What’s gone wrong with TV news in Indiaby Amit Khanna November 27 2017, 5:32 pm Estimated Reading Time: 14 mins, 37 secs
Broadcast news has dominated as the major source of news and information across the world for over 3 decades. This was all the more possible here as India still has a large population of illiterates, speaking in several languages with diverse local issues and perspectives. Besides, newspaper had failed to reach remote areas or even rural India in spite of a two hundred year’s head start. From the sixties to the nineties it was All India Radio, which was the most widely used media in India specially to get information and news. In the eighties with the introduction of colour TV, satellite communication and hundreds of Low Power Transmitters (LPT), Doordarshan became an important source of news although it was state controlled and gave the government’s perspective only. However by the turn of the century as Cable and satellite penetration grew (today we have 180 million households who have TV), Television became the fountainhead of news in various languages across the country. There’s been no looking back for Broadcast news since then in spite of the fact that India is one of the few countries in the world where print media is still growing. The immediacy of news and its audiovisual nature and widespread distribution has made TV the primary news platform in India. No wonder India has over 400 news channels in 23 languages battling for not only audience attention but also advertising and channel space across platforms.
When broadcast of TV news started on the state owned Doordarshan it was designed on the BBC pattern. What was however missing was the independence of and professionalism of BBC. From the very beginning Doordarshan news toed the ruling Government’s line and VIPs and Ministers’ speeches would pepper each bulletin with snippets of ribbon cutting. It touched its nadir during the Emergency. Various governments promised a radical change in this format but besides minor tweaks till today DD news remains the same - dull, drab, verbose with poor production values. In the nineties Doordarshan started leasing out slots for Private producers to handle news broadcast. So NDTV handled the English news, India Today the Hindi news and Plus Channel Business News and Bollywood News. There was a marked difference in production standards and presentation and reportage. However, the government exercised the final editorial control (and that’s why these bulletins were deferred live) giving the authorities 2 to 3 minutes lead-time to cut out any unwanted news. But it was still a big step forward. Meanwhile private video magazines like Newstrack, Business Plus and Eyewitness, which were usually meant for home viewing but were broadcast across local cable channels gave the first glimpse of independent new.
By the end of the nineties privately owned Cable and Satellite channels and cable networks proliferated the country. In a major development the then government permitted private broadcasters like Zee TV, Star TV, Sun TV and CNN were given licenses to broadcast news in India. This became a turning point. Young professionally trained and on the ball journalists, producers, cameramen, recordists, editors and newscasters emerged. Prannoy and Radhika Roy led the NDTV team, which had enterprising reporters like Appan Menon, Rajdeep Sardesai, Sonia Varma, Vikram Chandra and Barkha Dutt. Aaj Tak was led by the venerated Aroon Purie and SP Singh led Aaj Tak. Rajat Sharma was the boss man at Zee, Shashi Kumar at Asianet, and Kalanithi Maran at Sun TV. It didn’t take long for people to discover the difference between sarkari and independent news. There was a lot more reportage with smart visuals and good graphics. The emphasis was on news and boring discussions were kept to a minimum. Hot switching (between studio and location) multiple feeds were encouraged. You could see an earnest desire on the part of these channels to pursue excellence.
Indians finally had several options to get informed and know what was happening around them. But alas this happy situation was to last only a few years.
There was a stock market boom and media was one of the favoured sectors so these new professionals turned entrepreneurs like Prannoy Roy, Aroon Purie, Raghav Behl, Kalanithi Maran, Ramoji Rao (Zee was already listed) et al went public and raised a lot of money. Some of them forged International alliances. Opportunity, greed and market forces pushed the new TV czars to lower depths. Meanwhile some of the big Daddies of media like Times of India, ABP, Malayala Manorma, Hindu, Lokmat and some regional players joined the bandwagon. Suddenly the salaries of journalists, anchors and other professionals skyrocketed. Anchors became stars, hobnobbing with the glitterati. Many became political fixers. All of them developed an attitude. If the channel owners increased their wealth the TV journalists were the toast of the cocktail circuit often hanging around the corridors of power. As the Radia Papers and many other cases reported journalists were treading forbidden territory of deal making, blackmail and political fixing. Idealism was soon traded for more material comforts, visibility and clout.
Broadcasters suddenly realized that hyper competition and rising costs meant reworking strategies. Chasing advertising meant buying reach by larger penetration in the soon crowded TV space. The race for market share made all these channels widen their audience base, content be damned. Political slants became visible and political and corporate patronage was flaunted at dubious award functions. As more transponders became available and equipment became available, more and more politicians, businessmen and gold diggers jumped into the fray. Between 2003 and 2010 the number of news channels expanded from 30 to 200 and now stand at over 400 in over 22 languages. In addition, another couple of hundred local cable channels are also functioning. Safe to say a majority of them shady, amateurish ragtag efforts where their very existence is to seek sinecure or local clout.
