Media Portfolios after Credit Scoring:Attention, Prediction, and Advertising in Indian Media Networks
Studying the reconfiguration of the film economy after the rise of satellite television, this essay draws upon media history in South Asia to tease out the repackaging of stardom in a changing media ecosystem, which commands the celebrity function to be more flexible and more willing to mount increasing debt upon its diversifying palette. The rise of calculable creditworthiness and sophisticated systems of prediction thus securitize media portfolios, while de-risking the business at the production end and distributing risk further downstream. The essay shows how targeted advertising comes to reign over this digital network as its preeminent language and what its consequences might be for consumer attention.
Popular cinema cannot be understood without paying sufficient attention to its publicity economy. It is through strategic publicity that territories are consolidated, economic and technological scale are adjusted, proportionate orders of celebrity are deployed, and a consistent mode of address is offered through adequate narration in genre-specific vocabulary. The key challenge for popular cinema, after all, is that of urgency. Much like the news, film publicity is geared towards drawing the widest possible attention on an immediate basis. Just as news must argue a claim to newness and offer an imaginary of "our world" meticulously updated in newsworthiness, film publicity is designed to ensure that films are watched immediately. Unlike news, though, cinema is not essentially equipped to summon the moral conscience of the citizen-subject. For the appeal to urgency, therefore, popular cinema draws upon techniques from advertising.
This essay investigates the transformation of Hindi cinema along the axis of promotional economy—an economy that relies mainly on cable and satellite television. Elsewhere, I have argued that the emergence of multiplex malls and the entry of corporate capital led to the rise of genre films, which were able to contain and diversify the risk-prone dwelling of highly performative melodramatic stardom (Kumar, "Animated Visualities"). A battle thus followed between stardom and capital to regulate their counterparts. This essay attends to another aspect of the battle between the emergent digital network and computational capital. Via this battle, we witness the emergence of media portfolios in which risk is no longer a matter of speculation, for the media ecosystem develops sophisticated tools of prediction to measure creditworthiness, which increasingly becomes the definitive essence of stardom. Stardom is the most crucial aggregator of the media ecosystem, while also housing the assembly of advertising, risk, and scale within its body. The media industries deploy stardom to test, challenge, and consolidate their portfolios, but also to recalibrate the consumer profiling that helps them to fragment, consolidate, or abandon platforms and genres. Yet, it is in advertisers' interest to reinforce hierarchical platform distinctions, address identified demographics, and monetize the product variously at different steps along the value chain.
As late as the 1990s, Hindi cinema deployed an illiterate villager in remote north India as a test case for its mass appeal. With the rise of systems of rating, scoring, and mining (or selling metrics as big data), the masses ceased to exist as a horizon. We are therefore trying to grapple with the reconfiguration of masses into data sets—consumer demographics mined for targeted advertising. Yet, a vast percentage of users in India remain outside the terrain of computational capital. This is why consumer demographics continue to depend on a mass projection component to realise scalability into the unknown. This explains the persistence of cinema across media platforms; at the same time, television has increasingly become the preeminent platform to address the masses. This essay is centrally concerned with the way in which cinema, having recruited television as an advertising platform, has become the meta-text of media industries.
The preeminent site of redistribution in the media economy is reality television, which has a twofold structure that fuses distinct media economies. On the one hand, it stands apart from mainstream celebrity circuits and offers its variance by foregrounding the "real" celebrities: emerging singers, dancers, models, comedians, and most crucially, child prodigies. On the other hand, this bracket of "real" stars is occasionally fused with its counterpart; film stars routinely appear to deliver critical judgment and appreciation for the "real" stars. The media economy thus expands by distancing but also fetishizing film celebrities. This self-serving ambivalence is the double-faced essence of reality television, which in effect multiplies the exceptional sovereignty of film celebrity and amplifies its popular appeal by creatively negotiating other media platforms. As a result, reality television has become the promotional index of the release calendar of the film industry. Film stars bring more advertisers to reality television, even as they advertise their own films, and they also promote/advertise lesser "reality" stars. We are thereby served the thrills of negotiating the uneven promotional terrain of an increasingly networked advertising campaign.
Most of the literature on algorithmic culture, however, gets trapped in the argument that big data and algorithms are tools hijacked by corporate giants. This does not reflect sufficiently on how algorithmic cultures are rooted in control and manipulation, whether of user/voter/consumer choice with targeted advertising in the open market, or via direct surveillance and regulation of benefits. We must acknowledge the role of public policy and infrastructural history in the shaping of specific markets, considering the political-economic bearings of their aesthetic precedents. This essay focuses, via comparative media history, on two key building blocks of media portfolios: attention and prediction, both central to the constitutive prowess of computational capital. Mining and programming data remain crucial tools to regulate, return, or redirect consumer attention, as does predicting behaviours by analysing classified datasets. Because social inequality and categories of communal self-identification play a crucial role in India, class-, gender-, and language-based classification would be irreducible to the psychographic segmentation that is more relevant in the West. Therein lies the relative inability of these tools to achieve the intended purposes, which complicates the subject of this essay: this is not a mere before-and-after story of the way computational capital has reconfigured Indian media, but one of mixed returns and substantial failures.
