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Understanding the emerging media ecology

Sashi Kumar

With both technology and the advertiser sorting the vast amorphous viewership into tiered and profiled purchasing power segments, a fragmentation takes place that may actually work against dumbing down.

SINCE THE early 1990s the spectre of a new revolution has been haunting us. Variously called the Information revolution or the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) revolution it assumes a paradigmatic shift in production processes and relations, the emergence of a new knowledge based economy, and a quantum leap from an industrial society into an information society. It is an epochal change anticipated as far back as the 1970s in Alvin Toffler's metaphor of a Third Wave, in Daniel Bell's evocation of an emerging white collar work force replacing blue collar industrial labour, in MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte's dizzying vision of a digitally determined world. It has sparked a combative post-industrial discourse that came to a head with Francis Fukuyama's dire predictions of an `end of history' and a `great disruption.'

In the first flush of this revolution there were tantalising opportunities conjured up for developing economies like India. Here was our historic chance to bridge the north-south divide the industrial revolution had left us chafing under. Since the principal and popular instruments of the information revolution — the electronic media and the computer — came to us close on the heels of their application in the West, we could, suddenly, transcend the technological lag of the industrial epoch and move forward abreast of the developed world. In any case `endism' in history and rupture rather than continuity in the political economy ( la Fukuyama) meant that we could all start afresh on a clean slate.

A later variant of the same theme, and in fashion now, is `flatism': that all the world is a level playing field with easy enough exits and entrances. Thomas Friedman's history in a hurry `of the globalised world in the 21st century' seeks to reconfigure the world as flat in this sense. It is a queer mix of anecdotal empiricism and suspended disbelief that seems to make out that the bonding of exclusive IT enclaves in different countries at different stages of development into a global supply chain makes the world one big happy family. It would be a harmless, idiosyncratic proposition if it were not so callously indifferent to the lived lives of the masses of real people outside this virtual flatland.

Stretching the `flatness' figure of speech to the media of our times takes us into postmodernist territory, especially in terms of the flattening of heights and depths into one surface sweep. Susan Sontag has pointed out that "in the post-Nietzschean tradition there are neither depths or heights, there are only various kinds of surface, of spectacle." Roland Barthes too, like Nietzsche, rubbishes the idea of `depth' as a repository of any concealed meaning and Jean Baudrillard's take on television as a mirror metaphor reinforces the surface-spectacle dimension of the media. Depth has yielded to breadth and we `surf" TV channels across a shallow expanse.

Postmodernist empathy with the media takes a new turn with the shift from analogue to digital technology. In the new pixellated media environment McLuhan's soothsaying finds fresh meaning, as when he talks of a dispersed media structure "whose centers are everywhere and margins are nowhere." The constructs and methods of the analogue world are jettisoned as we plunge headlong into this digital realm. In the process, the hierarchisation of text and the logical cause-and-effect sequencing of content give way to a simultaneity and multiplicity of information bytes. In the dominant medium of television this change is manifest in the altered role of the screen as a site where montage and collage combine at the same time. Live and taped talking heads; intervening fast cut visuals and reportages; layers and tiers of discrete information delivered as charts, financial text or animated graphics; insets on the stock or commodities market; news update scrolls; commercial pop ups and a medley of sound and musical effects — all vie at once with one another for your attention. That is the look of the new age TV screen and it demands fairly developed multitasking and non-linear ingestion capabilities of the viewer.

Celluloid cinema too seems reconciled to a makeover where the depth, resolution and tone of film negative stock defer to the speed, malleability and, above all, cost saving of digitisation. The distribution and exhibition ends are likely to conflate with the prototyping of digital release, whereby satellite fed signals of a new film are tapped and simultaneously screened by appointed cinema theatres.

Cable and Satellite (C&S) Television, enabled by Direct Broadcast Satellite technology, came to India almost by default. The first Gulf war of 1991, fought as much on camera as for the camera, was offered to the world as DBS signals up there, ripe and ready to be picked. A number of low budget entrepreneurs set up receiver dishes and conveyed the CNN images of the war to subscribing households along cables strung across high-rise buildings in cities and towns. The cable revolution had begun, just like that.

From those ad hoc beginnings Cable and Satellite has today grown into a mammoth industry. The anonymous cablewallahs who first showed the way have, for the most part, been taken over by bigger players. Many of them find themselves handling the last mile operations for the big cable companies. As the competition for eyeballs among the satellite channels began hotting up and as television began to stake a claim for a larger share of the advertisement spend, the print media went into a spin trying to reinvent themselves. In the ensuing race to the bottom between tabloidised print and dumbed-down television the net loser is the reader and the viewer.

Although between the two, television must appear more irredeemable, it is in fact print that seems to be in a tailspin from which there is no escape in sight. With price wars having reduced cover prices of most newspapers to token amounts, the reliance on advertisement revenues is fostering a dependency syndrome, which may be difficult to shake loose. Also, in a situation where the reader as subscriber is not the main or even a substantial source of revenues, his right to be informed as a citizen vies with his role as a consumer in the market for the paper's attention. That the advertiser is more interested in the reader as consumer than as empowered citizen does not make things easy.

Fatal attraction

This fatal attraction of the market and consequent alienation from civil society has serious implications for the future of the media themselves. Although in India the freedom of and for the media are not specifically stipulated in the Constitution (unlike the United States where the First Amendment forbids Congress from making any law that abrogates the freedom of the press), they are a derivative right by Article 19 in the Fundamental Rights chapter guaranteeing freedom of expression. Courts have repeatedly reaffirmed this right and civil society has stood shoulder to shoulder with the media whenever they were under threat, whether from the executive, the legislature or the judiciary. Should the media place themselves purely at the mercy or bidding of the market, they would forfeit their right to the moral and statutory high ground they have enjoyed all along as a fourth pillar of democracy. It therefore devolves upon the media to reconnect with the public as more than consumers, just as it is a challenge for the people to reclaim the media for themselves.

In television, technological renewal makes the essential difference. After two decades of DBS technology we are already into DTH, or Direct to Home, transmission in India and may soon be turning another corner into broadband distribution through the optic fibre grids (of Reliance or BSNL) that crisscross the country, or video streaming on internet once the bandwidths open up. Subscription revenues in the DBS regime accrue to the distributor as cable operator rather than to the programmer as the television channel. Subscription management in this system has been a blind man's buff with rampant under declaration of customer lists by cable operators and payment irregularities and losses through the network chain. DTH and subsequent digital technologies could change all that and establish a more direct and foolproof relationship between what the viewer pays and what he gets.

With both technology and the advertiser sorting the vast amorphous viewership into tiered and profiled purchasing power segments, a fragmentation takes place which may actually work against dumbing down or least common denominator programming, with fare that seeks to meet the different levels of expectation, and sophistication, of different target groups.

In the process, however, television becomes less and less a mass medium or broadcaster and more and more a narrowcaster. It is a model of the medium that runs counter to its normative `national' role of an integrating social agent. Already we have less and less of each other in our regional language C&S channels. Television is no longer a site for multicultural expression as it was in the heyday of Doordarshan, when, for example, it was possible to get to see films in different Indian languages, subtitled for a cosmopolitan viewership, on the same national channel. On the other hand, the structural devolution has debunked the Delhi-centric paternalistic model and set in motion a regional idiom of the electronic medium, which is an enterprising mix of the local and the global. In this new axis the nation state is no longer the primary framework of reference. The global village has come full circle.

(The writer is Chairman of the Media Development Foundation, Chennai. For comments or feedback on this piece, email sakumar@vsnl.com )

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