Everyone was busy outdoing the other. So there was a mad race to grab eyeballs. Absurd programming replaced news. Sometimes it was the crime news, which was the leitmotif, at other times supernatural occurrences. When a hardworking earnest started Times Now probably as an attempt to standout took to donning a public inquisitor’s role, his tone was accusatory, brash and loud. In what were termed as investigations, deviously leaked papers by disgruntled employees, unhappy bureaucrats and political parties, TV was turned into audiovisual akhada. There were (still continuing) nightly shouting matches. Foolish and ignorant political parties fell into the trap. Pompous, ill informed and amateurish spokespersons would debate which was more entertainment than news. Soon every channel was following the same formula. CNN IBN led by Rajdeep Sardesai kept figuring out a middle path. Headlines Today (now India Today) tried to be the TV version of its sister publication Mail Today. Aaj Tak filled with brash and vacuous newscasters tried to be different by peddling politics along with cricket, Bollywood and religion. Rajat Sharma riding on the success of his popular Aap Ki Adalat very early became the de facto spokesperson of BJP with an occasional attempt at being fair. The stance continues. NDTV became the favourite channel of the left liberals and anti BJP. Its Hindi version had a similar approach.
For many years CNBC TV 18 was the leader in Business news, their staple was live coverage of Stock market and Corporate news by a group of largely flighty girls who thought of themselves as Business gurus and a few styled economic experts. The others like NDTV Profit and ET Now were inferior version of the same. Other regional channels became peddlers of sensation stories about regional politics and oddball programming. In a few years these various news channels actually gave news in headlines and self-opinionated views, in the last 2 years they are noise generators and overt partisanship. The propensity of people to be seen in the news and the misplaced belief of social elite that being seen on TV makes them more relevant helps the broadcasters to find prey every night.
The sad part is that these once-bright-journalists have now morphed into either screeching banshees or biased pontificators and completely partisan. Assuming a role for themselves, which exists only on Social Media and a few hard-core news junkies (and those featured in the bulletins) and not in the real world. I know that when I tune in to Times Now I will get a screaming Navika Kumar or angry Anand Narsimhan selling the BJP story. Similarly, on NDTV 24x7 Nidhi Razdan, Vasu Shrinivasan, Sunetra Choudhary, Sarah Jacob and Ankita Mukherjee are spouting venom against Modi’s party and his colleagues. In Hindi NDTV India Ravish Kumar and gang do an earthy version of their English sibling? Where has the gravitas of Prannoy Roy gone? Many of its stars like Barkha Dutt are out of the picture completely. India Today and Aaj Tak have a motley crowd each with his/her own agenda and no editorial slant. The once suave and erudite Rajdeep Sardesai is now another Modi hater who pretends to be fair but is not and is obviously sticking to a job he doesn’t like merely to stay on the screen Rahul Kanwal is another BJP flag bearer but sometimes carries a penchant for the citizen too. Gaurav Sawant screams as if the world is coming to an end and does non-existent exposes. In Aaj Tak Punya Prasoon Vajpye still espouses Lohia’s hypothesis and twenty years in the game he hasn’t got his pronunciation right. Anjana Om Kashyap and Sweta Singh think of themselves as Prima Donnas and act on news screens. Anjana like Rahul is bilingual but does not have a view on anything but merely keeps questioning all and sundry with a pre-planned alacrity. CNN News 18 is sadly without character as is its Hindi sibling. They oscillate between ideologies and investigative stories. News X is plain pedestrian, is non-descript where Zee News, ABP News, India News are all sensationalists. CNBC TV18 has not grown since its inception. Shereen Bhan the present Editor is in so much love with herself that she is on air for several hours everyday. Latha Venketesh believes she is the only economist in town and teaches everyone else what economic policy should be. The other pretty girls are pretty but obviously mouthing someone else’s line. Somehow all these anchors remind of me high school debaters, earnest but have no depth.
