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.

May 062012


After almost 3.5 years I turned on my parents’ TV set today to watch Aamir Khan’s show Satyameva Jayate. I must confess upfront that i am not an Aamir fan – i find his films terribly self indulgent, I find his projected persona very tiresome & self righteous. I far preferred the fun Aamir Khan from the QSQT and Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikandar days. Its almost as though something has sucked away all the fun and spontaneity out of him, and left us with this pontificating figure.

Having said that, i was curious about Satyameva Jayate, especially given that industry at large was scratching its collective head at both the timing (11 am on a Sunday Morning) and the content (serious, chat show, with no embellishment. Real people, real clothes, little make up – a show that puts the real back in reality). Many I spoke to, some as late as yesterday evening, were not sure if the show will be accepted by the audience.

Today’s episodes was on the desire for a male child and the accepted, though illegal,  practise of female foeticide. It is one thing knowing the data. It is quite another hearing a woman talk about her in-laws who forced her to abort 6 foetuses because they were female. It is one thing to know about a woman being hit, it is quite another to see the scarred face in extreme close up as well as pictures that showed the face when it was all stitched up. The woman’s crime – giving birth to a girl. The show also took head on the myth that female foeticide is rife in villages. It is not. It is practised just as much amongst my neighbours as yours. Statistics show that the richer localities have fewer daughters than the poorer ones. A clip during the show revealed the prevalence of an organised cartel in Rajasthan that provided end to end service in female foeticide. But it was not just about the doom and gloom – it talked about how one DC of Navashehar in Punjab reversed the trend. Solutions are important. Problems are known but is it all beyond hope? no. and that is what is refreshing about this show.

Nothing presented in the show was new. What was new, however, was the approach. First person accounts of brutality suffered or loss endured are infinitely more powerful than experts in studios pontificating. Our journalists should take a leaf out of Aamir’s interviewing style – let the other person talk. The stories were heart breaking. Yet, the courage of these women was totally inspiring. There was nary a trace of self pity or negativity. these are women who give me hope and courage. Sometimes it takes a celebrity to drive a point home. Just as it took Amitabh Bachchan to drive home the point of giving kids polio drops.

The other thing that was very interesting was the treatment, starting with the  nature of the Set.  This is not a chrome and steel, post modern set with sharp edges. It is an old fashioned set in comfortable, non obtrusive  colours and with soft curves. Aamir is apart from the audience and yet is a part of it. The use of space and spatial distances – either by default or design – is very well done. Also interesting was the way it was shot and edited. No jerky camera movement, no ramped up shots. No extreme close ups. The technique was almost old fashioned. No jumping cameras, no racing trollys, no jimmy gibs, clean shots, clean edits… soft dissolves. a hark back to older, maybe nicer values.

This show is setting an agenda by using three things – a) Star value of Aamir Khan b) Star value of Star TV to reach an urban and semi urban household via satellite and cable, and finally c) Doordarshan for reaching households that don’t get satellite and cable. Hopefully a substantial chunk of the audience would be covered. For those of us who consume news on a regular basis most of the revelations are passe. but most of India does not consume news. At the height of the Anna movement last year, news consumption peaked at 11% of the total audience. While people may be aware that there is female foeticide in their family or neighbourhood – the stories don’t really hit home.

What is the reaction to the show? At home rapt attention. Friends of mine have liked it. many I know have spent their Sunday morning watching TV after almost a decade or so.  On twitter, a whole bunch liked the show. In fact most on my time line did. Then there were the moaners, those who wondered about the cost per 10 seconds and Aamir’s fees and the cost of production … not any issue with the show perse … am not even sure if they watched – but issues with the motivations of others.  Yet others were asking questions about Aamir’s religion and secularism . (yeah, there are those kinds as well). Reminds me a bit of the old Hans Christian Anderson Story of the Snow Queen - people who have a splinter of the mirror stuck in their heart and can only see an ugly world. But, hey it is a free country – and people are entitled to their misery and cynicism. And i am entitled to turn away from them and look at the sunshine streaming onto my face.

I am glad that Aamir Khan  has decided to produce & anchor a show like this. Am glad that the number one channel in this country has decided to move away from high pitched drama into sombre programming. I am grateful that it runs on Doordarshan. It has been a long time since Indian Broadcasting worked in the public interest – i hope that this marks the point at which the which an adoloscent industry goes towards adulthood by not just creating content aimed at titilating the lowest common denominator, but also at bringing the lowest common denominator a notch higher

And finally, Ram Sampath & Swanand Kirkire – o ri chiraya