I had an opportunity to attend the South Asians in Media and Marketing summit (SAMMA) held in New York City this past weekend (line-up here). The summit attracted a range of industry professionals who are involved in one way or another with “South Asian” media production. Like other industry conventions, this included panel sessions in which media professionals spoke about business strategies and new market opportunities, keynote addresses by industry leaders, and workshops with successful entrepreneurs. As such, it was a wonderful site for understanding what sorts of shared understandings regarding South Asian and South Asian-American culture and identity are shaping media industry practices. I will describe the summit and specific panels in future posts, but wanted to rant about Pradeep Guha’s keynote address.
Former President of the Times of India group and, until recently, CEO of Zee Telefilms, Guha is, without a doubt, one of the most influential media executives in the world. And given his track record and vast experience, I understood why he had been invited to speak at the SAMMA summit and was excited to hear what he had to say about the dynamics of the media and entertainment industry in India. I was disappointed and even outraged at some of his comments and thoughts.
Predictably enough, his presentation began with a series of powerpoint slides that illustrated how the media and entertainment industry, like other sectors, was “shining.” Drawing from reports produced by consultancy firms like Pricewaterhouse Coopers and KPMG, Guha seemed intent on reinforcing diasporic media professionals’ beliefs about the booming media industry in India. No complaints about this part – harmless enough I suppose.
But there were two arguments he made about the relationship between media content and audiences that made me cringe. The first relates to the print media and the criticism that newspapers such as the Times of India look more like tabloids and less like newspapers. With initiatives like Medianet (which allows businesses to buy editorial space in the Times of India) becoming standard operating procedures across many major newspapers in the country, and the utter disregard for stories that are outside the “India Shining” discourse leading to what Sainath calls a disconnect “between mass media and mass reality” (link), it’s no wonder that businessmen like Guha have come under criticism for “dumbing down” content. And how does Guha respond? At this keynote, he argued that the surge in literacy levels as created “neo-readers” who need banal content. These neo-readers, according to Guha, cannot possibly be drawn to newspapers if the content was not entertaining. And hence his catering to the “lowest common denominator.” As Sainath points out, this argument isn’t that different from a drug-peddler saying he does it because the junkies demand it.
The second argument Guha made related to mainstream television in India. He draws a distinction between the film and TV audience, claiming that Bollywood now addresses the urban and diasporic audience much more than television does. Arguing that television corporations are completely dependent on advertising revenues (and the ratings game, given that subscription-based revenues are next to nothing), Guha thinks TV will continue to speak to “heartland India” and not to urban and diasporic audiences until the revenue model for television changes. And what’s more, he lamented that he himself doesn’t care for this kind of television programming, but could hardly help it given that he had to run a profitable business.
What surprised me even more was the fact that these comments did not seem to bother anyone else in the room, leading me to wonder if South Asian-American media professionals knew enough about the media industry in India to question Guha’s assertions and if they have completely and uncritically bought into the “India Shining” rhetoric. It’s interesting also to consider the fact that an organization like SAMMA, at this historical juncture, needs the Indian media industry (and folks like Guha) on their side so they can position themselves as brokers b/w L.A./NYC and Mumbai. More on SAMMA later, but for now, here’s Sainath taking the Indian print media business to task:
p.s. I suppose a brief explanation of my break from blogging is in order. I had hoped to resume blogging on a regular basis after returning from fieldwork in Bombay this past summer, but other distractions on the home front (visiting parents/parents-in-law and several road trips with them) kept me busy. Then the semester began and so on. In any case, given that I have neither the time nor the inclination to make this blog anything more than a space for working through some thoughts about desi media and culture, I suppose a few blog breaks are perfectly fine.