By Nisar Dharma —
Media is a force in India. A very strong force that has identified ways to get things done the way they are expected (by a few players) to be done. Pertinently, the ownership of media becomes all the more important since owning it means that you have control over how things are perceived, how people, policies, happenings, events, and changes, etc. are described, and finally whether they ought to be accepted or rejected by those who matter. Before we delve deep into the Indian Mediascape Ownership, it is important to mention the vast ambit that it holds.
There are over 82,000 publications registered with the Registrar of Newspapers. Even though in India, news on the radio is still a monopoly of the government, there are more than 250 FM (frequency modulation) radio stations in the country. Nearly 800 television channels have been allowed uplink or downlink by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Among these, over 300 claim to broadcast ‘news and current affairs. Not to mention the endless list of websites and social media that adds a lot to the above numbers.
Let’s consider the broadcast scenario of Indian Media. How many channels out of that 300 news and current affairs are we acquainted with? Only a few I believe. The channels that hit the chord may include NDTV, TIMES NOW, ZEE NEWS, and ABP NEWS, etc. The rest of the smaller players are either pushed into oblivion or are taken over by some major game-changers. This phenomenon is called Oligopoly.
Media oligopoly is a reality in today’s world. An oligopoly is when a few firms dominate a market. The process of oligopoly starts with buying out all the small-scale companies. This ensures the strengthening of the large players in the market. The competition is eliminated with buyouts and forced outs (lacking resources or finances). Hence the remaining parties tend to dominate the entire media market and create an oligopoly of media.
The global media oligopoly includes large conglomerates like Viacom, CBS Corporation, Time Warner, 21st Century Fox and News Corp, Bertelsmann AG, Sony, Comcast, Vivendi, Televisa, The Walt Disney Company, Hearst Corporation, Organizações Globo, and Lagardère Group. As of 2015, The Walt Disney Company is the largest media conglomerate in the US, with News Corporation, Time Warner, and Viacom ranking second, third and fourth respectively. Internationally, Google is a major player in this Oligopoly. It has spent more than $28 billion on a whopping 173 companies since 2001. That’s more than one company per month. Some of the companies it bought are YouTube, Android, AdMob, Motorola Mobility, Makani Power, Channel Intelligence, and 166 more. Google’s dominance does not end in the online search and advertising world only; its research projects include creating a neural network, developing an energy kite that generates more energy at a lower cost than conventional wind systems (Makani Power), and a lot of others that will surprise us.
In India too, there are a few players which exercise dominance in their respective fields and take every necessary step to dish out any possible competition. The wheel has always spun with Tata, Birla, Ambani, and Mahindra with some major government-owned companies in the top slots. In the contemporary business world, consumers are bound to be ‘well informed’. The information sources include television, print, radio, and the internet. Today’s consumer is a lot more difficult to convince than the one in the 20th century. The reason is so-called-awareness among the consumers with a lot of options to choose from.
Hence all the big players in this country do a lot of R&D on consumer behavior, the influence of advertisements, brand image, past history, word of mouth, political capsizes, policy-making, and an array of terms that form the content of all the marketing books. All these terms, this entire R&D, has a point of convergence which is defined in a few words as the process of weaving a psychological web which in turn develops a tendency of ‘what to think about?’ in ‘consumers’ rather than ‘what to think?’
Who are these consumers?
The answer is ‘we’. We the citizens, masses, crowd, people, voters, protestors, employees, youth, women, children, humans – the tags are endless but they all mean the same in the business language.
This authority to make people think what you want them to think is in a real sense called psychological ownership. It allows a major player to exercise its power with little or no hindrance or opposition.
A few developments in gaining this psychological ownership point towards the growing corporatization of the Indian media and the growing convergence between producers of media content and those who distribute the content. Reliance Industries Limited (not limited at all), India’s biggest privately-owned corporate entity with a turnover of over 6.5 trillion Indian rupees in the fiscal year 2020, is the major runner in this corporatization of media.
