Television

Nalin Mehta’s ‘Behind a Billion Screens’ examines Indian TV industry

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MUMBAI: India is a country where television forms the most important part of one’s life. Everybody watches television, everybody has an opinion on it and everybody thinks they know exactly what is wrong with it. 

It’s a topic that often raises a lot of heat and smoke but too little light. Throwing some light on this trend of television is author and journalist Nalin Mehta’s new book ‘Behind a Billion Screens.’

The book closely examines how television works in India, how TV channels make their money or not, how this is changing and what this means for the cacophony that appears on our screens.

The book, which was initially going to be a joint effort by Star India CEO Uday Shankar and Mehta, was later written independently by the latter.

The book answers key questions like:

• Who owns Indian television? Just how much is it controlled by politicians, corporations and real estate companies? What are the patterns of control nationally and across regional languages? How does India compare with other countries and why does this matter?

• What explains television’s terrible crisis of content? Is there really no market for intelligence in India and is dumped down content the only thing that audiences want? Why do channels keep behaving like Bollywood producers of the 1980s who kept churning out the same old tired formula films till a new multiplex-savvy breed of film-makers started challenging old orthodoxies? Is there a talent problem or management problem or a crisis of business models?

• What is wrong with current government controlling system on television and why this ‘terrible-backend’ needs to change? Indian television continues to be controlled by outdated regulations, even as it is mired in public battles for greater regulation, as called for by Justice Katju. Studying the role of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), state governments and the judiciary, this book answers just how much control the state still has on broadcasting, why its jugaad nature of regulation is now unsustainable and why a major change is needed.

• Does self-regulation work? How did self-regulatory bodies governing television come into being and what has been their factual record? Has self-regulation made any difference to programming or is it simply a chimera only designed to keep government out?How does India compare to other countries?

• Does public broadcasting still matter, what exactly is wrong with Prasar Bharti and how can it be fixed?

• Is television becoming irrelevant in the digital age? How is television shape-shifting in response to mobiles and the net, how are companies changing their businesses and programming, where is India going and how different is India from the rest of the world.

The book highlights how India’s $15 billion media and entertainment industry – including television, print, radio, digital media - is growing at roughly 14 per cent a year. This, by some accounts, is impressive, benefitting immensely from the tailwinds of GDP growth of the last decade. But the stark fact is that even at $15 billion, India’s entire media taken together is just about one fourth the size of Google ($59 billion in revenues) – a fourteen-year-old company that is younger than most major Indian TV channels.

“Let us not even go that far. If the entire Indian media was a company, it would rank seventh or eighth in India! Media is a globally growing industry but our participation in that ecosystem is zero and India is hardly factored into the global thought process of technology or content,” the book points out.

Mehta, in the book, highlights how India is drunk on its own volumes: the largest number of newspapers in circulation, the second largest number of television viewers and millions of digital consumers. Digital, in particular, is an indictment of our creative and strategic limitations.

“We have over 700 million mobile screens and yet we do not have a relatively unique content proposition for the medium. So, our ability to convert that into corresponding value is disappointing. Both in business and creative terms, the Indian media and entertainment sector still remains much smaller than it should be in a country of 1.2 billion people,” the book says.

Even at these volumes, the reach as a percentage of population is not spectacular. India has 100 million households with no television, their time spent on it is abysmally low when compared to global standards; some 350 million people read the newspaper – but that tells us how many do not read!

Mehta points out that in television, India needs a lot more content and this will come not only by scaling up production but through a fundamental transformation of the ecosystem. Resources, talent and every related facet have to evolve dramatically. For example, the production infrastructure in Mumbai, studio space, access to talent is creaking and unable to keep pace with the demand.

Despite all the gloom and doom, India’s media and entertainment sector has consistently delivered impressive growth rates for the past few years. But, this is not a sector whose value is measured just by the size of its financial contribution. Media and entertainment remains central to defining the direction of India’s social and economic path; its work remains key to the imagination and inspiration of a billion Indians every day; and its health will be central to the ethos and values of the society we collectively shape.

Mehta, through the book, says that with Narendra Modi’s new government in place, since May 2014, there is a renewed focus on reassessing things and trying to improve them. 



“We need to make the case, for example, digitisation is not just about putting boxes and laying cables. It entails a fundamental transformation of the way we look at media and there is an opportunity for Indian media and content to move from just being a provider of entertainment content to being a creative industry, like the IT sector, for example, that plays a much larger role in the overall economic vision for the country,” Mehta opines in the book.

He further writes that the media has been more than just a silent victim. Too often, the news media has focused on what is sensational rather than what is important. Too often, the point of news seems to be to reduce the extraordinary diversity of the country to the most banal, a contest between extremes that canonly be resolved through a shouting match on live television. With singular dominant narratives, the trend seems to be to create heroes on a particular day only to label them as thugs and crooks the next.

Until recently, for a long time the media–government equation seemed like a broken relationship, and one that has had dire consequences for both the industry as well as the government. The failure to establish credibility and importance meant the industry perennially stayed on the back foot, defending itself against every new wave of regulation aimed only at curtailing its wings further. In return, governments were not able to leverage either the impact that mass media can have in India or harness the power of media as an economic engine that can create jobs and wealth.

The book, in order to put things in perspective, says, “As a $15 billion industry, we employ over six million people. This can be so much more significant and meaningful. According to official estimates, about fifteen million people are entering the job market every year while the country is generating only about three million new jobs a year. This means that we are adding, as filmmaker Shekhar Kapur eloquently put it, a city of unemployed people as big as Delhi every year. And yet, the lens often used to look at this industry is largely one of glamour and propaganda and the biggest debate is on how to control and contain it.”

There are 161 million cable and satellite homes but the measured universe so far is much smaller. “I do not know how many subscribers I have with a particular MSO and the MSO doesn’t know how many households his LCO delivers the signals to. The same is true in advertising too. The country’s premier media agencies can’t even seem to agree on a fact as basic as the size of the advertising market. One leading agency recently estimated the total market size to be Rs 35,000 crore, while the other, equally illustrious, estimated it to be Rs 29,000 crore. A variance of no less than 20 per cent! The ambiguity in data for other sectors of the media and entertainment industry is no less. Numbers are supposed to be the foundations of rational business decisions but how can we make decisions when professionals in the business of numbers can’t get their numbers straight?”

Reacting on the book, Shankar said, “Nalin is probably the best media academic in India…this book is a seminal contribution to the evolving debate about the role of the Indian media.”

Author and India Today Group consulting editor Rajdeep Sardesai added, “Excellent… an incisive and much needed study of how television is changing in India.”

Times Now editor in chief Arnab Goswami said, “Fantastic… Nalin has beautifully pieced together the real, untold story behind the sound bytes.

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