Cross-media ownership in India is in the spotlight, with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) holding consultations on the issue. As a participant in these discussions, I had a ringside view of the diverse arguments and reasoning offered by various vested interests, depending on where they stood on the issue.
These viewpoints—from diverse companies, such as media conglomerate Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd, the publisher of The Times of India, and mobile phone giant Bharti Airtel Ltd—are available on Trai’s website ( www.trai.gov.in/Consultation Papers_content.asp ).
Let me try and look at some evolving cross-media ownership patterns in India.
Typically, media businesses can broadly be categorized as carrier (medium), content (production) and distribution (platform). Carriers are television, radio, film, mobile, the Internet, newspapers and magazines. Content is typically the software—different genres of programmes for various mediums. Distribution is the carriage services that deliver content, including cable networks, direct-to-home (DTH) and Internet service providers. All these operations are heavily dependent on technology and are resource-intensive investments.
The last decade saw increased commercialization of Indian media with the entry of multinational media corporations and sharp expansion of domestic media companies. Inter-corporate investments and interlocking of directorships between media companies are also clearly emerging. In addition, the limited information on revenue patterns of media groups, especially large non-public ones, creates hurdles to getting a handle on media dominance and any emerging media monopolies.
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However, it is possible to visualize three types of accumulation of ownership interest in the media: cross-media ownership across the various carriers such as television, radio or print; consolidation, including vertical integration among media operations of content, carrier and distributor within a media segment such as television or radio; and market share dominance in a given geography within each media segment.
In the diverse cultural, lingual and social settings in our country, it may be difficult to visualize conditions of media dominance leading to market monopoly.
However, there are already at least six states where a single media house has a clear and growing dominance. These are media groups that are emerging as national conglomerates. They are all in the news business as well as in entertainment, media distribution and network business. They own newspapers, magazines, radio, cable TV and television channels, to name their key businesses.
Most media companies in India and abroad are integrating vertically to sell cross-media, often acquiring or building multimedia platforms. News Corp.’s Star TV India and Sun TV Network Ltd already own DTH and cable distribution platforms. Star’s cross-media India operations include television channels, Internet offerings, radio, mobile entertainment and home video (incidentally, 11 cable distribution companies provide some 400 television channels in India).
Sun Network has 14 TV channels in four states, cable assets, four magazines, radio stations and two newspapers. In Tamil Nadu, the dominance of Sun in cable and satellite TV (channels and distribution network) and now in the DTH market is quite visible. Sun TV and its cable company are known to simply blackout political telecasts by rival Jaya TV.
Realizing the leverage provided by media, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government has taken steps to start its own channels and even a government cable network. Similarly, realizing the dominance of the Eenadu group, the Congress government in Andhra Pradesh, in the form of the son of state chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, went all out to break this monopoly by starting a newspaper—Sakshi—and a television channel, besides promoting a few magazines.
In India, there is no general policy on ownership and cross-media restrictions, as far as restrictions between print and electronic media are concerned. However, the restrictions for different segments within the broadcasting sector are dictated by the policy framework for each segment, such as DTH guidelines or FM radio policy. I think it is indeed time to debate regulatory issues for cross-media ownership and, in the absence of an independent media regulator, the Trai discussions have long-term implications for the critical and booming Indian media industry. In my next column, I will look at cross-media ownership implications to audiences as well as to the industry itself.
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization, Centre for Media Studies. Your comments and feedback on this column, which runs every other Friday, are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
Graphics by Paras Jain / Mint