Sep 012014
 

My column in the DNA, last fortnight

Forty five years ago, the United States of America, did the unthinkable — it put a man, actually two men, on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went into the history books as the first human beings to walk on the surface of earth’s only natural satellite. The lines that Armstrong says on stepping on to the lunar surface “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, is part of textbooks around the world. While there was great euphoria on this momentous scientific and technological achievement, the benefits from this, apart from national pride, were seen in the following decades. The investment in putting a man on the moon went beyond the material and the technological. It had a multiplier effect in scientific research, energy sources, food technologies and in many more fields. The impact on society was gradual; it wasn’t seen that pervasively in the decade that followed, but the Eighties and the Nineties reaped the benefits of this endeavour. From a communication perspective, the advances in satellite communication and miniaturised integrated circuits that were a by-product of the research into space exploration, transformed the world. Television, computers, mobile phones, and a host of other gadgets, that we don’t even think about, are the distant descendents of the investment into space exploration. The world, in the words of the famous media theorist Marshall McLuhan: “human family exists under conditions of a global village. We live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums”.

Twenty five years ago, in 1989, a British theoretical physicist, Tim Berners-Lee, working in CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland, came up with an innovative way of getting computers in CERN to talk to one another, and thereby allow the various scientists working on different projects to share information. His work led to the creation of the Hyper Text Markup Language, known more popularly by its abbreviation HTML. It allowed people to cross link content, and direct users to different pieces of content sitting on different machines. This simple and elegant way of connecting content led to the birth of the World  Wide Web and the Internet revolution that we are living through. When it started, in 1991, there were fewer than 500 servers that were connected. Today, there is no point counting, because by the time you have finished counting the number of servers, a large number would have been added. HTML revolutionised the world of information publishing and sharing. Suddenly everyone could be a publisher, a distributor, a commentator. Like the printing press almost 500 years earlier, the World Wide Web changed the way in which people saw the world. Suddenly, you realised that your views or issues, your fetishes or hobbies were not in any way unique —  there were others like you elsewhere in the world. If the moon landings and satellite communication had made humanity a ‘global village’ – the World Wide Web made it even smaller.

On September 4, the most ubiquitous web brand ever, Google, turns a sweet 16. Two young men, Larry Page and Sergey Brin looked at all the content on the web, and the existing ways of searching for information and decided that it was not good enough. The algorithms that they created for searching, classifying and organising content made using the web a lot more easy, and a lot more accessible. If HTML changed the way we create and share content, Google changed the way we searched and consumed it. There are those of us who remember a world before Google. We used Hotmail for email, Alta Vista for search, Netscape and Internet Explorer as browsers – all that has changed with the advent of Google.

If you really strip away the jargon and the technology from these three landmark events — in essence what they have done is made the world a smaller place, and made people very cognisant of the fact that the differences between the peoples of the world, in different nations, of different languages and traditions is actually not so great. We all bleed when we are cut, grieve when we lose near and dear ones, are inclined to help others (even random strangers), laugh at almost the same things, dance to almost similar beats and so on. Also, what is seen is that the desire for freedom and democratisation, the need to aspire and achieve is universal. What divides us is far less than what unites us.

It is, therefore, not surprising that there has been a backlash against this sense of being a ‘global family’ with shared ideals and values from those who were the traditional custodians of power – those who held the power over life and death of populations — extreme forms of religion, patriarchy and defenders of ‘cultural purity’. These are people who, until a few decades ago, were obeyed without question. Today, they are, mostly, ignored. When we see the backlash of regressive elements — be it the khaps in Haryana, or the mullahs who are asked for opinions, be it former Pope of the Catholic Church or the most extreme of all reactions the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS) – what they are railing against is that loss in absolute power over the lives of the people they controlled not so long ago. Cultural purity, religious purity, way of life et al are just excuses for wanting absolute power.

