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Takeaway from the JNU episode: Media is all about business

Manish Tewari | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:44 IST

JNU trigger

  • The JNU incident has raised questions on the media
  • Media houses and editors have squabbled among themselves

More in the story

  • Is it merely difference of opinion?
  • Why is the media in such a shape today?

One of the very curious collaterals of the JNU incident is the manner in which it has brought the dog-eat-dog divide within the media into the open.

One evening, while surfing television to find my favourite cartoon channel, I paused for a couple of seconds on an English views channel that masquerades as a news and current affairs channel, for that is how they are licensed to operate.

I was amused to find the 'resident divinity' of that outfit virtually abusing the promoter of a media trust-funded independent news website for having ostensibly allegedly insinuated that the outfit in question had run a "fake video" of the incident in JNU.

The promoter in question in an earlier avatar was the editor of one of India's oldest and most respected paper.

Earlier another 'deity' of another English TV views channel apparently dissected the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) video to establish that it was morphed and that the voice was superimposed on the picture.

Yet another English views channel took umbrage and as a counter to that deconstruction ran a full screen scroll across the plate accusing the first of unethical journalism for suggesting that they had a run a fake, morphed or doctored clip.

It reminded me of the guy who called the police to say his friend 'everybody' was fighting his other friend 'nobody'. When the police personnel asked him "Are you mad?" He said he was, for that was his name.

However, in the JNU affair, the shoe is on the other foot.

In an another simultaneous aside, the Home Minister of India and the head honcho of Delhi Police tilted at their own windmills.

The first trotted out a tweet from a fake account to establish the ubiquitous Pakistan link to the l'affaire JNU while the latter tied himself up in knots while responding to a tweet from a parody account. It was the theatre of the absurd playing itself out in high season with free ringside tickets to boot.

It's not funny

All this would have been hilarious had the dramatis personae not been important stakeholders in our public dialogue and governance paradigm. What may seem to be inter-media rivalry or peer jealously among editors playing itself out in full public view.

The reason it is not is because of the manner in which each of the stakeholders especially of television have tried to mould public discourse, perhaps keeping a very narrow imperative in mind.

It is not a case of conceptual differences - that would have been acceptable. Ideological diversity in media is not new.


Photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The Indian media has provided working space to people with all shades of personal convictions from the ultra left to the extreme right. Their personal convictions and biases have always tinged the prism through which they have viewed people and events but that is human.

There is also nothing wrong in that in a country with 1,05,443 print publications 399 private news and current affairs TV channels in addition to the 22 channels run by the public broadcaster - some in the terrestrial mode - servicing 168 million television homes.

Augmenting these numbers are 243 private FM radio stations, 188 community radio stations, 410 FM transmitters, 145 medium-wave stations and 48 shortwave stations of All-India Radio complemented by 229 broadcast centres across the country.

This is a small cross-section of the media space. If you start looking at the new, or digital, media space, the complexion of the media takes a new dimension altogether.

With such exponential numbers, there is scope and place to absorb people of all persuasions. However that is not where the problem lies.

It's about money

The reality is that media is a business. It has budgets, balance sheets, bottom lines and shareholders. Like any other industry "Honey, it is about the money".

The difficulty is that there is not enough money going around for everybody to get a piece of the action. There are flawed revenue models and the problem is the most acute in the television industry.

Out of the 851 television channels in India, 399 are for news and current affairs (read views for the bulk of them) channels. However, they occupy only 7% of the television universe collectively.

The entertainment channels occupy the remaining 93%. In other words 93% of the people who watch television do not watch news.

There is measly or virtually no subscription revenue that news channels are able to generate. Their total income thus depends upon advertisements that in turn are dependent on eyeballs (viewership).

The viewership is measured by a dubious currency called Television Rating Points (TRP's). In addition, they have to pay humungous carriage fee to the multi-system operators to carry their content to the viewer.

If there would be no viewership there would be no inflow of money from the advertisers. The MSOs charge them carriage, for there is no demand from the people to watch these news channels.

They carry entertainment channels free or even pay the entertainment channels for the privilege of carrying them in their distribution companies.

The business of TRPs was earlier run by a company called TAM, primarily an oversees entity held by people with fingers in both advertising and broadcasting businesses - a clear conflict of interest.

It meant 'you' were the index that you yourself used as an advertiser to decide which broadcaster to fund and you had stakes on the other side too.

As the Minister for Information and Broadcasting, I came up with a policy guideline that required TV rating companies to publicly disclose their shareholding pattern.

Sensing a difficulty, they moved the High Court and got some aspects of those guidelines stayed. The matter is still sub judice.

Meanwhile, the TV industry came up with its own measurement mechanism called the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC). However, rather than invest in putting up people's metres - the device that measures viewership - they decided to co-opt TAM's infrastructure.

So what you get now is TAM data put out by BARC and there remains one monopolistic entity that continues to do the ratings. Earlier it was TAM, now it is BARC.

It's not fair

There is no competition that can act as a double-check on the veracity and integrity of the viewership numbers being put out. Moreover, the spread of these peoples' metres is thin - 30,000 to capture a universe of 168 million TV households.

That is where editorial checks become the casualty. In the mad rush to be the first to put out a story to grab eyeballs, no attention is paid either to its authenticity or genuineness.

If the story is something like the JNU video, (in this case, first put out by Akhil Bharti Vidyarthi Parishad, an RSS front), that appeals to the basest sentiments of the people - impetuous pulp patriotism - all the more better. For nothing sells better than jingoism masquerading as nationalism.

One of the most corrosive legacies of India's liberalisation has been the manner in which over the past 26 years we have handed out TV licences, especially to news channels virtually like toffees. It has not created diversity of views; it has led to market fragmentation and non-existent revenue models.

The mad rush to grab eyeballs has made the public discourse in India corrosive and gives WWF a run for it's money. Tomorrow if it is established that the JNU video was morphed - a fake - would the 'eminences' that put it out take responsibility?

The answer is no, they would have moved on to the next byte of sensationalism for that is there bread - and there is no butter in the business.

The writer is a lawyer and former Minister of Information and Broadcasting in the Government of India. The views are personal.

Edited by Joyjeet Das

First published: 22 February 2016, 4:04 IST
Manish Tewari

Tewari is a lawyer and former Minister of Information and Broadcasting in the Government of India.