I argue that advertising has become the essence of the digital network, to which the stars owe their relative utility as well as their increasing power over the network. The old and the new media economies continue to persist within a film industry that has recruited media platforms as its promotional infrastructure. It could be argued that the crossbreeding between the Internet and digital media has led to two key attributes of the new media ecology: indexing and metrics. Both Google and Facebook reduce our social world by indexing it—simplifying through neat classification and offering easy, legible handles to a world ridden with complexities—and appending it with activity-inviting urgencies expressed in metrics, as Benjamin Grosser explains. Google's PageRank and Facebook's NewsFeed algorithms are the most powerful tools: they simplify and rearrange our media sensorium while trapping our attention, predicting our behaviour, and selling that data to merchandise brands as well as to political establishments (see Mager). On the other hand, already simplified user interfaces such as Twitter and Instagram are key forums in which to position celebrity, where the burden of metrics as self-promotion has led to what might be called the follower factories of the Influence Economy (Confessore et al.).
Denson and Leyda have theorized the shift towards an aesthetic that draws upon "gaming, webcams, surveillance video, social media, and smartphones" as post-cinema (4). In Hindi cinema, this aesthetic, at best, remediates the diversity of media ecosystems, thereby garnishing the melodramatic arc. It was once deployed to upscale the promotional economy via the star as superhero, which we now look towards. At nearly one hundred and fifty crore, Ra.One (2011) was the costliest Indian film made at the time of its production. Shahrukh Khan, a major star and co-producer of the film, went into promotional overdrive, logging in tie-ups with twenty-odd brands. Sony PlayStation launched a game console, Ra.One—The Game. The film merchandising also launched about fifty products, including toys, school items, apparel, caps, and even mobile solar chargers, handycams, netbooks, and a G.One tablet. Khan launched a YouTube channel as a one-stop destination for all promotional videos and special extras for Ra.One, and used Google Plus to interact with fans (Sengupta). In addition to the ritual presence at various TV shows and newspaper interviews, Khan's promotion made use of Near Field Communications (NFC) technology on Nokia's new smartphones, for which Nokia set up Ra.One zones at over four hundred Nokia Priority Partner outlets and select multiplexes. Smartphone buyers would get exclusive promotional content by tapping their devices on Ra.One NFC tags (Joshi).
The film recovered its expenses before the release by selling rights for distribution, satellite television release, and music sale apart from the telecast rights for its music launch, gaming rights, and brand tie-ups. "By the time [Khan] and his team were done, not one person in India needed to watch Ra.One to contribute to its success," Sunaina Kumar writes. However, an exhibitor in western Uttar Pradesh did not even recover half the money paid on minimum guarantee. Ra.One was not an exception in this regard; major star releases run into profits via contracts even before they are shot. As many as twenty-five revenue streams have opened in the last decade, and music rights alone are distributed across radio, cable and satellite, the web, and mobile ringtones. Even if some of the reported numbers are unreliable (Ganti), they introduce us to a media ecology increasingly built on computation and prediction.
Stardom in the Digital Present
Why is stardom an important subject for our concern? In The Cinematic Mode Jonathan Beller argues that with the coming of cinema, capitalism began to monetize attention, working out an adequate mode of address for the post-Industrial Revolution subject. Crucial to the early film economy was the management of the star portfolio owned by the studios. The collapse of the studios in the postwar film economy gave rise to full-blown stardom, in which stars would command much greater autonomy and valuation. In India, however, popular cinema emerged as a mediating institution in which the sovereign authority of the state could be popularly reinstated via male stardom. The 1950s witnessed an alignment between state power and stardom—best manifested in the socialist figurations of Raj Kapoor—though it began to relent by the late 1950s. In this period, stardom held forth for passive revolution, arguing for democratic reforms of state institutions by popular will, propelled by the heady romance of nation-building. Unsurprisingly, this heady romance stoked much fervour across the Middle East, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and North and Western Africa, where Indian cinema represented a counter-hegemonic narrative that contributed to Kapoor's international popularity. This began to change radically after the 1970s, during what Prasad calls a "moment of disaggregation" (Ideology of the Hindi), where popular culture began to be occupied by the sovereign voice of the star as an outlaw, whose popular appeal was constituted by the despairing spiral of statelessness. By the mid-1970s, the star became capable of carrying enormous capital through an expanding film industry (Vitali, Hindi Action Cinema), and would earn its political-aesthetic legitimacy by defying the state.
This expression of political disaggregation was particular to north India. In the southern film industries, stardom remained an ally to state power for much longer, amplifying its capacity to account for the popular mandate. Yet, these hegemonic and counter-hegemonic temporalities alert us to a key economy of scale via which both capital and the state have historically addressed the nation in South Asia. In most other regional contexts, where either capital or the state has been the hegemonic constellation of authority, such an explosion of star-power in popular cinema has not emerged. As Vitali has argued in Capital and Popular Cinema, the successful convergence of the interests of capital and cinema in Hollywood hit a roadblock in the 1960s, when opportunities for capital investments in foreign productions emerged via co-productions, as in the case of Italy, which allowed producers to pump the profits back into more local productions. This process unleashed new lifecycles of radical capital, which was invested in popular cinema from the 1950s to the 70s outside America (where American capital was a key constituent element). In the case of Mexico, Vitali argues that in the 1950s, radical capital was allowed to rule in cinema because the Mexican state acted as a comprador state, "encourag[ing] industrial and financial interests, Mexican and foreign, to run wild, irrespective of long-term infrastructural and social considerations" (Capital and Popular Cinema 120). In this climate, horror cinema occupied the mainstream because short-term financial speculation, irrespective of industry's long-term interests, became the overarching priority of capital.
