Need for independent broadcast regulator strengthened by paradigm shift in mass media stakes

Chairman of the Centre for Media Studies (CMS)

Chairman of the Centre for Media Studies (CMS)

The Indian mass media scene has gone through a dramatic shift recently both in terms of content and control. While media content is more and more market driven, control has now shifted, although indirectly, to “foreign corporates”. And yet there is no debate; as if we Indians have lost sight of the core of the issue – the direction of Indian media and changing concerns and role of media.

Today, advertising and market research in many ways determine the scope of media. Both these functions are in the hands of corporates controlled by foreign multinationals. The path and pace of media is set today by advertising, market research and media planning – as much as in the case of ownership pattern and journalistic trends. By and large, the control of these “determining factors” has slipped out of Indian hands with no one making an issue of it.

Media viability

Firstly, the share of advertising in the total revenue stakes (of media) has been on the increase; from that of a “supplementary” (25-30 per cent) nature some decades ago to that of a “supportive” one (45-55 per cent) in 2001. In fact, in the case of television channels, advertising has been a “primary source” (50-70 per cent) to sustain themselves; and to the extent of “determining” the priorities and pre-occupations. Even in case of some big newspapers, revenues from advertising constitutes as high as 60 per cent of total revenue stream. The recent boom in media in India is often attributed to advertising. Advertising, today, sustains and steers media.

Secondly, advertising in newspapers and television today, is mostly undertaken by the multinationals and big corporates. In fact, the top 15 advertisers account for three-fourth of advertising revenue of newspapers and television channels. Other than Dabur, Tata, Bajaj Auto and Videocon, all the other top advertisers belong to the multinational category. Top brands being advertised in media belong to these corporates. There has been a wave of foreign brands recently — all giving a big boost to media as well as consumerism in such a way that as a country we cannot reverse even if we want to.

Ads sustain media

Thirdly, the advertising agency business in the country has been getting concentrated in fewer and fewer hands in the last couple of years. The top five advertising agencies, with majority foreign holding, account for well over half of advertising business in the country and this has been on the increase. The entry of foreign advertising agencies has been going on parallel to the entry of foreign brands; and increase in the share of foreign corporates in the total advertising in the country.

In fact, lifting the limits of foreign capital in advertising agency business has opened the flood gates. Now global conglomerates like WPP, TBWA, Lowe, BBDO, DDB-Needham have gained majority control in Indian advertising and bulk of the market share too. Little over half of Indian advertising now is accounted by overseas based agencies, whose majority control in India is with foreigners. In fact, there may be just two agencies in the top 20 which don’t have foreign equity or partnerships. These agencies are now answerable to either private groups based abroad or to dollar — trading stock markets in London or New York.

Fourthly and not least, market research is a basis for proliferation of brands and consumerism. As well as, for the preoccupation and priorities of media and the very scope and character of advertising. Until a few years ago, we had about six or seven market research agencies owned mostly by Indians. Today, the top seven or eight market research agencies, accounting for more than two-thirds of research, either have already been taken over by one or the other foreign corporates or the foreign entities have acquired significant interest in the Indian firms. In fact, with recent mergers and acquisitions (M&As), certain monopolistic trend is already evident in this function with an annual turnover of over Rs 350 crores (Rs 3.5 billion).

Power shift

More specifically, market research agencies are the ones which also conduct “readership” surveys and “rating” of television viewership. Thereby, these agencies directly influence advertising agencies as well as the media as to their priorities and preoccupation.

The point here is that the methodology being followed for readership surveys and TV rating is not without bias in favour of the sponsors and subscribers. As the one who was involved in launching India specific readership and rating studies 25 years ago, I feel guilty for what is happening today, particularly the way the findings of these surveys are being used both by newspapers and TV channels. The “TRP trap”, as I call the phenomenon, has larger and long range implications to India than we seem to realise. The distortions are already evident today in our media scene.

Fifthly, with media becoming complex and also specialised, two “new” mediating functionaries have emerged since 2000 with serious consequences to the very nature and character of the “Fourth Estate”. Both these functionaries of media planning and public relations, in a way, erode into core prerogatives of the media functionaries and their “editorial control”.

And the fact that both these functions have become corporatised with foreign agencies having managing control, should cause some concern in the country before it is too late. The media planners are the ones involved these days in buying wholesale space and time for advertising and selling the same retail on their terms.

In the case of “public relations” (PR), functioning of these “experts” implies certain undermining or interference in the functioning, particularly of reporters and editors. For, the function of PR is to ensure coverage for a particular view point or otherwise.

“Disinformation” being talked about recently is a part of this new phenomena. Today majority control of these PR corporates in India, some six or seven leading ones operating nationally, is with foreign agencies. In fact, some of these have entered India as a part of some advertising agency having already a majority foreign equity. Most of these PR agencies mostly cater to the interests of foreign corporates or their collaborators in India. Many Indian firms and establishments, including some public utilities, avail of the services of these PR agencies to make their presence in the media, as if it is a compulsion.

Giving out the finding of their analysis on media trends the director of CMS P N Vasanti has said recently that “communication business has become ‘foreign lead’ and this reflects on the scope of contents of newspapers, even more so in the case of television channels.”

Proposed course of action

The government should first constitute an independent Broadcast Regulator (as we proposed in the case of Broadcast Bill). This is what the government has assured to do a couple of times (including in Delhi High Court in response to a PIL (public interest litigation) I filed as a follow up to the landmark Supreme Court judgment of 1996). Some of us [myself, BG Verghese, P Upendra (not a minister at that point of time), Kiran Karnik amongst others] had to work on bringing pressure on government to bring out the Broadcast Bill.

In fact, we have drafted the initial version and also CMS brought all the stakeholders together for a day long deliberations along with Sharad Pawar, who was then chairman of the committee concerned.

This means matters to do with licences, fees or revenue sharing and all commercial aspects, ownership pattern, monopoly, issues amongst others) will have to be decided by the regulator, not by I&B, including issues to do with going about with CAS & DTH and also codes, regulations and obligations of all channels.

Simultaneously, (but this should not delay constituting a Regulator), the government should come up with a mass media policy taking into account the guiding principles of social justice so on and so forth implied in the democratic model.

(The author contributed this article to published on 09 August 2003)