Thoughts and a question around one of Mahesh Murthy’s pet topics

For anybody who has attended at least 3 events where Mahesh Murthy speaks, you’d know that one of his pet topics – that he articulates so well – is the comparative reach of internet vs. mainstream media. This has trickled into some quotable quotes like ‘YouTube is bigger than MTV, in India’. (Not to be confused with Google’s Rajan Anand saying something similar, based on revenues). This was a part of the introduction to his Hindustan Brunch column as well, last weekend. It was titled ‘The Other Voices‘.

So, here are some quotes from that article that form his pet topic and my thoughts and a question around it.

The number of Internet users in India – estimated at around 140 million today – exceeds the number of TV sets in our homes

Technically, can you reach the 140 million internet users in India, if you want to? You do have a technical possibility of reaching – at least on paper – all the TV sets in India (a media plan that encompasses every TV channel in India).

Facebook, with its 44 million Indian members reaches more of us than any single TV channel, Doordarshan included.

YouTube, with over 31 million Indian viewers a month, is far and away our largest English television channel

Twitter and Google Plus each get to about 14 million of us in a month – a number that is twice the circulation of India’s largest newspaper.”

Same question as above. Can you reach all of Facebook’s 44 million Indian members, if you want to? Or all of YouTube’s India members? Or all of Twitter and Google Plus’ India members? Technically, you can – advertise to all Indian members of these platforms, if cost wasn’t a criteria. Regardless of the cost, why aren’t brands looking at this massive reach and still going to traditional media with smaller reach as proven here? And worse, why are they still paying crores to traditional media?

A few thoughts around this.

1. What do we pay for?

In case of newspapers? We pay for newspapers and get its content. In terms of TV? We pay for the TV (hardware) and we subscribe to channels (individually or as a package) and we consume content. In terms of ‘internet’? We pay our service providers and consume content? No, we consume bandwidth – according to them. Then Facebook? Or Twitter? Or Google Plus? We don’t pay them anything – we still pay our service providers and we consumer their content (Facebook’s or Twitter’s).

Now, extrapolate this with a newspaper. It’d mean we’re paying a middle-man – a master newspaper vendor (like a librarian, for example) – and we pick whichever newspaper(s) we want. This doesn’t happen. For television? It’d mean we pay for the hardware (TV set) and a broad, open package. And then we get whatever we need. This used to be the case in terrestrial TV, but not in satellite TV where we need to subscribe to specific packages or channels. So, this doesn’t happen either.

2. Simultaneity

This is perhaps why traditional media still rules in terms of top dollars. The basic assumption is that when there is a leading program or event being shown on TV (for instance – or, being reported in a newspaper), there would be a large number of people clued into it at largely the same time. The concept of Social TV is latching on this assumption – that, if a large number of people are clued into a TV program or event at largely the same time, they may also be talking about it, via social media, around that time – so let us pile on to that platform too, goes the logic. Nothing wrong with it at all, but it is merely riding on traditional media, if you see it carefully enough.

If there’s a YouTube special premiere, for example, of some event, that is available ONLY on YouTube…then we’re talking! Are people logging in at the same time to witness it? Or, will they do it at their convenience, because, for heaven’s sake, it’s online and one can see it anytime? The rigid nature of content delivery in traditional media, to some extent, forces the simultaneity. It is no doubt manipulation of attention by the media platform, but the internet hasn’t proven to be a worthy alternative on its own, because the net is about individual choice and time. It doesn’t enforce a time on its users and that freedom, to a large extent, gets the simultaneity out of the picture. This is not to say it cannot be done – just that, it hasn’t been explored enough to give brands an equally powerful option.

3. Content life-cycle (or, content lifetime)

Content in mainstream media has limited shelf life – we know this rather well. Warhol’s famous ’15 minutes of fame’ explains it so well. This phrase came about because of limitations in availability of content and access to the content platforms. Both were controlled and hence fame was also controlled. With the internet, this control goes for a massive toss and one could now add the dimension of time, to this equation and perhaps make it, ’100 hours of fame’. I have written about it some time back and here’s a relevant part.

If ’15 minutes of fame’ was considered a one-time occurrence, I’d picture it like a balloon popping out of a location in the globe…just once.

Now, with everything archived for easy access, forever, and by everybody, does the permanence of information change the 15 minutes? So, an issue like the tapes scandal would be popping out across many days/years whenever someone searches for information on the people involved or some other relevant context and given the possibility of instant sharing of information across many, smaller, personal networks, it’d be alive for a few minutes in that small network, then.

The balloon example would look like this – many smaller balloons popping out of many, many locations, across many, many days, somewhere in the world!

