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

May 012012

If a boat capsizes in the North East (Assam to be precise) and no one hears of it, are there still casualties ?

Hopes dimmed on Tuesday of finding more survivors after an overcrowded ferry split in two and sank in northeast India, leaving more than 100 dead and around 100 missing.

Police said 105 bodies, including women and children, had been recovered so far from the fast-flowing waters of the Brahmaputra river, where the ferry sank in a sudden storm late Monday afternoon.

Despite an operating capacity of 225, some 350 people were believed to be on the two deck boat when it broke up mid-river in torrential, pre-monsoon rains.

had talked about this earlier, here

What is evident is that there are media centres – Mumbai and Delhi, and media peripheries. There are people and events that matter, and there are people and events that don’t.

Private sector media will be driven by self interest and that is profit. Frankly the private TV channel watching audience is either too caught up its own lives , or too unaware of the magnitude and diversity that is India, or too uncaring about people not in its own vicinity, for TV channels to focus on this issue. One excuse is there is regional media to cover this. But, if 500 people die in an overloaded boating mishap then why is it not a national issue. ?

This is the reason why we need a stronger, more independent DD. The last few times that DD tried to exert independence – by trying to do stuff that earned it money –  private channels scuppered it. But, maybe it is time we thought of a Public Service Broadcaster, one who represents the interests of India in all her diversity. Where calamities go beyond a super star putting on weight post pregnancy, and debate beyond 4 has beens in a TV studio.


spoke to a friend in Gawahati – people jump into boats with everything that they have, no bridges, no following of rules – this is how disasters happen. Easier to pay money to the victims than fix the system.. 🙁

Mar 042012

Brokering News

Brokering News is a documentary on the Paid News in India. The phenomenon has spread far and wide and permeates every aspect of news in India.

For most of us working in the media, the story of paid news is not new. When i was with a leading entertainment group, the anger against journalism as a profession and specific journalists or news companies, inside the company was huge. “chor hain woh log’ was a term i heard many times, especially when it came to the time when business results had to be published.  This is despite the fact that the company i worked for owned a news channel. But, in board rooms and office meetings we were told to be nice to journalists, to humour them and give them the ‘bhaav’ and treat them with kid gloves.

When we made our film Jhing Chik Jhing, and then were ready for publicity – we were told very clearly pay or there will be none. It is not called paid news. it is called a marketing tie up 😀 While you can argue that publicity for a film should be paid for, after all you are making profits out of the film … however, if you go to watch a film based on the reviews (which are part of the marketing package) then are you incurring a loss if it is a bad film ?  the same logic applies  when it comes to covering Politics or Business. The job of journalism is not to encourage or cover up for politicians on the take – it is to expose them. Similarly the function of journalism is not to cover up business wrong doings. For example, do you remember what happened with the ground water pollution in Kerala caused by Coke ? or do you know why the Metro in Mumbai has been delayed for so long – or indeed who is building it ?

Umesh Agarwal’s documentary looks at all these areas – be it film marketing, or sanitizing politicians or covering up business wrong doing. It further looks at the issue of who owns the media. the answer is that the same people own different news channels and papers and are also amongst the largest advertisers. The film looks at the main paid news cases of the last 5 years – be it the reporting on the Ambani brothers or the involvement of leading journalists – Prabhu Chawla, Vir Sanghvi & Barkha Dutt – with Nira Radia. The journalists claimed that they were cultivating an important source, but the fact remains that the incident eroded the credibility of not just the journalists but the profession at large.

A few years ago i stopped watching and reading the bulk of main stream media, and get my news from Government controlled agencies such as PTI, UNI, DD and AIR. For, if I am going to read biased news, i might as well know whose bias it is and compensate for it. I wouldn’t mind paid news, if i knew who was paying for it and how the bias manifests it self.

Do spend an hour to understand how the majority of those in the news business function. it is more business and less news. Don’t believe most things you see or read – it will lead to tremendous disappointment and disillusionment. There is a line that S.Y. Quraishi., the CEC, uses in the documentary “the fourth estate should not become the 5th column.’  Corruption – and the term paid news is a euphemism for corruption – corrodes a system from the inside.

The documentary raises important points. However, like most desi documentaries it tends to bludgeon you with its view rather than allow for any subtlety of any sort. I wish that it had featured views from honest editors and hones member from the journalistic fraternity . Also, the one thing i would like to see Indian docus do, as i would Indian films, is understand and appreciate the value of silence. there is no need to cram every second with sound … Having said all this , the film is a worth while excessive. Its an hour well spent in understanding who shapes your views and why . Umesh Agarwal needs to be congratulated to have the courage to go up against some powerful people .

Feb 042012

Someone has either a fantastic sense of humour or oversight 😀

am so glad that i have given up watching news TV – what verbal diarrhoea, what speculation, and what fiction…
and, this isn’t an anti -NDTV rant. in fact it was the least screechy of all channels – and even its decibel level was too much to take. I tried watching Times Now – Arnab is trying to present news like Sunny Deol in one of those war films… yaar mike use kartein ho, or does the equipment pick up sound waves by itself… and, Rajdeep Sardesai sounded hysterical.

DD news of course was the best -it had a story on digital art 😀

I go back to my self imposed exile from watching 24 hour news. At, this point let me state i think there is a great business possibility for a high quality, limited time news programme ( 1 hour show) on a daily or weekly basis. i would pay for it. about Rs.10 per day …