Nov 122014

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.

Jul 132014

There has been a fair amount of traffic on my twitter TL on an article that was taken down in the DNA . People have, rightly, asked for an explanation.

Fact checking, misrepresentation of facts etc all good excuses/explanation to give when u pull down an article. However, they all sound rather silly – especially given that you have published it.   Sometimes silence is better than a hastily cobbled together justification. And, everything doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theory. Nor does everything have to be high drama. Sometimes there are simpler explanations.

I could say editorial prerogative. But, that would be arrogance.  I could blame the author, but that would be cowardice. I could blame the government or my ‘bosses’ but that would be a lie. I could say i didn’t know it went up, but that would be cop out. Fact remains, I should have caught onto something that was in the piece, but I didn’t. I did exactly what I have ranted about, and outraged about for the last decade – that is in the need for speed, the desire to be first,  to put out a piece, I didn’t look at it with the attention that it deserved. We have run far more scathing pieces by the author on Mr.Shah and they are still on-line. If I pulled down this one, it was for a good reason, and that reason is not fear.

I can understand readers ire on this, and appreciate the author’s anger  – i would have felt the same way if i was in her place. If I had the time on the day to make a call and sort it out, I would have. Unfortunately, I didn’t.  I was in a very long conference, where our phones were tucked safely away in our bags. Which is also the reason why I couldn’t respond to newslaundry.

Now to something else – when other TV editors/websites write about this, they obviously suffer from selective amnesia.  they have pulled out, pulled back, changed tack on issues. Was it fear, favor or fickleness? Or all three – that made them do this? And i am not even going into other areas of breach of ethics such as the cash for votes sting, or radia tapes, I am simply looking at spiked stories, and stories that disappeared. Seriously, i can appreciate reader ire, I can’t figure the hypocrisy of other media professionals. They know exactly what they had suppressed in their entire career Am sure if you follow any good news monitoring website you will know some of what has been taken off, what they have changed tack on, and where they have spiked their own stories.

I have not responded to this on twitter as  there are no 140 character explanations for things like this. Hence, this  blog.

And finally, far as the ToI piece is concerned – cute, very cute. Must be the first time that the ToI has run a piece naming a competitor without routing it through medianet.


Oct 162013

My column in the DNA on the 3rd of October

The biggest show on Earth replete with drama, emotion, backstabbing, direct attacks, strong personalities, devoted squealing fans hits the road. Elections 2014 is just around the corner, and it is impossible to go outside without being assaulted with hoardings, posters and buntings. On television news too, the looming elections have begun dominating the discourse. And, given that the real world and mainstream media is brimming over with chunaav-related posturing, it is hardly surprising that the battle is carried forward into the social media where we have variants of “my neta the bestest”. And, while that line may sound cute on a six-year-old, it is quite something else coming from seeming adults.

It is not just India, where the sort of fan behaviour more associated with film stars, football players and rock musicians comes into play with relation to politics. It is everywhere. Follow the discourse in the US, in Russia, in parts of Europe the tendency is the same. Group around strong personalities, build them up, put up the barricades to keep non-believers out, savage the agnostic those who say “hey, wait a minute … but”; and finally from behind the barricades make war on the ‘other’ side.

There is strength in numbers for the most ludicrous position and the new media allows one to gather those numbers from across the networked world to demonstrate a seeming show of strength.

There are superlatives attached to individuals, their personalities, their individual attributes, and the sum total of these attributes positive or negative are transferred to the parties and their policies. And, if this is the case with politicians considered to be boring by most can you imagine the hype associated with musicians and film stars? These fan groups are bound by a dominating personality, bask in reflected glory, look to each other for validation, and create little symbols and codes that define their groups.

Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian communication theorist, most famous for the quote “the medium is the message” predicted this sort of behaviour way back in the 1960s. According to him, both print and television are highly individualistic media that make the consumer passive recipients of content. These may direct them to buy a film or a bar of soap, but it is very difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to gravitate towards people with similar interests.

In a way, the huge fan clubs for film stars that grew in South India, was as much about the star as it was part of the need of the audience to assert a common identity that of being fans. McLuhan predicted that an era of ‘electronic interdependence’ would come to pass in which people of the world would move from individualism and fragmentation of identities to collective identities. McLuhan calls this the creation of a tribal base.

He says that unless we are aware of the nature of this beast, it is highly likely that we, collectively, or as part of our new affiliation, will fall prey to the inherent tribalism that is an outcome of electronic interdependence. His great fear was that as with tribal life, there would be a tendency towards a “phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence”.

(McLuhan: The Gutenberg Galaxy:The Making of Typographic Man). We have seen this in the past with the global panic on the SARS virus spread by the internet; or the panic caused by the Boston bombings that led to an innocent man being identified by a bunch of netizens who took it upon themselves to play anti-terror cop.  We have also seen the coming together of the ‘tribe’ in the way the Obama campaign was mobilised online, or indeed the way the faithful are rallying behind Narendra Modi (and the BJP) and Rahul Gandhi (and the Congress).

We are seeing the drawbridges go up, the faithful huddling together and excluding everyone else. We are seeing every message being amplified by one side, and every little gaffe being augmented by the other. And, while it is greatly entertaining as a bystander, it also reveals the manner in which the tribes are forming, and keeping the faithful together.

