Like the curate’s egg: good in parts

BY CHINTAMANI RAO| IN Books | 27/07/2015
Nalin Mehta’s impressive knowledge of the television industry is evident in his latest book but bias and inconsistencies mar it.

Behind a Billion Screens,author Nalin Mehta, Harper Collins India, New Delhi  April 2015, 312 pages

Nalin Mehta has been an academic and a journalist. This book has been researched by the academic and written by the journalist.

The academic is most evident in the extensive, painstaking annotation: 53 pages of end notes to support 221 pages of text. The early account of the ills that plague news television is sound, balanced and pragmatic, and later in the book Mehta presents an excellent historical perspective of broadcast regulation in India, right up to the present day.

The detailed exposition of self-regulation is also well-informed and instructive, and makes a good and valid comparison of the functioning of the two bodies, the News Broadcast Standards Authority for news and the Broadcast Content Complaints Council for entertainment. For all this the book is a must for anyone concerned with -- and about -- the management of television broadcasting in India. 

But the journalist in Mehta is irrepressible, and dominates the discourse. That would be no issue, if this were not a journalist with an agenda, characterised by sweeping statements, sometimes bordering on the irresponsible; the specious use of data; and the cavalier disregard of  inconvenient facts to make a point.

The 10-page introduction by Uday Shankar, CEO of Star TV, sets the tone: the book goes on to represent Star TV’s world view, with Shankar extensively quoted and frequently referred to throughout, and numerous examples cited of Star’s bold, innovative, far-sighted moves worthy of a leader.

Speaking of news TV ownership and describing in some detail how Zee built its news network, he comments that, “Zee’s business moves were not ideological.” That may well be true, but not a mention is made of the origins of Star News – the sweetheart deal with NDTV and the split; the attempt to structure a company with Vir Sanghvi, Suhel Seth, et al; how it ended up with ABP; and how Star News became ABP News, whereby hangs a tale.

The author is at pains to establish that the big TV networks are not as big as we might think, and asserts that they are disadvantaged with respect to buyers of advertising time. “70% of all media expenditure in India is controlled by only five media groups…. On the sellers’ side, however, fragmentation rules. There are more than 800 TV channels….”

The numbers hide more than they reveal, as is often the case. What we are not told is that the Big Five are present and strong across all genres of TV, and bundle their weak properties with the strong ones (and why shouldn’t they?), so that ultimately the two sides, buyers and sellers, are ranged across the table as countervailing forces.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but the point is that the big networks are quite well, thank you very much. It’s the long tail of hundreds of small and stand-alone broadcasters that continues to writhe in agony.

On the subject of distribution, and of digitisation, Mehta seems confused. Citing unattributed data, he says that in the period 2005-11 distribution costs more than tripled but subscription revenue barely increased, with the result that “the net money that channels made from subscriptions in this period actually reduced by almost half”. That’s amusing, because it means broadcasters were, or are, net earners from subscription. Here are the facts.

Of 832 ‘permitted’ satellite channels in the country, some 250 are pay channels. The rest, being free-to-air, only pay carriage fees: they earn no subscription revenue. Of the 250 that do, about 140 belong, directly or indirectly, to the Big Five networks, and they (fewer than 20% of the total) are the ones who are net earners from subscription. For the rest, subscription revenue only subsidises their distribution cost. Not much for the big boys to complain about.

One of the reasons why the big neworks are net earners is of course that they own properties no cable operator can afford not to carry. The other is that they themselves have distribution interests. Each of them owns and influences, directly or indirectly, every link in the distribution value chain: content aggregators; multi-system operators (MSOs); local cable operators (LCOs); and DTH platforms. And Reliance, which now owns the TV 18 network, will soon own a national 4G network.

Oddly, Mehta omits to mention that. On the contrary, he laments that broadcasters are not allowed to handle distribution. That may well be the law, but surely Mehta knows the reality. So why does he try to make the case for distribution?

Mehta’s use of data is often suspect. Trying to establish the rapid growth of the Internet, for example, he says, "In 2013 Internet access in India overtook print to become the second-largest sub-media sector in revenue after television." Later he decribes how one brand, Parle Hippo, used Twitter, to show how “social media is upending the way marketing was traditionally done”.

First, in comparing Internet access to print he is comparing apples to oranges, which you don’t expect of one with his background. Internet access refers to the money people pay to service providers to get on to the internet: that's not revenue for content providers, and there is no equivalent of it in print. In advertising revenue, however, which can be compared, the PwC report of 2014 (which he cites to make his point) estimates the Internet at Rs 29 billion and print at Rs 146 billion.

Second, having said how big the Internet has become and that social media is upending the old ways of doing things, he says in a later chapter that, “Internet penetration in the world’s largest democracy remains abysmally low,” and quotes data from the same PwC report to make the point.

Mehtas's strongest invective is directed at TAM. (Disclosure: this reviewer is a member of the TAM Transparency Panel.) Eight or 10 pages of a one-sided view are peppered with loose statements like, "The trouble is that the ratings system in India has been terribly flawed for too long”; “The ratings system is so discredited that no one believes it”; and "Senior broadcasters whisper darkly about WPP, which owns 50% of TAM, also owning a significant number of advertising agencies," betraying  his bias.

Listing the problems with TAM, he describes how some years ago 500 journalists were covering the Lakmé India Fashion Week in Delhi even as there was a spate of farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka. How that is the fault of the ratings provider is not evident.

Among the limitations he lists is that, “In a world where an average TV consumer in a big metro spends over three hours daily on her smartphone, the ratings don’t provide a measure of what is happening in the digital space.” Where in the world do TV ratings do that?

Speaking of digitisation, the author says that no other country’s market has shifted to digital so fast. In terms of adoption of the technology, that is no doubt true but in terms of the consumer benefiting from digitisation,  certainly not.

Digitisation is not merely about getting a sharper picture. Until consumers are able to choose what they want to watch and pay only for that, there is, in effect, no difference between digital and analogue cable. Local cable operators (LCOs) stand to be the big losers, which is why they have been stalling the change and continue to, and it is their intransigence that has prompted the government to postpone the next phase of digitisation to the end of 2015.

It’s curious that Mehta skips lightly over this situtation and pronounces satisfaction with its progress. Is it perhaps because big broadcasters too stand to lose from digitisation and don’t want to see it progress any further?This is one subject on which broadcasters and LCOs have the same agenda.

The work he has put into the book is evident and commendable. Between his earlier India on Television and the present book, Mehta probably knows far more than anyone else about Indian television today. Regrettably the evident inconsistencies and biases call the book into question, despite its merits.






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