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"More Media, Less Space"

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Reading media interviews on three media websites - this one, agencyfaqs.com, and exchange4media.com -makes one thing very clear. Issues beyond the market, the advertiser, the seller, the buyer, simply do not figure. Not only do industry figures dominate the discourse, their discourse doesn't go beyond industry issues either. And you have to wonder: media is this constantly growing, powerful arena, an expensively created public space that binds one billion people. Does it not have any concerns beyond who is watching my channel, how can I maximise that, how do I increase the prime time band, how many shows do I have in the top ten, top twenty, top forty, or how much of the 15 per cent revenue increase that the television industry as a whole saw in 2002, came to me? Is there no one raising his vision a few inches higher than the bottom line or looking forward at where we are headed, rather than sideways at the competition?.'

     

"Maintaining a roving, wide-ranging perspective is not something the media does as a matter of course. In the past year, it preferred to be led by the big story"

   

People watched a lot of television in the year just gone by. TV penetration grew, the numbers of channels available increased, yet I suspect they watched less variety than ever before. The more media you have, the less it covers. More cricket, more news, more serials on more general entertainment channels. If print is an indication, a few sports events, a few films, and a few personalities dominated the space available in the public sphere, be it newsprint or TV time. Amitabh Bachchan's sixtieth birthday became a mega-event following a frenetic build up. Devdas so consumed the media that you'd have thought it was a major national achievement. An actress called Antara Mali in a movie called Road, also ate up acres of newsprint. Even a newspaper like the Hindu vastly expanded the space it gave to films, and actresses like Kareena Kapoor. Sachin Tendulkar playing his 100th test match became another major media milestone. Between the exertions of a rapidly growing PR industry and audience-maximising marketeers, older stars were perpetuated, new ones created, and non-stars simply shut out.

The news channels have developed their own logic, refined in 2002. Go for the big story and stick with it. (Which is an euphemism for flog it.) If you were to do an audit you would probably find no more than 20 political figures occupying 70 per cent of the news space all year round. The same 20 spilled over into the entertainment arena with programmes like Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hai. In a country with more than 25 states and Union territories and goodness knows how many political parties. The more political discussion slots you have on television, the more they feature the same politicians, anchors, panelists. It's the page three syndrome, and it is based on the assumption that only a few personalities sell.

Perhaps there is a logic to it, nothing moves the people of this country as much as the movies, cricket and politics and the big names in all three. But it also stands to figure, if an over-exposed few dominate the canvas, who and what is getting left out? If revenue from television and maximum value to the advertiser are the singular issues that move media executives, who is supposed to watch out for what effect the media has as an institution? Or care about whether the public arena is shrinking rather than expanding? And what that does for the public weal?

      

"News and regional channels gained revenue share in 2002. That is a slightly hopeful sign: both vehicles help to expand the public arena more than ratings-focussed general entertainment channels do."   

In this respect, newspapers, at least are different from television, and the news channels different from the rest of the TV channels. In both, people are less revenue obsessed, less self-obsessed as media vehicles, and more conscious of public space and their role in mediating it. But they focus narrowly too: Gujarat consumed public debate in 2002. It deserved to, but surely not to the extent of forgetting that there was a nation beyond. Hindu Muslim relations may have improved or deteriorated elsewhere in the country but maintaining a roving, wide-ranging perspective is not something the media does as a matter of course. In the past year, it preferred to be led by the big story.

If the Economic Times television survey is to be believed, news and regional channels gained revenue share in 2002. That is a slightly hopeful sign: both vehicles help to expand the public arena more than ratings-focussed general entertainment channels do. They admit into public consciousness income groups, ethnic groups, and age groups beyond the revenue-maximising, culturally homogenising construct of Hindi-speaking middle India that dominates the most-viewed TV serials.

In the year to come, it might be too much to expect that executives in the commercial media will expand their focus from the consumer to the citizen. But can they at least credit the consumer with a slightly wider range of interest than the precarious eyeballs business assumes? For all the crores spent on television, can we move beyond films to dance and music that does not originate in the movies? Can we move beyond saas bahu themes for stories? Can we move outside family settings for serials to professional and public settings? And from glossy urban to rural? Or is that asking for altogether too much?

(The author is a veteran journalist of national repute. The ideas expressed here are her personal ones and indiantelevision.com need not necessarily endorse them.)

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