July 3, 2008

Television in India needs quality content

I'm currently in India due to a family emergency. My dad was hospitalized after a heart attack, so I came over to spend some time with him and am staying over for his bypass surgery. On the brighter side, I've been able to use the free time while staying in his hospital room to catch up on my reading. I've also been watching a lot of TV (or trying to) in order to evaluate the much talked about Indian television promise first-hand.

While the exponential growth in the number of TV channels is amazing (couple of hundreds from just a few when I left India in '95), the vast majority of the content is pathetic, so say mildly. There is lack of quality programming in all the three major content categories: news & information, sports, and entertainment.

The state of the News programming on Indian television is particularly shocking. We make fun of 24-hour cable news channels in the U.S. and their coverage of un-important matters in order to fill their programming, but their Indian counterparts have pushed the boundaries to insane levels. In order to attract viewers, almost every news story is labeled as "breaking news." There is unnecessary, and sometimes distasteful sensationalism. Ethical standards of journalism are pitiful. A maniacal focus on economics seems to be driving the news coverage in India. E.g., while covering tragedies involving deaths, instead of showing dignity for the dead or for the family & loved ones who are suffering from the pain of the loss, the pursuit by TV channels to get that exclusive interview/footage at whatever price is appalling. Investigative journalism needed to expose the truth has apparently become secondary.

I've always held the belief that News should not be treated as a profit center by media companies. The age-old practice of keeping a Chinese wall between the business and editorial parts of a news organization has fallen apart in today's bottom-line focused approach of media companies. Even in the U.S., it's not uncommon to learn that a news organization has more staff in the Hollywood than in Washington DC.

For the next content category, sports, it's all about cricket in India, by every stretch of imagination. There is coverage of soccer and tennis that coincides with major global sporting events (European Cup, Wimbledon, etc), but the inability of India to produce world class sports persons in any mass sports except cricket will continue to restrict wider advertiser interest & therefore media focus in developing Indian sports programming beyond cricket.

Entertainment, or the General Entertainment Channel (GEC) space, as it is known in India, has seen a lot of activity with almost a dozen major players operating GEC channels in the country. Zee, Sony and Star (News Corps) are the dominant players. The #1 GEC channel, STAR Plus, has more viewers than the combined viewership of the next two in the category.

However, the GEC programming is still dominated by Bollywood (the Indian film industry), soaps, and reality shows based on imported formats. The ability of GEC operators to develop original entertainment programming of quality that can sustain the content and audience in the long run is still questionable. For example, India is yet to see TV drama franchises of the quality of Lost, 24, Heroes, that attract record audiences in the U.S. season after season. Granted that it can cost up to $3M to produce a single episode of these programs, I believe the economics will work out in India given the growth in its television industry and a deep demand amongst audience who are thirsty for quality entertainment options on the television. The GEC category already gets the largest share of the TV advertising dollars in India. The state of the GEC space in India seems to be where the industry was in the U.S. in late 80s.

The GEC also needs to invest in quality programming to compete with cricket. As expected, the Indian Premier League, a recently launched domestic cricket tournament, made a massive dent on the ratings of prime-time entertainment programming while the tournament was on. Almost all GEC channels lost audience to IPL, which purposely scheduled games during the prime-time evening slots. Some channels maintained their ratings by shifting programming to daytime slots. Clearly a more sustainable strategy that involves disruptive content with clear differentiation is required by GEC operators in India.

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