So the news channels are up in protest against a TRAI notification. Maybe some other channels too. And what is their grievance? That if the TRAI advertising limit of 12 minutes per hour is enforced most of them may find the business unviable and shut down. That would probably be good for people. Some news channels are simply not even news channels. If you add up the content of any news channel for a whole 24 hours the net content wouldn’t be more than 2 hours’ worth. The rest is made up of repeats and advertisements or even religious discourses. Almost everyone has either watched IPL or any other Cricket match but you wake up in the morning to catch up on some news you are likely to find these matches being discussed and clips being played over and over again. There isn’t any news-worthiness or original content in such programmes. Still, let us give them the benefit of airing what they choose and when they choose. Even if they have collectively forgotten that ‘news’ is public service.
So what are the TRAI guidelines that seem to have upset our honest, truthful and nation-building news channels? Here are excerpts from an IndiaToday report:
The TRAI notification says, no broadcaster shall carry in its broadcast of a programme, advertisements exceeding 12 minutes in a clock hour and any shortfall of advertisement in any clock hour shall not be carried over…..The ads in the clock hour shall include all types of commercials including those promoting the TV channel itself… that the ads carried on its channels are only full-screen advertisements and there shall be no part-screen or drop-down advertisement….that the audio level of the advertisements carried in its channel shall not be higher than the audio level of the programme being broadcast in the channel.
And India Today adds its own two cents: These restrictions on advertisements will reduce the earnings of the news channels and make it difficult for them to operate. Most news channels are running into losses or operating on wafer-thin margins as they have to make huge investments in preparing the news programmes and then bearing the entire cost of uplinking the content to the satellite from where it is downloaded by the multi-service operators.
Alright, so you might be led to think the news gangs are protesting some new TRAI notification. Not at all! The 12-minute rule has existed for a long time and the channels have simply been brazenly flouting all norms and rules of advertising for many years. So what they really want is the license to continue flouting the rules else they will die. Isn’t that nice? What if I tell you I want to beat up a few people because unless I do that I can’t live in peace? So the law should allow me to break laws for my survival. The recent TRAI notice was one to only remind the news channels of the rules which channels should adhere to. It was required to issue this notification in response to many complaints it had received against illegitimate advertising by news channels. In January 2011 a NGO, Utsarg, had filed a petition against the news channels with the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) on this very issue. TDSAT had to then take up the matter which has finally culminated in the fresh notice by TRAI. Prior to this, in a post titled ‘Fradulent Invasion of Privacy…” I had listed the evil of Pop-up ads and screen-blocking ads.
The print news media, in contrast to TV, is allowed over 60% of paper space for ads and commercials. While I am not debating whether it’s fair or not, at least with a newspaper you have the option of skipping the ads and reading the news and content of your choice. Even so, sometimes there will such gross features that you’d find it impossible to miss the images. Hmmm, this is particularly so when it concerns products for which ads are banned – tobacco and liquor. Take a look at this Hindustan Times article on the increasing popularity of Vodka among younger consumers: “Splash of white”. Ah well, new Vodka brands launched since 2011 can’t have mega launch campaigns or ads. But if you wanted to know which the new launches are, HT is there to tell you. And not just that, the huge images of Smirnoff and KetelOne aren’t even the new brand launches listed. That makes me wonder if Smirnoff and KetelOne and others make this a form of ‘paid news’. Only HT can confirm or deny. HT is not the only one, many other liquor and tobacco products are carried as “Features” with images larger than even normal ads in almost all newspapers.
If journalism was also about ethics, our TV news channels have absolutely no qualms about breaking rules, carrying surrogate advertising by every liquor brand and even carrying propaganda for political parties. The 12 minute advertising limit can surely be negotiated and increased a bit but beyond that all the fraudulent pop-ups and screen-blocking ads during programmes must surely stop.
Lastly, it would be naïve of anyone to believe that our news channels survive purely on advertising revenue. That used to be the old model. If this were true for the present then no news channel would be able to explain the illogically high investments many are still receiving from the corporate sector. Recently, Reliance has made huge investments in the TV18 group (CNN-IBN), Aditya Birla group has made investments in Living Media (Aaj Tak, Headlines Today). Surely, if Reliance or Birla wanted to seek great profits then news media is hardly a great prospect going by the wailing of the news channels over thin profits or losses. If the current 24-hour model of news TV advertising is not generating enough profits I find it hard to believe there can be a 48-hour model. The greed and avarice that drives the lust in our news channels to deliver a cocktail of Bollywood, Fashion shows, Cricket, Beauty Pageants, Page 3 culture, Surrogate liquor ads, Propaganda is really not about News at all. A serious investigation into the finances of major news channels by a statutory body, like CAG or ED, will reveal a lot more than “News”.