Self correcting, but not on ethics

BY sevanti ninan| IN Opinion | 27/12/2012
The industry is set to self correct where its financial viability is concerned. On cleaning up its ethics, it is going to need a lot more prodding.


Sevanti Ninan

 Reprinted from Mint, December  27, 2012


A year which began with Mukesh Ambani acquiring Network 18 and ended with Subhash Chandra, proprietor of the Zee Network  agreeing to take a lie detector test in a case of alleged extortion, must surely count as a watershed year for the media as a business and as an institution.

Some things are changing in an industry whose financial model has been  broken for a while. Newspapers and magazines increased  prices through the year, with Tehelka being the latest to do so.  The Hindu now costs Rs 6 on a weekday, and Outlook is priced at Rs 35!  The notion that Indian consumers are not willing to pay for the media they consume is being challenged.

The price war strategy no longer delivers. The Deccan Chronicle which dropped its price to enter Chennai some years ago is in financial trouble, its forays into new markets in Delhi and the South having not proved very viable.  The Times of India’s latest entry into a new market at a very low price failed to trigger a price war. The market leader in Vishakapatnam held on to both its price and its circulation.

The last couple of years have seen consolidation. The big brands in print have fended off those who came in to take them on.  Instead they are now acquiring smaller brands, Dainik Jagran which had taken over Mid Day in an earlier year, acquired Nai Dunia in Indore this year. DNA which came in seven years ago to give the Times a India a run for the Mumbai advertising market  has bled losses in the interim and saw one of its original promoters sell out this year.

The ownership changes in 2012 have been fascinating. While Network 18’s financial distress saw industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s empire  gain control of this TV network as well as the ETV bouquet in television, it also saw his businesses withdraw from indirectly financing other brands such as Nai Dunia and NewsX which then changed hands. Big business is returning to investing in media but does not want to waste its energy on smaller properties.

Those filling the vacuum are politicians. Congressman Venod Sharma who owns a newspaper in Haryana has this year acquired NewsX and the Sunday Guardian launched some years ago by M J Akbar.  Meanwhile Tehelka’s need for financial investment has see businessman and Trinamool MP K D Singh invest in the company which owns it.

The return of big business to media ownership was also exemplified by Kumar Mangalam Birla acquiring a substantial stake this year in Living Media, which owns India Today. 

In television meanwhile the big developments had to do with a determined push for  viability and a drastic change in the existing business model. When NDTV sued AC Nielsen and TAM earlier this year for tampering with TV ratings among other things, it took on the ratings monopoly which has been driving advertising in the industry. The other big development, digitisation of cable networks which got under way this year, has also to do with industry pushing government to drive change which they hope will lead to better declaration of pay per view revenues. And thereby  end the  channels’ dependence on an unsatisfactory TV ratings system for data to give advertisers.

Until the changes initiated begin to deliver results, ethical aberrations in the industry will continue. Paid news surfaced in the year gone by during every election. In the latest round   Gujarat reported 126 confirmed cases of paid news, while Himachal reported 91 in the assembly elections according to the Election Commission. 

Sensational reporting to the point of misreporting in now coming increasingly to light. The News Broadcasting Standards Authority’s latest order puts CNN IBN and IBN 7 in the dock for violating the NBSA’s code of ethics and broadcasting standards, another recent order did the same on a conflict of interest issue involving Times Now’s defence analyst.

Caravan magazine’s cover story on Arnab Goswami  and Times Now offers amazing details on how the channel seeks to create controversy without a shred of evidence to base its story line on. Both in the case of the CNN IBN story on the Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust which the channel head tweeted about, and the Times Now coverage of the Mantralay fire in Mumbai, the desire for ratings obviously led to bad ethics. Ditto the case of Newslive in Assam. Its filming of miscreants attacking a girl coming out of a pub, and the channel head’s tweets about  the incident,  is another  example of unethical sensationalism.

The Zee News-Naveen Jindal controversy with its allegations of extortion then, is only the latest in  many questionable acts of commission by the media this year.

The industry is set  to self correct where its financial viability is concerned. On cleaning up its ethics,  it is going to need a lot more prodding.

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