Friday, March 24, 2023

The Media’s Coronavirus Crisis

Dilip Bobb

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For the first time in living memory, newspapers in Mumbai did not come out on Monday because of an epidemic, and not because of natural disasters.  The reason was a lightning strike by newspaper vendor associations in Maharashtra and Goa with reference to the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on their distribution system. The association, in its meeting with publishers, demanded that apart from providing vendors with masks and hand sanitisers, publishers should take responsibility for treatment in case a vendor falls ill. In houses, colonies and residential complexes across the country, newspaper vendors have been banned because of the unnatural fear that coronavirus has caused. If newspaper vendors are made to feel like pariahs, it will impact circulation, visibility and consequently revenue. The electronic media is also infected. Yesterday, an association of news broadcasters appealed to the government to lower taxes such as GST, or else they “would perish’. News broadcasters are facing a slowdown of business operations and shortfall of revenue as advertising dries up—most news channels are free to air. The bad news is certain to continue as regular clients scale down their business operations, and with it, advertising.  Channels also face increased operating costs while they struggle with the need to upgrade communications and technology due to the lockdown while ensuring the safety of employees which has led to a large number of employees working from home. The Indian Broadcasting Foundation has reportedly written to the Advertisers Agencies Association of India, complaining that several advertisers are pulling out from advertising before their contracts run through.

In any event, with malls and shopping centers shut, brands that advertise the most have not extended their current contracts with media groups. They involve a range of consumer products, the auto sector, luxury goods, clothing and footwear and even Ola and Uber, which have been asked to curtail or suspend operations. It is also a certainty that the lockdown will seriously impact city supplements and local publications which depend largely on advertising from bars, restaurants and social events like music or art shows and, significantly, movie releases. All these, which involve people getting together in groups, have been stopped, and with it, advertising. Today, it is mostly informative ads issued by the government to do with restrictions or by brands that offer to counter coronavirus like sanitizers and floor cleaners. There is some comfort in the fact that streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon prime have stepped up their ad presence along with e-commerce platforms, but that is a drop in the ad bucket compared to pre-Corona ad spends. With shops and showrooms closed, advertisers obviously lack the incentive to push their products. The closure of all sporting events also means that sports channels have no live events to cover —-the IPL has been postponed and so too, probably the Olympics, the most watched sporting event globally—so we are seeing reruns and canned programming which includes tweaking earlier sporting coverage, which does not attract new advertising. National newspapers like the Times of India and the Hindustan Times have been putting out their own ads, explaining the  printing and distribution process and assuring readers that their product is safe and hygienic, but with the kind of irrational, incredible, fear and panic produced by Covid-19, such assurances mean little. In its all-encompassing devastation, the coronavirus has created the biggest crisis the media has faced since the Emergency, with the added frustration of seeing a daily shifting of goalposts.

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