A year which began with Mukesh Ambani acquiring Network18 and ended with Subhash Chandra, proprietor of the Zee Network, agreeing to take a lie detector test in a case of alleged extortion, must surely count as a watershed year for the media as a business and an institution.
Some things are changing in an industry whose financial model has been broken for a while. Newspapers and magazines increased prices through the year, with Tehelka being the latest to do so. The Hindu now costs Rs.6 on a weekday, and Outlook is priced at Rs.35! The notion that Indian consumers are not willing to pay for the media they consume is being challenged.
Playing the price game doesn’t deliver any longer. The Deccan Chronicle, which dropped its price to enter Chennai some years ago, is in financial trouble, its forays into new markets having not proved very viable. The Times of India’s latest entry into a new market at a very low price failed to trigger a price war. The market leader in Visakhapatnam held on to both its price and its circulation.
The last few years have also seen some consolidation. The big brands in print have fended off those who came in to take them on. Instead they are now acquiring smaller brands; Dainik Jagran which had taken over Mid Day earlier, acquired Nai Dunia this year. DNA which came in seven years ago to give The Times of India a run for the Mumbai advertising market has bled and one of its original promoters, the Dainik Bhaskar group, sold out this year.
The ownership changes in media in 2012 have been fascinating. Network18’s financial distress saw industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s empire gain control of this TV network as well as the ETV bouquet in television. Ambani’s businesses also withdrew from indirectly financing other brands such as Nai Dunia and NewsX which then changed hands.
Big business is returning to investing in media but does not want to waste its energy on smaller properties, a trend reiterated by Kumar Mangalam Birla acquiring a substantial stake this year in Living Media, which owns India Today group.
Those filling the vacuum are politicians. Congressman Venod Sharma who owns a newspaper in Haryana has this year acquired NewsX and The Sunday Guardian launched some years ago by M.J. Akbar. Meanwhile, Tehelka’s need for financial investment has seen businessman and Trinamool Congress member of Parliament K.D. Singh invest in the company which owns it.
In television, the big developments had to do with a determined push for viability and a drastic change in the existing business model. When NDTV sued AC Nielsen and TAM earlier this year for allegedly tampering with TV ratings among other things, it took on the ratings monopoly that has been driving advertising in the industry. The other big development, digitization of cable networks which got under way this year, has also to do with industry pushing government to drive change which it hopes will lead to better declaration of pay per view revenues. That, the reasoning goes, should end the channels’ dependence on an unsatisfactory TV ratings system for data to give advertisers.
Until the changes initiated begin to deliver results, ethical aberrations in the industry will continue. Paid news surfaced in the year gone by during every election. In the latest round, Gujarat reported 126 confirmed cases of paid news, while Himachal reported 91 in the assembly elections, according to the Election Commission.
Sensational reporting to the point of misreporting are now coming increasingly to light. The News Broadcasting Standards Authority’s (NBSA) latest order puts CNN IBN and IBN 7 in the dock for violating NBSA’s code of ethics and broadcasting standards; and another recent order from the body did the same on a conflict of interest issue involving Times Now’s defence analyst.
The Caravan magazine’s cover story on Arnab Goswami and Times Now offers amazing details on how the channel seeks to create controversy without a shred of evidence to base its story line on. Both in the case of the CNN IBN story on the Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust which the channel head tweeted about, and the Times Now coverage of the Mantralaya fire in Mumbai, the desire for ratings obviously led to unethical journalism. Ditto the case of Newslive in Assam. Its filming of miscreants attacking a girl coming out of a pub, and the channel head’s tweets about the incident, is another example of unethical sensationalism.
The Zee News-Naveen Jindal controversy with its allegations of extortion then, is only the latest in many questionable acts of commission by the media this year.
An industry that has managed to correct itself to ensure its continued financial viability is clearly going to need a lot of prodding to clean up its act on the ethical front.
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.