Most of the world is slowly moving towards the idea of a global village – people are escaping their shackles and aspiring for the better things in life, including not being restricted in their aspirations. The medievalists who want to drag people back into their cordoned off ghettos are trying their level best to hold on to their crumbling power base, that has been reeling under the onslaught of science and technology, through violence. Like others before them, who stood in the way of aspirations of people, these medievalists too will turn into a footnote in history.

Mar 202013
 

My blog in last week’s Tehelka

Illustration: Ashish Naorem

Illustration: Ashish Naorem

This is a folk tale/parable based around the characters of the Mahabharata. I am not quite sure if it forms part of the main body of work comprising the Epic, or if it is a localised tale, but it is a tale that comes to mind often.

This story takes place a few years after Drona had taken over mentoring and training the 105 cousins – the 5 Pandavas and the 100 Kauravas. The Elders – Dhritarashtra, Bheeshma, Vidura, Dronacharya and Kripacharya – were having a conversation about the young men and their progress. Dronacharya and Kripacharya – like all good teachers – were being fairly forthright about their charges’ capabilities. Duryodhan is a hot head. Arjun needs to stop preening in front of the mirror. Sahadev should talk to people and not just animals. Bhim needs to stop reacting. Dusashana should stop harassing the dasis… And Yudhisthira – as the future emperor… At which point Dhritarashtra interjects. He says “why is it that everyone keeps assuming that Yudhisthira is going to be the emperor… why not someone else. Bhim is stronger, Arjun a better archer, why even Duryodhana wields the mace better.” Obviously Dhritarashtra’s grouse was that his eldest son – Duryodhana – was not even in consideration. He tells the rest that the principals of dynastic succession seem unfair, completely ignoring the fact that he is promoting his son, after all it is important to have the most capable person as the next emperor.

The rest agree – and a test is set for all the 105 pupils. The test was a simple one. Each of the 105 is given a gold coin and told to fill his room . “What do you mean – fill the room,” they ask. “That is the test,” say the elders. The boys had a few days to think through the problem and present the results to the elders.

The day of the test arrives. The examiners arrive at the boys’ rooms to check out the results. They first go to Duryodhana’s room. They open the door and a shower of hay falls on them. Duryodhan has used his one gold coin to fill the room with hay. The next room is filled with caked dung. The next one is filled with dry twigs. Another one is filled with wheat. Someone else has used rice husk, yet another with broken pottery. One cousin has got the nirmalayam (dried flowers) from the temple. And it goes on and on. Each cousin outdoes the other in terms of the items with which they fill the room.

Finally, the team arrives at Yudhisthira’s room – they open the door. Right in the centre of the room is an earthern pot – filled with oil. A large wick is burning. The room is filled with light. Yudhisthira returns the remaining change to the elders…

Every time I glance at Television News – this story comes to mind. Be it instant budget analysis, or the reading of the impact of the Arab Spring, or the implication of tsunamis and earthquakes on nuclear reactors – the tendency of news channels to follow the illustrious examples set by the remaining cousins and brothers is huge. None of the TV news channels try and illuminate the issue in a nuanced manner. It is about filling the airtime with voices till the break.

Screaming, screeching and sound bytes may make for short term audience acquisition. But sooner or later, you will find that you have to screech and scream louder – and that is most likely to deafen the audience.

With Doordarshan trying to regain lost ground and recapture audiences – maybe it needs to follow the Yudhisthira strategy, rather than the ones followed by his cousins and brothers. There is a space for a serious, no nonsense news channel that deals not in speculation or sensation, but in facts. The only problem with Doordarshan is that it is too tightly tied to the Government’s apron strings. If Manish Tewari wants to make a difference as the Minister for Information and Broadcasting – he has to do two things. The first is to figure how to make Doordarshan financially independent, and the second is to dissolve his Ministry. There can be a Broadcasting Ombudsman, but for a Democratic Republic to have a Ministry of I&B, is kind of in the 1984 territory.