Therein lies the relative uniqueness of the star system and scale in South Asia. In many parts of the world, the spread of American capital since the 1950s shaped the rise of genre cinema. Contrary to this, cinema in South Asia never fully set aside the political-aesthetic relevance of state authority to command the nation, an authority represented by male stardom.1 India's protected economy restricted the entry of American capital, prohibiting easy genrefication even if action genres thrived in certain low-budget segments (Vitali, Hindi Action Cinema; Prasad, "Genre-Mixing"). The resistance to this formal subsumption, in Marxian terms, conceded substantial ground to real subsumption only in the late 1990s, when genres emerged as the differential economy of neoliberal capital. Genre cinema, subsumed as it is under the aesthetic diversity of capital's self-classifying force, has struggled ever since to surrender the aesthetic sovereignty of capital to stardom, as has been crystallized in Indian cinema.2
The case of South Asia opens up curious questions about stardom in relation to capital. While stars are nothing but a manifestation of the prowess of capital-form, the value they extract from popular attention on behalf of capital is not entirely handed over. In other words, the aesthetic-political vocabulary of stardom as sovereignty-effect became so powerful that it threatened to hold the "parent" economic constellation captive. In spite of being capital-intensive, when it is re-grounded not merely in the celebrity-function but also within the imperative of political representation, stardom simultaneously defies capital, slipping out of its control.3 While the manipulation and monetization of attention are central to capital's relationship with media and its attendant grammar built around advertising, stardom is not merely a subset of this constellation. After all, the wider orbit of attention is not a mere by-product of industrial modernity—capital only tries to out-manoeuver the power relation by investing more authority in the consumer-citizen, as the subject to be persuaded. In other permutations of the attention economy, as in Indian cinema, the star may exceed the persuasive celebrity-function subservient to capital, instead restoring more authority in its icon and commanding the political community it represents. That is why the sovereignty-effect, integral to male stardom in India, and key to translating political inflections into performative ones, remains a key feature of the attention economy without submitting to the command of capital (Kumar, "Animated Visualities"). Unleashing computational capital, as I will show, makes a more qualified and sophisticated bid for capital's management of stardom as a reliable advertising tool.
Until around the late 1990s, film stars were concerned with the purity of encounter via theatrical exhibition. With the onset of television dramas, minor television celebrities began to emerge. Radio presenters, television actors, news anchors, and journalists occupied segregated realms, even as they served varying modalities of celebrity. Media operated in relatively autonomous habitats; one could hardly shape the logic of another. Gradually, over a period of time, these islands began to merge (see Punathambekar). Within the digital present, things are no longer the same. Film stars appear on television, the Internet, and FM channels; television soap actors dance on reality shows along with celebrities of all hues. On major religious festivals, television soap operas go into delirious celebrity worship where film stars may promote their upcoming films by dancing to songs from those films. There are also dedicated reality shows, which are mere platforms for film promotion (Comedy Nights with Kapil, Big Boss, Comedy Circus, and several dance/music reality shows). The network modality refuses to let any media platform operate autonomously. Screens scattered across the media ecosystem, however, hold their autonomous contracts with other revenue streams. This diffuses the intensity of the older filmic encounter built upon scarcity and site specificity, thereby bargaining in favour of an aggregated, but differentially monetized, film economy. The filmic too has no claim to autonomy; instead it desperately tries to harness the entire screen spectrum. What sustains this graded circulation of filmic fragments?
The big story of Indian media has been told from a more comprehensive point of view, in relation to policy, labour, technology, and infrastructure (Athique, Indian Media; Athique, Parthasarathi, and Srinivas). However, my attempt is to look for the conceptual kernel of the media reconfiguration since the 1990s, in relation to the film industry. In the post-liberalisation era, the rise of music videos (MTV and channel V), advertising industry, and satellite television (particularly ZEE and STAR) made two vital inroads: i) they put together an expanding economy of which television was the keystone and which gradually manoeuvred cinema from a competitor to an ally; and ii) even as the film industry began to cultivate television and Internet as allied platforms, these platforms continued to pose the threat of stealing away revenue via informal distribution of cable networks and pirated disks. Between 1995 and 2005, cinema continued to reassess its location and mode of address within the media ecosystem, so that it could maintain a distinction while continuing to harness its competing media platforms. This double bind shaped cinema's entry into what Beller calls computational capital, centrally concerned with adequate feedback systems anchored by television rating points (TRPs). In the resultant media space, the film industry learned to deploy stars as detachable yet representative publicity infrastructure, which it could loan to other platforms as key advertising tools.
In the past decade, film stars have hosted game shows and chat shows on television, and film music directors and choreographers have hosted and judged song and dance competitions on reality shows. Additionally, reality television cultivated an intermedia celebrity band in which modest film and television actors, models, politicians, musicians, or quirky online celebrities would come together. It is worth noting here how the televisual economy differed historically from the film economy. Television remained a platform for public broadcasting till the early 1990s. Various filmmakers who had struggled through the 1970s and 80s to make films measured by an alternative commercial scale switched to television. Collaborating with writers and actors aspiring to work outside mainstream commercial cinema, Hindi language content for the state broadcaster Doordarshan offered a fascinating mode of address and a new imagination of the public. The gradual entry of cable television through the 1990s further graduated television and its audiences to a self-sustaining ecosystem. However, owing to the vastly informal long-tail character of the distribution economy, a very small part of the revenues was brought back to the content producers, thereby compelling cable and satellite television to generate further advertising revenues. Even as the channels continued to expand and diversify, they remained heavily dependent on advertising revenues. In fact, channels would pay a significant carrying cost to the cable operators, so as to earn a privileged location on the bouquet they offered to customers. The intense battles between multi-system operators and cable operators have been shown to establish the gradual takeover of a long-tail enterprise by large corporate capital (Naregal, "Cable communications"; Parthasarathi, Amanullah, and Koshy, "Digitalization as formalization"; Parthasarathi and Srinivas "Networks of Influence").
