Flix Thursday, June 25, 2015 - 05:30
If you subscribe to The Times of India, you might have noticed that Aamir Khan starrer “PK” which became The Monster Hit of India (over Rs 500 crore net income), didn’t get much attention in the newspaper, except for a film review. At the same time, Sunny Leone’s “Ek Paheli Leela” which induced “hot under the collar” reactions, got no less than five articles on the front page of the paper’s supplement, Bombay Times. Such incongruity in cinema coverage is the consequence of paid news, a practice that crept into the Indian media some years ago. Recently, it appeared that the industry is hitting back at this, but this not out of any noble intention on their part. After it became publicly known that not all of media coverage was independent, media houses began to disclose content that was paid for. The Bombay Times and its counterparts in other cities say on the masthead that they are entertainment promotional features. So do other newspapers. “Paid news” is different from a front-page advert, a box advert or a banner/flyer ad online. It means positive articles that extol the virtues of a film, an actor, director, or producer. For a steep amount, you can buy this coverage to build a positive “buzz” around a film prior to its release and have it labelled a “super hit” or “blockbuster”, regardless of its actual performance at the box office. Interviews of actors a fortnight before a film’s release, articles describing its “excellent” technique and other laudatory content, appear as snippets or newsy pieces in newsprint, these are paid for by-the-centimetre, as part of a film’s marketing budget or a production banner’s permanent marketing strategy. This forms a systematic and structured source of revenue run by separate sales companies within India’s biggest national newspapers, and is centered on cinema, music, travel and fine living. Editors and managements of media houses who offer these packages argue that a few positive, public relations articles in these spheres of life do no harm. But do they border on the thin line of “unethical” and “misinformation” is the point of debate. Until last year, buying media space in newspapers such as The Times of India (TOI), Hindustan Times and DNA was a permanent fixture in the marketing and promotion budget of big ticket and medium ticket Hindi films. For TOI, until around four years ago, Medianet (which handles advertorial content in the paper’s supplements and allied smaller papers) garnered more revenue than advertisements in certain quarters. This encouraged the other two national newspapers to follow suit with similar sub-companies whose purpose was to get “retainer clients” and ensure permanent inflow of income. Now it appears the tide has temporarily turned, at least against the country’s biggest newspaper. First up, Medianet had an unpleasant run-in with actor Shah Rukh Khan over “Happy New Year” (HNY) released in October 2014. As SRK’s flagship company Red Chillies Entertainment was producing this film, a sizeable amount had been paid to Medianet for positive coverage. Yet an encounter between Deepika Padukone on Twitter led to some bad blood. Some internal conflicts too, led to SRK largely ignoring his Medianet investment for the film. HNY went on to rake in over Rs 170 crore in the first two months. Shah Rukh Khan had actually built a marketing strategy that didn’t just depend on just one element – he  could do away with positive news stories. It was the thinking Khan, Aamir, who fired the second salvo at paid for entertainment coverage. During a panel discussion at the HT Summit, Aamir Khan questioned the veracity of reports in “leading national newspapers” calling films blockbusters and quoting their income. He pointed out that none of these articles gave a source to their figures. He joked that he didn’t actually need to make a film – all he needed to do was buy paid media space, get three articles written about a film and fool the audience. The maverick and successful producer of “PK” Vidhu Vinod Chopra took Aamir Khan’s criticism forward. During a panel discussion, the filmmaker rued the fact that “PK” hadn’t found a single mention in The Times of India despite setting and surpassing multiple records in the film business. That “PK” had made news was ignored simply because he didn’t buy media space! These opinions indirectly voiced a concern that was building up within Bollywood’s leading production banners, stars and studios – do the astronomical prices paid to publish positive stories really make sense? As films began to compete for exhibition space in multiplexes, the need for publicity and advertising was considered paramount. Shah Rukh Khan’s blitzkrieg marketing and promotion of his film – beginning with “Om Shanti Om” in 2007 – set the standard, tying up with brands, appearing in malls, tours and on reality shows. Over time, some in Bollywood realized that city tours, mall appearances don’t always ensure maximum outreach, but a newspaper does. They also noticed that paying for an article in a leading newspaper gave them much needed credibility; remember, paid news was not common knowledge till about three years ago. Unfortunately, newspapers also cottoned on to Bollywood’s hunger for visibility around the same time. Thus, Medianet was born; the TOI group’s premier company to ensure optimum visibility across group properties for its ‘clients’. Today, almost 70-80 percent of Bombay Times is paid and the rest is advertisement. In about four years, Hindustan Times followed suit. The rates for such articles are astronomical. While getting exact figures for placing an article in a newspaper is a challenge, sources confirm that a single insert of 150 sq cm in an entertainment page could cost between Rs 2.50-Rs 3 lakh. Getting space on the front page could cost between Rs 3.8- Rs 7 lakh, depending on the newspaper. Barter deals and general goodwill also allow for some flexibility. In the past three years though, market conditions have compelled a change in thinking. As mentioned earlier, swollen publicity spends wont ensure a hit anymore, “Bang Bang” and “Bombay Velvet” being cases in point. In 2014 and 2015, lesser publicized films have gone on to do better business – simply because they cost less to make and market (Piku, NH 10 and Dum Laga Ke Haisha are examples). In such changed circumstances, leading film producers in Bollywood decided to lobby against paid entertainment coverage. Yashraj Films’ stand of never paying for coverage in newspapers has been somewhat replicated by others.  On March 17 this year, 13 leading production banners decided that they would no longer pay for full page coverage, spreads and articles, and would also not pay for outdoor hoardings. In this meeting, Karan Johar (Dharma Productions), Sajid Nadiadwala (Nadiadwala Grandsons), Mukesh and Mahesh Bhatt (Vishesh Films), Fox Star India and Sidharth Roy Kapur (Walt Disney Company India) decided on these terms. Lest you think that Bollywood has decided to stand up for a cause here, think again. Their decision is fundamentally practical. It’s not a combined effort against paid coverage, but effective cost cutting. Industry buzz is that quite a few of them have moved their editorial spends to the Zee-DNA group, which offers a more holistic package against lesser rates. Also, the percentage of a film’s overall marketing budget kept aside for paid positive news coverage is now being slashed and instead is being diverted to a new, economical and more urbane outlet: digital media. Add to that, free appearances on reality shows, popular TV shows, and it seems that film marketing heads are getting pragmatic about their ads spends. Of course, films being marketed and promoted extensively is a trend set by Hollywood. Glamorous media junkets for big ticket films by cash rich studios is common fare. So is buying advertising space. However, selling newsprint inch by inch – whether in the papers or on digital media – is unheard of in the West. Journalists might be flown down for plush junkets, like the Sony Pictures week-long superjunket in Cancun, Mexico; but paying for their write ups is thankfully, not an option. Paid for coverage is an inherently Indian phenomenon and what was once a hunky-dory business, is now facing resistance. But a portion of Bollywood deciding to not pay one party and opt for another is not a solution. To bring about sustainable change and fair news coverage, the country’s dream merchants will simply have to stop paying. It won’t just save them serious money, but in the long run, it will mean a more sustainable, creative change for their industry- cinema.  Archita Kashyap has tracked and analysed the Hindi Film industry and emerging Indian lifestyle trends for over a decade. Having worked with leading English news networks & digital platforms in key editorial positions, she has first hand insight of the entertainment news sector. She is also tuned into the inner workings of Bollywood and it’s impulses. Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this articles are the personal opinions of the author. The News Minute is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability or validity of any information in this article. The information, facts or opinions appearing in this article do not reflect the views of The News Minute and The News Minute does not assume any liability on the same.
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