The news business in India is quite complex and a rather debatable subject. This was evident as an eminent panel discussed its future in terms of digitisation during a session on 'The Future of Electronic News' on the concluding day of FICCI Frames 2011, held at the Renaissance Powai, in Mumbai.
Moderated by Anil Wanwari, chief executive officer, Indiantelevision.com, the session had panellists such as G Krishnan, executive director and CEO, TV Today Network, Ashok Venkatramani, CEO, STAR News, M K Anand, CEO, UTV Global Broadcasting, and Sanjay Pugalia, editor, CNBC Awaaz.
Venkatramani initiated the session by saying that a lot needs to be improved in the television news business, but instead of externalising the problem, as is always the case in sessions like these, it was time to internalise and introspect.
"These days, one hears of newspapers breaking stories and a television channel carrying it later -- 11 am onwards, for instance," began Venkatramani. "This is a cause for worry. Television journalism is not making the kind of impact it should," he said.
Venkatramani added that the editorial and content teams seem to be chasing their own tails rather than make any kind of dramatic breakthrough.
G Krishnan said that the arena of news business is one filled with opportunities and isn't as gloomy as it is portrayed it to be. The big issues, according to him, are the huge monies paid towards carriage.
Broadcasters probably fail to lobby enough and insist on digitisation, due to which operating costs are high and create roadblocks in the quality of content being carried on news channels. "We have to digitise, or we'll all be strangulated," he opined.
M K Anand brought out the aspect of 'moral dilemma'. To him, the business heads always face the morality issue while interacting with editors.
"There is this term called 'time spent' in television viewership measurement," he explained. "And, time spent on a feature show is much higher than that on news shows. Often, in a bid to increase this time spent, one wonders if one is running a news channel, or an entertainment channel that only masquerades as a news channel," said Anand.
Another cause for concern, Anand said, was that more than 90 per cent of news revenue is ad-led. Such a low dependence on subscription revenues is even more pronounced in the case of news channels and hits them far worse.
"One must realise that with competition dividing the pie, there is only so much ad sales revenue that can be generated. One needs to concentrate on upping subscription revenues in the future," Anand suggested.
Anand also spoke about advertisers eyeing regional news channels such as Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu more seriously, which is a good thing in their media plans.
Sanjay Pugalia supplied the editor's point of view, saying that during his younger days, people were made editors after 10 years of being special correspondents. Today, one sees quick promotions and low levels of talent in most places.
"News channels have become Rakhi Sawant channels," he said. "There is too much pressure on ideation - this driving need to do something different. Often, editorial teams wake up in the morning, not to discuss what they ought to cover, but to quickly check what's on other channels. This is dangerous," says Pugalia.
Furthermore, he stated that news channels are perhaps slower than the rate of evolution of society. "We need to stop sensationalising news in the name of 'public demand'. Entertaining news need not mean sleaze," he declared. He touted SMS interactivity as a big wave in news channels.
Venkatramani highlighted another issue - that of news channels not taking brand building too seriously when it comes to advertisers, thus ending up selling a commodity rather than a brand to them. "For a media buyer, a GRP is a GRP is a GRP. They see 1 GRP in Times Now as the same as 1 GRP in Channel 10!" he said.
Venkatramani hinted that broadcasters should be able to sell their audience profile in a more exact manner to buyers, who will then see value in them and be willing to pay a premium. Broadcasters could hence increase their revenues.
The other issues, which the panel felt are here to stay for a while, include proliferation of news channels, deterioration of content, distribution issues and lack of technology to feed the greater hunger for news consumption at the bottom of the pyramid (which can happen through digitisation), and a 'pay TV' model where the consumer has a choice to pay for only the channels he watches.