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Book review 'Behind a Billion Screens: What Television Tells Us About Modern India'- TRPs, profits and the news business

DECCAN CHRONICLE | Sidharth Bhatia

Published on: August 6, 2015 | Updated on: Invalid date

Behind A Billion Screens: What Television Tells Us About Modern India by Nalin Mehta, HarperCollins, Rs 699

For an industry of its size, reach and profile, the television business in India has not been closely examined by academics in a serious way. There are a few books, and some written by reporters sardonically exposing the cynical ways of news channels (a la the movie Peepli Live), but nothing that tells us not just how the industry operates, but also what is wrong — and right — with it.

Nalin Mehta has tried to bridge that gap.

A former journalist with Headlines Today — he is now a professor at Shiv Nadar University — Mehta’s previous book was How Satellite Television Changed the Way We Think and Act. It was focused on the impact of TV; the new one examines the industry in its entirety. Or, more specifically, the news (and a bit of general entertainment) segment, since there is almost nothing on, say, religious or home shopping channels, though Baba Ramdev makes an appearance as a savvy marketer who used the medium to market both, himself and his supposedly ayurvedic products.

We all have opinions on the news channels. The anchors are now bonafide stars, their shows have large audiences and we love to love or hate them. Nightly hectoring is watched by millions of people and even those anchors who are sober and allow their panelists to speak will admit that they lose out to the high-decibel circus that goes on in the name of "news". Yet, we talk about those anchors incessantly. This fascination translates into huge television rating points (TRPs), but, as Mehta points out, not necessarily big revenues. Running a news channel is expensive and there are a host of reasons for this, not the least being the way in which broadcasters are held hostage by cablewallahs.

Yet, not a day goes by without a new news channel being launched. Most of these are not owned and controlled by news organisations or even those committed to news, but by businessmen, politicians and extremely shady wheeler-dealers, a bit like what happened in the US when television was in its infancy. "India in the early 21st century is a very different place from the US of the 1950s, but current trends in news television indicate that we may be seeing a similar move on to the strategic command posts of Indian society — by politicians and businesses with interests in real estate, chit funds or personal finance schemes." Clearly, these backers are ready to lose money as long as they have a news channel at their command — it gives them clout as well as insurance.

In Mehta’s judgement, this is a bad thing and certainly, there is nothing salubrious about a trader with a dubious background running a news channel. But, I would disagree that politicians too should be kept from owning news channels.

India has a long tradition of political parties running newspapers — as long as this ownership and control is publicly known, it doesn’t matter.

The viewer is free to accept or reject the news. Corporate control is a different matter — most large business groups who have invested in television channels have done so clandestinely; whether it is a small-time property developer in the hinterland or a high-profile tycoon in south Mumbai, one is bound to view their agenda sceptically. For Mehta, the problem is the other way round — indeed, he finds nothing wrong with big business controlling the media.

Mehta wants the doors to be further opened. Why, for instance, are foreign groups not allowed to start TV news in India? (That is a question that is frequently asked by the Star TV group, whose CEO Uday Shankar has written the foreword for this book and is copiously quoted too.) It is a good question. Why is it not allowed? The reasons are, of course, many and complex, but mainly India has not seen it fit to let foreign groups take control of the media, which is seen as somewhat different than say an automobile company. Every country has put in controls against foreign ownership of the media.

Where one disagrees with Mehta is that such foreign ownership — and raising the cap on investment in Indian companies — will bring in much-needed cash and this will improve the standard of news coverage. Tight budgets at the moment prevent reporters from going out and doing stories that they would if they had more money.

This is straight out of cloud cuckoo land. I can point to scores of newspapers in India, which make humungous profits and yet spare only loose change for reportage. Since powerful media groups have worked out that the current formula — lots of entertainment, softer stories, offline events and opinion (a la panel discussions) is profitable, they see no reason to change. Why should Murdoch, if he is allowed to enter news, be any different?

The saga of how India TV was forced to do some really dodgy stories, involving snakes turning into women or vice-versa is enlightening, as is its owner’s defence that he had no option since he was losing money by covering conventional and vanilla news stories, but given that a rise in profitability has not brought it fully into the mainstream, one could argue that broadcasters will stick to safe and tried formulas.

Mehta’s research on how TRPs are conducted is on surer footing. Without going into the details, one can just mention that the numbers — and the distribution of boxes that measure viewership — are so miniscule and poorly spread out in this vast country that it is shocking that any kind of adspend decision is taken on that basis. But, in the absence of any other alternative, everyone just goes along with it and shells out hundreds of crores simply because the TRP numbers justify it. This also impacts content — not just entertainment programmes but also news stories are slanted towards those places with maximum viewership and, arguably, towards a certain mindset. News channels often feed the prejudices of their middle-class, consumerist viewers who are the advertisers’ targets. This is the circle that is not likely to be broken in this hyper-competitive market, especially, since running a news channel is very expensive.

Read this, to get a good insight into the television business, but be aware that this is written from the industry’s perspective and ends up finding the government at fault for most of the sector’s ills. As for the most important part of the equation, the viewer, she is not present here at all.

Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist, columnist and writer based in Mumbai