My column in the DNA on October 16th 2014
“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.” This quote is attributed to the great Albert Einstein in an attempt to explain the Theory of Relativity to someone in a simple and effective manner. And, like most general analogies, this holds true. It is just a few years ago that I joined the media, as a freshly minted graduate student, with stars in her eyes and the belief that the media can be used to bring about social change. And, lo and behold, before I realised it, it has been 20 years. And 20 years later I find myself just as excited about the media landscape as I was all those years ago – it is diverse, it is exciting, and one is working with one of the most interesting audiences in the world. The media in India has changed so rapidly and people have welcomed new technologies and formats with such open arms that it seems like one has managed to cram multiple lifetimes into one.
If you look back at the 20 years, it has been a time of momentous change in the media. The world of Indian television has moved from watching a single channel (Doordarshan) to an explosion of channels that cater to every interest, language, genre and format. The other big move has been attitudinal. India has moved from being a single TV household, where most members of the family congregated to watch their favourite show to being a world with multiple screens and personalised consumption. What is also fascinating about the media landscape is that while in more developed economies we can see the gradual sunset of certain forms of media and other forms of media gradually becoming all encompassing, in India different media seem to be engaged in mutual co-existence and are thriving. Print is doing well in India, as is television, radio, as is digital. The audience has never before had so much choice of content that is available on so many different types of media, for next-to-nothing prices.
Twenty years ago the market scenario was very different. This was before the era of 24-hour channels. There were no dedicated Indian news channels, in fact news was still the sole prerogative of the State broadcaster, Doordarshan. The three broadcasters would air 3-4 hours of original content per day. And, unlike today, where you see wall-to-wall content of a certain kind, television, in those days, would air a plethora of formats and types of content to keep the audiences hooked. The expansion of television media in the last two decades has been organic. At the end of 2014, the Ministry of Information andBroadcasting had given permission for 825 channels to broadcast in India. There are close to 90,000 newspapers in India and most of us have stopped counting the number ofwebsites aimed at Indian audiences.
With this entire diversity and choice, one problem still remains. Who pays for the content? This is a question we grappled with 20 years ago, when technology was still grappling with addressability and the ability to charge the consumer for content. Today we have the technology in place, but are faced with the reality that there is so much free (and good) content in the world, who will pay for the content that you produce? And, this is not just a problem we are facing in India — it seems to be a worldwide phenomenon.
For most Indians, we get content at next-to-nothing prices. The cost of content for the consumer on the Internet is the cost of their Internet connection. You are paying for delivery, not for content. If you look at TV, the situation improves marginally. Most households pay between Rs300-500 a month for their cable/DTH connection for 300-400 channels. That is between Re1 and Rs1.50 per channel per month. It doesn’t matter if you only watch 10 of these channels; the fact is that you get them all for what you pay. In contrast, print has the best deal of them all. Most of us pay between Rs90 and Rs150 per month (between Rs3-Rs5 per day) for newspaper subscription.
This is, incidentally, less than the cost of a cutting chai in Mumbai) But given that the cost of producing a single paper is upwards of Rs20 per day, once again the Indian audience is getting a really good deal. In each of these cases, the cost of consumption is very low and approaches zero.
Finally, let us look at the contentious issue of quality — the constant refrain that is heard across the board is that “the quality of content has gone down. The media is pandering to the lowest common denominator”. And, the answer then, as now, is that how do you create ‘quality’ ‘good content’ when people are not willing to pay for it? How do create content that highlights ‘culture’ when people don’t want to watch ‘culture’ and would rather watch the latest item number? Do we, as media, act as arbitrators of media consumption habits or do we give the audience what they want? Do we create content for an audience that doesn’t want ‘good’ content in enough numbers, and doesn’t want to pay for it, when it does? Or do we create content that people will consume no matter what, and let the advertiser pay for the content?
These are interesting questions for which there are no readymade answers. Each media outlet has to make its own choices regarding its options. But, more interesting would be the choices of the audience – if they want quality, they have to pay for it. Conversely, they can consume what is available for free – but those come with no guarantees. The next decade while the media and the audience negotiate over this, will be interesting times.