board several news professionals including veteran Q W Naqvi. Bag Films hired former Star group president Ravina Raj Kohli on its advisory board while IBN7 CEO Dilip Venkatraman left the organisation after giving it a new look. The ABP group announced that it would launch new services but was stalled on account of the MIB’s tough stance on licensing norms and procedures. Even then a rumour that persisted through the year was the rumour that its former partner Star India would re-enter the news channel business.

The year 2014 looks set to be an exciting one with national elections on the anvil. Even international channels have taken note of this with Al Jazeera, France 24 and BBC World News sprucing up their presence in the country. But there are challenges that the broadcast news sector will have to face: the ad cap situation needs resolution, carriage fees need further reduction, and the struggle to make money continues. But what’s keeping the sector hopeful is the scheduled completion of digitisation by end 2014. The hope is that the dark clouds will part to reveal a silver lining. And then clear skies.

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