Armed with lakhs of new viewers, TV bosses quell internal resistance on SSR coverage

TNM spoke to over a dozen people across several newsrooms to piece together how journalists opposing the manner of coverage are being treated.
Sushant Singh Rajput and Rhea Chakraborty
Sushant Singh Rajput and Rhea Chakraborty
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Much has been said about the shrill and highly speculative manner in which most news channels have covered the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, and the investigation thereafter. There’s no question that Sushant Singh’s death and the suspicions around the circumstances of his death should be covered. Allegations raised by his family and his girlfriend should be highlighted and reported. But what’s been playing out for weeks on Hindi and English news channels is not just ‘reporting’ – it is clearly a perverse race for TRP (Television Rating Points). On air, the viewers are bombarded with visuals of chase sequence, confrontations and stings – often, of people unconnected with the case. And behind the scenes, within these news channels, the mayhem is shriller, say journalists. 

In the course, valid questions have been asked about the fate of ‘journalism’ in these newsrooms – and whether every single journalist in these channels believes this is the right way to cover the death of the actor. TNM spoke to several TV journalists to understand whether there is any resistance to the sensational coverage of the case, the threats to take reporters off air and why dissent isn’t reflecting in the coverage of some of these channels.

And the first thing we learned is that this particular news item is much bigger than the normal TRP race that news channels indulge in. Data shows that for some English channels, the total number of viewers tuning in has more than tripled in a matter of weeks. 

In fact, the overall viewership of English news channels has gone up from around 17 lakh to 50 lakh impressions between February- April to around 1.5 crore impressions now – a first big jump due to COVID-19, and then an increase due to the Sushant coverage. Among Hindi channels, which have viewerships far exceeding English channels anyway, the ratings status quo has been broken with one channel – Republic Bharat – making a clear headway. And the manner in which the death of Sushant Singh Rajput is being covered is the sole reason for these new audiences, say insiders.

The spark, and the jump

The coverage of the investigation into Sushant’s death snowballed after an interview of actor Kangana Ranaut to Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami  on July 18. As per BARC ratings, this falls in week 28. 

Here is how the impressions (measure of ratings) shot up for the channels that compulsively covered the investigation and carried out a media trial between week 28 and now – week 34. 

Republic Bharat, which presently holds the number one position among Hindi news channels, was number five when the coverage began. The total impressions for the channel on week 28 were 79,769 – where each individual impression carries the weightage of 1,000 viewers. As of week 34, it has accelerated to 2,46,256. 

Total impressions of the top 5 Hindi news channels

As for the leader in the English news segment, at the beginning of week 28, Republic TV’s total impressions were 3,890 and by week 34, it has increased to 7,728. That is, they acquired 38 lakh new impressions across age groups and around 4 lakh in the 22 year plus male category.

In fact the English news segment itself saw a jump in viewership once the pandemic hit, and more and more people were tuning into news channels to keep themselves updated on the evolving COVID-19 situation. This trend can be seen from week 12 onwards, and the numbers further increased with the coverage of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. An insider who tracks numbers says that this kind of a jump has happened during election results and Uri attacks. 

Total impressions of the top 5 English news channels

‘Uppity’ vs ‘reality check’

While there were murmurs of discontent in several newsrooms, journalists say, the leadership in these channels was clear about the direction they were taking. 

A few channels have made a conscious effort to highlight both sides of the story and have been less shrill in the coverage. A senior editor of one such English news channel wrote to his colleagues, a few days ago, acknowledging how many in the newsroom “have been upset about the base level stuff that this story has been reduced to.” But he then went on to emphasise on the viewership the story has attracted. “Here’s the reality check: viewers are lapping it up. In fact over the last few weeks, the more the Sushant news, the more viewers seem to be consuming it,” he noted.

The editor also noted that this kind of continuous viewership is seen only during T20 cricket matches. “We may be uppity about some of the stuff that goes on air, but viewers are lapping it up,” added the senior editor. 

Insiders say that Arnab Goswami’s obsessive coverage of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death started off with the intent of ‘exposing’ the Mumbai police by punching loopholes in their investigation and attributing political motives for their alleged inefficiency in probing the case. (Arnab has been named in at least three FIRs in separate cases being probed by the Mumbai police.) 

But when the TRP started seeing a steep rise, not just Republic, channels like Times Now too realised how this drama could hook a lot of non-news watching audiences to a soap opera storyline. Times Now, for example, had deviated to cover the Bengaluru riots for two days but with ratings dropping, they went back to the Sushant coverage and have stayed on it for weeks.

