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A matter of taste

My late mother was a hardcore Hindi soap opera fan. For an old woman with many ailments she was surprisingly agile, flitting from one channel to another.

She usually watched three or more soaps at the same time getting in and out of them during the commercial breaks. As for me, I don't like American comedies, or even dramas. I prefer British or European ones. Some of my closest friends love American comedies. Similarly you can be sure that all of India’s 740 million TV viewers like to watch different things. We all co-exist. I don’t tell my friends not to watch American comedies and they don’t tell me to keep off British ones. The whole point of being grown up is respecting other peoples choices. Why then is the government interfering in ours?


Big question: Instead of focussing on what we should or shouldn’t watch, could the I&B Ministry help make the media industry more profitable and creative?

Recently it banned Comedy Central for telecasting vulgar shows. The Delhi High Court has overturned the ban. I have no idea how bad the shows that caused the ruckus were, but there is a Broadcast Content Complaints Council or BCCC under the Indian Broadcasting Federation (IBF). It is a fledgling body set up in 2011 to arbitrate on exactly these kind of issues. Why not let it decide whether Comedy Central violated the content code that is part of the Cable Act. After years of wrangling, the BCCC was set up in lieu of a big brother kind of censor for television. Why preempt it?

This, however, is not about Comedy Central or even the content code. It is about our warped sense of priorities when it comes to media policy. There is too much focus on the content bit and too little on the business. And there isn’t enough appreciation of how cleaning up the business will also clean up other parts.

For instance the implosion of Saradha, a chit fund company in Kolkata is not just about a Ponzi scheme gone bad. It is about an issue that the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) refuses to acknowledge — that of ownership of media. One of the businesses the company had invested in was TV channels and newspapers. When the chit fund exploded so did its media arm. There are dozens of companies like Saradha. They own entertainment, film, television or newspaper companies. These could be jewellers, real-estate barons, politicians or political parties. They are what I call ‘non-serious’ media owners, the ones who are in it for glamour, influence, extortion or power.

In December 2012, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India or TRAI had recommended for the second time in four years, that state or central government bodies should not be allowed into the business of broadcasting or owning channels. There has, so far, been no reaction to this.

On the other hand the ministry seems to be pursuing the problem of poor ratings with a vengeance. There have been three reports on it already and now the Competition Commission of India has demanded an explanation from ratings agency TAM (Television Audience Measurement). Television ratings, like readership numbers, is an industry metric. If it is of bad quality or corrupt, the industry will deal with it. NDTV finally sued TAM’s parent Nielsen over ratings last year. The Broadcast Audience Research Council has been put together, again by three different industry bodies, to get a new system going. Why, then, is the government bent on fixing ratings?

There are dozens of small and big policy decisions it could take that would make the business of media and entertainment more creative, profitable and easier. It could create the right investment atmosphere for building concert venues and multiplexes. This could mean more live concerts and events and therefore more ticket money and taxes both. It could rationalise entertainment tax across states, make leasing of foreign satellites for DTH easier and so on. But most governments find attacking content gets them more popular support than boring things such as fixing fundamental structural issues.

In 2011, the MIB did take one such decision. It forced through a law on digitisation which is currently being implemented across India. This will clean up decades worth of muck in the TV business and bring transparency and revenues for everyone, including the government. It will also bring more programming variety. Why, then, can’t the ministry focus on more of such decisions instead of getting into what we should or shouldn’t be watching? 

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik

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