Media at crossroads
With the digital gaining primacy among audiences, TV news must realign its strategies.
The small hand-held screen is taking the bigger telescreen by the horns. From news to entertainment, short films to music videos, the any-time consumption of video online is increasing fast, more so in today's times of low internet costs on handsets, in this post-Jio era.
Digital is being reborn in India almost every day with 845 million cell phone users, half of them being active on the internet and social media, and six out of 10 users being regular daily internet users – spending up to seven hours a day. Moving ahead, a transition to the digital world will emerge through Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, and Virtual Reality. On one hand, this will add visual and conceptual diversity, and, on the other, it may also create stories and visuals which do not actually exist, passing them off as news. Therein, lies the pitfall too.
Challenges in revenue and distribution
News media is at crossroads on many counts. The basic problem that news media is facing today, especially TV news, is the disproportionate expense on distribution and carriage fees of channels (which is approximately 45 per cent of the consumer end revenue of the channels). Hence, there is a decidedly low investment in content and the variety of the same. Almost all channels then resort to studio talks rather than fieldwork. This also results in reduced courage in content and the prevalence of subdued voice across many channels.
The size of the television news business is around Rs 3000 crores – 5 per cent of the gross 60,000 crores advertising revenue in India. Hence, the frontiers are still open on the revenue side. Even in digital news, profit sighting and traffic rise are rare and far in between, though that has happened in some portals, like ndtv.com. In spite of the news portals like timesofindia.com and indiatoday.in already earning profits, the Indian consumer is still not ready to endorse the subscription and Paywall route to revenue generation in digital news.
The situation for general entertainment channels (GEC) is a tad better and the consumption of serials and reality shows is far more on TV than on the handset. But, there is a perceptible change here too. Snacking on small parts of reality shows on digital media is rampant now and, often, such short videos go viral.
Also, the viewing of television programs is on the decline as urban consumers need the option of round-the-clock viewing to match their hectic short-on-time lifestyle. Digital with its anytime viewing option is a major way forward, aided by large and cheap data packs with wifi also getting more affordable by the day. An investment of a thousand bucks can pretty well take a consumer through most of his preferred shows online at any time, and that leads to a sense of empowerment, unlike in TV viewing which is increasingly being considered as dumb-viewing.
Integrating TV and digital
A major step forward in the domain of television news is its increasing integration with web or digital news. ndtv.com has emerged to be the 20th largest news portal of the world and, by far, the largest of any TV news organisations in India, with its 'Web First' slogan and series of initiatives. Since the online audience is not equal to the broadcast audience, it is creating specific skills within its integrated newsroom.
India Today takes it to the mobile first perspective where the content (pics, language, and video) are tailored to mobile medium sensitivity. Alongside, the editors today find videos for online to be very different from the video on TV, since online videos are consumed more frequently on a smaller handheld device.
Further, television and its digital avatars are both caught up in the debate between speed news (face focus) and enterprise content (full story with various perspectives). Originally curated personalised content is a must in the digital medium, and, hence, the adaptation of journalists to digital content generation techniques becomes crucial. And, as is the experience of most digital news platforms, for this a senior journalist has to unlearn several practices s/he is comfortable with. Un-cynical and a tech-savvy younger work-force is often more suited for this. This integration further proves that digital is on the rise, whereas television is in slow decline.
Bias versus neutrality
It is good news that journalism in myriad forms is being consumed more and democracy is being served better with the growing reach of news media. However, in a clutter of news-platforms, credibility is going to be the discerning factor.
The worrying factor at times is that by-lines are increasingly known less for the news they speak but for the stands they take. There is the rise of branded anchors, living in their bubbles and echo-chambers, and TV often presents less news, and far more accentuated views. Branded anchors have defined their specific audiences and are proud of their stance on socialism or communalism etc, and less on their journalism. Sometimes, the extreme voices of anchors are causing an irreparable damage to journalism, as seen in the Kasganj case recently.
Alternatively, social media has created some pressures on TV's stronghold. Portals like altnews and boomchecker have created pressure on TV journalists to get their stories right. News anchors can have their bias in views, but post-truths or fake news cannot be presented as facts.
The artificially created conflicts through studio guests are signs of decay in a healthy news presentation, though these serve the twin purposes of reducing costs and strengthening biases and stereotypes.
"Don't let objectivity get into the way of news," James Cameron. So, opinions are fine so long as they are stated upfront and not presented with doctored or fake facts.
Going beyond personal stands of anchors and editors, and more so of media business houses, there are told and untold pressures from powers that be. Story-telling in India is often coloured as patriotic and non-patriotic. Patriotism is not a virtue of journalism, keeping news sacrosanct is.
Media mediates social change and media self-corrects with time. People do go back to credible news. After Donald Trump assumed power in the US, New York Times and CNN have become more popular. Indian news media should be thinking about what they are doing to themselves for TRPs, viewership and being in the good books of erstwhile power holders.
Often, even TRPs do not reflect the reality on the ground. Citing an example, one can say that while the TRP of the popular Ravish Kumar show on NDTV is virtually zero, the views of it online are range from one lakh to three lakh per episode and it generates an enormous pro and against social media commenting as well. Again, social media acts as a deterrent to the aberrations of the TV.
A bigger challenge, while audiences are coming to TV for the re-iteration or reaffirmation of their already existing worldview, they take to digital media for breaking news and this will only grow further. But revenue is still abysmally low in the digital world, which is the cause of real worry. With higher revenues on the digital medium, there will be more corrections in the overall contours of news-dissemination in India.
NewsRoom 2020: Crystal-gazing
The new definition of DTH is Direct to Handset. So mobile journalism (MOJO) and skills of MOJO journalists are the order of tomorrow. The future is of a further integrated newsroom along with staff doubling up on TV and digital fronts and selfie-stick reporters shooting themselves and publishing their work simultaneously. In brief, multi-skilled, convergent and techno-savvy mobile journalists with a great network and way with languages shall be the most sought-after animal in tomorrow's world of news.
Also, technology penetration will emerge as the game-changer ahead. Broadband penetration across 600 districts and gradually 6.3 lakh villages will make the medium influencing the message. Social media will fill in where the mainstream media fails and with broadband going to every corner, this will be further accelerated. Also, specialised content, as in business or ecology or defence, for specific niche audiences will also find the market and revenue by talking to the right audiences.
Indeed, journalists can take you to the spot of an event through VR and add layers to it through AR. Facts and fiction distinction may to an extent get obliterated. Since people are consuming a specific news platform more through social media like Twitter, Youtube and Facebook, and less through their portals, creating viral news through AR/VR becomes a reality of the future. This is more so as video capable devices are on the rise, and are expected to grow more than twice between 2016 and 2020.
Even today, daily online video watchers are 33 per cent of the total internet users in India. And, among these viewers, women outnumber men and Hindi outnumbers all other languages taken together. Increasingly, the shorter hand-held screen is for snacking news or watching the trailer of the news, while the larger screen on the TV is for more detailed presentation. And, online news is being snacked in different forms: text-led like DailyO, pic-led like InShorts, and video-led like shorts from TV news, and all these together will reduce TV news-viewing though video will grow and not go kaput.
Come 2020: Content still remains the king, though contexts and platforms shall change.
(Prof. Ujjwal K Chowdhury is currently School Head, School of Media, Pearl Academy and has been earlier the Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities, and Dean of Whistling Woods School of Communication. The views expressed are strictly personal)