Recording media trends

Print edition : September 25, 1999

The 1999 National Readership Survey, which has made a foray into rural areas, offers insights into media-audience relations along class, linguistic and regional lines.

THE release of the 1999 National Readership Survey (NRS 99) has provided new insights into the changing character of India's media landscape. Based on surveys in 818 urban centres and 2,058 villages, NRS 99 provides a comprehensive account of the state o f India's media. It is particularly significant for being the first comprehensive survey of rural newspaper readership and television audience size in the rural areas. Each week, NRS 99 says, the print media reaches 242 million Indians, television 329 mi llion and radio 174 million. These enormous numbers, the survey suggests, represent a chain of growth, driven both by expanding literacy and improved living standards.

A newspaper vendor at work. NRS 99 once again underlines the theory that growth in newspaper circulation has a close relationship with literacy levels.-PAUL NORONHA

Broadly, NRS 99 shows that Indian newspapers and magazines have continued to grow in both urban and rural areas. Since 1997, when the last NRS report came out, the percentage of adults in India who read newspapers and magazines grew by four percentage po ints, from 45 to 49. Assuming a population of 620 million adults over the age of 15, as NRS 99 does, that means well over 25 million people have begun to read some newspaper or magazine for the first time in these two years. However, since NRS 97 based i ts readership figures entirely on urban residents, the real growth of print media audiences could in fact be larger than the data at first suggest. While 62 per cent of the 183 million Indians in urban areas read newspapers or magazines each week, NRS 99 records, only 29 per cent of the 437 million rural residents do so. This lower rural reach was not factored into NRS 97.

The number of adults who read a daily newspaper overall grew by one percentage point from 1997, reaching 42 per cent of all adults or some 260 million people. By contrast, evening papers, popular in urban centres, showed a decline in circulation. But the real growth in the print media was marked by magazines; many adult Indians took to reading a magazine for the first time. Magazine readers as a percentage of all adults rose from 25 per cent in 1997 to 28 per cent, which in absolute terms means there ar e some 174 million magazine readers today. The growth in magazine audiences was driven by news, general interest and subject-specific publications, while business magazines performed relatively poorly.

The largest publications in the country, true to the findings of earlier NRS surveys, are regional language publications, not their more high-profile English counterparts. Not a single English newspaper figures in the top 10 Indian newspapers (see table) . The Daily Thanthi in Tamil comes out at the top of the NRS 99 list, followed closely by the Dainik Jagaran in Hindi, Malayala Manorama in Malayalam and the Eenadu in Telugu and the Mathrubhumi in Malayalam. The prepon derance of publications from the south in the list illustrates the fact that high literacy rates drive circulation. Despite their huge potential audience, just three newspapers from the north figure in the top ten.

Exposure to television also grew more sharply through the period between NRS 97 and NRS 99. Some 69 million Indian homes, NRS 99 says, now have access to television and 276 million adults watch broadcasts in a typical week. In some senses, television has become the principal source of information and entertainment in most Indian homes. On a Sunday morning, an average Indian spends most of the three hours she or he has available for all kinds of media, watching television. NRS 99 data suggest that typica lly an average person spends 130 minutes watching television, 20 minutes reading newspapers and 30 minutes on magazines. Weekday figures are similar - 119 minutes a day for television, 23 minutes for newspapers, and 32 minutes for magazines.

Radio is the only major medium to have seen an erosion of its audience since 1997. Radio reached 29 per cent of adults in an average week in 1997. NRS 99 records that that figure has come down to 26 per cent. Given the growth of population, however, the audience size of 161 million may not represent a significant fall in absolute terms. The decline could possibly be linked to the growth of television in rural areas, with sections of the agrarian rich switching their allegiance to the new medium.

CINEMA, too, showed less than riveting results, despite some media hype about a renewed wave of blockbuster films. NRS 99 recorded that just 3 per cent of the adult population, both rural and urban, went to a cinema in an average week. Audience figures f or cinema showed no increase from 1997. Internet usage has grown, but as yet only 1.4 million adults have access to it and they are concentrated mainly in the eight principal cities.

