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Vanita Kohli-Khandekar: The Happy Diwali media stories

We are back on the path of creative experimentation. As digital theatres keep spreading and multiplexes digitise, cash is coming back to the system

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Since we are all just back from celebrating Diwali, here are two happy stories from the world of Indian media and entertainment.

Mumbai and Delhi are almost fully digital, and Kolkata should get there in a bit. Chennai has got an extension from the high court, but the state government is OK with digitisation. So the top four metros, which account for eight per cent of India’s 148 million TV homes, will be fully digital in a few weeks.

This deserves a round of applause for everyone — broadcasters, cable and direct-to-home (DTH) operators, and multi-system operators (, who distribute the signal). But more than that, the ministry of information and broadcasting deserves acknowledgement.

For the first time in many years, a policy decision on the media was quickly backed by law and executed. The last part, execution, is most critical in India. The history of media legislation is littered with well-intentioned laws such as the , which never saw the light of day. It would have saved us the trouble of mandatory digitisation and a great deal of lost revenue if it had been passed as intended in 2000-01. Then there are issues that nobody has the political will to touch, like paid news or cross-media ownership.

The ministry deserves marks, then, for being firm, not letting the rabble rousers – especially the Delhi cable guys – disrupt the process. It has been one of the most bloodless transitions possible, given how fragmented and factitious the industry is. , secretary for information and broadcasting, claims that the ministry had control rooms, technical teams and a whole lot of things working overtime in the background to ensure this.

It must, however, continue to remain firm as the next 38 towns start work. The entire country is supposed to be digital by December 2014. Once it is through, digitisation will help clean up all the muck gathered over 20 years in the Rs 34,000-crore television industry. It will release at least Rs 10,000 crore worth of undeclared cash into the system, bring in tax revenue, improve programming quality and generally give consumers more choice. That is a lot of good things to be happy about.

The other happy story is: the bouncing-with-ideas and peppy Indian film industry. At 100 years of age, here is an industry brimming with health and vitality.

Many film critics and editors are probably pursing their lips as they read this. But I can never get over the new face of the Indian film industry. As a teenager in the 1980s, I saw some really bad films thanks to the poor shape the business was in. And every time I saw older films from the 1960s or 1970s, or critically acclaimed world cinema that Doordarshan showed sometimes, it would make me wonder what had gone wrong.

Now we are back on the path of and exploration. As keep spreading and multiplexes digitise too, cash is coming back to the system instead of leaking out as black money. There are enough and more sources of finance. Five big studios have emerged. The proportion of films that make a respectable margin has gone up from about 5-10 per cent of total releases to one-third or more in most years. And unlike TV digitisation, most of this has happened in spite of policy, not because of it.

The ministry doesn’t seem to think that multiplexes and digitisation are akin to building infrastructure that cleans up three ills with one stroke — piracy, black money and tax loss. But it does. A widely available film that is reasonably priced is difficult to pirate.

What the Rs 14,000-crore industry needs to do now is move to the next level. And that will come by deepening its ties with global studios, all of whom have recently set up local production arms. While we may not need their help on production, where Indian studios could do with a hand is in global distribution. Twentieth Century Fox, Viacom, Paramount and Sony make more than half their money from markets other than the US. The non-US part is among their fastest growing businesses. As India tries to increase its minuscule share of the global film pie, some lessons in global distribution, marketing and a few million dollars worth of investment will go a long way.

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