Is a CNN For the Base of the Pyramid Possible?

When we and our NGO partners initiate community members--young men and women from the slums and villages of India--into their new full-time jobs as 'Community Video Producers,' we often start the training sessions by drawing a triangle on the board.

'This pyramid,' the Video Trainer says, 'represents the global media.' The Producers then divide up the triangle into different layers--the nightly news programs at the top. Then, going down, CNN. Then India's Murdoch-owned English language stations. Then India's regional language private news stations, then India's national televsion, 'Doordarshan,' etc. etc. At each layer, a slightly wider percentage of the global population is represented by that particular media outlet, but never does it appear that more than the top 20% of the global population (the middle class and urban part of the world) find their own representatives in the media hierarchy.

Then we draw a line near the bottom of the triangle, to illustrate the 'bottom of the pyramid,' which is the 1/3rd of the world living on less than $2 a day. This is where the Community Producers are from. 'We want you to become the CNN for the Base of the Pyramid,' is what we say.

They start to share stories about how their own local papers only cover road accidents and photo ops of politicians. They come up with their own questions that the local media should answer but fails to (who is responsible for the lack of electricity in their area? Have the politicians fulfilled their election promises from last year?) They get out rulers and measure the column width given to the different 'beats'--how much space does health coverage get, compared to celebrity coverage. As training progresses, they will start each day by analyzing today's paper. In this way, the Community Video Producers begin their transformation into media activists.

The Community Producers, at the moment, produce exclusively for a local audience--100-400 people a night who gather in the center of the village to watch the film and discuss what they will do about the issue. But their political perspective--on the politics and economics of the global media--is national. And they just had a small victory. They are going to be producing for CNN IBN, one of the three leading English language 24 hour news stations in India.

For the next three Saturdays, at 9pm, the Community Producers will have a short segment in a half-hour show called 'Citizens Journalist.' The first story will be a general report on our work. The next two stories will be on garbage and sexual harrassment. Each CNN IBN segment that we do will revisit an issue the Community Video Unit has already made a film about, and will give another demand to the authorities to do something about the problem. I learned a few things, both about our model of community video, and about the mainstream media, in working out this deal:

Sustainability: CNN IBN is going to pay us Rs. 5,000 for each story ($125). If we can work very efficiently, this can be a break even project for the Community Video Unit ('CVU.') That's a first goal -- to be efficient and break even on new projects they undertake. We talk about a 'media industry at the base of the pyramid' as our big goal. Obviously it needs to be sustainable. but the question is how? I guess not making a loss is a first step, but we need help getting to the next level. How do the CVUs make a profit, so they can expand their number of Producers, raise salaries, get new equipment, serve more people?

A 'Social Media Network' for the base of the pyramid: we designed our model of Community Video with the idea of reaching scale. We aim to partner with 30 NGOs in five years, to train more than 200 Producers, and thereby create a media-producing 'Network' that is at least as large (in terms of number of full-time videojournalists employed) as a single Indian national news Network. Our 'Network' of NGOs and Community Producers is tentatively called 'Channel 19' (see, though we may need a new name soon.) We were thrilled that CNN IBN has agreed to describe the Producers as part of the Channel 19 Network, and also that our NGO partners have agreed to this experiment in collective identity. For us, this is a chance to test out a hypothesis we have: the TV media has hardly any stories about the poor, that show the situation from their point of view. But yet, there is a lot of social documentary material and social issue content out there. Maybe the solution is this: producers of pro-poor media content need to be networked together, to increase their visibility and lobbying power. CNN IBN is giving us a chance to test out that idea

The poor as Producers as content, not just victimized subjects: over the past two years, we've approached maybe a dozen TV stations asking for collaboration. All of them would say, 'we'd love to do a story ON the Community Producers, but we can't air a story BY them. What quality will the story have? What does our audience care about a bunch of villagers? Who wants to hear more stories about poverty and human rights problems?' CNN IBN was the first one to agree that the Producers could MAKE the program. I think this may be one of the first times (in India at least) where the poor have been paid to produce for a leading television station.CNN IBN is giving us our first step in becoming the "CNN of the base of the pyramid."This blog, in particular, would be a great place to address the question of, 'the poor as producers and not just subjects of the news." For me and my colleagues, WHO produces the news, is as important as what is being said. So, as long as leaders in the field of democratizing the media remain exclusively English-speaking, Western (or Westernized), middle class and urban, how much change can we really make?

Here is a video on Channel 19 on garbage in Mumbai slums. This is a five minute version of a half hour film made by the Community Video Unit at Yuva, and it's the first story that is going to be redone for CNN IBN.

Written by Jessica Mayberry, Founding Director of Video Volunteers.

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