Pushing the boundaries
SOME time in May last year, a month after having decided to take the plunge and set off on an adventure, we were at a meeting with an advertising agency pitching for the contract for our soon-to-be-launched channel. One of the client servicing professionals at the meeting piped in: Are you sure you want to do this? Where is the space for another English news channel and what will make your channel different? I recall mumbling something about being a journalist-driven channel, but obviously the concept didnt strike an instant chord. At one level, I could understand where the advertising agency was coming from: in a television news industry where channels seem to multiply by the year, was there really space for another general news channel, especially given the remarkable salience and credibility of channel brands like NDTV and televisionaries like Prannoy Roy (who, I might add, still remains the ultimate news dada)?
Flashback now to November last year soon after we announced that India Broadcast News (IBN, which also incidentally is the acronym for Islamic Broadcasting Network) had tied up with CNN, the global news giant. We were in Amsterdam at a conference organized by the European Broadcasting Union. The host for one of the sessions was a Canadian anchor, and the subject under discussion was the growth in private television across the world, including interestingly enough in Russia where the first private network had just taken off. As questions were raised over whether the new Russian channel was being financed by Vladimir Putin, the anchor turned to me rather indulgently: So, how many private news channels do you have in India? Around 30 and growing, was the brief reply. The Canadian anchor was flabbergasted. My god, thats more than in the whole of North and South America put together.
In this country where individuals will sometimes break a limb (or swallow a snake) to be in the Guiness records, add another one: we have more 24 hour news networks than any other country in the world. At one level, it is a record to be justifiably proud of. The sheer numerical strength of the television news industry suggests a robustness in the medium, a growth that is unparalleled. The latest viewership data suggests that there are over 60 million cable homes, and many national news channels claim a connectivity or reach of around 80 to 90 per cent. Viewership is probably much lower, but that hasnt slowed expansion. The advertising revenue estimates for the industry are in the range of Rs 700 to 750 crore (across news channels), up from around Rs 100 to 150 crore five years back. In other words, there has been a 500 per cent expansion in ad revenues. Little wonder then that everyone wants a slice of the pie.
To the external eye (like the Canadian anchor), this must seem like the great Indian gravy train, with no one wanting to miss the ride. Media stocks are doing strongly and television anchors are now stars, not just faceless, by a staff reporter by-line journalists. But peep a little closer and the picture that reflects off the small screen is very different. The economics of the business is in a state of flux. The capital expenditure to start a channel is around Rs 50 to 75 crore. Distribution costs are rising channels have to spend between Rs 5 to 10 crore annually to ensure they get the right band placement, and salaries are rising exponentially.
The economics represent only part of the problem. The bigger issue is the crisis of content: is the multiplicity of channels resulting in better journalism? The answer, and this is an honest confession, is up in the air. We would like to believe at CNN-IBN for example, without sounding immodest, that we have made a genuine attempt to push the boundaries of news journalism, that we have been much more hard-hitting and energetic in our news coverage than what English journalism is traditionally associated with. The brief to our journalists has been clear: go beyond the sound-bite, beyond the obvious and actually look for stories that need to be told.
Our story on Ottavio Quattorochi, for example, and how his bank account in London was defrozen, sparked off a national controversy. This was based on good, old-fashioned journalistic principles document-hunting, rigorous fact-checking, hard questioning. More importantly, the story had genuine impact: it greatly embarrassed the government, led to Parliament being blocked, and almost forced the law minister to resign (that he chose not to has less to do with the impact of the story and more with the nature of our contemporary politicians who are prepared to brazen it out at all costs). Interestingly, one of the impacts of the story (and several others done on CNN-IBN) is that most channels have also been forced to spend more time looking for enterprise, investigative stories rather than simply harnessing an individuals curriculum vitae to a human tragedy.
To an extent, what we are now witnessing is the gradual emergence of television from a period when it was little more than a first information report to a medium which can, if you try hard enough, actually set the agenda. Of course, the process is not an easy one. Competition is a double-edged sword. At one level, it encourages individuals and organizations to stretch themselves to new limits, to look for new ways of discovering the truth. At another level, the frenetic competition has meant that every little piece of news can end up becoming breaking news.
So, if H.D. Kumaraswamy meets the Karnataka governor for tea, that too becomes breaking news, flashed across the channel with an almost manic urgency. Jeremy Paxman, the BBC newsnight anchor who recently described himself as an endangered panda in the age of rolling news, says that the problem with round the clock news is that you have to keep giving the impression to the viewer that the screen is constantly buzzing, that there is always something happening on screen that will prevent the viewer from switching channels.
