The economy behind the TV news anchor’s “performance”

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In India, a media house license for the use of sovereign waves is granted by the Indian government for a public purpose – to inform, mirror society, and hold institutions to account – for the common good.

Unfortunately, the violation of this is the widespread reality. The country was silent when Tamil Nadu had and continues to have TV news channels owned by the same people who run its politics, without even a fig leaf of pretense. This silence in one state allowed the phenomenon to spread to other states, then to national news. This reached a crescendo with the BJP coming to power in 2014, of course with the fig leaf of the arm’s length property.

It is easy to increase the number of viewers, and therefore income, by “performing” in front of the camera. The return on investment (ROI) obtained is impressive. The direct cost of a report the size of a byte at the time of the break is only around Rs 28,000 (source: mynewsdesk), but the returns are huge if it catches the attention of viewers.

Recently, a national channel broadcast “breaking news” that vaccine vials were found in a trash can in Rajasthan. The newsroom editor decided to run the story, without details, as a looping amateur footage, and called it “Covid Sabotage.” This less than 50,000 rupee story enjoyed 30 minutes of prime time, and if it had spread, the returns would have been 5,000 times – government ads, other ads, then the satisfaction that both parties enjoy. playing this game.

In an article published in March 2014, prior to the Lok Sabha elections, Business Standard estimated that Rs 2,500 crore was the “official” expenditure of the BJP and Congress on print and television advertising. Compare that to the BJP’s audited accounts for the 2010-11 fiscal year, which presumably reflects the 2009 Lok Sabha campaign spending – a modest Rs 34 crore!

In the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in 2017, over Rs 5,500 crore was spent on campaigns by various parties, 70% of which was spent by the BJP (CMS pre-post survey). Even today, it is estimated that up to Rs 50 crore is spent every day on advertisements to manage the government perception of Yogi Adityanath.

Money for nothing

According to Untamedscience, a one-hour National Geographic feature costs the channel Rs 2.9 crore, and the cost of a single episode on the BBC’s planet Earth is estimated at Rs 14 crore. A well documented investigation report in India could cost over Rs 10 lakh.

One of the best Kashmir documentaries was made by Times Now in November 2019, tracing Kashmir’s history from the Gupta Empire to its current standoff and the revocation of Section 370 over its two-hour span. Based on the budget established by Swastika Films (see table), for 30 minutes, the documentary could have cost more than Rs 30 lakh. We expect we have never seen anything like this since!

Washington Post editor J Lynn reportedly said that an ideal combination of sources to make a believable story is 25% sources, 25% field investigations, 30% research, 10% bases of public or held data. , 2% of social networks, and the rest of the others.

The point is, if an editor wants their hands to get confused in a story, then 80% of the time and money will be spent investigating.

Compare that to Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide attempt, which could almost have altered political fortunes and election results. Comprised of studio guests, political spokespersons, a cameraman and a few paparazzi-style “journos”, this “latest news” reportedly cost a few lakhs, but brought in millions of dollars in ad revenue and gratitude. government as Add.

It is easier to justify the lack of investment in the field and the lack of time and money spent on surveys or research. It is also faster.

Things must change

The social benefits outweigh the costs, even if they don’t generate positive returns for the media business. But then, this must be encouraged with policies for licenses — grants and renewals.

First, ownership of the media house cannot be the same as ownership of the airwaves, which are publicly owned. Make it difficult. The conflict of trust of public funds ensures that diversified companies cannot own a bank.

The same principle should be applied to the media, which enjoy another form of public trust. Politicians and industrialists must be prohibited from owning media. But, instead, as examples, Reliance directly or indirectly controls Network 18 (CNN News18) and some other channels, and politicians own Sun, Kalaignar, Jaya, Odisha TV, Jana TV, etc. Second, separate ownership and editorial control, with editorial independence vested in the board. The audit committee of a listed company reports to the board of directors and not to the owner. To protect shareholders, SEBI and the Registrar of Companies ensure financial ownership. So, why not a similar mechanism here?

Third, it’s time to create a deterrent effect on this lucrative news business, with laws pulling the purse strings. Here are two suggestions: First, investments should be shown and maintained on original and researched production (surveys, open stories, and documentaries), contracted out or in-house, as a percentage of revenue, staff and salaries year after year. It goes without saying, and I hope, that drivel cannot be the preserve of so many members of the organization.

Second, to provide punitive measures for baseless sensationalism, regulated by a constitutional authority (such as the CVC or CEC), independent of the government. Since this is an arbiter, the argument that journalists will not be free will not hold up. India ranks 142 in the press freedom index out of 179 countries (French NGO RSF 2021). It’s not free anyway!

(The writer is a former managing director of a Tata company and now runs a corporate finance firm headquartered in Bengaluru)


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