Media In A Liberalized Economy – A Watchdog or Perpetrator of Myths?

The modern world is witnessing a media revolution. Never before has human history seen such proliferation of investments across the world into television channels, advertisements and broadcasting. It appears that investing into a country’s media properties is lucrative business for global capital. Moreover, globally, the growth of media is higher than the growth of the GDP, which means that the media industry is among the faster growing sectors of the economy. In fact, the global growth of the media industry calculated as a compound annual rate of growth, henceforth the CARG is 6.6 %[1] and this is a contrast to the rather slower growth of world GDP at only 2.7% in 2007.[2] In India, the story is even better. The Times of India reported on the 12th of March, 2006, that the Indian entertainment and media industry is witnessing a phenomenal growth and is slated to grow at 19 per cent CARG to Rs 83,740 crore by 2010 from its current size of Rs 35,300 crore, according to a study by the Pricewaterhouse Coopers.[3] Given the rate of growth of GDP in India at about 8%, the growth in the media is certainly more than double.

What does the media explosion mean for us? On the positive side it means that democracy is taking roots almost universally, communication is addressing a wide variety of interests and the public space of communication is widening to include greater participation from people. But looked at closely, the picture appears suspect. The television channels and other related media activities like outdoor campaigns and radio broadcasting seems to be all doing pretty much the same things. If we observe the television channels or track the FM radio stations, or even scan the leading newspapers, we are struck by almost very similar kinds of news coverage. In deed, the views expressed by the various channels too are perceptively similar. This means that despite the multiplicity of channels we do not get competing and contesting interpretations. In other words, channels do not challenge one another in a battle of views but compete to out perform each other through standard programmes. Teleserials of scheming women, jokes, reality shows, quiz shows, sports and cookery and film gossip form most of what we know as entertainment. The news is invariably a one-sided view of promoting speculative investments, life styles or of political scandals and crime. A vast chunk of reality of technical knowledge, psychological counseling, crime detection, stresses of development, employment trends, assessment of government programmes, and social issues concerning women and minorities are left behind or never addressed at all. This trend is harmful for democracy because on the one hand we get channels that reaffirm a rather one-dimensional view of things and on the other hand the large number of channels crowd out those persons who have less money power to launch channels but may have alternative stories and genuinely educative programmes.

The other fall out of such media explosion is a competition for advertisements. Larger number of television channels put the advertisers in a better bargaining position vis-à-vis the channel owners and this leads to desire of monopolistic concentration among the channels. The liberalization of the FDI is used to increase money and hence monopoly power of the channel. Since channels due to competition among themselves produce only standardized programmes, there is hardly anything in each channel that would help viewers to choose one channel over the other; viewers’ preferences are thus directed towards the channel that provides the most audio-visual intensity. This promotes extravaganza in the television, which raises costs of production and yet at the same time empties the programme of sensitivity. In this way, packaging over content produces meaninglessness in television programmes, opening up the television space to monopoly and one-dimensionality.

The question that we ask here is why do the media all over the world express the same tendency towards one-dimensionality? The prime reason for this is that the television channels compete among themselves. Just as we try to read the same books as our classmates and write similar answers for our examinations in our desire to do well, the channels too try to do the same thing in order to be “selected” by the viewers’ remotes. Yet another possible reason behind this is that since the channels draw their sustenance from corporate advertisements they move in the same set of business houses over and over again. These business houses are eager that the television channels project their interests through the programmes. What are these corporate interests? These interests promote consumerism among the viewers. While promoting consumption of various products like consumer durables, cosmetics, apartments, mobile phones, snacks, fast food and even insurance, it is an absolute necessity that advertisers also covertly push messages and sponsor television content that specifically portray dazzling economies and a plethora of promising opportunities that support an economy and culture driven by consumerism.

Since most people purchase consumer durables like television, washing machines and even apartments through credit, either through the credit card companies or through the equated monthly installment schemes of the dealers, it is clear that these purchases are made on the anticipation of future income. The consumer, in order to be lured into buying these consumer durables must be made to believe that her income flow will not suffer in the future. It is for such reasons that stories that deal with factory closures, farmer suicides, shrinking employment growth, or even economic recession are pushed behind the camera and protests over land acquisition whether in Singur or Nandigram, or even the SEZ in Goa are constructed as a sabotage of this grand process of economic liberalization. In the case of consumer non-durables, or fast moving consumer goods, or FMCG, the pattern is even more sinister. Cosmetics and food items are portrayed as style statements and are projected as symptoms of your social worth. In case these statements influence your employer, it will be difficult to get employment if you do not put on lipstick or use particular brand of a body spray. The companies make crores of money on trying to cow you down into an image that will speak of your uncritical acceptance of the politics of the media imagery. The use of celebrity helps in this process because it somehow communicates to us the attributes we associate with our favorite celebrities into the brands thus advertised and lend legitimacy to these brands.