Theoretically the Prashar Bharati Act has freed up Doordarshan (all of DD, not just news) from governmental control. But, until such time the Government of India is responsible for salaries and funding, and the Prashar Bharati Corporation is staffed by career bureaucrats, and a Minister is in charge, it will not be truly free. It will be interesting to whether the Government has the courage to let go of control of the Broadcaster. Frankly, in a broadcast environment dominated by over 300 news channels it makes no sense to hold on to Doordarshan. If you look at the figures, it is telling – out of 148 million households in India that have Television (out of a total of 220 million households), around 22 million receive only Doordarshan, and these households will, sooner rather than later, switch to the more sensational Private Sector channels.To survive and thrive, DD has to go back to the drawing board and deliver its Public Service Broadcasting Agenda in a manner that is attractive to the audiences.

To do that, there needs to be a mindset change at the corporation and at the ministry. They need to stop behaving like they are a manufacturing organisation that is in the business to business space and need to start behaving as though they are in the business to consumer space. That doesn’t mean dumbing down – it just means adapting to the 21st century. There is potential, there is a market, it is upto the bosses at Doordarshan to exploit this opportunity.

(Declaration: The folk tale is part of the oral tradition of stories that my grandmother told me. I have used it to describe the media on my blog)

Jan 142013
 

Illustration: Zaheer Alam Kidvai

This is a story from the Mahabharata, that like many from from that epic , this too has lessons for the modern age.

Dronacharya the guru to the Kuru Princes – the 100 Kauravas and the 5 Pandavas - and assorted nobility in the region, decides to test his students in their prowess in archery. Archers, in that era, were considered the most accomplished of warriors, and he who was the best archer, was considered the best warrior. On the day of the test Drona takes the students to the forest, where across the river hangs a wooden bird from a tree.The test is two fold. First the archer has to take aim and describe what he sees; and the second is to shoot the target. And the target is the eye of the bird.

The first student describes the bird, the branch on which it is hung, the leaves surrounding the bird, the thread on which it dangles, the details of the bird and so on. He is disqualified. Seeing him flunk the test the rest of them begin to add more and more details. They take aim and describe in detail all that they see- a wide angle shot of the forest, the trees, the leaves on the trees, the blades of grass on the ground, the flowers on the shrubs, the fruits, the birds, the bees and the rest. Very involved and very detailed. To their great surprise they all fail the first part and are not allowed to go forward to second part. Finally, it is Arjun’s turn. The teacher asks him, ‘what do you see’… and Arjun answers with single minded focus- “I see the eye of the bird”. He passes the first stage of the test and allowed to shoot – and he hits the target.

The lesson from this tale is an important one for management, media and civil society, indeed for any aspect of life. If you have to succeed there has to be focus. Other things maybe more beautiful, more attention worthy -but ultimately they distract. Any successful practitioner of management (or war) will tell you – that attention needs to focused on the goal. All goals maybe equally worthy – but only one can be achieved by you. Which is your eye of the bird ?

In the last three weeks following the Delhi Gang Rape, there has been tremendous reasons for all right thinking people to outrage. Law and Order, Government response, Public Apathy, Misogyny, Status of women in society, publicity hungry souls trying to latch on to the bandwagon by making outrageous statements on the issue. The question is what do you focus on, what all do you fight? If you woke up tomorrow morning and one of the benevolent God’s had wished away all misogyny, all discrimination, all movie songs & scenes – would violence against women, including sexual violence, end?

Main Stream Media and now, unfortunately, Social Media – work on the mode of Outrage of the Day. Each tries to feed off the other, each wants to set and dominate the agenda . Every day, to get eyeballs and attention, the pitch is raised higher. The vocal chords shriller, and the outrage more raw. It is as much about the issue, as it is about seeking attention. People are crawling out of the woodwork to make outrageous statements. Those statements generate outrage. That outrage attracts defense. The defense attracts a counterpoint. And just as you think that some understanding will be reached – the focus of outrage changes. People, who were relatively localized a few weeks ago, are suddenly becoming national figures – Abhijeet Mukherjee is possibly a household name.