It was only after 2006 that the revenues from distribution exceeded those from advertising. It remains a notable landmark in the history of television, because the advertising-driven character of satellite television could now be reconfigured, at least in theory, around the subscribers. In Industrial Dynamics and Cultural Adaptation, Athique, Parthasarathi, and Srinivas note the highly fragmented value chain of distribution and the diffusion of advertising revenues across an increasing number of channels as key factors contributing to "the commercial compulsion to force a switchover from analogue to digital distribution" (152). In spite of the increasing digitalisation and the relative rise in the distribution revenues, however, the dependence across the channel portfolios upon advertising revenues—in correspondence with TRPs—remained unchanged, and not only for the Free to Air channels. In this climate, the stars signify the celebrity universe that overwhelmingly dominates primetime entertainment television, particularly on the weekends.
Before subscription revenue became significant, television had already figured out how to sell the consumers as the product to advertisers. The splintering of the mass horizon of Hindi cinema began in the mid-1990s—the climate in which television, already invested in a targeted address to the urban middle classes, corrected its ideological balance of content and advertising so that the two appeared to be a natural fit. While cinema, owing to its huge historical and commercial investment in the "unidentifiable masses," struggled much harder to reorient its radar towards high-value consumers available in the multiplexes since the turn of the century (Athique and Hill, The Multiplex; Kumar, "Provincialising Bollywood?" 64-65), television expanded through the 1990s as the hotbed of cross-advertising. At the forefront of this orientation was music television—particularly MTV—which was the first deployment of television as a film promotion platform. The promotional possibilities opened up by music channels went on to shape the recruitment of television as a film promotion platform and to deploy it further as the site of cross-media alliances.
The popular singing reality show Indian Idol, based on the British show Pop Idol, broke through the popularity charts in 2004, and Big Boss, based on the British show Big Brother, followed up on its success. Television revenue for one-day cricket telecasts also shot up between 2001 and 2005. Even though reality television was the preeminent site of encounter between film stardom, advertising, and television, the recipe acquired in the process travelled further inwards to soaps. The prehistory of this emergent mode of address would indeed be routed through the emergence of an urban middle class audience in the 1980s and 90s, discussed at length by Punathambekar and Sundar in "The Time of Television." But of course, the very first instance of integrating television within cinema's promotional economy goes back to the earliest of Indian television in the 1960s and 70s—to Chitrahar, the longest running and once the most popular television program in India, which featured songs from newly released films. In the new millennium, television was repackaged towards a juridical imaginary distributed across a variety of formal variations, a neoliberal theater of suffering, binding popular governance with entertainment, as discussed in the case of reality television by Anna McCarthy ("Reality Television"). The landmark breakthrough arrived with Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin (2003-2007), which Roy ("Jassi Jaissi") studies in rich detail to tease out the wondrous self-discovery—or makeover, as he calls it—of Indian television. Based on a supremely successful Colombian telenovela, the series about the makeover of an ordinary middle-class girl, Jassi, perfected the techniques of product placement, marketing events, triggering social media debates and innumerable product tie-ups, such as the books Jassi's 7 Steps to Success and My Jassi Colouring Book, both in English and Hindi, as well as mobile phone games teaching managerial skills. Roy writes,
JJKN [Jassi Jassi Koi Nahin] definitely offered the sponsoring brands a new thematic space, hitherto largely unexplored by Indian soaps, to associate with Jassi's public image of a young, simple and intelligent woman working in a key sector of global business with strong roots in 'tradition'… The 'Jassi' brand has in fact a great appeal as it proliferates over a wide range of products: Jassi games by Nokia N-Gage and Ericsson, cellphone ringtones featuring the soap's title music, the '7 steps to success' and other books mentioned earlier, music albums, Jassi dress line by the designer chain Satya Paul, the 'Kurkure' advertisements featuring [actress] Juhi Chawla as Jassi… [Another] important strategy was inculcating popular ingredients: hit 'item numbers' from Hindi films, cameo appearance of the Hindi film hero Saif Ali Khan as the character he plays in the film Hum Tum, singers from the popular show Indian Idol, the detectives from the serial CID investigating Jassi's alleged murder by Jessica Bedi, etc. In fact JJKN took the trend of a programme's referring to other programmes on the same channel, pioneered by Star Plus, to a new height.(38-39)
Various flash mobs and India forums, websites containing daily updates flooded with discussions on the show's progress, added further promotional frenzy. Jassi would also meet fans through Reliance WebWorld, where viewers could advise her. As Roy reports, they could also "tune in to Red FM in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata to advise Jassi. The best messages were selected by Red FM and played out across all their stations. The lucky winners were treated to an exclusive chat with Jassi herself through video conferencing organized by Reliance WebWorld" (41). At stake was a makeover of Indian television itself, as news television simultaneously witnessed a strategic alignment of editorial, sales, and marketing teams. Reporters increasingly covered the housing boom, new car launches, the availability of easy credit, and higher education to secure advertising from banks, automobile companies, and private colleges (Kumar, "The Unbearable"). Jassi's makeover became an intense point of convergence: it was a proxy for not merely stylistic, but substantive transition to a consumer economy saturated with products, events, feedbacks, and endorsements cutting across delivery platforms. And evidently enough, advertising became the organizing principle of this economy as it spun relentlessly around the promotional wheel. Yet a network flourishing with promotional activity is also occupied with the problem of leakages.