Did the large growth in television come at the expense of the print media? NRS 99 offers some interesting answers to this question. For one, it again underlines the argument that growth in newspaper and magazine circulations has a close relationship with literacy levels. In Kerala, a State with near-total literacy, 71 per cent read at least one newspaper or magazine. In Bihar, a State with just 45 per cent literacy, only 15 per cent of the population read newspapers or magazines. In urban Kerala, where 96 per cent of the adult population is literate, 80 per cent read publications, while in urban Maharashtra and Goa, where 84 per cent are literate, 53 per cent of the population read at least one newspaper or magazine. Growing literacy has clearly fuelle d the growth of the print media.

But the presence of television makes the media picture more complex than it perhaps was a decade ago. Conventional wisdom has it that television caters to audiences in States where literacy levels are relatively low. But NRS 99 makes clear that that isn' t the case. In Bihar, just 29 per cent of the adult population watches television. In Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, where 67 per cent of adults are literate, just 27 per cent access a newspaper or magazine, just above the national average, while 69 per cent watch television, a good 16 percentage points above the national average. In Assam and other northeastern States as also in West Bengal, higher than average literacy rates again do not translate into high reach for the print media.

In some States and areas, both high television viewership and print-media reach go together. In Tamil Nadu, an average family spends some 3.3 hours each day watching television, while in Uttar Pradesh, such a family does so for two hours. But Tamil Nadu' s figures for the percentage of adults forming the newspaper and magazine reading public are almost twice those of Uttar Pradesh. NRS 99 suggests that States like Tamil Nadu, which have seen a proliferation of satellite television channels, have seen a l ess sharp growth in newspaper circulation than those like Uttar Pradesh, where the spread of satellite television has been less marked. But the mere proliferation of television choices clearly does not explain the growth of certain media platforms - or the absence of it.

NRS 99 thus makes at least two major points clear. The first is that the growth of television has been the most marked in the relatively affluent States, not in those with the lowest levels of literacy. In one sense, therefore, if the growth of the print media is literacy-driven, that of television is affluence-driven. This tells us not a little about the breakdown of India's public service broadcasting paradigm, where the creation of state television was legitimised on the basis of the claim that it wo uld make the medium available to the illiterate rural poor. The second point is that television has not in any meaningful way emerged as a substitute for print media, in the sense that the proliferation of channels and increase in television audiences ha s not led to a reduction in the number of people reading newspapers and magazines.

A wealth of further analysis based on the NRS 99 findings is certain to follow. As important as its findings, the report suggests that serious research on the structure of the Indian media is finally finding its feet. N. Murali, Chairman of the National Readership Studies Council, the parent body of the NRS, pointed out at the NRS 99 release in Mumbai on September 17 that such research has been painfully thin. Until the Advertising Agencies Association of India, the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) and the Indian Newspaper Society revamped the NRS in 1994, there was little reliable data on who read newspapers or how many readers there were. "Research was seen as an expense", says ABC's Gautam Rakshit, "not as an investment."

NRS 95 and NRS 97 laid the foundations for this year's empirical treasure-trove. NRS 99 has several new features, among them sheer scale, spanning 192 newspapers and 265 magazines. Then, the survey has now gone six-monthly, with the next phase of NRS 99 being due by the end of this year. Two further NRS reports will be available by February 2001, enabling better trend analysis. The methodology used in the survey was also more rigorous than in the past, with three agencies, TN Sofre Mode, Indian Market R esearch Bureau (IMRB), and AC Nielsen cross-checking each other's fieldwork. NRS 99 is available on floppies and CD ROMs, and search engines have been developed to enable researchers to disaggregate easily media audiences by their economic status, for ex ample, or their purchasing habits.

It is important that such research be carried out by serious students of the media, and not just agencies whose primary interests lie in the commercial realm. The broad brush strokes of NRS 99 are made up of an enormous mosaic of local-level data, offeri ng insights into the relationship of the media with audiences sharply differentiated along class, linguistic and regional lines. "It's almost as if there are several countries within the country," says the head of NRS 99's Technical Committee, Ketaki Gup te. "The variations are enormous." NRS 99 contains a vast amount of information on just where the Indian mass media is headed. With its signal inclusion of data on the media's rural reach and character, the poverty of empirical material that researchers on the Indian media have long felt is at last starting to be addressed.

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