News is the next popular genre after general entertainment (GE) among television channels. This is also evident from the boom in news channels. Recently, the ministry of information and broadcasting announced that it has already given permission to 205 news channels in our country. At last count, 80 were already on air.
However, this boom does come at a price—the price of advertisement onslaught. The share of ad volumes on news channels has been rising even as the audience for GE channels, or GECs, gets fragmented. The cost of ad time in niche channels such as news ones is generally one-tenth of that on GECs. Therefore, many small and medium brands such as No Marks, Rupa Frontline and Kaycee batteries regularly advertise on news channels. The low rates enable them to get greater visibility among a targeted audience through frequent advertisements. Also, with the current economic downturn, big spenders such as Airtel and Maruti are also going for this cheaper option. This has certainly brought more revenue to the news channels, but at a cost to viewers.
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Most of us have often felt irritated because of the deluge of advertisements while watching prime time news. However, there is already a law subscribing volume of advertising per hour of programming. The Cable Television Network Rules,1994, clearly say that not more than 12 minutes (20%) of advertisement for every one hour of programming is acceptable. Rule 7 (11) states: “No programme shall carry advertisements exceeding 12 minutes per hour, which may include up to 10 minutes per hour of commercial advertisements, and up to 2 minutes per hour of a channel’s self-promotional programmes.”
Similar norms exist in other countries.
An analysis of prime time of six news channels shows that the violation of this law regarding advertisement time is more the norm than the exception. The graph below shows the percentage of prime time given to advertisements in six prominent news channels across the past 14 months. It clearly shows that in the same months the volume of ads was more than that of news stories or bulletins. Indeed, on some channels, 60% of prime time slots went to ads, the rest to news.
Also See Ad Onslaught (Graphic)
Five of the six news channels of this study have an average of around 30% (18 minutes of advertising in one hour of programme) of advertisements. Also, there is not much difference between free-to-air (Aaj Tak and Star News) and pay channels (CNN-IBN, Zee News and NDTV 24x7). Hindi channels Aaj Tak and Zee News have an average of 43% and 46% advertisement time. Hindi news channels seem to have larger advertising volume compared with the two English channels in this analysis. Only the government funded DD News (bilingual and free to air) has an average less than the mandated 20%.
Clearly, this is directly related to the way the business is structured with an almost complete dependence on advertising. Operating costs for television news have increased and so has the cost of distribution (this has more than doubled in last two years). The largest form of distribution, cable, is clogged with new channels and there is hardly any subscription revenue, much like there is in the newspaper distribution system.
In the television industry, the analogue distribution system has put the broadcasters at a disadvantage. Unfortunately, a few years ago, TV channel’s themselves opposed the government’s move to push CAS (conditional access system). CAS (digitalization) implementation would have ensured that enough spectrum for channels was available. In digital cable, all channels are equal and no “placement fee” would have been required to get the edge over others. Now, this “placement” cost is draining channels. The television industry’s aversion to any regulation and its short-sightedness in failing to see revenue from subscription has cost this media and made it extremely dependent on advertising.
This dependence is evident in an advertising overload resulting in apathy towards viewers and even existing laws. I wonder when broadcasters and law enforcers will wake up to this flawed system. Till then, we viewers are stuck with ad channels instead of news channels.
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