‘Reliance’ is not just a company in India. It is synonymous with power. The companies that come under the umbrella of Reliance testify to the stronghold that this organization has in the subcontinent. The major step towards this corporatization was taken in June 2015, when RIL took over the entire Network 18.
Network18 owns TV channels (including CNBC TV18, CNN-IBN, CNN Awaz), websites (firstpost.com, moneycontrol.com), magazines (including the license for Forbes India), entertainment channels (Colors, MTV, and Homeshop Entertainment) among other businesses. RIL said its board approved funding of 4,000 crores (or roughly $730 million) to Independent Media Trust (IMT), of which RIL is the sole beneficiary” for taking over Network18.
Clear signs of media dominance, RIL runs in billions of dollars and this acquisition may not have a financial reason behind it. Even though this deal may be the biggest media deal in India, it is a very tiny part of the giant that RIL is. But the deal is important for other reasons, points out P. Sainath, an independent, award-winning journalist while being interviewed by Forbes.
“It has the power to reach into every drawing room; The power to tell you what to read, see and think, how will they [the Network18 journalists] have any chance of doing a decent story on the KG gas deal [where RIL has the rights to dig for gas and is in dispute with the government], the Radia tapes [taped telephone conversations between publicist Nira Radia and a former telecom minister and senior journalists where she’s lobbying on behalf of several big corporate clients], how will they cover any damn thing? The greater the monopolization and corporatization of media, the less the space for smaller voices, differing voices, dissenting voices. Once upon a time, the media took its role to question people in power very seriously, Media was the adversary. It would take on those in positions of power, whether in government or the corporate sector. Time alone will tell how that adversarial role will exist under these sorts of corporate deals.”
The decision of this acquisition was obviously not taken overnight. RIL had its ties with media companies for a long time. In 2008, RIL bailed out Ramoji Rao of Eenadu, a Hyderabad headquartered media house. Reliance had purchased stakes in Eenadu channels for Rs 2,604 crore through its subsidiaries Equator Trading Enterprises and Anu Trading Pvt Ltd. In 2012, RIL played Media mogul again when it again made an investment by “bailing out” the Raghav Bahl-led Network18-TV18 group. RIL invested Rs.1,700 crore in the media company through a promoter company and RIL’s subsidiary Independent Media Trust (IMT) and in return gets preferential access to content from Network18. The deal entailed a virtual amalgamation between Network18 and the Eenadu group. Thus was born the largest media group in India, overtaking both the Bennett Coleman/Times of India group as well as the Rupert Murdoch controlled STAR group in terms of size and scale of operations.
Although at that time, RIL had claimed that its association with Network18 would not alter managerial or editorial control over the media group, it was also common knowledge then that the terms and conditions under which certain financial instruments — zero-coupon, optionally convertible debentures — were issued. These financial instruments were such that the Reliance group could theoretically become de facto owners of Network18 (from being mere investors) at any point of time it wanted to. This becomes evident from a perusal of the 11page order of the Competition Commission of India dated May 28, 2012, relating to the subscription of the debentures issued by a clutch of companies controlled by Bahl and his family: RB Mediasoft Pvt Ltd, RRB Mediasoft Pvt Ltd, RB Media Holdings Pvt Ltd, Aventure Marketing Pvt Ltd, Watermark Infratech Pvt Ltd, and Colorful Media Pvt Ltd.
Interestingly, the entity used by RIL to subscribe to these debentures was named, rather ironically, as Independent Media Trust. On May 30, 2014, an announcement was made by RIL to the Bombay Stock Exchange that the company’s board of directors had approved an additional investment of Rs 4,000 crore (Rs 40 billion) in this so-called Trust to acquire the Network18 group.
We, as journalists, still hope that Network18 will not be used to create and destroy agendas and opportunities. That RIL will portray truth through its ‘own’ media. The chances look too thin though because when Media and Money are in the same pocket, who shall convict whom?
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