After a lifetime in Mumbai where I have grown up, studied, and worked I moved to Delhi in 2003. Happily enough since Mumbai is my hometown and a key city for media, I am there almost every month. In both the cities I have refused to be drawn into the whole Delhi versus Mumbai debate. They both have their advantages for me.
But, here is a difference that is now beginning to get me down. It is this perennial ‘babu’ mentality that media and media writers in North India have. This feeling that making money or profit is somehow a bad word. That media should not be a business. This comes not from a one-off discussion with someone. It comes from almost 10 years of living in this city, speaking at conferences, talking on TV shows, debating with all sorts of intellectuals within the field. Don’t mistake them for being stupid. Many of them are very well-read people who have done path-breaking work in their field. So their left-leaning sympathies for media’s developmental role is understandable.
It is the random experts who spring up out of nowhere and are routinely invited on TV shows and at conferences who surprise me with their complete lack of understanding for basic economics. By now I have met dozens of them. Almost all of them seem to reside in Delhi — not in Mumbai, Hyderabad or Chennai —the other media hubs that I routinely go to.
Typically they will start any argument by attacking some of the more unpopular things about media — say TV channels stretching their ad time, or the quality of news or why a multiplex should not charge, say Rs 80, for popcorn. They then work themselves to a righteous froth about how media power is growing unfettered in India. That the government needs to do something.
As a co-panellist or co-guest on a show, you point to some of the mitigating factors — that the trouble with news is not the anchor but the ownership and that we need to tackle political and non-serious ownership of media (a la Saradha Group). That Indians pay one of the lowest prices per hour of TV at 50 paise, so TV channels need to use advertising to subsidise their costs and make money.
I am yet to get a cogent, rational answer to any of these entreaties. There is a lot of shouting and invective against the profit motive, against the government and against whoever else can be blamed. But the common theme in all these discussions, the thing that leaves me depressed is the ‘anti-profit’ feeling and the ‘government should take charge of our lives’ argument. For a hardcore Mumbaikar, who grew up believing that hard work and making money go together, this makes little sense.
Unless an economy generates wealth, it cannot generate taxes that pay for social goods such as roads, trains, bridges or healthcare among other things. And unless it generates wealth it cannot create enough jobs and money for its people. That is the role private enterprise plays in any economy — whether it is media or non-media. So by being a profit-making, healthy company a media firm is creating jobs, paying taxes and being a good corporate citizen. This assumes it is doing this in an ethical and credible manner.
Think of it this way — if as a shareholder you are happy that the company you invested in makes 30 per cent margins, why should any investor, private or public not get similar returns from media companies? A financially healthy media company in fact is less susceptible to creative pressures. So a TV company that generates enough cash will have loads of money to experiment with programming. That is why the cable industry in the US can afford to produce some pathbreaking shows such as Mad Men or Game of Thrones. The Indian TV industry has one of the lowest margins in the world. Where is the room for creative experimentation?
It was when multiplexes came with their Rs 150 and more ticket prices that the Indian film industry finally came into its own. As money started flowing back into the system, you are now seeing a creative unleashing that was unimaginable in the depressing 80s and 90s.
Lastly, even if we had an efficient government at the centre, one should be chary about wishing for government intervention in the media. Remember what they say — when the gods want to punish us, they give us exactly what we asked for.
The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik