Voices Monday, May 11, 2015 - 05:30
When former CM of Tamil Nadu J Jayalalithaa’s conviction was overturned by the Karnataka High Court, television news channels went on a ‘Breaking News’ spree that persisted even three hours after the judge announced the verdict. Every week, there appears to be a news event that offers the scope for ‘360 degree coverage’, ‘continuous coverage’ and ‘exhaustive coverage’. Jaya coverage this week was Salman coverage last week – the journalists on the field and at the news desk of channels know the drill in their sleep. To reduce the added stress of who beams the first visuals, first information and even the first sound bites, TV journalists have begun hunting for stories in packs too. Does this now explain why on a ‘big news day’, it doesn’t matter which channel you tune in to, you get the same ‘exclusive’visuals, the same information and marginally different headlines and stories. In a highly competitive environment, where news channel fortunes are tracked every day, and the fate dissected and pondered upon week by week, it seems rather ironic that every channel has the same set of stories to offer, often with similar story angles and the same proportion of time devoted in an hourly news wheel too. Why are television channels looking like clones of each other increasingly? Even though they try to market themselves as different, few would disagree that it’s just a thin line that differentiates content running across various news channels. Why are there few differentiators? “Newsrooms are in a kind of a trap – a self-enclosed one, where there is a constant fear of trying something new”, says social scientist and author Nalin Mehta. Nalin’s new book on India’s television practices, "Behind a Billion Screens" is a hotly debated one in the Capital, for there are few pieces of authoritative, research backed books that look at the world of Indian television apart from the punditry on display across social medium and online news portals. While discussing the findings in his book, Nalin and I tried to dissect the way television media chose to blanket bomb their channels on certain stories they dub ‘big stories’ – for instance Salman Khan’s conviction, the reactions – sympathies and backlash on social media and the tone and tenor of coverage to make sense of the current news scenario. The result of the self-imposed trap is the widely prevalent belief among news producers that they are the oracles of what audience want to see, based on the bible they swear by - the ratings released every week. However, what skews the mix is the copycat phenomenon largely prevalent. “There is a fear of being left out, to try to do X when all other news channels are focussing on Y. No producer wants to take that risk of dipping ratings on his watch”, says Nalin. Most producer, editor friends of mine privately agree and even join in for a laugh on the inordinate amount of time spent on a certain story or the stand taken by their channels, at the cost of killing several other more relevant stories. But the battle for ratings seems to have enforced an unspoken code to fight on a common turf – similar stories, similar angles and often even similar headlines! The grave affliction that plagues all newsrooms could primarily be because the talent that runs these channels currently have all emerged from a couple of news production houses of the past. The top-editors across all channels have all emerged from within the national broadcasting cottage industry begun by Zee TV and later TV Today and NDTV. Doordarshan as a public broadcaster has had journalists from private channels joining it, but few have charted the reverse course. Few journalists who have worked in international newsrooms have returned to helm news gathering operations in India. The only department of news where foreign consultants have been successfully used are to design the look and feel of news channels and bulletins. So in short, what you have are international looking channels, with little to no experimentation– in story-telling and even production values that seem to follow the only thumb rule – how much more cost cutting can we afford? In the absence of editors willing to take a risk to try a new style of storytelling or tackle subjects that the rest of the hunting pack are loathe to talk about, we are stuck with a rather homogenous serving of sub-standard content masquerading as the only news of the day worth talking about.  The coverage on Salman Khan unfortunately is a reflection of this lack of inspiration and courage to try something new. This leads us to question – does social media impact what is shown on television? ‘I’d say yes, social media does impact the news covered. But television channels unfortunately do not look whether the audiences are liking or disliking the news they produce, they rather depend on social media to give traction to hashtags the stories generate. It kind of follows the adage – no publicity is bad publicity!’, adds Nalin. In short, the anger, anguish and venom that you spew at the content produced is not falling on receptive ears, they are happy with the hashtags, shares, re-tweets and mentions you generate and – for it means more clicks, more eyeballs, more aggregate viewership and ultimately more rating points! The hope of redemption could lie in a new system we conclude, where credibility too is factored into the ratings. When credible news becomes a vital rating indicator, smaller channels will have the leeway to not devote their limited resources to merely following the current trends to manage a slice of the overall viewer pie, but chart a new course. If investors were willing to use these rating yardsticks to decide on investing in new channels, there could be a new era of smaller more credible news channels. Are investors and news rating organisations listening?

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