The Ordering and Leakages of Value and Attention
In spite of its apparent horizontality, the digital network remains a carefully ordered system, which follows the gradient along the differential of capital and time. The value of a commodity, therefore, is proportional to the urgency raised by the publicity infrastructure. Value must then be created across time and platforms, so as to harvest graded consumer attention as per demographic profiling. The promotional campaign hierarchizes anticipation by withholding information and deferring the encounter with the commodity, monetizing the delays across platforms. The leakage is therefore a constitutive problem of the network, which is significantly threatened by a possible disruption of this order, as mandated by production and distribution strategies. The pirate network, seen as the preeminent threat, is one of those systematic disruptions against this ordering of value.
With the advent of computational capital, it is the hoarders of massive data, such as Google and Facebook, that are least perturbed by any leakages for they are in the business of monetizing free services for advertising. Smaller networks of the media economy are proportionately anxious, not so much about the leakage of content as about their inability to gather data on the pirate activity and monetize it with predictive systems. It is worth noting then that the most opaque systems, which constitute what Pasquale calls "black box society," appear to provide maximum "freedom" and cannot be bothered about leakage. Pirate media, after all, also advertise the leaked commodity so as to recruit the pirate consumer onto the digital network, but independent productions greatly suffer because they are not integrated into the mining of black box console use and cannot sell it to potential advertisers for the next commodity iteration. It is therefore the anxiety of capital to regulate and order the process of value-extraction via anticipation and advertising that gave birth to the data-intensive regime of computational capital. Beller grapples with digital culture, which is central to the network modality, by arguing that it is predicated upon computational capital—a shift from image to code, which is to be understood within the broad thrust of financialization, thus making the screen/image programmable ("Informatic Labour"; "The Programmable Image"). Drawing Media Studies outside platform fetishism, Beller urges us to understand media platforms and technologies within computational capital. This requires him to expand on Marx's idea of the commodity, which, he argues, could be "constituted through derivative forms (in all senses of that word) of enterprise and still be treated as the commodity-form by capital. What is effectively being priced is a social relation, one summed up in the idea of risk" ("The Programmable Image"). These derivative objects are produced in the "social factory" and sold on the "attention markets." He adds:
Financial derivatives and digital media platforms—monetized on bank and shareholder speculation facilitated by attention metrics—are among the new calculi of value. They are not as different from the speculative leap into buying early commodity-forms as we may imagine. These digital metrics, media of risk management that are also modes of extending the logistics of quantification and valuation, emerge directly from and in turn facilitate new distributed forms of commodity production in the social factory.
Computational capital produces value anywhere on the network navigated by the programmable image, which means that
at any moment along the circuit from monetized capital investment to monetized profit, a value productive transaction is possible—each movement or modification generates new data…there are today many more ways not to pay for labor. The labor of production is, in short, distributed across multiple sites: e.g., hundreds of thousands of software writers, tens of millions of historically devalued (mostly female, mostly Asian) hands, billions of screens attended to by billions of operator-functionaries such as ourselves, and finally the whole media-ecology and economy of images and information.
If we follow Beller, we can see that computational capital as the driving force behind data traffic across the platforms looms large over media that thrives on i) screen data accumulation, ii) user feedback loops, and iii) risk portfolios. Within this matrix, film represents the most capital-intensive commodity-form, where risk and attention markets are the most vigilant. The differential topology of the media landscape is anchored by its gradient against the film economy. The film stars' pre-eminence is thus predicated upon this gradient, for they must appear to descend onto other media platforms as promotional agents, even as they hedge the risk invested in their pre-eminence.
The network is thus constituted by a differential scale of celebrity, fumbling for stability within the new calculi of value anchored by attention metrics and incessant promotions. This is best represented, according to Beller, through fractals—an expanding symmetry of geometric patterns with indeterminate dimensions. In other words, as we zoom into specific portions of the media network, the apparently simple topography expands and becomes increasingly difficult to grapple with.4 Contemporary media economy, therefore, rests upon the vitality of what Beller calls the fractal logic of celebrity (particularly ascendant on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube), constituted by the bridge between the commodity-form and the programmable image-form of the digital network.5
Securitization and Credit Scoring
Ivan Ascher also theorizes financialization to understand the stage where money in itself becomes a determinant of value. He conceptualizes a portfolio society in which a new division "separates those who are free to run the race from those who are free to bet on its outcome," those whose credibility must be calculable, from those with the power to calculate (Portfolio Society 124). In this economy driven by the mode of prediction, portfolios come with the promise that risk can be decreased by diversifying holdings. The resultant shift towards portfolios reduces singular entities to their credit scores, which score credit worthiness, thus quantifying the risk that could be mounted upon them. Predictably then, new and multiplying asymmetries are regularly introduced into the system as the diversifying imperative slips in the ideological cul-de-sac: beyond a threshold, certain portfolios become "too big to fail."
