Ashish Kaul, CEO, Prakash Jha Productions
News perhaps should be measured by a separate measurement system based on grades and not on integrals.
News in India has come a long way; from a 30-minute once a day bulletin in early 80s with the power to stall everything around us, to a menacing visual blitzkrieg round the clock which has nuisance value at best. News being measured on the popularity index instead of an impact index has paved way for severe marketing and sales intervention which has blurred the line between News and Advertorials, fact and fiction – is the real news genre, the vox populi already dead?
The television news industry has managed to cross 1500 crore in revenue in under five years, a majority of which has come in the last 36 months. Still, I am not impressed. Some might call me cynical, but after 23 years in the broadcast industry, I am bitterly disappointed to see this most powerful medium reduced to no more than a TRP trap with journalists being reduced to glorified sales agents. The corporate investments of many private institutions in almost all leading news channels and the monumental commodity interest these investors have – the entire news scenario has been reduced to an editorial circus at best.
News channels have been commoditized just like consumer durables. New news channels are born every week especially around the elections as party mouth pieces and then they disappear. The recent launches are good examples that news channels are not merely precursors of social change but harbingers of fortune. The real issue is not the endless list of brutal rapes and daylight murders, and neither is it the debate over Delhi being the National Crime Region and Mumbai the bastion of the underworld. Have not we always known this? Have not we heard of rapes and murders in the days of yore? Have not conmen and beautiful sex workers existed before? Have not we known about the existence of corruption in power corridors? And of the casting couch?
The real issue is something else; it is sustenance of business in the absence of a competent authority and the means to judge the growth and quality of television news. It is a great tragedy that television news is measured on the popularity index and not on an impact index. This is compounded by a paucity of people who understand the difference between television news channel and a newspaper. Unfortunately, television news today is managed by people who were print journalists, or our friends who came in from advertising or FMCG. The problem is not their lack of talent but their inability to understand the nature of the medium.
Television by nature is a medium of visual contact; it is about things that appeal to the eye and the human mind. The print media is about stimulating the mind. It is the primary instinct of the human eye to stop at something that is not routine. This explains the presence of some mediocre news channels at the top of the TRP ladder while some top-end channels languish at the bottom. General entertainment is stress-free viewing targeted at viewers seeking entertainment and not social change. TRPs measured through a system counting and measuring visual contact and connect may serve the purpose for them. But news is not entertainment and, therefore, must be measured on an index of "impact.
Our mind commands the eye to stop at anything unusual. This does not mean that the mind is assimilating the visual data and initiating a change. News as content is a catalyst for change that comes about by understanding, analysis, and finally, action. For the desired action to take place, the mind must be focused and in the environment to facilitate this phenomenon.
Entertainment-seeking viewers, whose number is large, tune in for just that and not, say, we the people – a fact resonated by the current measurement index. This propels news managers to package news in the entertainment format. The onslaught of comedy, reality shows, and sadhu babas betrayals shows how hapless news managers are. Having said this, can our news managers not package meaningful news in a popular format? No one is willing to do that, since they live their lives in front of a huge video wall tracking competition, and screaming their lungs out on input and output editors. So, Billo Rani Chhat Par becomes the top story, but no one looks through it at the mismanagement of housing societies, or the lack of infrastructure management in an aspiring superpower where babies keep falling into open manholes.
No one has the time (or competence) to see through the flawed and corrupt recruitment process in police and para-military forces and the falling (or should I say failing education stands) behind every Arushi, Priyadarshini, and Jessica Lall killed in cold blood. I can say with conviction that it is a fallacy that news channels are controlled by editors. In fact, they are controlled by news managers, media buying agencies, and we have no one but ourselves to blame. Our industry has not realized that we need to be judged on the impact that our news makes and not by an index of visual contact. News has to be unshackled from the parameters of reach, distribution, and other tenets of the soap opera index.It is any way not fair to measure news on the parameters of a handful of cities in a country where 70 percent of the population lives in small towns and villages, and it is these small towns and villages that vote a government to power. These small towns and villages are where news channels make more impact than in the metros where people have come to refer to news channels as entertainment channels.
While the digital revolution taking the country by storm has created a monumental opportunity in news distribution and measurement – sadly our news managers and promoters are so glued to the visual wall that they have not even begun to see the world of possibilities emerging. By 2020 over 450 million smart phones will exist across India and that would be nearly three times the opportunity that wall-held devices can offer. This is the real Indian heartland taking the centre stage of news – but no one is listening and how can they as they get busy promoting Babas, airing their "advertorials," make money, and then get busy chasing them.
News perhaps should be measured by a separate measurement system based on grades and not on integrals. I am sure media planners will have a problem in victimizing the channels based on a common grade system having weights based on the population of television households, a parallel voting system based on a combination of mobile platforms, telephones, Internet, SMS, and surface mail. Data must be collected and evaluated over a month and touch every city that has a television set. Every planner will get enough time to evaluate channels' performance, news editors will get time to implement strategies, and marketing professionals more time to connect with viewers. So what is the hurry of having a daily or weekly rating?
Importantly, why does it have to be one private agency to dictate what a constitutionally-mandated organ has to follow? The dilemma of new-age television news is that all of it is common. Let us accept the fact that there are no new issues anywhere on this planet, unless one explores them. News channels and newspapers of the future will have to be content aggregators and that would mean investigative, in-depth journalism, features, and analysis – but they would be able to do that unless the trap is removed.
Television news channels have not really evolved. They have ignored the youth. Students in India have a history of being at the forefront of change. Due to their militant commitment to social transformation, they have often suffered state violence, repression, and suppression. The biggest news and entertainment conglomerate in the year 2020 will be youth-centric but for that to happen – let us free the news from the TRP trap, let editors usher in social change, free our journalists and reporters from the sales sword hanging above their heads.