Sister Act

The charm of commercial expansion has made media houses forget their editorial thrust.

This September has provided us with some moments for reflecting on the sister concerns (or you may call it allied activities) of media houses. To be precise, two such moments.

First, on September 20th, the fortnightly newsmagazine from The Hindu stable, the 28-year-old Frontline, was relaunched. The relaunched magazine has done a sisterly publication act which is vintage Hindu. It represents the elements of continuity and change that one has been noticing in the great media conglomerate run from the Kasturi Buildings. Even the relaunch event at Habitat Centre (Delhi), attended by Vice President Hamid Ansari and historian Romila Thapar (along with Hindu’s top brass), reflected those elements, as did Hindu’s other publications like the book-format issues of Annual Survey of Indian Agriculture, Industry and Environment and the weekly, Sportstar. The jarring note in this Hindu symphony is an editorial disaster (not necessarily a market failure) called NDTV-Hindu (Chennai’s city-specific news and entertainment channel).

Second, this September also marks the five-year existence of NDTV’s lifestyle channel, NDTV Good Times. As the catch phrase in the branding (Good Times) shows, the channel was launched in 2007 as a joint venture between NDTV and Vijay Mallya’s UB group. In ways that the sister concerns of media houses can reveal, the concept and orientation of the channel tells you where NDTV’s heart is. In times, when news channels have no air-time for addressing the livelihood issues in a country with one of the poorest HDI indicators, one of the biggest media companies in the country went ahead with a “lifestyle” channel. What came tumbling out was never a skeleton in the cupboard. You knew it all along – the channel targets a section of the population which has the purchasing power to keep advertisers interested (the urban rich and even the aspirational urban middle class). NDTV’s news channel has the same core viewership.

The list of the shows aired on NDTV Good Times resembles a template of urban consumerism blended with the fetish for the “exotic”. In such templates, people are prosperous enough to have fun trips to explore the “exotic” and patronising enough to have a slice of “Indian” life. When the Indian with purchasing power and consuming zeal meets the need for an exotic feel, you have these shows – Big Fat Indian Wedding, Gadget Guru, Gourmet Central, Highway On My Plate, I am Too Sexy for My Shoes, Kingfisher Calendar Model Hunt, Royal Reservation, Heavy Petting, Chakle India, etc. The names are suggestive enough, and the global templates for “consuming viewers” are not different either.

For instance, Fox Traveller (owned by News Corporation’s – Fox International Channels) carries the stamp of the market as evidently as the empire’s media “outlets” (that’s the word that may please their branding managers). So is it surprising that one of its India-specific shows goes by the name – What’s with Indian Men?

The allied channels, publications or even supplements tell you a thing or two about the editorial thrust (in many cases, lack of that thrust) of a media house. After reading The Times of India, if you glance at its city supplements, Delhi Times/ Bombay Times etc (for many it’s the other way round), you can spot the umbilical cord quite easily. So is the case when you realise that Filmfare and Femina also come from the same stable. And isn’t there something very The Times Of India about how Femina used its promotional catch phrase – “for the woman of substance”? So banking on the aspirational frenzy in a section, the magazine had thought that the essence of Indian feminity would be dictated by Dr DN Road in Mumbai, whose idea of the heat and dust of average Indian living doesn’t go beyond that of a starry-eyed wannabe. But, does TOI end up doing anything else in its daily engagements with readers?

Sometimes, the allied publications of some media houses carve a niche for themselves. In this context, you can’t forget remembering Literary and Higher Education supplements of The Times, published from London. And there has been speculation that The Guardian is also coming up with new supplements on those lines. If that’s true, you can look forward to some more stimulating stuff from the publishers of The Guardian. In the media cacophony, the need for such long form of reflections is being felt and some media houses are responding to it. At Frontline’s relaunch function, Vice President Hamid Ansari perceptively remarked: “In today’s age, the audio-visual media has emerged as a dominant medium for quenching the thirst of the target audience for real time news on current affairs, culture and entertainment. Despite this, there remains a real and popular demand for serious publications on topical issues which cannot be substituted by the “breaking news” culture and short-attention span snippets in the domain of the electronic media.”

It’s a sign of our times that diversification for media houses is echoing the tunes of corporate diversification. But, in the process, such sisterly avatars are exposing the faultlines that have become entrenched in media operations. High time for some introspective parenting in media houses. Such sisters need to be reined in. Or they need a different template.

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  • Geetanshdutta

    ????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? who is dictating you the topics to write about Mr. anand? I hope not you, Sliding down and down in selection of topic and in content display. you are almost out of the list now.

  • Bombayite

    Esxcellent analysis. And reason for my appreciation for this brilliant piece is : you are bang on in saying how sister publications and channels of media
    houses can reveal the editorial and marketing orientation of media
    houses, the ways in which they target their readers, viewers and
    advertisers and how for most media organisations expansion has become
    synonymous with corporate branching. Thanks for insightful analysis.

  • Bombayite

    And I must also say along with your excellent analysis, your articulation is also very very nice. Great to read.

  • Phoenix

    Ummm Highway on My Plate represents a luxury lifestyle? I understand you are too busy and too cool to watch TV like the rest of us boorish bourgousie, but… I am not sure a show where 2 fat guys, one veg, one non-veg travelling the country’s ‘highways’ for the best dhabas and cheap eats along the way qualify as belonging to either ‘exotic’ or a ‘consumerist’.
    The same goes for Gadget Guru – god forbid anybody purchase an expensive cellphone or get informed about it until all 1.2 billion Indians have an income of 12 lakhs per annum.
    And God forbid media houses branch out and try and cater to all markets. Oh no, we must all watch the same left-biased narrative wherever we look, without a moment’s respite. Free press is good enough for some people, just not us. We can’t be trusted eh?

    • Phoenix

      Yes, and before you decide to ignore the content of what I am saying and pick on the spelling error – I meant bourgeoisie