Saturday, July 01, 2006

If Media is a "Business"...

For a long time, I used to believe that media/press - specially the "news media" - is (or, at least, should be) a "social institution" which upholds and protects the basics of the society, it informs and alerts the populace, it provides an objective, balanced and multi-sided view on the issues, and is one of the key cornerstone of any democractic society.

But then this forenoon, I got converted!...

This happened while splitting a beer with a friend, who is almost an evangilist for the liberalised free-market economy.

Over a couple of bottles of beer, he convinced me that I am suffering from archaic delusions from the pre-free-market, suppressive socialist era. "Be realistic," he said, "media is just another business, which takes care of its shareholders/owners by serving the most lucrative customer segment."

"We should", he told me, "strive to ensure more privatisation and competition in this space, because it benefits the society by raising the awareness of people."

"Look at how within just one month", he argued, "the public knows so much about the internal details of Pramod and Rahul Mahajan's family, political affiliations, blood pressure, urine, relationships, heart condition, excreta, temperament, etc. And this is because of the competition - each TV channel competes to give the viewers a more accurate and detailed information to increase its TRP rating... this could not have been possible in the state-control media days...But for the liberalisation of media, would you have known about the kiss that Mika Singh gave to Rakhi Sawant? Or that Aishwarya Roy broke her toe on a movie set? Or about the mistress of XYZ minister? etc. etc...."

I conceded the point that in the earlier era, this kind of "information explosion" was just not possible...

[Note: I think it was around this point, when - either due to my friend's rant, or due to beer - I went into a reverie...]

...and, I thought, if the news media - specially the electronic one - is a "business", then the media companies are doing an un-imaginative drab job, and not leveraging on the opportunities (and obligations) they have...

For instance, if media is a business, then:

  • "news" can/should actually be treated like a consumable "information product". And like any other consumable item, business ethics/CSR demands that it must describe its ingradients (like on a bottle of coke - how much sugar, caffein, etc.). So before actually watching/reading the news, we, the consumers, should know percentage-wise ingradients - facts, opinions, deceptions, sensationalism, etc. - the "news capsule" contains.

  • the media companies can offer the customer (who, as we know, is the king/emperor... Reference to missing clothes, notwithstanding) a variety of choices, such as "low-facts/high-sensation" news or "customised-to-your-prejudices" news or "only-for-the-feeble-minded" news etc.

  • innovations are possible: there is no need to unnecessarily get constrained by factual details in generating the news (imagine the launch of a news media channel/newspaper: "Bringing To You, First Time In The World, "The Synthetic News"!!" - wow! what a breakthrough!!!)

  • the regulatory authorities (e.g., FCC and Prasar Bharti, etc.) can be pressured to devise laws to issue A/U/X certificates (as they do for the movies) to news, e.g., "not recommended for secular/ activists/ pro-reservations/ anti-reservations/ republicans/ democrats, etc." kind of certificate.

  • there can also be disclaimers to news such as: "This presentation by Collin Powell to the UN Security Council is based on "intelligence" supplied by CIA/ Pentagon - any resemblence to reality is purely coincidental" etc. In fact, there can even be Statutary Warnings: "Watching this News Item is Injurious to your Pre-Conceived Notions."

  • such liberalisation of the media will open up opportunities for more entreprepreurial and innovative companies to make and supply customised news. Depending on customer choice, like the toppings on the pizza or concoctions at Starbuck, e.g.,

    - if one wants Iraq "liberated", you get it; if you want it "invaded" that is also in the menu;)... and even WMDs can be made to be found, if that is what the customer wants!!!...
    - you can see Karan Thapar interviewing Arjun Singh, and know how clueless the minister is... Or if you so desire, can also see Arjun Singh interviewing Karan Thapar and show how uneducated the latter is about the previous SC judgements on the issue (and of course, on demand, one can even change "the issue" and make it, say, a discussion about some shampoo-eliminating shampoo)
    - it will be possible to cater to the segment who wants to know that India produced record cotton this year due to GM... and also to those who want to know about the cotton farmers in Vidarbha (and Punjab and elsewhere) who have created a recod of sort by committing suicide
    - depending on one's preference, Sardar Sarovar Dam can be shown to be the "lifeline" to Gujarat (specially, to the regions of Kutch and Saurashtra)... a very small niche segment, who may actually get affected, the news can highlight that only 1.8% of cultivable land in Kutch and 9.24% in Saurashtra will be in the command area of the dam..

    etc. etc.... the possibilities to serve different markets of "news" are immense!

  • Other businesses (e.g., governments, corpoates, NGOs, etc.) will be able to sponsor the news (or even do co-branding). For instance, the whole world can be shown to survive only on Coke or Pepsi - Similarly, NGOs will need to sponsor (if they have money) the news that 2/3 of the mankind does not have drinking water... etc. etc. [the greatest advantage of this kind of arrangement will be that all these objections about the "integrity" of news media will become a non-issue;0)]

  • and just to complete the scenario, this whole thing can be facilitated by Ministry of Truth, which will give "1984 George Orwell Awards" to the most successful channels...

I think, it was around this time, the effect of beer started running out, and the reality hit!

Waking from my creative reveries, I realised my utter ignorance and stupidity. The free-market news media entrepreneurs had already mastered the market, and had rolled out what I thought were my unique insights....

I realised, for example, that:

  • ...I was na├»ve (if I was not talking about myself, I would have said "ignorant and stupid") to believe that when I bought a newspaper/magazine or watched a news channel, I was the "customer" of the MSM (Main-Stream Media ), since I paid for it (even if nominally).

  • ...the media revenues come, not from subscriptions paid by people like me - its so-called "valued" customers - but from its "real" customers - the businesses who pay for the advertisements to keep the media running.

    So what - and to whom - does the media sell?

    Media sells me (and you) - its subscribers/ audience/ viewers/ readers - to its primary customers (the businesses/ governments/ corporates). It influences and molds my (and your) views and beliefs to fit a certain version of reality... and gets paid for that service!!!


    gaddeswarup said...

    Pl. see for US news distortions:
    about the difficulties of getting reliable news, more in terms of pressures on journalists, publishers profit concerns and omissions. Blogs do not seem to fare well either. There seem to be nexus between various blogs, radio and TV stations, particularly among the right wing. An aide to the president Bush said: 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.'"
    I do not think that it is different in other countries. I tend to go to blogs and keep shifting to different newspapers to to get different perspectives. Regards,

    Madhukar said...

    Agree with you, Swarup,
    the media across the world is going the same direction... but there is still much one can find out through the net. There are also some bloggers who provide a more nuanced picture of the the reality - and many who actually are better than the MSM in their objectivity and analysis.

    shikha said...

    Madhukar..though i always thought of media as a business..but I really admire your creativity on the subject!