India and the Media Boom
--A Surya Prakash
After experimenting for fifty years with a socialistic economic model that was heavily weighted in favour of the government sector, India took a U-turn in the early 1990s and decided to open up its economy to domestic and foreign private investment. Though the policy of liberalization has had its hiccups, Indian policy-makers have bravely stuck to the decisions taken a decade ago, and slowly but surely ended the government's monopoly in most areas of human endeavour. This has brought in a great deal of competition in all sectors and given the Indian consumers much choice in both goods and services. Nowhere is the impact of this policy more glaring than in the entertainment, television and media sectors. These sectors have seen spectacular growth and divergence over the last decade. This growth is largely the outcome of the opening up of the Indian economy and the technological revolution that has come about in the IT sector.
On the face of it, it appears as if the story of the last decade is the story of television, but there has been a silent revolution on the print media front as well, and the radio, edged out by the flamboyance of television, is all set for a second coming. Meanwhile, news on the net, despite initial doubts about its commercial viability, is hanging on and just waiting to happen.
Ten years ago, Indians had access to just two state-owned terrestrial television channels. Today, they can choose from close to a hundred satellite channels. Most of these channels offer entertainment with the bulk of the content comprising serials, movies, cinema-based shows and game shows. Such has been the growth that every major Indian language can now boast of five to six channels. Among the languages which have multiple entertainment channels are Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil, Kannada, Gujarati, Marathi, Malayalam and Telugu. The coming months will see the launch of several more channels in languages like Urdu, Bhojpuri and Oriya, apart from a slew of new 24-hour news channels in Hindi, Telugu and other languages.
The last five years have also seen the emergence of several big players on the television scene offering a bouquet of channels: for example, Star has Star Plus, Star News, Star Sports and Star Movies; Zee Telefilms has fifteen channels including Zee TV, Zee News, Zee Education, Zee Movies and several language channels like Alpha Punjabi, Alpha Bengali, Alpha Gujarati and Alpha Marathi; the Eenadu Group, which began operations on a modest note with the launch of ETV Telugu in 1995, now has ETV Bangla, ETV Kannada, ETV Marathi, and ETV Urdu, apart from four Hindi channels, ETV Uttar Pradesh, ETV Bihar, ETV Rajasthan and ETV Madhya Pradesh, and ETV Oriya. Apart from these biggies which offer bouquets of channels, there are any number of other players like the hugely popular Asianet in Malayalam, and dozens of cable channels offering creative content for local communities.
Doordarshan, the biggest player in the television sector which even today can command an audience of 400 million viewers during a big event like an India-Pakistan cricket match or national election results on its main channel DDI, has also branched off into all the major languages in the country, apart from strengthening its Metro channel which has a large urban viewership.
While most of these entertainment channels have news and current affairs content at different points of time in the day, there are several channels in the country which are wholly devoted to news and current affairs. The big players on the news and current affairs front include Star News, Zee News, Aaj Tak, a 24-hour Hindi news channel which is scheduled to get an English sibling soon, and two NDTV news channels from April. Besides these big^players, there are a host of others including 24-hour news channels in Tamil and Kannada. In addition, the ETV Group plans to launch 24-hour news channels in several languages. The Sun Group, which opened with Sun TV in Tamil, has expanded operations with Udaya TV in Kannada and Gemini TV in Telugu. It has also launched 24-hour news channels in Tamil (Sun News) and Kannada (Udaya News).
The other major development is the growth of the cable television industry. In 1991, just one million homes in India had access to satellite television channels through cable. It is estimated that now over 40 million homes are connected by cable. This means 200-250 million people watch satellite channels every day.
The television revolution initially turned radio, which until a decade ago was the main source of news and entertainment for most people, into a poor country cousin. Radio lost its popularity quickly and TV sets replaced radios and transistors in people's drawing rooms. But it was not just the glamour of TV which displaced the radio. Till some years ago, radio in India was wholly government-controlled and radio meant the state-owned All India Radio. Government policy was against the entry of the private sector into radio and the absence of variety made radio an unpopular medium. However all this is now going to change and radio is coming back with a vengeance, thanks to the government's decision last year to allow the private sector into FM radio.
The first bidding for 101 FM channels in forty centres in the country was held in March 2000. Private companies bid huge sums for FM channels in Mumbai (Rs 9.75 million), Hyderabad (Rs 7.72 million), Nagpur (Rs 740 million), Delhi (Rs 7.12 million), Bangalore (Rs 6.80 million) and Chandigarh (Rs 6.65 million). Among other cities and towns which will have their own FM stations are Calcutta, Bhopal, Bhubaneshwar, Mysore, Pune, Panaji, Raipur, Patna, Rajkot, Jalandhar, Jamnagar, Kanpur, Ludhiana, Lucknow, Madurai, Shillong, Varanasi, Thiruvananthapuram, Tirunelveli and Tiruchi. Following the conclusion of the bids, the government collected Rs 37.70 million as licence fees from twenty-nine companies. Of the initial bidders, sixteen companies which have bid for thirty-seven channels have offered government bank guarantees totalling Rs 159 million and are now ready to commence operations. The government, meanwhile is pursuing the policy of opening up FM radio in more centres. This will mean about 100 FM channels in India in a year or two.
