Trends and transformations: a deep dive into the dynamics of India’s thriving media ecosystem

This compelling book provides a wealth of insights into India’s media boom – spanning print, TV, films, music, radio, and digital. Here are some key insights!
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Looking for comprehensive research on the ups and downs of India’s media industry? Check out The Indian Media Business: Pandemic and After, by Vanita Kohli-Khandekar.

“The book is broken up into media segments such as print and TV simply for the convenience – digital is the common theme throughout,” the author begins.

The six chapters are packed with tables, charts, references, business metrics, regulatory updates, and expert interviews. An index at the end of the book would have been a welcome addition.

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar has been tracking the Indian media and entertainment business for almost two decades. She is a Cambridge University Press fellow, and her media handbook is now in its fifth edition. Her earlier book is The Making of Star India.

Here are my key takeaways from this 300-page book, summed up in the sections below. See also my reviews of the related books Shifting Orbits, Young Turks, Indian Innovators, and Entrepreneurship in Emerging Economies.

The pandemic has dealt India’s media industry a severe blow, and regulatory hurdles abound as well. “You have a bloody-nosed, battered M&E industry, fighting both the pandemic and regulators,” Vanita observes.

Print

The opening chapter traces the evolution of India’s print news industry through phases like the pre-independence era, business expansion, the rise of magazines, post-liberalisation FDI, and competition from TV. The book publishing industry is not addressed, however.

“Many of the top publications today are ones that have lived through the freedom struggle,” Vanita observes.

She outlines components and metrics of the print business, such as circulation, readership, line sales, and brand extensions. Most print media are now digital as well, though many face challenges in monetising online editions.

On the regulatory front, Vanita cautions that too many things are left in the hands of the government. Industry leaders warn that the possibility of facing multiple FIRs can hinder free speech.

India is slipping down in rankings of press freedom. Fortunately, there are dozens of “fiercely free publications.”

“The bartering of ad space for equity or editorial coverage for cash during elections has battered news media’s credibility,” Vanita adds.

“Also, the last few years have seen an amazing amount of servility and self-censorship creep into news media,” she laments.

TV

India is the world’s second-largest TV market by volume. TV has the largest share of India’s audience and revenue. Today, TV and OTT are “critical to each other’s growth.”

Vanita traces the growth of TV in the 1950s-70s (“utter lack of imagination in programming”), colour transmission in 1982 (thanks to the Asian Games), and cable TV later on in the 1980s.

“Satellite TV came to India in 1991 through CNN and Star TV,” Vanita writes. “Cable entrepreneurs” found new opportunities after earlier years of programming VCR movies into wired buildings.

Star (Li Ka Shing) and Zee (Subhash Chandra) rode the first satellite TV wave. “Of India’s 210 million TV homes, about 100 million get their TV signals via cable. Of the others, a bulk take paid DTH or free DTH,” Vanita describes. Reliance Jio spurred the video streaming market from 2016 onwards.

IIT Bombay came up with “rugged, simple and tamper-proof” devices to measure home TV viewing. TV viewing is largely a family activity, since most TV homes have only one TV.

However, industry agreement on transparency and measurement of cable, DTH, and online coverage continues to be a challenge. “The battle of wills between the world’s second-largest TV market and its regulator continues,” the author adds.

There are shortcomings on the content side as well. “India is now littered with dozens of episodes of the news media’s complete failure to inform debate and discussion around key issues,” Vanita laments.

“The last decade has seen a race to the bottom on quality,” she adds, pointing to communalisation, polarisation, and hate speech.

“If Indian cinema has done us proud globally by becoming a marker of our soft power, Indian news TV has shamed us by becoming a marker for the worst form of journalism. It is time to fix it,” Vanita urges.

“In the failure of journalism lies the success of fact-checkers such as Alt News and BOOM Live,” she observes.

Film

Though there are no quotas on foreign film screenings in India, around 90 percent of box office earnings are for local productions. Today, OTT platforms like Netflix screen Indian and foreign titles at the same time, enabling crossover effects.

“This ability to tell compelling stories is what the world’s largest platforms are turning to,” she adds.

Vanita traces the evolution of India’s film industry from the early 20th century, the rise and fall of powerful studios, financing risks, the “star” system, NRI markets, piracy, growth of alternate revenue streams from cable TV, and multiplex boom.

The pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to the film industry due to restrictions on shootings and theatre screenings, with full recovery expected only at the end of 2022 or in 2023. At the same time, it fuelled the creative ecosystem through the OTT boom, more audience interest in new formats, and giving creators more time to reflect and act.

