Can Journalism Keep Pace with India's Mushrooming Media?

India is on an extraordinary media proliferation spree. Delhi just got its 14th morning daily in English, the tabloid Mail Today. New TV channels have been surfacing at the rate of two a month, and eight more are in the queue to make their debut in the next few months, we are told.

Foreign direct investment, or FDI, is flowing in, particularly in the news and current affairs segment. Dozens of new TV channels are waiting to be licensed by the ministry of information and broadcasting. But is this boom illusory? Will it bring in revenues and sustain a genuine expansion? Or will it stretch existing resources of all kinds beyond their sustainable capacity?

At its financial core, the boom is valuation-based. The market loves media, TV more than print, and is rushing headlong to invest in new ventures. Institutional investors, both foreign and Indian, routinely pick up equity in new ventures in the blithe hope that they will increase in value in the future. Nobody is worried about whether any of these ventures will make any profits for some time to come, they merely believe that the market's faith in the media business will deliver valuations which can be turned into cash if equity is offloaded.

Among many upbeat estimates of how much media will grow in India is one from Group M, a Britain-based global media investment management company which released a new study earlier this month estimating that media investment in India will exceed $5 billion next year, and is growing at an annual compound average of 21 percent. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) estimated earlier this year that in another five years media and entertainment in India will be worth around $22 billion.

Investment is leading to new media players rushing in, but even in an economy growing at around nine percent, is there enough advertising to sustain this boom? In 2006, advertising expenditure was 23 percent higher than in 2005, but advertisers increasingly feel that the fragmented market is delivering less for their money. According to analysts using TAM (television audience measurement) figures, there are 324 channels today on which advertisers buy time compared to 210 four years back. Programmes which delivered television viewership ratings of 10+ are now down to a TVR of between 1 and 2. The share of the top five channels in the viewership pie has come down from 40 percent to 30 percent, and so on. 

So advertisers have refused to hike rates for some five years. If advertising is not delivering the same viewership as before, neither is it translating into revenues for broadcasters because of the stagnating rates. Because meanwhile competition has driven up the costs of programming. This no win situation has resulted in a serious fight just before the festival season this year, channels hiked advertising rates by 25 percent unilaterally, and in retaliation advertisers pulled out ads. The channels had to back down.

Without advertising, circulation or pay channel revenues to anchor it, the boom could turn out to be a bubble.

And what of journalism? The news part of the media and entertainment sector is expanding massively too, without enough media professionals to go round. Each new entrant simply doubles salaries and takes away from the existing newspapers and TV channels. Salaries are shooting up, the skill pool is not expanding at the same rate.

A newspaper editor who lost two talented senior journalists to the new channel bouquet INX admitted that he went up to offering Rs.300,000 a month to try to retain one of them but lost him nonetheless to the predator channel which offered Rs.600,000 a month.

INX's news operation is to be headed by former Hindustan Times editor Vir Sanghvi, but many of the new news channels being floated are by people new to the news business. Builders and politicians are investing in the news media today, as are entertainment majors. The dubious sting involving a school teacher which rocked the capital city of Delhi a couple of months ago was carried out by a channel owned by a television entertainment company. Who is to uphold journalistic standards in this new runaway boom scenario?

The blossoming of TV channels has meant that even a complete novice can job hop with alacrity, upping his or her salary with each move. Journalists today command prices they never did before, at ages unheard of before. Self-confidence, good looks and the ability to procure a sound bite are at a premium. Knowledge of a subject is not essential when all you have to do is to stick a mike in somebody's face and toss off an opinionated sentence to round off a piece to camera. Besides, TV enables someone from the backend of the studio to feed into your earpiece what questions to ask.

News in India's media industry is increasingly defined as being what the news consumer is interested in. Show business and cricket top the list of newsroom priorities with disasters getting their passing due. So chances are today's news-gatherers are not taught how to read government or parliamentary reports or budget papers for stories. Entire sectors such as farming, labor, and school education go unreported. Because they do not lend themselves to tie-ups with the major players, as show business stories do. News budgets are skewed to where the viewership or readership is.

Media is booming in the new India. But journalism is in danger of falling behind.

(Sevanti Ninan runs the media watch website, www.thehoot.org. She can be contacted at editor@thehoot.org)


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