For the media industry, it is conclave season where CEOs hold forth to each other about the prospects for their business. February is full of them. The Magazine Congress has just ended, and later this week, Orissa will hold its first, the Sambad media and entertainment national conclave. On Wednesday, a two-day South Asia Media Summit began in Islamabad in collaboration with the Indian media and marketing site exchange4media. It has, of all things, James Bond as its icon, claiming that the newspaper industry needs to reinvent itself like James Bond.
And Ficci’s annual event FRAMES is in March, but has already begun tossing out pre-event buzz phrases, which the media has been obligingly picking up, such as, engaging a billion consumers.
What do they all talk about? About taking the next leap in growth, about ways to maximize return on investment, about repurposing content for different platforms. About TV, radio, Internet, print. They obsess about what digitization will do to their profits, what it can deliver and what it cannot.
Digitization may have begun to yield results for broadcasters. NDTV reported a profit this year, its first in 10 quarters. The company attributed it partly to gains from digitization.
The industry is feeling upbeat, but alas, the profession is not.
The content or editorial side of the media and entertainment business feels besieged, while the business side cranks up the one billion consumers hype. And, as if to remind us that there is a third axis to the triangle that makes up the media universe, the telecom regulator, which has additional charge of the media industry, tosses a new consultation paper into the works.
So, while the media and entertainment industry is talking of content and maximizing profit from it, the news media and social media universe talks of journalism and free expression, and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) is pushing a discourse on ownership.
Since you need viability, editorial freedom and regulation to serve industry, professional and consumer interest, it would be ideal if the three discourses did not remain divorced from each other, as they now seem to be.
For instance, what is unlikely to be discussed much if at all at the industry media conclaves is the constant assaults on free expression, which have become the norm. Not a week goes by without a ban, or an attack, or a legal challenge. Does the media industry raise its voice in most cases? It does not. The Bollywood fraternity does when films are banned, but that’s about it.
The latest instance of this is a court ordering the blocking of 78 URLs, including those of mainstream media and the University Grants Commission, at the behest of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management. But the institute is also a generous advertiser on print and television, a gift to their profits, so media managers are unlikely to lose sleep over this issue.
Then there is a lot of industry buzz over leveraging social media, but will concern be expressed on the side over the 55 Facebook URLs that the department of telecommunications wants blocked because they relate to Afzal Guru? Industry should also be taking a stand on the Press Council report on the Bihar government leveraging government advertising to control the print media’s editorial stand.
Legal hurdles to the practice of journalism are growing, as are attacks. And the district-level murder of a reporter in Chhattisgarh has not drawn enough attention. The news industry needs journalist foot soldiers, and can’t really thrive if they are under threat, or being laid off to make bottom lines look better. How do you reconcile the health of an industry with the depressed state of the profession?
Meanwhile, Trai has been trying since 2008 to get a fix on cross-media ownership as an issue and to sell its ideas to the ministry of information and broadcasting, and to the industry, which is not in a mood to bite.
The regulator is fretting about whether media reach across sectors affects media pluralism. It wants to set media ownership rules. It is opposed to political ownership of media. It wants merger and acquisition guidelines, and a carefully determined, implementable cap on vertical integration. And, given the fact that ownership, particularly political ownership, influences content, it says it is aiming to protect viewpoint plurality.
Trai has put out clearly enunciated issues on all of this, on which it wants feedback. Again, all of them concern the media industry. Will the latter see these regulatory noises as a threat, or as a welcome effort to get industry players talking about how to achieve media pluralism as well as protect viability?
Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.