BEHIND A BILLION SCREENS What Television Tells Us About Modern India Nalin Mehta HarperCollins Publishers India; 282 pages; Rs 699 This is an ambitious book. Its promise is all the more seductive because of author Nalin Mehta's background as a social scientist and media man. And because Uday Shankar, chief executive officer of Star, was supposed to co-write it, as he confesses in the introduction that he has written. The book finally took shape as a result of Mr Mehta and Mr Shankar's discussions over the past 10 years on television in India. I also picked up the book with anticipation because I had liked Mr Mehta's earlier well-researched but not very coherently put-together India on Television: How Satellite News Channels Have Changed the Way We Think and Act (2008). Behind a Billion Screens goes a fair way to meet its promise - it is engaging, full of fresh anecdotes and it is much better written than Mr Mehta's earlier book. The one thing that really works is that Mr Mehta contextualises the Indian market against the US in terms of regulation, on concentration of media power and the other issues. The burden of Mr Mehta's argument is that the debate around Indian media lacks an understanding of the role ownership plays. It is the kind of people owning news television and not concentration of ownership that is creating the crisis of content that we see on television, he says. Regulators, however, are more interested in tackling the cross-media ownership issue. Mr Mehta uses the Hirfindal-Hirschman Index (HHI), which uses market share of a media outlet to measure concentration, to make his point. He compares the HHI in Hindi, Telugu and a few other Indian languages to that in the US, UK and other countries. He finds that the ownership concentration in all Hindi news and entertainment channels as well as English news channels in India, "is moderate and remains among the most diverse in the world." According to a 2008 study by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting the real problem was in Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu. In the last decade or so, three categories of people have invested in news television - politicians, chit-funds and real estate businesspeople. The latter are huge generators of cash, particularly black money. And what better way to park it than in a news channel that can be used to buy influence in the corridors of power? It doesn't matter whether they make money or not. But this practice spoils the market for people who want to make money. Going by TAM Media Research data India had a world-beating 135 news channels, about one-third owned by politicians, real estate barons and other sundry investors with cash to burn. According an anaylsis by Business Standard, only four news broadcasters in India make money on and off - these are TV Today, MCCS (ABP News), NDTV and Network18. Ownership of either a channel or a cable network is also becoming a way to censor news - such as in Punjab or Tamil Nadu, where the ruling parties and the state own the major cable networks. Much of this has been written about by this paper and others.
But Mr Mehta puts it all in one place, contextualises it against the business and its evolution and, therefore, paints a good canvas to understand the industry. Thankfully, unlike most academics and news people, Mr Mehta does not sneer at the need for news to make money. And he points out, rightly, that almost every major news brand in India was born from corporate ownership - The Times of India, Hindustan Times and Indian Express. There are, however, three areas where the book disappoints. One, it is completely news media-centric though it does pay lip service to entertainment because Shankar is a key interviewee. There is nothing wrong with that but then the title of the book is misleading. Of the Rs 100,000 crore media and entertainment industry, Rs 47,500 crore goes to television. News television brings in just about Rs 2,000 crore of that. The book, therefore, addresses a small, albeit influential, part of the industry. Two, if news is the key area then the perfect parallel to have drawn would be newspapers. Only about 10 per cent or so of the 86,000 registered newspapers are members of the key industry body the Indian Newspaper Society. Others are small papers that boost the publishers' ego in local communities or are tools of extortion. And just like in television, ethics is becoming a huge issue with paid news and private treaties (or shareholding-for-positive-stories deals). Three, contextualising against the business of the global news industry might have been fun too. Globally, entertainment subsidises private news brands. Some of the best news brands are not-for-profit ones funded by a trust (The Guardian), taxpayers (BBC) or a benevolent ruler (Al Jazeera). To his credit, Mr Mehta focusses on Prasar Bharati, which has failed to create a BBC-like news channel out of Doordarshan in spite of its generous funding and massive staffing. This is because the government refuses to let go of it administratively and financially. A little more exploration around those models would have helped show the way forward. Mr Mehta does focus on the other thing needed to fix the news business - more foreign investment. The book's promise, then, is only half fulfilled, but it is a half that is well done.