Once credit worthiness becomes the preeminent value, the labor in media markets is expected to raise its credit score by being available as debtors who carry the risk around. As "reliable" or credible carriers of risk prediction, stars tie capital to its own future, thereby making it calculable. They allow the network to hedge its risks while they are deployed as carriers of portfolios spread across fashion, travel, food, and merchandise, apart from media. Stardom thus appears in at least two separate brackets—let us call them low and high bandwidth stardoms. What has been described above is the former, while in the case of latter, the stars cross a certain threshold so that they become "too big to fail." This is the stage when their credit scores rise so high that their own portfolio appears to be the superset within which their film stardom is contained. Typically, all major stars who qualify for the high bandwidth co-produce their films. They do not only remain the means to hedge risks, signify credit worthiness, and allow capital to predict its future—they firmly grip the entire supply chain. High bandwidth stars buy stakes in the film by investing their own capital, and promote the entire portfolio across platforms to raise their credit worthiness. In this way, high bandwidth stars end up alongside the corporate players playing the paradoxical debt-credit game, which Ascher describes thus:
the creditor finds himself in a position not only to extract interest from his debtors, but also to borrow (and bet) more money than he has lent—as if somehow by appropriating other people's promise-making abilities he had become more credible himself.
The Marxian analytic of the alienation of labor power does not sufficiently explain this. Within Ascher's framework, however, neoliberal celebrities have increasingly little choice but to exercise their right to make promises, thereby making their probability available to others for gambling purposes. What Ascher does not fully account for, in our case at least, is the differential within. To put it more simply, the high bandwidth stars have a formidable portfolio, while the low bandwidth stars are on the diversified portfolios of production companies, which is why the former can yet gamble on the promise-making ability riding on their own person, whereas the latter surrender their probabilities to the companies for their speculative manoeuvers. The low bandwidth stars' credibility does not matter much, provided that the company can score the credibility of its own portfolio. After all, it owns the necessary means of prediction—a comprehensive feedback loop including box office data, TRPs, social media "likes," comments, shares and footfalls, and pilot studies conducted in carefully sampled key cities and towns, alongside "all the computing power and elegance of modern mathematical finance" ("Moneybags" 15).
The high bandwidth star manages to exceed the trap because he also has a certain means of prediction at his disposal. Through corporate firms and strategic deals struck with television and FM channels, production and distribution companies, web-based platforms, and the numerous brands that he endorses, the multifractal habitus of the star envelops, absorbs, and processes massive quantities of data to manage his own future. The "too big to fail" star is abundantly endowed to securitize intricate patterns of his celebrity and to combat the production studios if they happen to be stepping on his interests. The case of Ra.One discussed at the beginning could be a good example here. Khan, as the biggest star at the time, produced the film entirely via Red Chillies Entertainment. Running one of the longest publicity campaigns for nine months, the film publicity was also overwhelmingly dominated by Khan. Addressing every possible media platform and buying numerous campaign tie-ups, he extended his celebrity as the glue connecting the multifractal system carefully built over months. Yet, the most expensive Indian film of the time, released on the Diwali weekend in the highest number of screens, including then-unprecedented prints in Tamil and Telugu, was a box-office disaster.
The most elaborate promotional campaign did not make the film successful, but it provided a masterplan of securitization to the industry. By definition, securitization refers to an asset-backed investment that is secured by a collection of mortgages. Khan deployed his multifractal celebrity as the clinching asset to back a mind-boggling collection of mortgage-like tie-ups. As a result, the film remained successful entirely because of its vast portfolio. The key site of the loss it incurred was the only asset backing it all—Khan's credit score. Ever since the failure, he could not secure any project of comparable size.6 The media portfolio of the film made it too big to fail, but his celebrity had its wings clipped because by multiplying his portfolio with that of the film, he amplified the predictions unmatched by the results. While the battle was won in the simpler bracket of profits over production cost, the compound rationale of the prediction economy cut Khan's celebrity to size. As Beller would put it, computational capital triggers the universal Turing machine and adjusts the new calculi of value after every transaction, thereby recalibrating the credit scores of all sorts of agents.
If we were to consider, on the other hand, relatively smaller films, often released only in multiplexes, in about one-tenth the number of screens as Ra.One, their commercial viability depends on co-productions and media partners, apart from pre-sale of rights. Here, no one asset is usually significant enough to support the securitization of the project. Instead, the project is constituted by the campaign, which acts as an adhesive across fragments, only representing a small part of various portfolios held by small to large corporations. Hansal Mehta's films featuring Rajkummar Rao, for example, are co-produced by five-odd production companies that diversify their portfolios via the film. Even if the film does not command a portfolio, it distributes risk among several small players whose own credit score would not lean too heavily on the film.
Alternatively, consider Yash Raj Films (YRF), India's largest media conglomerate—the leading production and distribution company in India, and one of the largest in the world. With about twenty-five subsidiaries, YRF has its own music, merchandise and fashion labels, VFX studio, home entertainment division, television production company, and units handling talent management, post production, licensing, and brand partnerships. YRF also has a subsidiary called Y-films, which produces and distributes films strictly for youth and has already released five web series and four feature films. As the owner of the most comprehensive portfolio possible, YRF is introduced on its website (www.yashrajfilms.com) as if it were the industry.