But panic terror and tribal drums foretelling war are not the only aspect of tribal behaviour. There is another which we often overlook. That is coming together to solve problems, working together for a greater good, supporting each other through good times and bad. Helping others put up their houses, or help them with harvest or the hunt.

This part of ‘tribal’ is also enabled by the new digital age. We see support groups for parents with children with rare ailments; there are people who get together to put up shelters for homeless or for working with deprived kids; there are groups for aged singles and more. Tribes work for good, too.

Of late, the digital media has become a convenient whipping boy for all the ills in the world. From riots to sexual harassment; from bullying to breakdown of marriage, it is all the fault of the share button of social networking. But technology is neither good nor bad. It is the way we choose to use technology to create our little ghettos or exploit it to encompass the world, with the belief that there is so much to learn and so much to share that interacting with others, who are different, will only benefit us.

Throughout history both sets have existed those who took pride in their ‘purity’ and their isolation, and others who reached out to beyond their comfort zone. Unfortunately, most of those who chose to remain isolated have been forgotten. Those who chose to reach out have left behind a legacy.

Jul 252013

My column in today’s DNA

4 8 hours. It has been an interesting two days in terms of news coverage. The British royal baby and Bollywood royalty makeup dominated news.
“It’s a Boy” screamed the headlines, across the world. The Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, did something that women, since the beginning of time, have been doing without much fanfare — she delivered a baby. A baby boy. The third in line to the British throne. The countdown to “The Birth” had been going on for a week. The news media probably showing far more excitement than possibly the family of the child. And, finally, when the expectant mother was admitted to the hospital, the coverage reached a fevered pitch. Post the official announcement by the British royal family there were two million mentions of the baby online. And, people began putting out the most inane things. One news handle tweeted “Kate Middleton in Labor: What to Expect -hopefully a baby?”

On television, in print, on social media there was no escaping the ‘Royal Birth’. Every minute of labour was documented. Speculations from the sex of the baby to the name began flying around. And finally when the baby was born the media behaved as if they had collectively undergone labour, and went advertising one of the most normal events — giving birth — as something that seemed like a cross between the second coming and an alien invasion. The British tabloid The Sun changed its masthead for the day; they called themselves ‘The Son’. Another British tabloid proclaimed “Our Little Prince”; the Times announced that “A Prince is Born”, USA Today had an infographic on the new born and where he stands in relation to the rest in terms of succession. Indian media too was excited about the Royal Birth. One will soon see stories of various Indians who helped deliver the child or were somewhere in the vicinity of the hospital when the child was born. The British satirical magazine’ Private Eye had the best possible take on the whole story “Woman has baby”.

A day earlier there was similar excitement about another equally ‘important’ story in the Indian media. The two superstars of Bollywood Salman Khan and Shahrukh Khan had hugged and made up at an iftaar party hosted by a Mumbai politician. The hype in the news media that surrounded this (non) event was remarkable. From the genesis of the feud, to the history of the tussle, to the long bleak years and the final rapprochement — the hug was covered as though it was the end of war between two sovereign states, and every aspect of the battle, replete with characters, generals and battlegrounds was laid out. And now that the ‘Hug’ has been analysed to death, questions arise if it was a casual hug, a general hug or a hug to change history. The nation holds its collective breath to find out what happens next in this great crisis.

In the 48 hours that these two events were taking place, other things were also taking place in the world. In India, five states have been devastated by floods. Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh are all facing the fury of monsoons. Many rivers have broken their banks and are in full spate. Millions of people have been impacted by the floods. Thousands have lost their homes, and hundreds their lives. If this was Hurricane Sandy impacting the US, there would be a raindrop by raindrop coverage of the discomfort to the citizens of America, on Indian ‘National’ TV news media. But, displacement and discomfort of fellow citizens matter very little.

In the last 48 hours the violence in Iraq escalated. The al-Qaeda mounted an attack on two prisons — the notorious Abu Ghraib and Taji, and allowed some of the most violent extremists to escape. It is estimated that over 500 of these highly motivated people are out on the loose. Ever since the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011, the level of violence within Iraq has been on the rise. Bombs, pitched battles on the roads, rocket attacks have all been part and parcel of everyday life. The al-Qaeda wants control of the government and establish its own form of Islamic Theocracy, while those in power wish to hold on to their positions. And, the battle has been on. This audacious direct attack on a heavily guarded prison camp has just upped the stakes. But, there is very little coverage either in India or outside. 500-plus of the most hardened terrorists out in the loose and there is very little media buzz.

In the last 48 hours relief and rehabilitation in Uttarakhand have become more difficult because of rains. Landslides and poor weather are making it tough to build back. It is just over a month since some parts of the state were devastated by floods, and rebuilding is taking more time than expected because of relentless rains. People are still staying in temporary relief camps, in tents in this weather. Little or no reportage.

There is something very damaged in the state of the news media. An attention span disorder that makes it flit like an out-of-control butterfly. There has been a skewing of priorities insofar as content is concerned. The fluff takes precedence over the real pressing issues. And, while there is space for the fluff, the frivolous and the fun, surely it cannot be at the expense of real issues. The aim of news is a lot more than to titillate and entertain. It is more than asking two strident spokespeople from two opposing parties something that makes them even more strident, less informative but more entertaining. There is a role to news beyond creating high drama. In fact, creating drama is not a function of news. Reporting drama is.

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)