So, should we assume a timeline as a relevant basis for the 15 minutes of fame and rephrase it as ’100 hours of fame’, for the internet generation, for instance?

For more, read my November 2010 post titled, ‘Adding the dimension of time, to Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame – 100 hours of fame…anyone?

4. Measurement and metrics

Television viewership in India is measured predominantly through ‘sampling’ via things called People Meters. As with any sampling exercise, there are tons of issues with TV ratings and measurement, the most commonly cited one being inadequate coverage of sample set for a country of India’s size, in terms of population. Print media offers a similar picture – based on circulation, readership surveys and sampling.

The online world seems slightly more organized when it comes to measurement and metrics…just that the wrong ones are perhaps being used, to start with. Basic viewership metrics are a good start, but just the start. Deeper metrics like time spent on a site (or video, for example), the path of arrival and departure (where did they come from? If they came searching for a specific phrase from the concerned content, it perhaps means they came to know about the content from another source and were interested enough to know more about it. And, where do they go next – going to a related page next may mean their interest levels are high…and so on), call-to-action metrics etc. could give a considerably deeper level of metrics hitherto unknown in TV or print media.

Digital or IPTV may offer this level of depth, I presume, but I don’t know this technology fully, so can’t comment.

5. Interactivity

This IS the hallmark of all-things internet anyway. The fact that a medium can enable two-way communication changes everything that ‘mainstream media’ believed was true and will be forever. It not only changes the way we consume content, but also the way content creators create content in the first place, since the awareness that such content is now interactive brings a new level of responsibility in tailoring such content to a different set of readers/audiences.

It need not change content dramatically, but in a way, it says that a content creator’s job may not be over after merely creating the content. What we right now see is that content creators (all kinds – writers, TV news hosts, columnists…) are using mainstream media (largely) to take their content public and follow it up with dialog in the social media space. At least the smarter set of content creators.

6. Access/reach

This is the most niggling issue of all, at least in India. Let me rather call it, consistency of access. As a metro-bred man with enough disposable income, I don’t worry about internet access or its consistency, but when you count people using internet in a cybercafe, you sure should. Cybercafe access of internet is not consistent – it happens by choice, not by default, like my smartphone updates my mails. I’d love to add speed of internet too here, but that’s a known story in India, anyway – it is improving, no doubt, on an average. Mobile access, text-based access and such topics are perhaps too niche to talk of, as of now, since they make up a tiny portion of the audience spectrum.

With mainstream media, access is a complex network that has been working its way deep into the country, for a long time. Print publications have a huge network for physical delivery, while satellite TV and DTH have enabled significantly better reach across India. But both these merely offer platform availability – the equivalent for internet is making internet available consistently. If you take the 3 platforms made available to consumers of content – print, TV and internet, print is the most vulnerable to platform-related issues since it is a machinery that needs to be oiled constantly. TV, with DTH, is improving, but there is still the restriction on who can create and air content on it. Internet, as a platform, is the most democratic and open, for content creators and content consumers, if access wasn’t such an issue.

Where do all these thoughts lead to? I’m not so sure, but let me start with the top-of-mind question – why is mainstream media advertising so bloody expensive, given the relative merits of internet as a platform and the disadvantages in measuring mainstream media effectiveness? And why are so brands still hankering after mainstream media with big bucks and not spending more online?

If I were to answer this myself, I’d perhaps start with the 6th point, above – access. Perhaps not all the access numbers about internet – 140 million, 14 million, 44 million… – is entirely right. This is the all-important ‘reach’ that advertisers crave to be sure of before plonking the money. In a way, it possibly means that they are comfortable living with messy and contentious reach/metrics numbers of mainstream media than the contentious access numbers of internet in India.

Toon courtesy, TechStroke.

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  • Anaggh

    Good article.

    • http://itwofs.com/beastoftraal/ Karthik Srinivasan

       Coming from you…! Thank you, Sir.

  • http://twitter.com/chin80 Chinmay Shah

    Debate settled once and for all. Good subject and a nice read, Karthik. 

    • Netra

      Chinmay – these kinds of debates can never get settled, once and for all – imho! :) Its on going…

      • http://itwofs.com/beastoftraal/ Karthik Srinivasan

         Agree, this cannot be settled so easily, And what I’m offering above is a set of random thoughts pertaining to this broad topic.

  • http://twitter.com/ItemMom Siddhu ki mamma

    Hehe! Interesting!

  • Svedula

    Proves that a bombastic headline in a powerpoint slide intended to shock/impress audience doesnt always stand intense scrutiny during the drinks/dinner afterwards