The Race to The Bottom

After the recent media reporting on Sushant Singh Rajput case, the question of credibility of Indian media has come to the fore. With big international publications writing about it, the condition of Indian media has raised serious questions on the functionality of the fourth pillar of the largest democracy in the world. But, what is the reason behind poor journalism in India? We need to dig deep to find out the answer.After the recent media reporting on Sushant Singh Rajput case, the question of credibility of Indian media has come to the fore. With big international publications writing about it, the condition of Indian media has raised serious questions on the functionality of the fourth pillar of the largest democracy in the world. But, what is the reason behind poor journalism in India? We need to dig deep to find out the answer.

There are actually two reasons for this. First, the demand-supply problem and second, the structural problem. Let’s tackle these one by one.

The demand-supply problem is evident and everyone knows about it. What we get is what we want. The news channels shows us all this because we give them TRPs by watching the same garbage every night at 9pm. But, it is not the only problem. The demand-supply problem is actually the effect of the structural problems of Indian mainstream journalism.

Ashok Malik, a columnist, wrote about the structural problems of Indian media in his article “Why are Indian news channels so disappointing?” and Amit Varma, a podcaster, beautifully illustrated this in some of his podcasts.

So, the story starts from the time when the DTH and cable TVs were new to India. As most of the elderly people would know, there used to be a monopoly of a local thug in an area for the cable connections. Therefore, everyone had to go to the same cablewala if they wanted cable connection. Since the government was unable to implement the rule of law to stop the monopoly, they decided to do something easy which would not require much efforts. It led to the formation of TRAI (or Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) which imposed price caps on the cable connections and subscriptions. This had a seen and an unseen effect. The seen effect was a good one, that the monopoly would remain but the thugs would not be able to charge the people anything near to what they would want. But, the unseen effect, which is often missed, is that the people’s subscription is now a minimal amount of revenue for a news channel. Clearly, a news channel needs a huge amount of money for collecting information/facts from all around the world and making documentaries and reports out of it. But, after the price cap was put on the people’s subscription, the only option left for a news channel was to earn from advertisements. A news channel get ads when more and more people watch it and this led to The race to the bottom. So now, a news channel tries to go towards the least common denominator i.e. they now attract eye balls. That is why you would see something like a mock postmortem or some kind of daily soap drama very often in news channels. This made everyone mad for TRPs and everyone is now, as one of Amit Varma’s podcast title suggests, Out Arnabing- Arnab. What this means is that one hour long debates full of shouting and screaming would mean more eyeballs, more TRP and more revenue. All this can be done with very minimal resources, so overall a perfect package for a news channel owner.  The price cap also pushed aside those who wanted to see good journalism as even if one wanted to pay Rs. 100 to some good news channel is paying Rs. 5. In addition to this, it gives government two levers over these channels which they can pull any time they want. As stated above, channels depend on ads and, a majority of revenue by ads is from government ads (states and central both). Also, operating a news channel is a costly business in India so most of the times, the news channel owners also owns some other businesses. These are the two levers. If any news channel comments on or criticize the government, govt. can produce a chilling effect on the news channel either by not giving them ads or by filing some charges on the business of the news channel owners. Hence, if you think that this situation will change someday, then I think it is more unlikely to happen.

“What is the solution? Should regulators and government departments be pricing creativity and what a consumer should be paying for a quality news show – or should the market? Ask yourself that at 9 pm this evening.” 

      

– Ashok Malik

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