From the time humans started to acquire language skills thousands of years ago, the need to communicate with others, especially in a group or community has been prevalent. Thus, the history of media goes back to earliest times and it was one of the cornerstones of civilisation.
Initially, it was limited to stone edicts, firmans (decrees) and local announcements in town and village squares. However, the most popular medium of mass communication was the grapevine. It continues to be the same, albeit in a new digital avatar - social media.
Meanwhile, the intervening centuries brought forth new media such as print, radio, film, TV, and in the 21 century the online media. So today, we have all these media exist simultaneously with varying degree of effectiveness.
Let's see how the media has changed in the past 15 years.
As the new millennium dawned it was clear that the newspaper was losing its supremacy in news to television. In its initial years, TV news, especially in India, was invariably a straight reportage of the day’s events and across segments like politics, business, sport, city, entertainment, international and local news. TV’s great strength was its immediacy and in situ reportage, which gave it a lot of credibility.
As satellite communications improved, multi-location reports and interviews began supplementing studio-based news reading. In a country with a large population of illiterates, but with a long tradition of audio visual (including cinema) narrative, millions took to watching news.
Various governments too understood the power of this new medium and began subtle manipulation news and other programming. In the post-McLuhan times, both message and the medium have got embroiled in a complex maize of déjà vu.
You can increase the dose of the digital opiate, but sooner than later, the audience will seek a new fix.
While the majority was and is still hooked to TV dramas with their weather-beaten and stretched plotlines, there were enough takers for news and current affairs. No wonder India has over 400 news channels in 16 languages in an 800-channel universe. India started its economic liberalisation in 1991, and this was followed by the satellite TV invasion in the 1990s.
From 1995, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government further opened up the skies (both for airlines and broadcasting) and the TV onslaught began in right earnest. New media barons emerged as Subhash Chandra, Ramoji Rao, Prannoy Roy, Raghav Bahl and Kalanithi Maran created domestic TV networks even as Murdochs and Turners of the world also shifted focus to include the world’s fastest-growing TV markets.
In 2010, India had 100 million TV households with an estimated reach of half the population (500 million). The existing print czars did not lag behind and The Times of India, India Today, Anandabazar Patrika, Mathrubhumi and others jumped into the electronic media morass.
While the state-controlled Doordarshan and All India Radio led in absolute reach, the growth was private broadcasting. TV networks soon rivalled the 200-year-old print industry in advertising. Private FM stations too flourished. Interestingly, in spite of this, the Indian print market was one of the few in the world, which maintained its growth. Films too reached new box office heights as multiplexes sprung by the dozen in cities and towns.
Did the content change along. Perhaps a little, but disruption has largely been influenced by access and delivery of media.
India’s economy was on a roll. Consumerism spread its tentacles in a rapidly developing information society. Media was the new darling of private equity and retail investors as over two-dozen listed media companies encompassing every medium from cinema, print, radio and TV multiplied, the wealth of promoters and investors too. The Indian media and entertainment industry grew at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 15 per cent, though inorganic growth led to more weeds than blossoms. However, things were too good to last.
Hubris, poor regulation and profligacy set in. Many of the new entrants fell by the wayside, others simply withdrew after burning their fingers and cash in a hyperactive media market.
The new kid on the block, online media and entertainment, came racing across the clogged warless waves, streaming content across continents. Geographical boundaries and antiquated policy were blown away by technology. Social media was where news was broken and TV channels (and newspapers) borrowed these breaking stories. In the mad race to grab eyeballs, journalism rules were forgotten.
TV news had over-dressed (and made-up) and under-informed anchors began slanging matches on TV audiences. Fake news, blatant partisanship and endless debates replaced news.
Now, in a new multi-cast universe, social media is the new always-on-tamasha with its own heroines, villains and jesters. Foot in the mouth is the new pre-occupation of the celebrities.
Print, meanwhile, bravely struggles on filled-with-Medianet-(and its cousins)-world of paid news. Credibility is out for a long walk. Trolls rule social media and Twitter handles are the new political handlers.
Ennui and fatigue is now taking over news media and the dwindling ratings, and absolute audience is on a decline. There is not a single objective media vehicle. The so-called liberal media are as partisan and prejudiced as the saffron and various other leaning towers of verbiage. What will replace this jejune noise is still a matter of, well, debate.
The edge of the cliff is in sight but the phoenix is yet to be born, mixed metaphors apart. There is some sense in an occasional bit on TV, online or even print, but these are mere lashes in an otherwise bleak scenario.
Let's take a look at the other end of the media spectrum - TV entertainment and cinema. Both have stereotypes glaring at you through an array of screens from the smartphone to IMAX. Hackneyed storylines, misogynistic and threadbare, enacted by overacting wannabess and fading stars still do get the numbers, but how long can repetitious entertainment satiate.
You can increase the dose of the digital opiate, but sooner than later, the audience will seek a new fix. Changing access platforms and on-demand information and entertainment may be the new watchwords, but the content has to match technology.
Am I being cynical? No. Just realistic.
Indian market is still to grow. Our per capita ad spend and entertainment spend are in the lower percentile. We produce 1,500 feature films with only 8,200 screens (China produces 500 for 38,000 screens). We may have 800 channels and over 2,00,000 hours of TV programming produced, but our total revenue of the entire media and entertainment industry is less than 1 per cent of the global market (US $1.8 trillion). So, the Industry can only grow.
We can be a sunrise industry if enough capital is invested. This industry should be a large employment generator too if the government provides a constructive support rather than a quagmire of controls.
Indian cinema can be a world-beater, provided there are more exhibition outlets, more systems and processes and fresh creative blood. As far as credibility in news is considered, it’s a long shot, but still playable. The players have to unlearn first before they start a new innings.
Liberal, conservative or orthodox views don’t make news. In any case, grabbing attention is not enough, you have to engage the audience. And then monetise the engagement.
That’s a tough ask for a society, which revels in the ordinary and perpetuates status quo.