Inventing our own model
SOMETHING curious is happening in the world of media and I’m not sure if we know quite what it is. Ten years ago, globalisation was the buzzword. As the Indian economy liberalized and opened up, we thought we had a road map for the future. We had been a siege economy for too long, shackled so that we could not keep up with our East Asian neighbours. Now, we finally had an opportunity to follow the rest of the world.
Over the last decade, however, experience suggests that, at least in the media field, India has not followed the example of East Asia. Nor has it replicated the progress of the West. Instead, an entirely new model of behaviour has emerged, a model that is peculiarly Indian.
This is most immediately apparent in the world of television. When the satellite channels first appeared on our TV screens in the early to mid 1990s, most people in the TV business believed that we could follow a western model. The argument ran something like this: as the world continues to become a global village, Indians will want more global news and entertainment. CNN and the BBC World Service will become leading news providers. The international shows that have taken the world by storm (Baywatch, The X Files) will rule the airwaves. And because TV is an up-market medium and because cable connections are relatively expensive, the universe for satellite TV will consist of English-aspiring (if not exactly English-speaking), globally focused Indians.
It was this predicted pattern of viewership that dominated the early TV schedules. MTV, the global music channel, beamed international pop and rock programming. The BBC World Service carried the Nine O’clock BBC domestic news live from London and Star TV, owned then by Richard Li, stuck to American entertainment: sitcoms and thrillers.
This first phase ended around the time that Rupert Murdoch took control of Star. Murdoch recognized that Star Plus had failed to penetrate the Indian market and reckoned that the way ahead was to ditch the concept of a Pan-Asian or global TV network and to provide an India-specific service. Accordingly, Star Plus became a bilingual version of a general interest TV channel like Britain’s ITV 1. There was some Indian current affairs programming (in English), some original Hindi programming, some English language American programming and versions of popular global TV hits like The Bold and the Beautiful dubbed into Hindi.
Murdoch threw the BBC off the Star platform and after a dispute with MTV, started his own music channel, Channel V. Recognising that the audience for global rock was limited, V abandoned the MTV formula and went for Hindi film music. When MTV did return, on another platform, it proudly declared that it would play indipop but was still unwilling to play Hindi film music. The sole winner in this phase was Zee TV, a low-budget Indian channel whose bargain basement programming found huge audiences, largely because it seemed to be in Hindi.
Learning from the success of Zee (and after a legal settlement that saw Zee leave the Star platform), Murdoch tried a third avatar of Star Plus. This was completely Hindi, had no news and current affairs and built its appeal around a Hindi version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, retitled Kaun Banega Crorepati (or KBC), and hosted by Amitabh Bachchan. KBC was a runaway success and its performance led people to believe that perhaps international programming, suitably Indianised, had a future in India.
But then, a strange thing happened. As KBC’s ratings began to slide, a new kind of programme began to take over. This was a daily soap opera of the sort that nobody in the West had seen. Its characters were usually rich, over-dressed and over-made-up. They played out the traditional themes of Indian family life – the mother-in-law versus the daughter-in-law, tensions within a joint family and so on.
By the time KBC finished its initial run, this new kind of show, peculiar to India and invented by our own programmers, had come to dominate TV. Star tried to follow KBC with another Indianised quiz show: Kamzor Kadi Kaun, a Hindi version of The Weakest Link. But this proved to be a dismal failure and was pulled off the air. Other channels, which had experimented with Hindi reworkings of Columbo, Charlie’s Angels etc. abandoned these concepts and rushed to produce family soaps. Suddenly an entirely Indian genre, invented within the last five years, had taken over.
Today’s TV scene looks something like this. The so-called international news channels that everyone predicted would dominate TV (BBC World and CNN) are watched so little that they don’t even show up on the charts. MTV, which has finally abandoned its reservations and gone filmi, only has a minor presence as does Channel V (neither makes much of a profit). The English-speaking elite watches Star News (on the Murdoch platform but produced by an Indian provider, NDTV) but even this successful channel does not approach the ratings of two Hindi news channels: Aaj Tak and Zee News.
In the world of entertainment, Star Plus, home of the family soap, reigns supreme, with something like 40 programmes in the top 50. So successful is the new Star Plus formula that the channel is debating whether or not to bring back KBC – perhaps it doesn’t need it any longer. Other channels are trying hard to replicate the Star Plus formula.
So, what happened to globalisation? What happened to the upmarket English-aspiring class? What happened to international news? What happened to global rock and roll? What happened to Baywatch and The X Files? Answer: India ignored all existing models of TV development and evolved its own. The emergence of an Indian TV paradigm is now pretty much the conventional wisdom. What is less widely accepted is that even in print media, we seem to be ignoring the global experience and inventing our own model.