When outrage overwhelms focus and one jumps to the next outrage induced high , the issue at hand gets left behind, forgotten and abandoned in the quest for the next outrage fix. It is very easy to change the agenda. It is even easier to whip up mob sentiment. But, that is counter productive and damaging. To solve violence against women, indeed any problem, there needs to focus. Absolute and Total focus. It is very easy to go into butterfly mode and flit from outrage to outrage. Which is issue that makes you burn internally the most – that anger, that rage – keep it close within you and focus it to make the change that you can. Don’t dissipate that anger on every issue. There are going to be many. Focus on the eye of the bird – see that and no other.

Oct 012012
 

My column in today’s DNA

The cornerstone of a free market economy is competition – many suppliers who compete against each other for the attention and custom of the consumer. For the buyer there is a diversity of products to choose from, and the fact that there are many suppliers ensures that no product will be over priced for too long. Competition is a preferred way of allocating resources, ensuring choice, and enabling consumers of niche products and services to find producers who make those. In the last few decades the move away from controlled economies and centralised planning has been significant the around the world. Market competition has been seen as being as important a mark of a Democracy as elections. As Milton Friedman, the famous monetarist economist pointed out “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”  Questioning free market economics, and wondering whether it leads to the best possible outcomes, has become heresy.

One of the areas where theorists have been committing hearsay for the best part of two decades is in the field of media studies. Leading academics have been postulating whether a free market in the media, in fact, leads to less choice for the viewers. Media policy world over – in Europe, the USA and now in India – looks at the media market in the same way they look at any other market -more Media content providers means more consumer choice. However, unlike most products and services, media does more than satisfy or need for information or entertainment or education. It also shapes opinion, views and tastes. Also, ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ – and  in a media market where media vehicles make profits by selling to advertisers as opposed to the consumers of media content, it is inevitable that advertisers who spend big bucks call the tune. Diversity of content declines, as do diverse views, and what sells is repeated across all channels. Film music, soap operas based around family conflict, talent hunts, and news based on talking heads – dominate across the board. Furthermore, whole areas of the country get ignored, because the advertiser is not interested in those consumers – they are either not enough in numbers, or are too poor to purchase the products being advertised.  This has repercussions on coverage. If the advertiser is not really looking at people from certain geography, will you cover that region in the media? The answer is, more often than not, a resounding no.

 

This is the reason why most countries have Public Service Broadcasters (PSB), funded either by the tax payer (Europe) or by trusts (the USA). The PSB is supposed to provide diversity in terms of content, give a platform for views and voices that are ignored, support arts and culture and popularise them, instil a sense of belonging to one nation, and stay away from sensationalism and obvious bias. In India the role of the PSB is played by the Prasar Bharati that runs Doordarshan and AIR.  For a decade or more Prasar Bharati has been struggling in a competitive market, with a bloated work force and an inability to be responsive to consumer needs. Its content, although diverse, looks terribly dated and out of synch with the audience. Needless to say, the organisation has been struggling.

 

On Big Bang Friday, while the Government was announcing a slew of measures, there was one regarding the financial restructuring of Prasar Bharati. – Rs.1350 crores of debt waived off, loans converted into grants and accumulated interest excused. Additionally, the Government  (tax payer)  has agreed to pay the salary bill for the next 5 years.  Prasar Bharati is only responsible for the operational costs of the channels – i.e., programming. Prasar Bharati has the reach, the network and the infrastructure to deliver – but for some reason it has not been able to. For Prasar Bharati to be effective it needs to be more than an autonomous body, it needs to be financially independent. It can still be funded by the tax payer but it needs to learn to work within a budget and deliver.

