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No prizes for status quo

By Peter Mukerjea

PeterSome would say 2014 has been more or less a good year for Indian media companies. But the reality is that nothing much has changed. Status quo has been maintained. And status quo cannot be good for any business or industry, particularly where everything is moving at a frantic pace. The pecking order in the television broadcasting space also remains unchanged, with Star India at the top of almost each and every genre stack. How wonderful it is for Star but how boring for the industry and the people in it, I tell myself.

Investments, ratings, movie acquisitions, sports rights, entertainment, socially relevant content, etc. simply show that the leader is the one that invests the most. In this case, they have a rich parent and like any rich parent (with a guilt complex as well as a gambling instinct), they are not averse to let their offspring indulge themselves every now and then. So, I take the liberty of referring to them as PLRKs (poor little rich kids) and leave them out of the equation for the moment, as they are what might be called ‘an irrational competitor’. Not much different was Sahara many moons ago when they were in an acquisition mode for everything that moved—Force India, BCCI cricket team sponsorship, hockey, football, airline and what not.

Nevertheless, 2015 promises to be a most interesting and challenging one. The new I&B minister Mr Arun Jaitley will be fully in the saddle after having presented his Union Budget in February. He will then surely engage himself to ensure that the broadcast industry in India truly moves into the 21st century. The challenges he faces are as exciting as they are daunting, but he’s no one’s fool so I’m sure his experience and knowledge will make him one of the best this country has ever had. Given that it’s his second stint at the job, he’ll be well aware that the required scale of change will be as disruptive as keeping a stable ship in place.

Telecommunications have changed our lives dramatically over the past few years by practically eliminating the tyranny of distance and size. The speed of change will continue to surprise us all in the near future as it increases its pace.

From Gutenberg to Google is a major transformation and has all but reduced the print industry’s size and scale to a mere blot on the landscape. The same is set to befall the broadcast sector in not so distant a future, but the industry seems oblivious to the tsunami that’s on its way to change their lives and future of the industry forever.

The passing of print was predicted many years ago with the onset of the internet and the slow demise of TV is also predicted with the onset of the way people spend their time on a different kind of screen today.

Some years ago when I was running Star, I had set up an internal team to consider the opportunities that lay in front of us for seeing the growing popularity of text messaging. I had said that the day my driver was able to send text messages from his phone would be the day that our TV broadcast industry in India would reach a tipping point and we needed to be prepared for that by creating content for newer devices. That was almost nine years ago. That day came about three years ago, but I am afraid that during that time companies in the TV business stood still at least as far as moving forward with new technologies and development is concerned. There certainly are websites for sports, etc., but that’s to be expected.

I ask you this: How is it that Star, Zee, or Sony have not been able to do what a Quikr or Snapdeal have done despite having a reach of millions of homes and displaying products on air, every minute of the day, every day of the year. We’ve just been lazy and stayed in our comfort zone while the new boys have come along and started these new ‘marketplace’ companies and built great businesses under the noses of the broadcast industry’s big boys.

This to me is what has led to a status quo at the end of 2014. But it’s never too late in this space—only they need to move and move fast. They need to behave like a start-up and operate from a shed-like office—not in well-stocked offices with plenty of resources at their disposal. That’s the difference. They should hire new people who can spend time thinking about new businesses round the corner rather than simply looking to maintain the status quo. As Steve Jobs said, “Stay foolish”.

Disruption is the magic word these days. Richard Fosbury, the famous high jumper, caused disruption when he practised the high jump by approaching it from the front but then doing a back flip at the last minute and cleared five or six inches higher than the then world record.

Kerry Packer, the Australian industrialist who revolutionised cricket and created the one-day game in essence by having turned it on its head from a five-day game, played in daylight, in whites with a red ball, to a game at night, artificial lights, coloured kit, white ball and all done in 50 overs. That’s disruption.

I talk to a few young people in the TV industry from time to time and I’m sad to say that they all enjoy the money they earn but are not finding excitement in their work. They come across as dispassionate and work is a chore they have to go through as it pays their bills. That’s sad!

I’m pretty sure they’ll leave if they could but they can’t as they earn too much and start-ups won’t pay them as much.

Isn’t that a sad state of affairs for an industry that was once the place to be and people loved their work enough to stay all night because it was fun.

To sum up, my five red hot buttons in 2015 for the minister/government to implement ASAP are as follows:

1. Merge I&B ministry with IT & communication. Having them separate makes little sense and renders the system inefficient. This also causes mass confusion as there are too many areas of overlap.

2. Allow free market pricing for cable, DTH & internet services, be it analogue or digital. After all, we live in a free market environment and service providers will price their offerings in as competitive a manner as possible.

3. Allow DTH platforms to provide internet/broadband and telecom services if they so wish, so as to leverage their databases and also provide competition to the telcos (who could deliver content) and improve overall service levels of internet speeds.

4. Formalise and mandate the number of minutes of commercial time per hour for all broadcast TV channels. Almost all countries in the world have this except us!

5. Compel all TV channels to provide a minute per hour of commercial time free of cost, for public information films on subjects of national importance such as those listed below. This should be the industry’s contribution to the nation’s overall CSR effort as it will reach millions of homes with high intense regularity.

Keep India Clean & Safe messages

Literacy drive messages

Anti-corruption messages

Road safety & road sense messages

Have a great 2015 and think of people like Richard Fosbury and Kerry Packer who caused disruption and changed orthodoxy every day and then dealt with the consequences. That’s fun.

(The author is former Star India CEO and INX Media founder)

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