TV news: all talk, little news
I don’t know if you’ve noticed but something different is happening to English news TV in India. The best way to recognize the change is to look at what the channels were doing ten years ago and to then look at today’s formats.
But first, a little perspective. India has no history of TV news. Unlike the Western world where TV channels have had good news programmes almost from the time that TV was invented, Indian TV and news had never gone together — at least not until the mid-1990s.
Most of this was the government’s fault. Doordarshan news was so bad, biased and boring that most Indians had no idea of what TV news could be like. That changed in 1991-2 with the spread of satellite TV. During the first Gulf war, many Indian opinion makers watched CNN (then available only in hotels and a few select locations) and were blown away by the ability of TV news to take us live to the centre of the action.
A little later, BBC World arrived and cable assisted the spread of satellite TV. Indians finally realized that news could be exciting; that TV journos could report stories as they happened and that images could be more powerful than words.
Even then, Indian TV was dominated by Doordarshan, which —- despite a few hesitant attempts to encroach on the space commanded by the satellite channels — stuck to the time-tested formula of reading out government handouts.
When Bhaskar Ghose became secretary in the I&B ministry and Rathikant Basu was appointed director-general of DD, they decided to take on the English satellite channels by launching DD3, a new English channel that would allow (within limits) free and fair news coverage. But, just days before its launch, the then Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, pulled the plug on DD3 for precisely this reason — he believed that DD should remain the government’s propaganda arm.
In those days, the only Indian satellite channel of consequence was Zee (in Hindi) and it stepped into the breach by launching relatively unbiased news shows including Aap Ki Adalat that became a rage and turned Rajat Sharma into a star.
Basu and Ghose were ousted from DD but Basu ended up at Star where he tried to implement some of the original DD3 ideas. Chief among them was the notion of fair news programming. He outsourced news to NDTV and Prannoy Roy soon began to do the news on Star Plus. In 1997, Basu took the idea one step further and launched Star News, India’s first English news channel, run by NDTV. This was the channel that made stars of Rajdeep Sardesai, Arnab Goswami, Barkha Dutt and Vikram Chandra.
Eventually, NDTV broke away to start its own channel, Star News became a Hindi operation and new English channels were launched – CNN-IBN, Times Now, Headlines Today etc. That is the situation that endures to this day.
Originally, the English news channels patterned themselves on BBC and CNN. The early successes of news TV in India consisted of reporting-based triumphs: Rajdeep Sardesai during the Gujarat riots, Barkha Dutt in Kargil etc. And until two years ago, that format endured.
The channels sent reporters out in to the field, they reported stories (just as newspapers would), they offered analyses and they hosted debates and interviews. In that sense, they stuck to the traditional model followed by most news organizations everywhere in the world.
To some extent, that model still endures but increasingly — and especially over the last year or so — the balance has shifted. It is not that the channels have completely given up on reporting but there is much less reporting than there used to be. Instead talk (or debate, if you like) has become the dominant feature of all programming.
On many news channels, the actual footage of a news story will be minimal (a few shots of politicians walking in and out of a building — parliament, a law court, an airport etc.)
Instead there will be an agitated voice over, lots of loud music, a repetition of footage (in slow motion, with special effects etc) and a stand-up by a correspondent outside the building in question. The programming balance will be tilted towards talk much more than was the case earlier. A package of say two minutes (“package” is the trade term for a filmed report) will be followed by a debate or discussion that could take up to an hour.
In this sense, at least, the English news channels (and I don’t want to generalize about Hindi channels which follow their own formula) are now significantly different from say, the BBC, or Sky or CNN or even Al-Jazeera. There are some parallels with Fox News in the US but few of our channels are as openly biased as Fox; and there are a few parallels with the talk-heavy MSNBC in the US. But, on the whole, this is an indigenously-developed Indian model of news TV, not an imitation of some global format.
Why the change? Why have our channels moved from being reporters of information to becoming forums of opinion, places for debate and discussion?
Part of the answer is: money. It costs a lot to maintain correspondents all over the country and to equip them with cameras, OB Vans etc. It costs money to send reporters out into the field. On the other hand, it costs virtually nothing (in relative terms) to host a studio-based discussion. As the financial crunch hits all news organizations and budgets do not keep pace with inflation, this is a cheaper form of news TV. But that’s not the full story. If it was only a question of money then the channels that did more reporting, spending larger amounts, should do better than talk-heavy channels. In fact, there is no ratings benefit in doing more reporting.
My guess is that news TV reflects the times we live in. For instance, during the Kargil conflict nobody was interested in studio chats. We wanted to see footage from the war zone. But now, the times have changed. The mood is different.
Currently, the English-speaking middle class (the audience for TV news) is gripped by anger against politicians and the political system. We feel that while India is on its way to becoming a First World nation, our politicians are distinctly. Third World. Successful TV news channels must address that anger and allow it to express itself.
The best way to do that is through talk, through impassioned debates and through hostile questioning of politicians. There is very little hard reporting that needs to be done because the agenda is largely emotional. When there is reporting, it involves scams exposed by somebody else-the CAG, the Lok Ayukta, the CBI etc.
That’s why most channels are moving more and more into the debate space. Times Now started the trend and NDTV seems to be following suit judging by recent changes in its programming line-up. Both Headlines Today and CNN-IBN have more debates than they did say, three years ago.
To realize how much of news TV is about talk not action, carry out a simple experiment. The next time you watch a prime time news show, put the TV on mute. It will take you five minutes to get bored of the visuals of middle-aged men (and they are mostly men) gesticulating angrily.
Now, put the volume up again and go to the brightness control and turn it all the way down so that you can’t see the picture. Just listen to the debate. You’ll find you don’t miss very much. The story is in the talk, not in the pictures.
In that sense, no matter what the government may say, news radio is finally here.
We just call it news TV.
Will it last? Is the trend here to stay?
Frankly, I am not sure. Debates and discussions work well when the majority of your viewers are angry or agitated. So, in that sense, today’s news TV perfectly captures the public mood.
But what if the mood changes? What if the anger dissipates and hope fills the air?
My guess is that, should that happen, formats would have to change again.