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'Burgeoning distribution costs eating into money that should have been spent on content'

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Much has happened this year and yet not a lot has happened.

For India TV it has been a good year. Two years ago we were number six or seven in the news channel category, with a 5 to 6 per cent share; today we are number three with a 17-18 per cent share.



The broadcasting industry has seen a huge amount of debate and discussion on the proposed Broadcast Bill and the Content Code. It perhaps looks to an observer like there is much heat and no movement, but I do believe such debate and discussion is essential.

This is not something that can be done in a hurry. It has very wide implications in a country as free as India, where the media are genuinely free.

And while the arguments for and against regulation are many, the fundamental thing is that any attempt to legislate a free media has to be done with a great deal of care. It is at the heart of Indian democracy. And as the world acknowledges, we may have a myriad problems but we are a robust democracy despite all odds: it is too valuable to risk.

On the Content Code there has been a discussion for well over a year, and the government has been open to dialogue, which is excellent. The broadcasters have offered to create their own Code for self-regulation.

The government has welcomed the offer of the industry to develop its own Code, as it has accepted and notified the ASCI Code for advertising. ASCI is a voluntary body, so the government has encouraged self-regulation, which is great.

The single biggest problem in the industry today is distribution. It is getting more and more competitive, as more and more channels come into business. The cost is enormous and growing wildly, and it is hurting every broadcaster from the biggest to the smallest, FTA or pay.

In this battle MSOs and LCOs point fingers at each other, but either way it is costing the broadcaster. And money that could and should have been spent on content is getting spent on distribution instead, and it weakens the industry.

And as that burgeoning cost is eating into money that could and should have been spent on content, in the end it is affecting the viewer, with no medium term solution in sight.

Digitisation is the only real answer. Digitisation is slowly coming in the non-CAS areas, but the operative word is 'slowly'. Anything that the government can do to accelerate digitisation will be for the good of all, mostly for the good of the consumer.

The other important thing with growing competition is the issue of audience measurement. Periodically there is heated debate, and everyone has an expert opinion on the subject. But listen to what each broadcaster says, and you know how good their ratings are: why else are yesterday's critics silent today and why were today's critics silent yesterday, when the system has been the same for years?

And even as broadcasters and agencies criticize the measurement system they continue to use the data to help in buying and selling Rs 5-6,000 crore worth of advertising, on the nonsensical plea that some data is better than no data.

There have been impassioned complaints about how the broadcasters and production houses are victims of the rating system, how every Friday when those wretched numbers come in they have to slog overnight to fix the content according to what the numbers tell them.

That's like a hypochondriac taking his temperature and blaming the thermometer. No one is forcing anyone to use the data, much less what to do about it. If you choose to be tyrannised by it, that's your choice.

That is not to say the current system is perfect. That it needs upgrading is beyond doubt. The industry has taken the initiative in that, with the formation of the Broadcast Audience Research Council.

Whatever the outcome, it can only lead to a better, more robust measurement system.

The best thing that has happened this year?

It may sound like a strange thing to say, but to my mind the best thing that has happened is the ongoing debate about the Broadcast Bill and the Content Code. It brings many issues to the fore, many things that we need to be more aware of and many that we need to engage with the government about.

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