TV Tomorrow

Amrita Tripathi has been a JLF regular for too long, a cynic for even longer, and is the author of two novels, The Sibius Knot and Broken News
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What does Indian television say about the challenges of change?
Behind a Billion Screens: What Television Tells us About Modern India | Nalin Mehta | Harpercollins India | Pages 312 | Rs 699
To start with, the quibble: India doesn’t have a billion screens. Nalin Mehta knows this. In fact, he enlightens us early on: As of 2014, it was 161 million TV sets for a population of 1.26 billion. (Of course, no editor is ever going to back ‘Behind 161 Million Screens’ as a title.)

But that’s where the sticklers would drop it, as the text itself is very readable. Mehta discusses the reach and social and political implications of television news in the same breath as scandals, fraud and the quest for influence. But the book isn’t dry or academic, referencing House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Hulu and Netflix just as comfortably as the ‘Herfindal- Hirschmann Index’, which we learn measures ‘owner concentration in industries’. Moving from political parties to real estate big-wigs to chit fund owners, the writer and journalist traces some of the attendant issues of a problematic revenue stream. It is important to remember that some statements which are treated as fact— ‘It is regional markets where primary growth lies’, ‘No one believes ratings’, ‘The System is broken’—are received wisdoms in the industry.

STAR India CEO Uday Shankar’s introduction is a value- add and the story about TV show Satyamev Jayate is particularly telling. The fact that Shankar could not pull off socially relevant programming at a news channel but managed at an entertainment channel is quite tragic, as Mehta remarks. Mehta paints a quick portrait of the flaws in the system and quotes from leading players (taken from interviews, articles and speeches) provide some of the heft. These include Prasar Bharati head Jawhar Sircar, Arun Jaitley before he was Finance Minister (that is, pre-election), former chairman of Prasar Bharati Mrinal Pande, who is quite scathing about the rot within, as well as Nripendra Misra— now Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister but quoted as Chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) — and TRAI Chairman Rahul Khullar.

One of the biggest issues for the TV industry at large—and certainly the TV news industry—is the lack of revenue. There is massive competition for the limited advertising pie and money also gets eaten up en route. Digitisation will prove key to transparency, Mehta argues, as will the decision to up the number of boxes to measure ratings. The sample size was ridiculous to start with, at just 1500, we learn—the new proposed target is 50,000 boxes.

Mehta also points out the ‘urban tilt’ of the ratings system, which explains why our news is skewed in favour of city- dwellers. Likewise, the North-East and Jammu and Kashmir were not represented in the ratings game until early 2013, explaining why the states would seldom figure on prime time real estate. Of course real time data tracking is the new game in town, and Mehta devotes some attention to this.

Other memorable sections: Baba Ramdev talking ratings, India TV’s early days as part of Rajat Sharma’s initial vision (before financial losses forced him to the other end of the spectrum), and the fact that Times Now has 0.6 per cent of the market share of TV news—a space that is in itself 0.1 per cent of overall TV viewing in India, according to Mehta. Read that over again, and tell me how the Nation wants to react!

While the reading is compelling, the editing could have been a bit tighter. I’m not sure of Mehta’s argument early on, comparing the ‘media-industrial complex’ to the ‘military-industrial complex’, or even the reference to the New York Journal fanning the flames of the Spanish-American War in 1898 through jingoism. Mehta’s point here is that jingoism and war-mongering on TV isn’t just an Indian issue, but perhaps we could have benefited from more contemporary examples of this. We could also have benefited by hearing more from others—perhaps Aroon Purie on Aaj Tak, or Prannoy Roy, considered the father of TV news. Or we could have flipped back even more; after all, Mehta does reference his own book (India on Television: How Satellite News Channels Changed the Way We Think and Act). And from his vantage point, could he have offered a clearer roadmap for an industry mired in sludge? Perhaps material for a future book.

Overall, Mehta’s background in TV news stands him in good stead, as does his stint on a committee to revamp Prasar Bharati. The ambition of the book sees it through, and both targeted advertising and the mobile revolution are inevitable prongs of a new strategy he outlines. TV-wallas will ignore the change at their own peril.

(Amrita Tripathi is a former news anchor and the author of Broken News)