No matter which western newspaper market you look at, some factors seem common. As more and more people get their news from TV, newspapers have had to adapt to do different things. In most developed markets, they have got fatter and thicker and concentrated more on features and opinion columns. The exception is Britain where these rules hold true for broadsheets but the tabloid press has become more sex-obsessed, more focused on the private lives of celebrities and even more sensational as a way of still seeming interesting.
Britain has a national press but in the United States, newspapers tend to owe allegiance to a single city. The Washington Post is Washington’s newspaper; the LA Times performs the same role in LA; the Miami Herald does it in Miami, and so on. There are two national papers (USA Today and perhaps, The Wall Street Journal) but neither really impinges on each big city newspaper’s market share. Nor do the big newspapers try and become national brands: in fact, most can be identified by the names of their cities in their titles.
It was generally assumed that as India globalised, as the economy opened up, as consumer advertising boomed and as literacy rates went up, the English-language press at least would follow a western model. After all, all Indian newspapers had started life as copies of western (usually English) originals (as had the magazines: India Today after Time; Business India after Businessweek), so why shouldn’t they continue to follow these papers in their development?
Instead, a curious thing has happened. Since 1994 or so, western and Indian patterns of newspaper development have diverged sharply. For a start, we no longer follow the American model of each newspaper market having its own favourite paper. In Delhi, the traditional leader, the Hindustan Times is under serious threat from The Times of India. In Bangalore, The Times has beaten Deccan Herald, the historical leader; in Chandigarh, the Hindustan Times is on the verge of overtaking The Tribune; in Calcutta, The Statesman seems doomed and The Telegraph’s dominance is threatened by the rapid rate of growth of The Times of India and the Hindustan Times, and so on. Unlike America, Indian newspapers are becoming national brands and local favourites are finding the going tough.
Nor does the British model, with the market divided between tabloids and broadsheets, seem to fit. We have only one successful tabloid in India (Bombay’s Mid-day) but many of the broadsheets are engaging in activities that are more commonly associated with tabloids in the UK. Would The Times (London) or The Guardian (to say nothing of The New York Times) be as proud of sponsoring a beauty pageant as The Times of India is of the Miss India show? More to the point, would any western broadsheet have gained so much (as evidenced by brand surveys) from such an exercise in the way in which The Times of India undoubtedly has gained?
Even the content of Indian papers has begun to sharply diverge from the western model. British newspapers are now, like their American counterparts, vast, multi-section affairs, full of hundreds of pages of big pictures and long articles.
In contrast, Indian papers have actually got thinner this year (an 18 page main paper is not uncommon these days), Sunday feature supplements have been halved in size, and the so-called youth supplements (Delhi Times, HT City etc.) are full only of advertising.
It’s not hard to see why this should be so. Indian newspapers pay global rates for newsprint (still around 60% of a newspaper company’s cost structure) but sell their products at absurdly low prices. Even after price wars, a British newspaper will cost the equivalent of Rs 40 or so. A paper in Singapore or Thailand will cost around Rs 20 or more. An Indian paper, on the other hand, will cost Rs 1.50.
It is not that newspaper barons all want to charge so little. The problem is that readers are reluctant to pay more. Any newspaper that raises its price sees circulation collapse as readers defect to rivals. Any newspaper that lowers price sees a swell in circulation. Once the so-called ‘invitation price’ period is over and price returns to normal, readers stop subscribing.
Many newspaper editors have challenged this rule of market pricing. Surely, there must be people willing to pay Rs 3 for a newspaper? Perhaps a higher priced paper won’t touch the circulation of The Times of India or the Hindustan Times, but it will still sell enough to break even? No such luck. No paper priced at Rs 3 or more can sell more than 25,000 copies in Delhi. And that’s not enough to break even. (Or have much influence, for that matter.)
The restricted size dictates the content. If the whole paper is 18 pages and half of that is advertising, the average paper has only nine full pages to play with. One of those is the editorial page (traditionally ad-free), another is the front page (usually only one ad in the bottom right hand corner) and a third is the Op-ed page (usually kept largely ad-free). This means that most of the nine pages worth of advertising will have to be accommodated in the 15 remaining pages of the paper. That doesn’t leave a lot of room. So, you can forget about long analytical pieces. There’s no room for intelligent features. There’s no question of columns of opinion. And the average story has to be 300 words or less.
How then, does a newspaper, with all the space of an average school bulletin board, distinguish itself from its competitors? It can’t be depth of coverage – there really isn’t enough room. Nor can it be comprehensiveness – for the same reason. And even quality of writing is of limited use as a distinguisher – at 300 words an article, you are writing telegraphic English anyway.
From these limitations has emerged an Indian model. To be fair to The Times of India, this model is largely its creation though nearly all of its rivals have been forced by the market to adopt some of its components. It has long been axiomatic in the newspaper business that the people with the shortest attention span are children. So the short article format is ideally suited to youth. At The Times, the medium has become the message. And along with a dose of demographic mumbo jumbo (such and such proportion of India’s population is below 20 etc.), catering to youth has become the new mantra.