Vanita also reveals nuggets such as the popularity of some Indian films in China and Japan, the difference between global and rural appeal, changes in storytelling techniques, and the rise of talent agencies.

Music

The fascinating chapter on music traces the formation of Gramco and its HMV label in the early 1900s, competition from Polydor and Magnasound, the cassette wave (Gulshan Kumar’s T-Series), non-film music, CDs, music television, and digital streaming.

“From our films to TV shows to streaming – music is an integral part of storytelling in the Indian ecosystem,” Vanita observes.

Piracy has been rampant in the Indian music industry, giving rise to copyright societies such as IPRS, PPL and IRSA. Fortunately, streaming, mobile ringtones, short video, and music apps have opened up new revenue streams.

“The Rs 14 billion radio business makes a bulk of its money from playing music,” Vanita writes. “Many of the organised players such as ShareChat’s Moj and DailyHunt’s Josh buy licenses for the music to be used by their creators,” she adds.

Digital platforms like YouTube have reduced the need for curators like music TV VJs. The largest YouTube channel in the world is India’s T-Series.

Other trends to watch are the rise in popularity of devotional music and innovative products like Saregama’s Carvaan music player designed like a radio.

Music apps have reduced piracy, increased transparency, and driven monetisability of music. They have also aided the discovery and promotion of new talent.

New opportunities are opening up for talent agencies as well as firms with catalogues of popular music for monetisation across multiple channels and formats.

Radio

Unfortunately, for regulatory reasons, radio did not take off in a big way in India as compared to many other countries. By the time commercial FM radio was freed up in 2000, most other media had raced ahead, Vanita explains.

“For a business which began with such creative verve, radio has disappointed over the two decades since its liberalisation,” she laments. Lack of robust metrics is also to blame.

Radio will be relevant in India if it connects with audiences beyond music, according to Tarun Katial, former CEO of Reliance Broadcast Network. It can be a “topical voice of the city” and build resonance around key points of view in micro-local markets.

Newer mobile phones, unfortunately, do not come with FM, hampering its potential growth. Worldspace satellite radio ceased operations in 2009.

“There is news on radio internationally, which helps build stickiness and seriousness. In India, radio is mostly entertainment, and hence, more casual,” Vanita observes.

Digital

“Just as TV and multiplexes did at the beginning of the millennium, video streaming is now liberating both storytellers and audiences all over again,” Vanita explains.

Internet in India has clearly come a long way since the crawling steps in the late 1990s, when foreign venture capital funds also began to set up shop.

“Advertisers and subscribers spent Rs 235 billion on online media in 2020, up from Rs 119 billion in 2017,” she adds. Online media is the second biggest media in terms of reach and revenues, and fast-growing.

“In 2020, for the first time ever, subscription revenues overtook advertising to bring in more than 51 percent of all the money that mass media made,” Vanita observes. Digital is pushing the envelope here, and India could have 200 million OTT subscribers by 2025, according to Media Partners Asia.

Even in news, ad-free subscription services are picking up, such as The Wire. Digital platforms are becoming “national audition theatres” for creators. Tech and media firms are pushing the envelope for short video apps (“sachetisation of video”).

Legacy media brands have a commanding presence online, but new players have also emerged such as aggregators and challenger publications. These include Inshorts (aggregator app) and Public (short video news).

“YouTube reaches 440 million Indians every month, has countless channels and made almost Rs 40 billion in revenues in the country in 2020,” Vanita writes. It has spurred stand-up comedy, education services, and food channels like Village Food Factory.

Regrettably, social media has also led to an increase in fake news, hate speech, and polarisation, some of it reflected from Indian TV news channels. Self-regulation and ethical steps by the industry have not worked well either.

The problem is also with the people – Vanita calls on all Indians to reject hate and bad behaviour. Unbridled data collection has also raised concerns about data privacy.

The TikTok ban spurred the fortunes of Moj, Chingari, Trell, and other apps. Unfortunately, many apps do not allow third-party audits, which hampers measurement and the growth of advertisement.

Challenges remain on the regulatory front. “The Digital Media Ethics Code has a chilling grievance redressal mechanism,” Vanita cautions.

The book ends with this chapter; it would have been great to have an epilogue with an integrated outlook on future trends and recommendations. Still, this edition successfully carries on the legacy of the author’s earlier work in this scholarly book series.

In sum, the book is a valuable reference for industry practitioners, entrepreneurs, researchers and students interested in the dynamics and destiny of India’s media ecosystem.

YourStory has also published the pocketbook ‘Proverbs and Quotes for Entrepreneurs: A World of Inspiration for Startups’ as a creative and motivational guide for innovators (downloadable as apps here: Apple, Android).

Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta

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