Mukesh Ambani’s wealth or the posh bungalows of Hollywood film stars that the new life style channels promote try to tell us how wonderful wealth is and how it must be pursued by all in order to find happiness. The use of celebrity images help making very specific instances appear as universally applicable rules and hence such display of celebrity wealth not only legitimizes greed but also communicates a message that such prosperity is achievable. These images form the basis for lifestyle politics where class is defined by what its members consume. Thus aspiring to consume, possess and command is the key to upward social mobility and possession charts form important ingredients of one’s social class and hence of social worth.

It is not as if the media does not help the case of democracy, but the only thing is that it should be sensational enough. Crime is sensational, but an inquiry into its sources is not. Political leaders are sensational, the scandals are sensational but investigation into why people vote for them is not. Even in such reporting, there is no attempt at trying to understand the root of crime, the reasons behind violence. While the media has indeed cried for justice and created in us a demand that people from the upper strata of the society too should fall to the hangman’s noose, and thus pandered to our instincts of social envy of the people who are better off than us, Santosh Singh and his father in this case. Was this story to be retold from the perspective of crime against women, the right that men feel that they have over women’s submission, the assumption that men make that women must acquiesce to their advances we would have developed a critical perspective into the way women are looked upon in our country. Such perspectives would have helped us deal with the mind set that kill fetuses, use technology to give birth to boys only and also make it difficult for women to participate in the work force. It is quite the same thing in case of the Jessica Lall case or even the Nitish Katara case; the roots of violence are not explored.

In the above paragraphs we assume that the viewers uncritically accept the media images that are beamed to them. While it is true that the several channels, despite the severalty communicate to us similar images and similar news content, yet there is an everyday life that people lead and when the images contradict the life, which is actually lived-in, there is a resistance. A classical instance of this is the defeat of the earlier government due to their propaganda of India shining, when the reality was all about locked out enterprises and the swell of unemployed youth in cities, towns and villages across the country. But the problem is that people tend to judge the real life as wrong and the contradictory image in the television as the right. This makes people imagine that they are worth more than what they are getting as their pay packets. Most IT companies hide the fact that the huge salaries are only for the slim percentage of the top brass, the vast bulge of middle level employees are as badly paid as anyone else. The image of the highly paid CEO is important in attracting the talent into the sector and the low salaries to the bulk of the employees are a strategy to get the best by paying the least. This leaves the employee of the middle rung wondering that she actually can earn more and keeps switching employment, depleting her provident funds and seniority. Were we to track the high incidence of mental agony and depression we could find significant connection between the television myths and the shocks of real lived in life. Chetan Bhagat’s novel, One Night @Call Centre illustrates this distress wonderfully. Bhagat writes that the call centre workers use all kinds of theories to explain their agonies but all feel that if they earn enough money that will end their exploitation little realizing that they will never earn the required amount of money because there are others who will earn more than them always.

There is yet another reason why the television channels in a collusive manner must push the hunky-dory stories of good times. If we look carefully into the media inflation we would find that it is far higher than the growth in incomes of its advertisers. If we take into account the growth of the manufacturing sector that has grown 12% over the last one year and the financial sector which has grown by 15% over the same period, we find that the growth of the media is still higher. The sales growth of the FMCG sector is 16%, while that of the infrastructure sector is 8%. The growth in the consumer durable sector is 15%. In all of these, we find that the rates of growth have remained lower than the growth rate in the media. Then where is the media drawing the extra growth over and above the usual growth trend among its advertisers from? There is one sector in which the growth has been astronomical – this is the real estate sector. It is possible that money from the real estate sector is flowing into the media companies, or the financiers of real estate also financing the media sector. Let us address ourselves to the fact that the growth in the media is higher than in the growth of its advertisers and in which case, there is a surplus growth in the media that has to be tracked. Could it be possible that much of the so-called revenues of the media companies only book entries and not actually realized payments? If this was to be the case, then the media companies could only gain by pushing stories of high growth, explosive opportunities and hopeful future so that the consumer demand keeps mounting. This is perhaps the principle reason why stories that may in any way puncture the perfect picture of bliss are to be avoided. If the real estates get involved into the media business as appears to be a possibility with DLF Universal, a leading real estate company of India that sponsored the Indian Premier League cricket, then it is all the more important for them to reinforce the impression that property prices will climb up due to the overall growth of incomes in the economy, so that their profits go higher and higher to finance the high growth rates of the media. In either case, there are sound economic reasons for the media to promote a world of lies that will cover the truth which is of rising income inequality and increased insecurity of livelihood and incomes all over the world.

The tendency of the media to survive on constructed truths than on empirical facts may lead to both national and personal disasters, a matter of serious concern for authorities and viewers alike.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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