The result is a complete breakdown in the concept of breaking news, or for that matter, an exclusive. For example, you could have an interview with a leader across more than one channel, with every channel flashing it as only on this channel. Its almost as if the exclusive bug is necessary to convince the viewer to stick to the channel.
The competition has also led to what some believe is the growing tabloidisation of the medium. I have often chosen to take refuge in what Sir Robin Day, the venerable BBC broadcaster once said, Television is a tabloid medium, at its best when there is war, violence and disaster. The most powerful images are often those that have a touch of drama: a stone thrown at a bus will always be a more dramatic visual image than an empty street during a bandh. The rise of crime reportage on television is a reflection of televisions penchant for titillating the viewer. It also reflects just how television rating points have come to govern editorial decisions in television newsrooms, especially in Hindi news channels, where the competition is even more maddening, and decision-making, as a result, even more skewed.
What does a Hindi news channel editor do when he finds that of the top ten most watched news programmes every week, four of them are crime-driven, two of them are horror shows, and the remaining are cricket and film shows. Is it any wonder then that the three Cs crime, cinema and cricket have assumed a cancerous-like grip over the medium? Who will loosen the grip? Channel owners who spend every week closely monitoring the television rating points? Unlikely. Advertisers who plan their decisions on the basis of TRPs? No way. Viewers who seem to devour the crime programmes? No sign yet. Self-righteousness will get us nowhere. We can make bold claims one day about being a channel above the TRP race, and then the very next will have a Mallika Sherawat smooch all over a cinema show. Fortunately, English news channels have been relatively protected from the pressures of the TRP whirl since the size of the market is smaller. In English language journalism, perception still matters, so the numbers game doesnt influence revenues in the manner that it does with the Hindi news channels.
And yet, the lines between English and Hindi are blurring. I remember when we started off at CNN-IBN, we were told that we were a Hindi channel in English. I took that as a compliment because one of our goals has been, to use a cricketing analogy, to combine the inventiveness of a Virender Sehwag with the solidity of a Rahul Dravid to produce a Sachin Tendulkar. A few years ago, English news channels in particular frowned upon sting journalism. Somehow, the idea of a hidden camera was seen as antithetical to good journalism. I recall that when the Tehelka story first broke, there was as much debate over the means that were used as on the ends that were served. Today, virtually every channel uses a hidden camera, not necessarily to catch the minister in a defence deal, but even the local sub-inspector or the lineman taking a bribe. In a sense, its now open season for the sting, almost to the point where the hidden camera has become an end itself.
It is not as if the hidden camera boosts ratings there is no evidence to suggest for example, that the highly popular Aaj Tak benefited from Operation Duryodhana exposing the cash for questions scam but it can catch corruption on tape, and in a society as opaque (and corrupt) as ours, that is in itself seen as a service. Yes, there is reason to believe that many of those who get caught on tape are often the soft targets, that the real big fish get away. Its also true that there is a strong element of entrapment in the manner in which some investigative stings are conducted. These are real issues, but in the final analysis, the sting investigation does suggest a willingness to push the boundaries, to move away from the stenographic journalism into a more adversarial form of journalism which could , once certain norms are put in place, actually work to the overall benefit of the profession.
So what does the future hold? Its difficult to look too far ahead with any conviction, especially in a fast-changing media environment. Who, for example, would have conceived ten years ago that we would have this mushrooming of news channels. That was a time when the government was even considering setting up an earth station to stop downlinking of satellite channels. Today, the monopoly of the government over the airwaves is over. Now, as we move to the next stage of the television news revolution, its obvious that growth cannot take place in this chaotic manner. We will need consolidation of networks, a more regulated cable industry, and to harness new technologies. Most importantly, we will need good journalism.
There are any number of journalism schools that have emerged across the country, but only a handful throw up professionally skilled journalists. You cannot produce quality programmes without actually creating a system which breeds excellence. At the moment, its quantity which still takes precedence over quality journalism. The challenge now lies in reversing this trend, in actually encouraging innovation rather than taking the soft option of persisting with the status quo in which 24 hour news channels end up being little more than a daily recorder of news. In the meantime, I might have finally found the best answer to give to the advertising agency representative who wanted to know how CNN-IBN was different. Talk to the viewers, I say. CNN-IBN is by far the fastest growing news channel in the country, so we must be doing something right. The journey, I might add, has only just begun.