These figures give us an idea of the huge investments made by private companies in FM channels. Given this investment and the competition that it will spawn, there will be severe competition for local advertising with FM radio cutting into the revenues of local newspapers and television. There will also be a huge demand for quality radio programming and radio professionals, from disc jockeys and programme anchors to persons with radio production skills. The advent of FM radio has dramatically changed the language and content of radio itself. Since FM radio has a chatty culture, it endears itself to everyone and is bound to catch on. The American experience offers much hope for FM stations. In the US, FM's share of radio listeners is 75 per cent. AM radio commands just 25 per cent of the market. FM and AM share advertising revenues in a similar ratio. The only snag at the moment is that government policy does not allow private FM stations to carry news and current affairs. This is bound to change with the passage of time.
Like Indian cinema, the print media has been in the private sector since the days when the first newspaper was produced in the nineteenth century. But the spirit of competition injected by the new economic regime and the arrival of television has had its impact on the print media as well. Initially, many held the view that print would buckle under the impact of television and that newspaper reading would go out of fashion. This did not happen in the developed countries which went through this process fifty years ago, and fortunately, it has not happened in India either. On the other hand, the advent of television has compelled newspapers to look inwards, change tack and give themselves a face-lift to meet the challenge of TV. These initiatives have paid off.
According to the Registrar of Newspapers, the total circulation of newspapers in India has risen from 2.26 million in 1990 to 5.88 million in 1999. Currently, the print order of daily newspapers in the country has crossed 6 million, which means that around 25 to 30 million people, or 25 to 30 per cent of the country's population, have access to a newspaper every morning. This is a major development and is certain to impact national politics, trends, mores and attitudes. Further, the total circulation of newspapers and periodicals in the country rose from 5.31 million in 1990 to 13 million in 1999. Currently, newspapers are published in 101 languages in India. Hindi is the language with the highest number of publications - 19,685 - followed by English - 7,175.
These figures show that the television boom did not have a deleterious effect on the print media. On the other hand, the circulation of newspapers doubled during the decade when newspapers faced their biggest challenge. One of the factors which has contributed to this is the growing literacy levels in the country. There are now several states with over 80 per cent literacy. The other factor is that far from displacing newspapers, 24-hour television news channels whet the appetite of viewers for news. Consequently, everyone who has 'watched' news the previous night is tempted to 'read' it the next morning. Newspapers have also reinvented themselves and now have content that is 'beyond television'.
Newspapers have cleverly moulded themselves to the television era. With several television channels offering round-the-clock news, the concept of newspapers has undergone a major change. The attempt now is to take the story further. Also, Indian newspapers have undergone major changes both in content and looks and thus ensured that print not only survives but prospers in the televison age. Yet another sector that has seen a boom and a bust in the last decade is the content business (portal operations) on the internet. While most portals have a supermarket approach and offer varied content including news and current affairs, there are several portals wholly devoted to journalism. This has spawned dot.com or web journalism. As the internet revolution caught on, India was witness to the emergence of over a hundred portals that offered a basket of services. Since the services offered included news and current affairs, there was a flight of human resource from print and television journalism to these dot. com companies which offered huge compensation packages to wean away qualified professionals, especially from print journalism. The bubble however burst in the year 2000 and the number of portals with news and current affairs content is down to around twenty at this point of time. The survivors are also cost-cutting and down-sizing, but it is too early to announce the death of web journalism or portals. Web journalism has great potential because it has the ability to aggregate print, television and radio content, apart from offering its own brand of journalism.
Once these synergies are established in a cost-effective manner, web journalism can be expected to rise once again like the proverbial Phoenix and become a major source of infotainment and employment. Similarly, the creation and management of content (other than news and current affairs) in portals or vortals is a specialization in itself and will need qualified personnel to handle it.
Though Indian cinema was never constrained by government policy, like television and radio, and remained almost wholly in the private sector, the winds of liberalization and globalization have had a positive impact on the quality and reach of this industry as well. India has the largest film industry in the world, producing many more films annually than Hollywood for a long time. But the problem has been lack of innovation and stale themes. All this is now changing, though slowly. Indian film-makers are for the first time seeing themselves as global players. The new mood offers Bollywood its first big chance to compete with Hollywood for global audiences. This will require a new breed of script-writers and professionals equipped with new technology and skills, and marketing executives with a global vision.
Finally, while there is a veritable film and media explosion in India, things are yet to happen on the education front. Media schools need to deliver professionals who are at ease with the changes that have come about in the media and who are multi-skilled. Radio and television channels are constantly on the look out for professionals who have scripting, production, anchoring, special effects and other such skills, and quality film and media schools will have to come in to spot and train young talent. It is only a matter of time before this happens; given the media's growth potential, media education is bound to get a fresh impetus.