In the era of World Wide Web network, where consumers become habituate with free Whatsapp, Skype, email and other net services, the news becomes the victim of circumstance as only few people today prefer to pay for the news that comes as the primary content of any print or electronic media outlets. While the newspapers around the world are increasing their prices, the free-to-air (FTA) satellite news channels continue feeding millions of television news consumers virtually for free.
But slowly the FTA channels are losing their market space with the aggression of online or internet television across the globe. The digital distribution of television content through the internet emerges advantageous as it also carries other types of data which is not possible through the present terrestrial, cable or satellite television.
In India, as the satellite news channels in various regional languages are booming in the last few years, questions relating to their consistency and sustainability also become pressing. With a population of over one billion, India today supports more than 800 satellite television media outlets and most of them face the crisis of credibility.
According to Union Information & Broadcasting Ministry in New Delhi, nearly 400 privately owned news & current affairs channels, few more in waiting to get approval from the ministry, survive telecasting round the clock programs in different Indian languages including the English. Most of these channels are registered as FTA media outlets and nonetheless the news-broadcasting industry in India is today a rupees 20 billion worth business (65 rupees = 1 USD).
As these news channels carry the FTA tag, they are not entitled to ask money from the viewers. This implies that the news and other programs, which are produced and telecast by these channels, mean for free consumption by the audience. The consumers have to pay only the distributors namely cable transmission agencies or direct-to-home (DTH) operators. The operating cost of FTA news channels is managed by the revenues generated from the advertisement. Sometime, the channel managements may charge event-organizers to facilitate live coverage.
Indirectly it indicates that the advertisers, not the viewers, here enjoy a say (influence) in the content of the FTA news channels irrespective of its merit and authenticity. So they have to depend on the viewers points which can attract high rate of advertisements. So it is well-taken that the excessive dependence on advertisement revenues can hardly help the FTA channels to pursue ethical, credible and impartial journalism.
Indiaâs northeastern region inhabited by 60 million plus people hosts a number of privately owned satellite news channels namely NewsLive, DY365, Prag News, PratidinTime, AssamTalks, News18 and NewsTimeAssam with few entertainment and localized cable news channels. All these channels are FTA in nature, which beam news & other programmes mostly in Assamese, English, Hindi along with few other regional languages.
âAn FTA channel based in Guwahati has to pay around rupees two crores to cable network agencies every year for distributing the produced programmes to the viewers. Similarly the channel managements have to pay similar (sometime larger) amount of money to the privately owned DTH operators annually. The FTA channel owners are thus overburdened with expenditures ranging from production to distribution without getting contributions from the viewers,â said an editor of a Guwahati based news channel.
However, the cable television operatorsâ association argued that they have legitimate right to receive money from the channel owners as carriage fee (or freight charge) every year. They even claimed that the carriage fee is lawful under the guidelines of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and the Indian Union Information & Broadcasting Ministry.
The cable operators also pointed out that they were running the business with lot of market risk & mounting troubles. They expressed displeasure over the directive of Assam Power Distribution Company Limited to charge money regularly from the cable agencies against the use of electric poles on roadsides for laying their wires to the subscribers.
There is however no clarity on how much money a private DTH operator in India actually ask from the FTA channels. The satellite to home signal providers namely Dish TV, Tata Sky, Airtel Digital TV, Videocon D2H, Sun Direct, Reliance Digital TV and BIG TV actually select a bunch of channels with the motive of financial benefit. They hardly consider the commitment of the selected television channels to the subscribers.
The DTH operators in India today tap over 40 million active subscribers and the number is increasing slowly. With quality transmission, the DTH operators have empowered the subscribers to select their packages to many extent (unlike depending on the favour of cable operators in case of cable connection) and also the broadcasters to know the exact number of subscribers across the country, where as the cable operators show lower number of subscribers to siphon away a good amount of subscription money.
In India, the private DTH services have already completed a decade, where Dish TV got the license from the Union government in 2003 to operate in the country.
Initially concentrated on the rural markets, where the cable operators were not visible, the DTH operators slowly encroached into the cities.
By 2006, Tata Sky had joined in the competition with high quality signal and some kinds of choice for the subscribers to select their channels.
The rest of the DTH operators stepped into the business after 2008 to give a huge boost to the Indian television distribution market.
Meanwhile, taking advantage of the situation the FTA channel managements continue denying the basic minimum facilities, recommended by the countryâs labour laws, to their employees including the journalists. Need not to mention that the privately owned channel employees across the country are still deprived of any statutory wage board benefits unlike their counterparts in the print media.
âOver 80% employed journalists of news channels have been compelled to perform their duties in a vulnerable atmosphere with lower wages, more than 8 hours working period in a day, without appropriate leave days & off-days, and with no facility for life & health insurance coverage,â pointed out Journalistsâ Forum Assam (JFA) adding that the news channels should also be placed under the purview of quasi-judicial body Press Council of India.
In case of the Prasar Bharati run Doordarshan channels and the DD Direct+, which is a free digital satellite arrangement to telecast videos and broadcast audio programmes to the households, the finance is visibly supported by the Union government. Hence any tax paying Indian citizen has the legitimate right to make these channels accountable.
The JFA also raised voices for providing space to the free news channels in DD Direct+, which would reduce the distribution cost of these channels drastically. Moreover, to make these channels more sustainable & transparent, the JFA emphasized on re-registering of FTA channels as payable media outlets such that they can shift their dependence from advertisers to the contributing viewers.
But all along a real threat is looming large over the FTA news channels with the emergence of internet television that allows live television on a computer, tablet or smart phone. More and more people are now approaching online version of news & other relevant contents. India is itself marching for 400 million internet consumers, most of them are mobile-net users only (without having access to computers).
The advantage of internet television helping the audience to get instant information about any shows makes all the difference, where the traditional television cannot provide such information even in need.
Before the internet television invades the global media space should the FTA channels change their registration as payable news channels simply to shift their dependence from the advertisers to the viewers. With a transparent and dedicated management, these news channels might function with the sustainable contributions from the audience to transform themselves into credible, pro-people and nationalistic media outlets.
The author is a senior journalist based in Guwahati and President of Electronic Media Forum Assam