Theatrics, threats and conscience

TNM spoke to several insiders who describe the pressure tactics used against those who are putting up any amount of resistance inside newsrooms. With the coverage now panning over nine weeks, some within these channels have already quit under pressure, while several others are still trying to hold on to their jobs, at a time when the media industry is witnessing severe job losses and pay cuts.

The last week of August saw two reporters, who were working on the story, resign from a TV network after being pushed by the Editor-in-Chief and his team. One of the reporters with the English channel quit in a huff in the middle of the night, as she was not allowed to rest even for one night after she worked continuously for two days and nights. Another reporter resigned after he was insulted and verbally attacked for missing a ‘scoop’. 

Many ‘close friends’ of the late actor who have appeared on the channels are allegedly, at best, acquaintances who had met him for a few minutes socially. But anybody who has a wild theory against Rhea Chakraborty is being given a platform and promoted as a close friend with inside knowledge of what transpired. 

A few channels have instructed reporters to not interview people even if they are willing to appear in front of the camera, and instead ‘sting’ them for an amplified dramatic effect, and pass this off as an ‘investigation’. 

Theatrics like the verbal attack on the security personnel of Rhea’s apartment by a reporter, or the heckling of Mumbai police by two reporters have become ’shining examples of journalism’.

One prominent English channel has witnessed multiple instances of resistance from reporters.

On the field, several reporters, especially those working from Mumbai, have reportedly tried to combat the slew of rumours that are being passed off as news, much to the dismay of their seniors. And therefore, reporters have been flown in from Delhi with clear instructions to compete with the histrionics of rival channels.

Several Whatsapp forwards have been passed off as ‘inside scoops’ without verification with even a single source. Reporters who have not actively participated in the carnival have been accused of being ‘too soft on the Maharashtra government’ or being too close to the Mumbai police. Beyond that, those who defy the editorial line are taken off the air, as punishment. An anchor in a channel that is demanding Rhea's arrest has been given less bulletins as she was not 'asking tough questions'. In the same channel, a reporter's story on a note that allegedly showed Rhea in a positive light was turned down.

After a reporter recorded a ‘walkthrough’ from outside what she claimed was Rhea’s residence, proclaiming that the actor was watching a particular channel, the on-field team of a rival channel was pulled up on their internal WhatsApp groups for not bringing a similar exclusive of the actor watching their channel, confirmed a source at the HQ of the channel. Rebuttals that the above mentioned reporter had the wrong house and window did little to assuage the editor.

It’s not just on field – inside newsrooms, too, many have raised questions about the ‘facts’ being put out by news channels, only to be silenced with arm-twisting tactics. A source told TNM that when a senior member working in an English news channel questioned the apparent and casual misogyny against Rhea Chakraborty, the person was castigated for bringing ‘random feminism’ into the coverage. Another young crime reporter based out of Delhi but was deputed in Mumbai for the coverage, was told to ‘come back and resign’ if he does not deliver as asked. Multiple stories of younger journalists questioning the coverage, only to be asked by the seniors to not ‘attach themselves too emotionally to what is happening’ have emerged. 

Meanwhile, some senior journalists whom TNM spoke to said that they, too, are under pressure. If they subtly point out some inconsistencies in the theories being peddled by the ‘arrest Rhea’ gang, they are shown the TRP ratings each time. The unequivocal threat to the senior editors of channels is that this is the ‘bread and butter’ of the profession, and that their channels cannot be left behind. If the numbers drop, then there shall be job losses and they – the editors – will be the first casualties. 

Defiance has been seen in small measures elsewhere. A senior reporter posted in a non-Mumbai bureau, working in a national channel refused to work on this story when asked to travel. Another Mumbai-based reporter working for a Hindi channel refused to be part of the broadcast on this coverage. A Hindi channel had experimented with the ratings by completely staying off the story for two consecutive days but had to return when the TRPs dropped drastically. 

Junior and mid-level journalists seem to be the bravest in voicing their objections to the boorish coverage of the tragic death of a young actor, all so that another young actor can be pummeled for it, her character assassinated on national television every day with theories that will put any B-grade movie to shame. But with fewer job options available, their voices are being silenced now. The viewers, more often than not, hold the key to the choices news channels make and once again, they will have to choose what they want as news, coming into their homes every day. 

Disclosure: The writer has worked with Times Now and Republic for many years.

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