Even a couple of decades ago owning a TV set was considered to be a status symbol in India. Not anymore. 25 years after economic reforms, more people watch TV than those who read newspapers or listen to the radio. More than 70% women and men watch TV at least once a week. The numbers are much lower for both newspapers and radio.
These figures come from the fourth round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), which was conducted in 2015–16. NFHS provides us district-level estimates about media exposure and how consumption patterns varies across socio-economic groups. I crunched the data to explore these patterns. Here is what I found.
First, TV is the most gender neutral medium of mass communication. See the gender gap in the chart below. Newspapers have the biggest male bias.
Second, there has been a uniform increase in television viewership and decline in radio listenership across states. But for newspapers, the trend varies. Between 2005–06 and 2015–16, the proportion of men and women reading newspapers at least once a week has declined in four high-income states of Delhi, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Two North Eastern states, Tripura and Assam, have also suffered a decline in newspaper readership.
Note that a similar trend emerged in the latest Indian readership survey. Between 2014 and 2017, the average issue readership (AIR) has seen a significant decline in Mumbai and Delhi even though it grew in smaller towns. AIR refers to readership within its publishing frequency — 24 hours for a daily.
Third, various factors affect media exposure: gender (men are more likely than women to be exposed to various media forms); region (urban more than rural); wealth (rich more than poor); education (those with degrees more than those who only finished primary school). The good news is gender inequality in media exposure is reducing across mediums.
As I mentioned before, TV is the biggest source of gender equality in exposure to media. Here is another statistic which shows that: In 169 out of the total 640 Indian districts, more women watch TV on a weekly basis than men. There are only five such districts for newspaper readership.
Women get to watch more TV if their families are richer. In the lowest wealth quintile (bottom 20% of the economic pyramid), 23.9% women are regularly exposed to TV compared to 36.2% men. In the wealthiest quintile, men and women are equally (95%) exposed to TV. Such a trend doesn’t hold for newspapers and radio.
Fourth, newspaper readership declines in districts as proportion of people without education increases. See the scatter plot below. This suggests that newspaper readership can rise as the number of people finishing school increases. The trend holds for television as well.
Fifth, I looked at the rural-urban divide in media exposure. The urban bias in the coverage of Indian media is often criticised. Veteran journalist P Sainath calls this “structural shut down of the poor.”
Some argue that the gap is due to the readership “market”, which itself has an urban bias. Data reflects the divide: there is a gap of around 20 percentage points in weekly exposure to TV and newspapers for men between urban and rural areas. It is even higher (greater than 25 percentage points) for women.
Sixth, at the district-level, if more men read newspapers, they are also likely to watch more television (see chart below). So it is not that newspapers are more popular in some districts and television in others.
Seventh, among six South Asian countries for which comparable data was available, India had the highest share of men who read newspapers at least once a week. Around 97% of Maldives residents watch television on a weekly basis — the highest in the region.
NFHS doesn’t capture any data points around use of social media. As internet penetration is increasing and smartphones are flooding the Indian market, the internet would become a prime source for citizens to learn about the world. The next round of the survey should consider adding questions around exposure and use of social media.