July 14, 2006

Who needs a media cop?


New Delhi: Imagine a law where no single company can sell more than one variant of a soap brand or any other product or service. Since most marketers like to sell to a majority, all that consumers have, is duplication of the same variant, albeit with different brand names from different marketers. Moreover, no one company can sell its one soap brand variant across the country in keeping with the letter of this law (of preventing ‘national dominance’). Obviously, in such a case, consumers’ outcry will invariably result in the law being scrapped outright or least rewritten in favour of consumer choice.
   Incredulously, such a law is actually in the works in India for the media industry. And that too without much public debate or scrutiny, something that should be at the root of any pragmatic, practical and market-building policy making.
   In fact, as things stand, and in view of the country’s unique polity, multi-linguism and business realities, the very need for the proposed ‘The Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2006,’ and specifically its anti-consumer and anti-choice restrictions on cross-media ownership is completely unfounded. And the Bill’s other much avowed, though rightly desired, objective of content regulation is anyway already addressable and totally enforceable through the existing Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, more so after a recent government fiat which makes it mandatory for even foreign channels beaming from satellites and facilities outside India to register in India.
   It’s important to understand not just the provisions of cross-media laws in some of the most developed, vibrant and pluralistic markets such as the USA, but also the genesis of these laws. Cross-media laws in the US were a result of big television channels controlling terrestrial networks and, therefore, the need to prevent their control over other media in newspapers and radio. In India, terrestrial television is the sole monopoly of the government with Prasar Bharati running terrestrial television in Doordarshan.
   Moreover, India is not a land of one language. We have over 15 official languages with hundreds of dialects, as you move from one region to another. Print media has a reach of over 200 million, compared to terrestrial TV’s 400 million and 220 million for cable & satellite TV. If anyone has a monopoly today, it is Prasar Bharati. No C&S TV channel in India commands an audience share greater than 20 %, let alone the 45% threshold prescribed in the US cross-media legislation.
   It is also pertinent to point out that India’s FM radio policy is irreconcilable to its stated objective of ensuring plurality of content. The illconceived caps on a radio company, both at the city (only one station) and the national level (not more than 15% share of all FM stations) has resulted in precisely the opposite effect on plurality of radio content. With the cap of running just one station per city, all FM stations understandably have gone after the general entertainment music genre, with the scenario of listeners getting Jhalak Dikh La Jaa across stations.
   Is this the kind of plurality of content the policy had aimed for?
   With news and views on radio being a monopoly of the government-run All India Radio, as also AIR’s monopoly over short-wave and mediumwave radio broadcast, the very talk of any one private FM player’s ‘dominance’ sounds ridiculous. In the name of pseudo-pluralism, the radio policy has ended
up resulting in colossal
waste of scare resource
such as spectrum, besides stifling the growth of muchneeded radio genres, something that would have benefited the public and enabled the stunted and loss-making private FM radio industry to flourish.
   In view of the medium’s easy and cheap accessibility to the masses, the policy’s anti-consumer and anti-market artificially-led caps should not only be revised (say in line with USA’s legislation), but big radio companies should be encouraged to take radio coverage more deeper and wider across the country. It is also important that ‘dominance’ needs to be read in the context of zones/cities and realistic audience share, much like 45 % in the US, and not number of stations as is the case.
   Take the newspaper market in India, for instance. Out of the 200 million-odd readers (as per the latest Indian Readership Survey), English language readership itself is merely 22 million, just about 10% of the total print readership and perhaps just about 1% of the total population of India. In fact there is no pan-Indian media company, unlike big hotel chains or an FMCG company. There is no media equivalent of say a Coke, Pepsi or Mc-Donalds’ with one-product national footprint. Each city in India has a unique culture and has supported its own media. Our culture and its alchemy guards against dominance of any one company.
   NDTV is a popular TV news channel commanding 3% of news viewership in cable homes and just 2% in all television homes. Likewise, Aaj Tak is a popular Hindi language news channel with a news viewership share of 15% in cable homes and 12% in all television homes. The government-controlled Doordarshan News on the other hand commands 25% of news viewership amongst all television homes. We need to note here that the combined viewership of NDTV and Aaj Tak in all television homes is just about half of DD News. Given the fact that terrestrial broadcasting ownership rests with the government, no private television channel can ever become dominant.
   The government currently has control over just newspapers, radio and television channels, and this in the age where the role of new media — internet, mobile, interactive media — is becoming critical. The government is still living in an old mindset and its recent attempts at pushing through an archaic cross-media law shows its inability to comprehend the media scenario in the wake of the birth of new media. Internet-based portals such as Yahoo and Google today hold more sway with more consumers in the USA compared to, say, a traditional media like The New York Times.
   In fact, today, internet portals have become both broadcasters (video-clips of news) as well as publishers of news & views. But with the rise and rise of blogging, consumers themselves are becoming publishers. According to a recent survey of 20,000 online users in India, as many as 86% are regular readers or contributors of blogs. Internet too has in-built anti-dominance features, so what is it that the government is anyway trying to achieve?
   The government’s intention of supporting plurality of media voices and preventing anyone’s control over this voice for the benefit of consumers is best served by supporting both old and new media. The government should not put spokes in the growth of old media, or mitigate the size and scale of media organisations. Most of all, it should not deny them their fundamental right of free speech or access to new media technologies.

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