 

To achieve its Public Service Broadcasting goals Prasar Bharati has to be run like a professional broadcast organisation – with very clear goals and targets. These targets may not be financial, but they still need to be achieved. Content is not just about filling half an hour slots – it is also about diversity, shaping views and opinions, and representation of all parts of India. If any broadcaster can deliver the promise of diverse content from all parts of India, aimed at various niches within India – it is Prashar Bharati. But, to do that it must be set free.

Aug 062012
 

The column in today’s DNA

The TV business, explained a very senior member of the fraternity over a decade ago, is like fire. It needs to be constantly fed with more – more shows, more content, and more money. And, the more you feed it, the more it consumes. If you look at the media landscape today, one realises that statement to be more valid than ever before..

Every TV channel has seen an increase in cost of content – not just in producing it but marketing and distributing it. Channels have to do more to attract and retain audiences. Bigger Stars, more chutzpah, more on gloss and glamour, the newest films, breaking news, – everything geared towards grabbing the attention of the viewer for that split second, and keeping it for as long as possible. There are costs – not insubstantial ones – attached to doing this.

Channels hope that their revenues will offset these costs. There are traditionally three sources of revenue. Worldwide, TV channels earn their money from advertising; from subscriptions to households; and through licensing their content to other channels. In western countries apart from a handful of terrestrial (usually under 10) channels that are free to the household, the rest are subscription based. The free to air terrestrial channels carry a mix of programming – and is paid for by advertising; while the subscription driven channels tend to be far more focussed on a certain kind of content or audience – cookery channel, golf channel, religious channel or a children’s channel; adult channels, old age channels, pet lovers’ channels and more. These are evolved and sophisticated markets that are structured and transparent in their functioning.

In India the market is still evolving. According to TRAI, there are 800 channels and 160 of these are pay channels. Out of 24.7 crore households in India, there are 14.7 crore TV households out of which 9.4 crores have access to cable TV and the rest only receive Doordarshan. Conditional Access – where you pay for the channels that you view and only those – has been promised for a decade or more, but not delivered. The cable lobby is simply too strong. Channels earn a fraction of the revenue that is collected by the cable operator from the household. The rest is not declared. In addition to under declaring the number of households in their locality, cable companies also demand a fat carriage fees for carrying the channel. The world of cable operators is still the proverbial ‘wild west’ – they rule their roost with an iron hand. Channels that push too hard do not get seen.

Most channels rely on advertising as the main source of revenue. The rates they can command from the client is dependent on only one metric – the TRP that is monitored and reported by a monopoly agency TAM, owned by international giant A.C.Nielsen. They monitor 8150 households across India and the viewership ratings are based on these households. In each of these households a meter is fitted to the TV set. The family is given a remote control. Each family member is identified by gender & age by a button on the remote. While watching TV, they are supposed to push their button followed by the channel number. If it sounds complex and unintuitive, it is. Not only that, it relies too much on manual inputs and prone to error. But, it is the only system we have for monitoring viewership. The advertising budget that is spent on various TV channels is determined by ratings..

There have been murmurs and sporadic raised voices for over a decade on the system of monitoring. There have been questions asked about the sample size, about large states being left out, about representation. There have been accusations of fudging the ratings. It was rumoured that for certain large sums of money you would get a list of households that form the sample. In turn you would give money to these households to indicate on the remote that they were watching the channel or programme that you represented.

Ratings always mattered, but, as competition grew, every fraction of a rating point counted. The agencies are squeezing channels on advertising rates. It is estimated that over 80% of all Channels are making losses. It is against this background that NDTV has taken on AC Nielsen in a court case on fudged ratings. And this has opened a floodgate of complaints across broadcasters.

This is an opportunity for broadcasters, agencies & clients for creating a robust rating system that is comprehensive, representative, allows for customer choice and is trusted by all industry stakeholders. It is about allowing niches to be created that can be targeted with appropriate content. It is about allowing diverse voices to be heard. And, that can only be good for the industry as a whole.