YRF has a portfolio with enormous risk-appetite. Its small films routinely fail at the box-office, even though the big budget blockbusters rarely do. The impact of small films on YRF's own credit score being negligible, they nearly operate outside the credit score economy. In effect, their failure has already been accounted for and makes little to no difference to the vast portfolio of YRF. Even for a small experimental film with heavy risk of failure otherwise, YRF is the safest possibility of patronage. But even as its portfolio aggregates platforms, demographics, genres, and technologies, it remains a studio known for big budget romantic melodramas featuring major stars—an image that the company consolidated under filmmaker Yash Chopra through the 1980s and 90s and that it variously rehashes in its new productions. Celluloid classics are pitched as advertising masterstrokes, while new productions update the aesthetic configurations as per the analytics of the target demographic.
The Platform Question
In this last section, I would like to establish the extent to which various media are shaped by the public function they serve as platforms. Owing partially to their distinct histories within the media economy, media are not only constituted by their formal and aesthetic constraints, but also continue to uphold an ideological function. Television, for example, developed in India as a broadcast medium. Its intersection with middle-class domesticity further ensured that the state was built into the imaginary it offered to law-abiding citizens. This imaginary was not substantially overwritten by the emergence of cable and satellite television in the 1990s. Notably, while all Indian films have to be passed by a Censor Board for Certification, the censorship of television is far stricter. Films certified with an "Adult" certificate, for example, cannot be screened on television. Those with a "Universal" certificate go through further censoring that is often arbitrary and severe (see Jha, "The Manual").7 Television, therefore, operates on a stricter contract with the state than does cinema.
The web, on the other hand, is taken to be an island of freedom, which is the main reason web series across the spectrum often include sexuality, ribaldry, abusive language, and intoxication. The wedge between television and the web therefore determines what is fundamentally an ideological separation mandated by state censorship and the threat as well as promise of mass media. Let us consider a recent web series distributed by Amazon Prime, Inside Edge (2017). The series is ridden with layers upon layers of securitizing moves. It speculates over the portfolio of the Indian Premier League—a multifractal system including celebrity formations in cricket, media, fashion, advertising, journalism, and big business, but also rumoured to be the hotbed of drug abuse, sexual indiscretion, illegal betting, and match-fixing. Multiplying a whirlwind of attractions, the series features semi-retired and struggling film actors alongside new entrants into the media complex. The series packages its own portfolio of securities, all with modest credit scores, that draws upon well-known scandals to maintain a generative relation to reported "reality." In effect, however, the series reaffirms the pre-eminence of cinema within the media economy, in which T20 cricket has come to hold a seasonal spot.
For about a decade now, cable and satellite television have subsidized ventures into film. Films comprise nearly twenty percent of television content across languages. The sale of cable and satellite rights, which contributes heavily to low-budget experimental films, has been undergoing correction since 2013 (Ficci-KPMG; Jha "Satellite Rights"). The viability of smaller projects would be drastically reduced and the investments in such projects may gradually shift to web-based platforms. The bloated pricing of cable and satellite rights emerged on account of new channels "launching with the aim of acquiring films to buttress content or networks getting into a sort of bidding war over who bags the biggest film or the biggest star" (Jha). As is evident, then, high bandwidth stardom is responsible for driving the overall prediction both upwards and downwards, and is also key to the platform wars between web-based and television programming.
Before we conclude, however, attention must also be paid to the preeminent platform of the celluloid economy—the single screen theater, which remains vital to the measure of the box office valuation, even though the available means of prediction fail to fully account for these theaters. Operating on ad hoc agreements with local distributors, these estimated six thousand theaters—as opposed to twenty-one hundred multiplex screens—are still immensely relevant (Deloitte). While the low-middle budget films are not released in these theaters, the blockbusters unfailingly capture a large chunk of them. Even if a significant percentage of these theaters now rely on digital distribution, the ticketing is very often on paper and footfalls are under-reported. The vast majority of single screen theaters are located in the southern states, where the array of regional cinema stars and their competitive fan clubs have a long history. Taking this into account, we encounter the limits of computational capital. Even as attention metrics gradually take over, we must not overlook the persistence of the old within the new.
This essay has recounted, via comparative media history, how the film industry in India reconciled with the rapid growth of satellite television, recruiting it as a promotional platform, and thus forging together a media economy in which the film star aggregates the digital network as a constitutive outside, as the weekend exception that holds together the everyday celebrity horizon of the promotional economy. While corporate capital and stardom evolved as competing agents trying to regulate their counterpart during the post-liberalization maturation of the film economy, this essay has argued that tools of prediction consolidate and support aesthetic-political modalities, while content and layouts are remediated across media networks.
Often, however, digital and web-based media are taken to be interchangeable. This is misleading to the extent that the digital takeover of old media industries has been a drive towards formal subscriptions (Parthasarathi, Amanullah, and Koshy, "Digitalization as Formalization"), whereas web-based media navigate the realm of "free" user activity, mined for targeted advertising. The wedge between subscription-and advertising-based revenue models requires closer assessment. The modest growth of Netflix and Amazon Prime alongside the rise of "independent" platforms (Hotstar, ALT Balaji, Voot, TVF, Arre) might suggest that the media industry wants to exit the promotional superhighways to develop subscription-based content. However, the battle over platforms should not distract us from the aggressively embedded advertising within the emerging content. The inability to exit the promotional superhighways marks the peculiar destiny of media in the time of computational capital, which also resonates with the destiny of billions who are trapped in the self-promotional frenzy of social media, where one wilfully deposits one's private lifeworld into networks with porous boundaries.
