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Thursday, Dec 02, 2004

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The bold new world of P3P

Ramesh Narayan

Read on to know how the Page 3 culture, as its known now, began; and how it created a new breed of people.

JUST to place things in perspective, and, of course, for the benefit of over 50 per cent of Indians who are below 24 years of age, one must walk down memory lane and look at what Page 3 was in newspapers many years ago.

Page 3 has meant different things to different people, but for the same reason. It has always been a very well-read page.

Traditionally, Page 3 in a newspaper was the "city page." It was and, pardon me for using the past tense, still is, in most cases the page where local events and news figure prominently. It thus tends to capture the essence of everyday life as ordinary people seem to know it.

Traffic regulations when a VVIP is expected in your city, or when a religious procession is planned, water shortages or electricity restrictions for those unfortunate people who live in cities other than Mumbai, news about deaths of prominent city folk or just some information about what little crime took place the day before or who died along the local railway tracks yesterday. These and more are the things one could expect to find on the third page of your local newspaper. Some large newspaper groups which have district news to cover also use this handy page.

Advertisers were told by newspapers and market research that the third page was high on visibility. It was also felt that the human eye naturally went to the right hand side of a newspaper, so the first right hand page got rated very highly. This made the page command a premium on advertising rates. In the past, trying to be in sync with the news, local advertisers chose to patronise this page. Later, national advertisers who wanted to ensure a high degree of visibility, made this the page of choice for their campaigns. In fact, after the front page, advertisers preferred the third page.

Then, all this acquired a new dimension. Firstly, necessity, being the mother of invention, and, if I may say so, innovation, a Mumbai-based newspaper decided to launch a supplement that would purely cater to local news. The idea, I am told, was simple. In a phase where advertising was low, and the main edition was too expensive for local advertisers, instead of discounting the rate, it made eminent sense to provide an inexpensive alternative. In any case, those were the days when supplements never commanded premiums in any case.

After this, the third page of the supplement began to report on social functions, parties and events. Remember, in those days, the editorial desk would throw a blue fit if anyone dared suggested covering a purely social event. Here, the supplement's third page was positioned as a flighty, frivolous, less serious domain where "creative license" could be exercised.

This was the beginning of what is now called the Page 3 culture. With it came a breed of people who were widely described as glitterati, chatterati, or just P3P (Page 3 People).

The evolution (if one could refer to it in that way) of a society can be gauged by the things it looks up to. Gone were the days when you gained the respect of society for solid achievements in the realm of business, academics or sports. Now, society began worshipping at the altar of creatures of the night. If you were male and funkily dressed, or female and minimally dressed, and were invited to "private" parties where the media was called to "cover" the event, you stood a chance to get photographed and making it to the Page 3 of a supplement. You had arrived. And so had societal change.

However, this gave rise to new social problems. While noisily protesting against the culture these supplements were promoting, everyone lusted to be seen in these unstructured columns. Also, if your party was not covered, or if you attended a party and did not merit mention or a picture, you were a social nobody. This was certainly not acceptable. The "rich and the famous," some whose only claim to fame was their off-the-wall clothes and off-their-rocker behaviour, had to ensure that a photographer from one of these supplements came for their party or that their picture was somehow taken and published. Every need creates demand, and demand creates opportunities that can be encashed.

The supplement began charging for the right to be seen on Page 3. You could pay and ensure the presence of the photographer or the picture.

"This goes against the very fundamentals of the fourth estate," would be the plaintive protest of the purist or even the conservative.

"Chill dude, it's rocking," would be the reply of today's self-created celebrity. If you understood the reply you could appreciate the attitude. From fame and adoration, came a startled query. "I am a genuinely reportable personality. If my picture came, unsolicited on Page 3 would the world think I paid to be there?"

Well, that's the price you pay for commercialising news.

(The author heads Canco Advertising.)

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