I have nothing personal against the individuals I have mentioned. Suddenly catapulted amidst high flyers they become recognizable across the country and hence get carried away. There are countless others who are probably worse. The same is the case of the 300 odd regional channels. They are all symptomatic of the rot, which has set in Television News. Nowhere in the world do we have such panel discussions with a collection of non-experts .You have the same set of fifty panelists who appear on all channels. The anchors are over made up (some even wear sponsored clothes) and fidgety. Out of job journalists, fading socialites, failed actors, retired bureaucrats, generals, lawyers and some who do very little besides appearing on TV. Then you have permanent guests like Suhel Seth, Shobha De, Abha Singh, Ashok Pandit, Tahseen Poonawalla, Rakesh Sinha, Advaita Kala and some oddballs to name a few. I also feel sorry for Editors like Vir Sanghvi, Shekhar Gupta and Kumar Ketkar who appear on TV, lest people forget them. TV channels also regularly use media persons like Arti Jerath, Neerja Chowdhury, Saba Naqvi and N Ram. The three editors of thewire.in are also in demand when some government bashing is required. The good thing is that least these journos get paid for appearing on TV. What I don’t understand are some Pakistani guests who for a fee come on these shows and get abused night after night. In no other country ministers and ex-ministers come on TV at the drop of a hat. The less said about the various party spokespersons who cannot even speak a grammatically correct sentence in any language and are looking at their phones for prompts. What they do best is to accuse their opponents of being guilty of a similar offence in the past. Till this tamasha doesn’t end, there will be only entertainment and not news on News channels. Meanwhile some of the wise, early news entrepreneurs like Raghav Behl and Ramoji Rao have cashed out while others are in the process of doing so.
The worst malaise is that all these newscasters are Google journalists. There research is limited to Google, Wikipedia and now increasingly social media comments. I can well imagine Edit meetings discussing competitions stories, social media references and other digital news sites. There are some who pretend being intellectual but if you talk to them you realize they neither have the depth nor any individual insight about any issue. Yes, they may be well-informed about political happenings and statistics collected from here and there. The other problem is the ability to drive point by inviting carefully selected experts whose bias is well known. So NDTV will get left wing Economists (there will be a token pro Government person like Surjit Bhalla for effect) to discuss merits of demonetization. Times Now would do just the opposite. The deduction is known before the discussion begins. Arnab Goswami asks a question and cuts off the answer and starts lecturing. He is obsessed with his own success. All these channels have one thing in common they sincerely believe they are the sole messengers of truth and are the best change agents in the country. Bravo.
Navika Kumar shrieks pro-BJP conclusions. Sardesai pontificates. Most appear holier than thou. Arnab Goswami has his own channel Republic that is Times Now on steroids with a heavy doze of Nationalism. Business anchors keep giving borrowed gyan with lots of needless acronyms and jargon. Obtuse subjects, tweets or one-point statements are enough to spark off a panel discussion.
Audience fatigue is setting in. The cumulative viewership of 400 news channels on an average day is less than 30 million. Serious purveyors of news search the web for news and analysis (which unfortunately is missing from our print media too). While a small minority watches News channels, most Indians tune into soaps, talent shows and cricket matches. TV news is actually catering to a narrow audience of about 5 million. The young actually are turning away from TV itself and spend time on their phones or gaming or just hanging out. News Channels are aimed at an incestuous group of Politicians, Businessmen, Film Stars, Activists and news junkies who love either others being trashed in public or seeing themselves on TV or watching news so that they have something to talk with people like them. The format of most channels is identical. Some sports, some glamour, more film people, a sprinkling of social concerns and lots of political sensationalism. There is breaking news every few minutes (no wonder the channels look injured), exposes every other day and every leaked story is an exclusive. Reportage is poor and reporters cant string a sentence together. The way every channel reports its viewership is circumspect. Data from BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council) is diced selectively. Interestingly, the oldest TV news agency ANI seems to be first at most newsbreaks and you can see its mike flag on every channel often with exclusive sound bites. There’s no denying that most channels have downsized and are trying to cut costs. No one is investing in research and development.
Most news channels are losing money and do several events to get additional revenue and sponsors. Most of them have diversified into Digital and mobile news dissemination with little profitability. Technology is a great leveler and creates obsolescence and irrelevance at an alarming pace. We have already seen the success of Over the Top (TT) platforms. Most Telecom operators have a news service as part of their offerings, international giants like Google, Yahoo and Apple have their own news aggregation services. There are several real time news feeds. Now with smartphones and social media every citizen is a news reporter. All this makes the future of Broadcast news limited at best to a decade in India and even less in certain developed markets. In the US we are seeing the marginalization of networks has begun as On-demand platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Apple take centerstage. In fact, the medium of television itself will have to reinvent itself in different avatar to survive. As bandwidth increases and broadband becomes omnipresent at unimagineble speeds access will no longer be an issue. In a not so distant future all devices will be interoperable. Apps will give way to an always intelligent digital personal assistant, curator and researcher cum newscaster. All available on voice command. News will be customized by the minute for individuals. In few years Bots will look like outdated toys as AI, AGI and Virtual reality take over a plethora of mundane and esoteric services. Unless journalists, broadcasters and other professionals are able to adapt to this pace of change they will all become redundant in ten years time. Till then those who love their daily fix of sensationalism, breaking news, exposes, sting operations and shouting matches will continue on a screen in living rooms, laptops or smartphones. For how long?
(This article is an unabridged version of what was published by the Financial Chronicle – click on the link – http://www.mydigitalfc.com/