In most senses, this is the reverse of usual western demographic targeting. Advertisers know that children have very little disposable income. Far better therefore to target consumers in the 25 to 35 (or 40) bracket who are most willing and able to buy new products. But in India, a 35 year-old reader is regarded by many newspaper marketing departments as already being too old.
Once you say that children (or young people) are your ideal audience, then other consequence follow. It becomes reasonable to avoid weighty subjects on page one (youngsters don’t care about famine! they are bored by politics! etc.). Your international pages need only carry stories about Jennifer Lopez or James Bond (young people can’t tell the West Bank from Grindlays Bank!). You can use Hindi slang in your headlines (because that’s how young people talk these days!). And you don’t have to worry too much about an editorial page (which young person ever reads an edit?)
Once this formula is in place, you have a newspaper that breaks all the rules of successful western newspapers. Logically, you should have a paper that, while it appeals to young people, turns off adults. But here’s the funny thing: even adults seem to love it. What does this tell us about the Indian middle class? I do not know. And it worries me to even think about it.
There are other aspects of the Indian formula that divert from the western model. Most journalists – especially in Europe and the UK – are cynical, weary souls with little time for spirituality or religion. Nevertheless, religion – in a formal sense, say church engagements or appointments – will find place in their papers. But there won’t be spirituality. There will be no dissertations about the true nature of Godhead on the editorial page.
The most extraordinary aspect of The Times of India formula is that spirituality is an essential – and extremely popular – part of the model. Such columns as The Speaking Tree or Sacred Space may provoke derision from journalists but readership survey after readership survey demonstrates their hold over the market. Readers of all ages seem to want to read such articles as ‘The ultimate joy is inner growth’ by the likes of Swami Sukhabodhananda. The parallel would be for The New York Times to devote a large chunk of its editorial page every day to Jerry Falwell and Deepak Chopra (The Times has a similar range – from formal religion to new age). In any western paper, this would be unthinkable. In India, it is the path to success.
Because spirituality and an interview (often with a film star or a business tycoon) have taken up permanent residence on the edit page, many people suspect that eventually the paper will discontinue the editorials entirely. The Times denies this (though there are persistent rumours that the process will begin in the smaller editions) but the recent appearance of something called Our Comment on page one has strengthened that suspicion.
In most of the western world, serious newspapers avoid putting comment into their front-page articles. Inside, a paper will usually have several pages of opinion and comment, both from its own editorial board and from outsiders but the news is sacred. In Britain, however, tabloids do not follow this principle, happily putting short pithy comments on page one (eg: The Sun says: Britain must crack down on asylum-seekers NOW!)
The Times of India has followed the British tabloids in this respect, appending a tabloid-style three-line comment to page one stories. Simplistic in tone, written in a style suited to a college magazine (for instance: ‘Attaboy Atal!’ when Vajpayee obliquely criticized Narendra Modi), the Our Comment feature leaves no room for subtlety. And yet, the editorial page team produces it and when journalistic sneering got too much, the editor of the edit page even wrote a signed (if largely unreadable) column praising his employers’ vision in dreaming up the idea. Within The Times, they believe that other papers will soon stop sneering and copy the innovation. Who knows? They may still be proven right.
What do all these examples tell us? It is probably too early to come to any definite conclusions. But some things do, nevertheless, seem clear. The first is that the Indian media will not follow western models of evolution. Globalisation has not brought us closer to the West. It has pushed us into adopting a distinct Indian media identity. The second is that the level of westernisation among the Indian middle class (and this includes the upper middle class – the so-called SEC-A) is much lower than one might otherwise suspect. Just because people crave western goods does not mean that they share the values of western popular culture.
One instance of this is the manner in which Hindi TV channels are far more popular than English channels even in households that we would regard as English-speaking. Another instance is the complete rejection of western programming and the search for Indian themes, whether they deal with the joint family or tensions with in-laws. (Critics routinely describe the values espoused by these serials as regressive; it makes no difference to their popularity.) The third instance is the refusal of Indian readers to go with the western tendency to read analysis and to be impressed by argumentative columns. Indians – even relatively rich Indians – are less interested in ideas than we may have thought. They are happier with spirituality and tradition.
Sociologists will probably have their own theories about why events have followed this course. I’ve heard it said that the economic growth of the 1980s and 1990s created a new middle class that did not share the background of the old middle class. Others have suggested that the Indian middle class, stunned by the avalanche of consumer goods and the high salaries of the last decade, is still playing the kid in the candy store; that it is too thrilled by prosperity and consumption to worry about ideas. All that will come later, when the middle class reaches another stage of evolution and matures.
I’m not a sociologist so I won’t pretend to know the answers. But I think I speak for more and more people in the media when I say that the experience of the last decade has surprised us all.
And yes, we are not exactly overjoyed by what we see.