Business Today

The wonder that is media

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta        Print Edition: Jan 8, 2012

India's 'mediascape' - a term first used by Arjun Appadurai, an academic of Indian origin based in the US -- is as unique as India itself, often defying logic and generalization. There is much to be said in favour of sections of the media which have strengthened the world's largest democracy, just as there has been many disquieting features (including corruption in the form of "paid news" and crass commercialisation). To predict how the Indian media will evolve in the near future is a difficult and hazardous exercise, especially when one looks at how the media has changed dramatically over the last two decades roughly coinciding with the period the Indian economy was liberalised.

India has the largest number of newspapers/publications any country in the world has. There are over 72,000 publications currently registered with the Registrar of Newspapers of India. According to The Economist (July 7, 2011), India is now the fastest growing and biggest newspaper market in the world, having overtaken China to become the leader in paid-for daily circulation with 110 million copies sold each day. Despite the large number of publications, it would not be inaccurate to say that less than a hundred newspapers would consume over two-thirds of the total quantum of paper consumed in the country.

The growth in the number of television channels has been truly mind-boggling. In 1991, there was one public broadcaster, Doordarshan. At present, over 700 TV channels have been permitted by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to uplink or downlink from the country; over half these claim to be 'news and current affairs' channels even if many have strong reservations about such a categorization. More importantly, quantity has not translated into quality.

Defying conventional norms of capitalism, the intensification of competition in the media has been accompanied by a discernible lowering of ethical standards. The race to grab eyeballs has seen a simultaneous 'dumbing down' of content as TV channels have become prisoners of a highly inadequate and flawed system of ascertaining audience sizes through TRPs (television rating points). 'Dumbing down', sensationalism, trivialization and an unhealthy obsession with four 'C's, crime, cricket, cinema and celebrities, have become the norm.

India is curiously the only democracy in the world where news on the radio is still a monopoly of the government. The number of FM radio stations has zoomed and will go up further - from over 250 now to around 1,200 in the next five years. And no one really has an estimate of the number of Internet websites catering to Indian users.

One may have presumed that with these large numbers, the media would be able to represent the heterogeneity and plurality of India. But this is not so. The growth of monopolies and oligopolies and the absence of cross-media restrictions has meant that relatively few profit-maximising, corporate conglomerates have exercised - and is likely to continue to exercise - a huge influence on what we read, hear and watch. Where do we go from here?

Even as more and more people across the globe access news and information electronically and even as an entire generation of Indians start using the net on their hand-held devices, the newspaper will not die a slow death as it is in many countries in North America, Europe, South Korea and Japan. No, newspapers will not be read just by the elite and the elderly in developing countries like India for a simple reason. As more and more people become literate (one out of four Indians is still not literate according to the 2011 census), the first thing they will read once they can, is a newspaper.
This will, of course, not preclude more information being disseminated on mobile phones. Right now, there are seven phones for every ten Indians and there are more phones than human beings in most urban areas. The rural-urban digital divide will diminish but not disappear as Bharat will still take some time to catch up with India.

As for television, there will be an increasing clamour for regulation as self-regulation has its limits -- for example, the airing of semi-pornographic material during prime-time. One merely hopes that the actions of some TV channels will not ensure that the government brings in heavy-handed regulation. Yes, there will a lot of screaming and shouting about freedom of expression getting throttled and a return to the bad old days of the Emergency. But one can just wish that the new regulator for the electronic media (television and perhaps, the internet) will believe in a light touch and be truly independent and autonomous, of both the government and the owners of the media.

Justice Makandey Katju can relax. The Press Council of India will be empowered to punish to really naughty; the toothless tiger will now be able to growl, if not roar. All India Radio will lose its monopoly, despite the oppositon of some of our netas and babus.

And the media will hopefully continue to reflect the noisy, chaotic and anarchic country that is India.

The writer is an independent journalist and the author of the book, Media Ethics


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