India’s television business remains a profitable growth industry with combined revenue of Rs22,600 crore, including advertising revenue of Rs800 crore, in 2007. Yet, the television “industry” also has social and psychological implications on our society, culture and psyche. That is the real basis for seeking potential restraints and guidelines so that profit motives don’t undermine social implications.
Television in India has come to the forefront only in the past two decades or so with most of the action in the last 10 years. Initially, there were two major reasons for the growth: the onset of colour television in the 1980s and then, in the early 1990s, the broadcast of satellite TV by foreign programmers such as Cable News Network and later News Corp.’s Star TV, followed a little later by domestic channels, such as Zee TV and Sun TV.
From two channels prior to 1991, Indian viewers are now exposed to at least 375 channels with multiple operators and niche channels. Multiple owners with multiple interests have posed challenges for ethics, accountability and transparency across the industry. Amid intense competition, the need for quality standards and parameters (such as ISO and ISI marks for grading quality) seem ever more critical, both for companies as well as for audiences.
Vying For Attention (Graphic)
Meanwhile, with all the growth there is still no specific single national media policy as such. Existing regulations that govern broadcast content (including programme or advertising codes in the Cable Television Networks [Regulation] Act, 1995) are either irrelevant or inadequate to tackle or address the issues arising today, particularly in relation to satellite channels, music channels, news channels and the direct-to-home platforms.
Most policies or government diktats have been reactive in nature and arbitrary as we have seen in some recent cases, such as the three-month ban of AXN channel for alleged indecency or occasional notices sent to some channels over alleged “obscene” advertisements. One line of thought is that the very lack of regulation has led to this enviable growth in Indian television business. But shouldn’t there be standards to help guide new and emerging players?
Most responsible media organizations have some content guidelines and content quality maintenance practices—at least on paper. However, it is clear that many media organizations aren’t bound by any standards as reflected in recent cases where some media houses simply ignore criticism that their content has clearly caused damage to individuals and even slander.
While Indian media has traditionally held a powerful position in our society with special privileges, recent court statements urging the media to show restraint in covering ongoing court cases and calls for content standards and guidelines has again highlighted the need for a content code for the entire broadcast sector. My view is that technology and innovative programming will continue to spur this sector, but the next impetus will only be more accountability, transparency and measures to set quality standards.
The issue then is who does this and how. Among the options being discussed are: government regulation, self-regulation by the industry and co-regulation involving all stakeholders, including audience, civil society, broadcast industry and also the government. In the absence of an independent regulator, implementation is the key challenge for India. While recent initiatives by the ministry of information and broadcasting (morphing into the Self-Regulation Guidelines for the Broadcasting Sector) and industry bodies setting up their own guidelines and codes are welcome, the key would be how media companies respond and hold themselves accountable to their audiences. Without this realization, Indian television’s impressive growth story could soon be only history.
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization, Centre for Media Studies. Since 2005, she has been a member of the committee set up by the I&B ministry that came up with self-regulation guidelines and other codes of broadcast conduct. Your comments and feedback on this column, which runs every other Friday, are welcome at email@example.com.
To read P.N. Vasanti’s earlier columns, go to www.livemint.com/fineprint