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The Future Of India’s Media Is All-Digital

Together, the smartphone and cheap mobile internet access have proven to be profound forces that have reshaped all aspects of human endeavour, redefined society, culture, politics, commerce, as well as the media landscape across the world and moreover in India.

Photo Credit : Reuters

Did you know that India has the largest number of Facebook users in the world at around 346 million? Are you aware that with around 400 million users, India is the largest market for WhatsApp? Have you ever used the photo and video sharing service Instagram, with its 120 million users in India, the second highest in the world? And while WhatsApp is the most-used instant messaging service globally, Telegram and Signal among others are also rapidly gaining in India.

Does it come as a surprise that YouTube has an estimated 325 million monthly active users in India and that it is the most used digital media platform in rural India?

Incidentally, before it was shut down, video-sharing social networking service TikTok had close to 200 million users in India, the largest outside of its home market of China.

Stay with me as I point out that online professional networking and jobs site LinkedIn has around 72 million members in India, second only to the United States and significantly ahead of China?

Just the top five global social media and messaging platforms account for nearly 1.2 billion accounts in India, a country with almost similar number of people!

I could go on but will add just a couple more facts: India has over 960 million active mobile phone connections, of which 750 million use their phones to access the internet, making our country the second largest market globally on both counts.

Consequently, India has emerged as a mobile-first, platform dominated media market in less than a decade. In other words, social media is the fourth generation (4G) of media after print, television, and websites.

Armed with smart phones and mobile internet access, Indians are driving unprecedented change across the media landscape. Content consumption is booming in ‘Bharat’ and regional language content has seen staggering growth, with Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Bengali topping the charts. In fact, three out of four users in India use social media in regional languages. A key factor in this regard is that mobile internet tariffs in India are among the cheapest in the world.

What all of this has also meant is that the number of rural mobile internet users is higher than in urban areas. This has helped reduce the digital divide and break the grip of a small English language elite on content creation, distribution, and consumption.

Together, the smartphone and cheap mobile internet access have proven to be profound forces that have reshaped all aspects of human endeavour, redefined society, culture, politics, commerce, as well as the media landscape across the world and moreover in India.

India Is A Mobile-first, Platform Dominated News Market

A 2019 study underscored that India had become a mobile-first, platform dominated market, even head of developing markets like Brazil and Turkey, let alone markets like the United States or Germany.

As many as 68 per cent of the respondents in the Reuters India Digital News study said smartphones were their main device for accessing online news. Interestingly, 31 per cent of the respondents said they only used mobile devices for accessing online news.

Chart 1: India Is A Social-First News Market

The second major aspect is the dominance of ‘platforms’ to access the news.

The Reuters study shows that Facebook and WhatsApp are particularly widely used, with 75 per cent of respondents using Facebook and 82 per cent using WhatsApp to get their news. Other social media widely used for news include Instagram (26 per cent), Twitter (18 per cent) and Facebook Messenger (16 per cent).

Consequently, it becomes clear that these social platforms are “absolutely central to online news distribution” in India and that they enjoy a brute power that is unprecedented in its scope and size in the history of this nation.

Another study, by ShareChat and Nielsen India on India’s next billion internet users, points out that about 73 per cent of internet users sign into social networking platforms every day, with videos being the most preferred content.

Contrast these numbers with the Indian newspaper and television market.

India has over 1,10,851 registered newspapers and periodicals in dozens of languages. Yet, their combined circulation is estimated at just over 240 million copies.

The country has around 200 million television sets and an estimated 175 million cable and DTH connections. This is in addition to Prasar Bharati’s terrestrial TV network that covers over 92 per cent of India’s population.

What Led To This change?

The seeds for the dramatic upheaval in our media were sown 25 years ago with India’s internet and mobile phone boom (read box).

It is a well-established fact Indian consumers read and view their news mostly on smartphones and via social media platforms. The rapid rise of social media points to an “all-digital” future for India’s media. Why is this so? There are many reasons but the most important is that social media platforms have provided users an opportunity to express their views, raise their voice and share their feelings with the wider world. The sense of participation and instant feedback from a ‘community’ of friends is the reward that a social media user gets. Following leading personalities, being followed back and accepted into an ‘online circle of friends’ gives the user a sense of a direct connect and is the glue that keeps them engaged.

