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Digitization and its consequences

Digitization and its consequences

In the last few years, I recall numerous meetings where broadcasters pushed for digitization as the solution for all their worries. Their premise was that digitization would help them improve the quality of broadcasts, plug the leakage of subscription revenue and bring greater transparency to the television sector.

As the drive gains momentum, other relevant issues that have been pushed under the carpet are slowly coming into the open. One such issue is the non-compliance of most television channels with existing norms.

For example, let’s take the regulation on the duration of advertising on television channels. The Cable Television Network Rules, 1994, clearly say that not more than 12 minutes (20%) of advertising for every 1 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." Such norms exist internationally to limit the ratio of advertising to programming.

Any regular viewer of television can easily see that most of our television channels do not follow this rule. Studies and analyses like those by CMS Media Lab bring out that breach of this rule is common.

One study of six news channels conducted between 2008 and 2011 during prime time (7pm-11pm) shows that advertising exceeded content; on some channels advertisements took up 60% of broadcast time.

Five of the six news channels in this study used an average of more than 30%, or 18 minutes in an hour, of broadcast time to air advertisements. Also, there wasn’t much of a difference between free-to-air and pay channels. Only the state-run DD News had an average less than the mandated 20% of broadcast time for advertising.

However, none of the existing authorities—government and industry bodies—really addresses such defiance of regulation or have ever penalized such breaches. Issues related to advertising—the duration, frequency, cluttered screens and higher audio levels–continue to be a big irritant to viewers.

Compliance with existing rules cannot be addressed by creating more laws, as suggested by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) in a consultation paper released last month on “Issues Related to Advertisements in TV Channels".

This paper suggests that with digitization, the current dependence on advertisements will decrease as subscription revenue increases.

Therefore, it has recommended that for pay television channels, the current 12 minutes of advertisements per hour be reduced to six minutes per hour.

The proposal has triggered a knee-jerk reaction from the television industry. The immediate concern of TV channels is that this proposal would bring down their inventory of advertisements, resulting in reduction of revenue, and also push up advertising rates.

Perhaps, the timing of this consultation paper is what caught the channels by surprise. As digitization is still some time away, how the revenues play out is anyobody’s guess.

The issue for me is not whether it is 12 minutes or 6 minutes of advertising per hour but much more basic—respect for and compliance with the regulations. The discussion so far hasn’t focused on implementation of existing laws and rules. Anyway, regulation is usually dreaded by most people in the media, especially broadcasting. This is especially so when their main source of income—advertising—is sought to be restrained.

Digitization will throw up many such issues that need attention and resolution. In the meanwhile, the authorities—the ministry of information and broadcasting, Trai, and self-regulatory industry bodies such as News Broadcasters Association (NBA), Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) and Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) have not been able to reach a consensus to address basic issues in the broadcasting sector and other unintended consequences of digitization. Especially because the proposal for an independent media regulatory body may not become reality anytime in the near future.

P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.

Also Read |P.N. Vasanti’s earlier columns

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