The preeminent distinction between advertising and subscription-based media is that the former relishes the openness of the network whereas the latter seek a strategic isolation from it. Suspended between the two modalities, the digital network, with its embedded tactics of control and cross-advertising, remains a key site to negotiate a new deal between the private and the public. Regardless of the threat of data theft, the thrill of selling one's privacy in controlled public-private environments—supposedly, on one's own terms—allows the consumer a distinct resonance with the celebrity-function, itself an outcome of surrendering privacy for increased public attention. The media network, drawing its cues from the same, has increasingly become a pride parade of celebrity posturing, unwittingly intensifying the war cry of neoliberalism. Consumer attention is trapped within its deceptively shape-shifting ecosystem, where event, content, celebrity, merchandise, and "reality" are routinely camouflaged and cross-dressed.
Algorithmic cultures in the media economy enable compound, integrated, and recursive camouflaging. The consumer is offered a new deal—between subscription and promotion, between products and services—with a blurred horizon. We are thus invited to dwell in a habitus where the consumer is the only stable product. The consumer's choices are closely computed to reinforce and amplify the predictive systems, while everything else appears to be a collage of promotional interests. The split subject could therefore only lay indirect claim to itself via a portfolio of interests. The debt-carrying capacity of the credit-scored consumer must be underscored by the aesthetic-political profiling of his/her world.
To confirm the grim future of media networks, we must revisit the case of news, because the news business has not only lost its grip over what is newsworthy—what is news or instead, what is not news—but has also become subservient to advertising. When both the credible and the incredible offer relatively equal quotients of newness, the sheer volume of labour spent in making news credible forces it down the urgency ladder. The marketability and the scalability of the incredible as news—a news-advertising hybrid unleashed by the news factories playing with attention, computation, capital, and predictions—has therefore reduced credible news to mere liveness: the event as its bare self, immediate, transparent, and pleading for attention towards its truth-claim (Kumar, "The Unbearable"). In the midst of this, what has anchored the ethical cache of news is actually the spectre of the unidentified masses, who, it seems necessary to believe, must value the analytical truth.
Psychographic classifications and behavioural data mining, however, break down even that last layer of doubt, which has perennially held together the foremost argument for truth-claims. The collapse of that spectre leaves every information vulnerable to computational capital and targeted advertising. Without the "protection" of the horizon of the masses, computational capital hacks the social code and reassembles it as interest-group clusters with a keen eye to their vulnerabilities, serving the truth with an "appropriate" dressing. What confronts the media after credit scoring, after the systematic disaggregation of the invaluable horizon of unidentified masses, is quite worse. Computational capital targets algorithmically what capital does via direct advertising; while both are deeply invested in multifractal stardom, the former is significantly more efficient at stripping stardom down to its celebrity-function via portfolios, predictive systems, and the differential interiority of the network.
Akshaya Kumar is Assistant Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Indian Institute of Technology, Indore. He is finishing a monograph provisionally titled Provincializing Bollywood: Bhojpuri Cinema in the Comparative Media Crucible, which situates a low-budget media industry in the context of South Asian film and media history. He has published numerous articles on Media and Cultural studies in Social Text, Television and New Media, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, and Contemporary South Asia, among others. The current article is part of a work-in-progress project on the various entanglements of media, capital, and politics.
1. While it is possible to see action cinema as the dominant genre in India, such classification reveals far too little. In Hindi Action Cinema, Vitali, for example, establishes the debt of Italian Peplums in the popular Hindi films featuring wrestler Dara Singh. While these are wrestling films that highlight muscularity and strength, such features were mounted upon a popular genre template in Madras-based film production: folklore films, often narrating the return of the abandoned but rightful heir of the throne via the popular will of the masses. Action films across the spectrum tend to be far more contemporary in their styling, and yet it would be misleading to overlook that they are re-grounded in a "local" aesthetic configuration.
2. This essay focuses on male stardom in Indian film industries, reflecting its primacy. While female stars tend to have significantly shorter lifecycles and are entrusted with substantially less advertorial attention, several of them enjoy similar privileges across the network.
3. The most eccentric of stardom's achievement has been discussed by Prasad in Cine-Politics, a historical-theoretical investigation of how certain stars of the early post-independence era went on to acquire enormous political surplus in southern Indian states, with two of them even remaining chief ministers of the respective states over multiple terms.
4. An aspiring model on Instagram could, for example, appear in full control of the libidinal economy of the platform. Apparel brands and budding fashion designers would rent her body for advertising, for she appears "untainted" by celebrity. However, someone else affording the same "lifestyle" could flaunt it without any career aspiration, appearing within the same (fractal) pattern of celebrity-advertising-fashion-corporeality. The indeterminate dimensionality and expanding symmetry of fractals within the network thus become almost recognizable, but not quite.
5. Playback singers for film songs, like Ankit Tiwari and Neha Bhasin, whose corporeality had been hidden, now run YouTube channels to reclaim their celebrity. They can feature in their music videos and collaborate with fashion designers, actors, and choreographers, seeking offers for live concerts and other events.
6. In a move to offset such damage, when actor Salman Khan's Tubelight (2017) did not deliver on market predictions, he returned the distributors' money (60 crores). Tamil star Rajinikanth did the same after the relative failure of Lingaa (2014). The small distributor, without any means to hedge his risks, is thus compensated as a goodwill gesture. Khan thus restored trust in his own creditworthiness by going against the logic of financialization.
7. It is not uncommon for parents in small-town India to forbid their children to watch films in theaters, but then to allow them to watch the same films on television later. While there are other parameters at stake, the practice does indicate a differential social contract with media platforms.