Manna from heaven
By Sevanti Ninan
It was a fruitful year in terms of news coverage and making profits.
FRENZY: An ailing Amitabh Bachchan was big news. PHOTO: AFP
WHAT a jolly year it has been for the media. Times were bad enough to keep the business roaring. Bombs, flooded metropolises, an earthquake, and a sorry lot of stung human beings, starting with Shakti Kapoor and ending with Members of Parliament living on North Avenue. Enough scandal and celebrities with personal crises to chase. More than one politician to hound. A sick Amitabh Bachchan was, at year-end, the cherry on the cake. He drew OB vans and eager young things with mikes like a honey pot draws flies. Somebody made an unflattering comparison with vultures who come, feast on the latest tragedy and fly away when the pickings are over, but such snipes do not deter the mike wielding brigade.
A jolly year too, because the money has never been so good. Just in my cable bouquet, four new news channels made their appearance over the year and there were doubtless other debuts in other parts of the country. The chief editor of one of them explained why everyone hopes to stay in business: some Rs. 600 crores of the total advertising pie is available for TV news channels, if all you are going to do is stand next to a video wall and natter, you can get by on Rs. 30 crore or less a year, recover that and make a few crores of profit. With that sort of economics, and assuming a growing ad pie, some 25 to 30 news channels can squeeze in and stay in business. Since the Government has said foreign news channels cannot have local advertising there will be even more to go around.
A good year for newspapers too
If it was a good year for television, newspapers were not far behind. Newspapers going into the market saw their valuations rise ("shot through the roof" was the upbeat description favoured by gushing analysts.) The Hindustan Times entered the market in August with a valuation of Rs. 2,500 crore, topping NDTV's valuation at that point of Rs. 1,433 crore. HT has come down since but is still above the 2000 mark. The Deccan Chronicle which went public in December 2004 saw its stock appreciate by 80.77 per cent, and was valued a little lower than NDTV.
Cybermedia, with its stable of specialised magazines also debuted at the bourses in 2005. With TV Today, TV 18 and Mid-day Multimedia already there and Dainik Jagran going in for an IPO early next year, the rush for India's media to be listed on the stock market has begun. Being listed, and having to announce quarterly results will bring its own pressures on editorial content, but only party poopers would worry about such things in this upbeat climate. Fred Friendly, president of CBS news who went on to become a professor of journalism at Columbia University once said memorably, "Television makes so much money doing its worst, it can't afford to do its best."
It got jollier still for journalists from all over the country as DNA and Hindustan Times made their debut in Mumbai. Those who were recruited at much-written-about salaries left vacancies which lesser mortals from other parts of the country rushed to fill. So much so that a resident editor in Jaipur, far away from Mumbai, complained of shortage of hands because of people leaving for better jobs. Not since the dotcom boom have jobs opened up quite so much. Foreign direct investment flows into media increased, even Femina became a target of foreign investment. It got itself a new 50 per cent partner in the BBC and a new editor because the old one, a pioneer of the beauty contest boom, left for greener pastures, namely DNA. A new company and more jobs were created.
To cap it all, some wise guys at Business Standard worked out the value of a newspaper reader by dividing the valuation of a newspaper by the number of subscribers it had. Going by the prevailing valuations in April when this exercise was done, each Mid-Day reader in Mumbai was valued at Rs. 22,071! By the same yardstick, a Dainik Jagran reader was valued at Rs. 2,372. Today, a Hindustan Times reader would be valued at around Rs. 20,000. The Jagran reader's valuation will doubtless be reassessed after its IPO next year.
It does remains though for someone to work out the nuisance value of the rapidly proliferating media that is now at everybody's doorstep. You could begin by asking Mr. Natwar Singh who was hounded out of government that much faster because the media got into the act.
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