Social media is also incredibly powerful as it goes beyond bland text and simple images. Video narratives are the most engaging and are witnessing the fastest growth among all formats of news. Once again, the credit for this to the growth of the mobile web and affordable data. For years, technical issues including poor bandwidth had restricted online news to text and low-resolution pictures. That changed as handsets and networks evolved rapidly to support high-quality video consumption.

What Is The Future?

The centrality of social media platforms to the creation and distribution of content will be a defining tenet of the Indian media landscape for the foreseeable future. (The ongoing, raging debate on security and privacy of data, its usage by the platform and the sharing of that information with other businesses and government entities is a separate issue that will reshape the many platforms and services).

The fact that these platforms are global and ‘multi-national’ also implies that a country-specific regulatory framework will have to learn to deal with massive complexity and business forces that are extra-territorial.

For policy makers, the challenge is to first accept and acknowledge that an overwhelming 80 per cent of all news consumed in India is now being consumed on social media platforms.

This is a reality that the content producers are already facing up to. India’s traditional media companies including print and television news and entertainment content creators are navigating this change.

Incidentally, the most popular channel by subscribers globally on YouTube is T-Series, an Indian music and film production company founded by the late Gulshan Kumar. With over 166 million subscribers, T-Series has one-and-half times more subscribers than the second largest YouTube channel run by a Swedish comedian!

For traditional Indian media companies, technology is what now defines the ‘the new normal’. The coming together of technology and the media is fundamentally altering business models and consumer expectations.

With the cost of creating content largely inelastic and falling ad revenues, an existential dilemma looms large on their current business model. Digital-born, social-first and technology focused media companies are witnessing rapid growth with significant investor interest. Currently dominant companies will have to sit up and take notice as start-ups have serious disruptive power.

A classic example of this is the growth of Netflix, subscription-based streaming service that allows viewers to watch TV shows and movies without commercials via an internet connection.

In 2010, Hollywood biggies made light of the company and its ambitions, with Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes reportedly saying the company was not a threat to his business.

A decade later, on September 1, 2020, Netflix became the largest entertainment company by market capitalisation in the world. It took Netflix only 23 years to achieve this feat!

And this is where any effort to understand the future of India’s media and the media of the future must acknowledge the internet and the smartphone as the two dominant factors that have reshaped the news genre.

This ‘digital’ shift is more profound in the younger generation, which has directly moved to digital platforms for news and entertainment content, skipping television and even cinemas in the process. For every television set in a middle-class home, there are on an average four mobile phones consuming varied amounts of high-speed data. This fact alone explains both the growth in

consumption of news and entertainment content on individual handsets and the shift away from ‘family viewing’.

In a nutshell, the data tells us is that India is one of the largest media markets in the world in terms of subscribers, readership, and total viewers. However, platform power means that while there are many more creators of content, including independent voices who publish first and only on social media, the power of distribution is concentrated in a few tech-media behemoths.

Unlike China, which has not allowed foreign platforms entry, India has kept its markets open for everyone. In a belated move, the Indian government recently enacted new rules to exercise jurisdiction over all online news, social media and video streaming platforms including those that are funded by foreign investors. The government has cited the need for a level-playing field for all media as the reason for the move.


25 Years Of The Internet And Mobile Phones In India

Two epochal events that occurred in just over a fortnight 25 years will go down in history as the most defining moments in India’s media landscape. Unbeknown at that time, the coming together of technology and the forces unleashed by economic reforms led to a massive upheaval. Even those who piloted the change could not have foreseen its consequences in India, the world’s largest and most chaotic democracy.

The first moment occurred on the 31st of July 1995. Congress politician and then union minister of communications Sukh Ram called Jyoti Basu, then the communist chief minister of West Bengal. That phone call, between New Delhi and Kolkata, would go down in history as the first-ever on a mobile phone in India.

Two weeks later, on the 15th of August, India celebrated its 48th year of Independence. In Delhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao had addressed the nation that morning, in what was to be his last Independence Day speech as the Prime Minister of India. Speaking in flawless Hindi, the polyglot Prime Minister said economic reforms were not anti-poor and the idea behind them was to empower people and lift Indians out of poverty.

Hours later, in Mumbai, a sarkari company-Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd-unveiled something that would prove to be one of the most empowering moves ever in India’s tryst with democracy. Led by BK Syngal, its technocrat head, the company launched the internet in India. In doing so, India became the fourth nation globally to offer access to the internet commercially to its people, ahead of even China.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Siddharth Zarabi

The author is a Senior Journalist and Macro-Economic Policy Expert.

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