You can see the glint in the eyes of a senior government official as he stretches his hands out to collect the wad of notes – pretext – he is about to issue a fake birth certificate. Switch the channel – no one wants a three year old girl child – neither her parents nor her grandparents. Asha’s parents are divorced and are due to re-marry – they don’t want the additional responsibility of an innocent girl. A social analyst, a lawyer, the child’s parents and grand parents are being moderated by a news anchor to find out what will happen to the child. Flip the remote again – the foreign minister of India has had to leave his post as his name figures in a list of beneficiaries who have made slush money in UN oil for food program during Saddam Hussian’s regime. Switch once more – a business tycoon’s daughter has had a sex change to inherit her father’s property. Confused what to watch?
Welcome to the changing world of News channels. With more than two dozen news channels in languages as varied as the multi cultural India –Indian broadcast Industry is set for a sonic boom. Interestingly the number of national networks in India today far outnumbers the entire strength of television networks in developed countries like the United States of America or the United Kingdom. Needless to say the sheer vastness and number of viewers in India provides a huge market. Market dynamics apart, today the Indian audience is the crowned King. At the flick of the remote button, discerning Indian audiences decide the fate of networks that may profess altruistic aims of spreading awareness, but in pure economical terms, are in the business to generate revenue.
It is this business of revenue that has urged TV channels to scout for stories that are as varied as cheese is to chalk. Little wonder then, that the game of one-up-man-ship has set in – so you see an Inspector General of Police dressed as a woman seeped in love of Lord Krishna dancing in trans on one channel, to the tennis starlet Sania Mirza giving intellectual discourse on the pressures of being an international tennis star.
With more than a dozen national networks, the competition is nerve breaking. Networks push reporters to be the first – to get exclusive stories. The mantra today is – reach out to the people, relay their lives, pain, misery, hunger, desperation, depravation, corruption, official neglect, bureaucratic apathy, obtrusive rituals, myths, religions fervor, sex and passion in the glamour world – sleazy under belly of prostitution, personal lives of the rich and famous – nothing skips the roving eye of the camera. Three letters – TRP- has become the buzz word. The preset age TV journalism slogan – if your news can’t hold the audiences, then it’s no news.
While, television news is changing the lives of millions – today, in the mad rush to sustain viewer ship, a number of networks are presenting the anti-thesis of news. The red flash with Breaking News has become a dirty word amongst the intellectuals. A new policy statement by the government – a criminal act by a politician – – a bomb explosion killing innocents – rape in a slum in a metros – dead body in a locked house – kidnapping of a businessman or a child – an actor kissing his girlfriend in a party – a socialite changing his/her sex – a pornographic MMS clip – networks today term all these as BREAKING NEWS and follow it up as Exclusive.
The merits and pitfalls of such editorial decisions can be debated or at best whisked under the carpets as pangs of an emerging news market. One thing is sure – the playing field is never going to be the same.
The power of visuals has edged the dominance of print journalism. Many in the paper industry may not agree, but today the newspapers per force are devoting more space to stories that would have featured in their news update section. Or else how can one explain the Mumbai edition of the Times of India devoting 9 pages to the extradition of underworld don, Abu Salem. Needless to say, television channels had virtually exhausted all possible dimensions of the news for more than 24 hours.
The world of news today has changed. Long winding political speeches which till early 2000 dominated television space was nudged out. In turn, politicians turned sound bite savvy. Uncouth politicians were out – a suave, articulate, intelligent, witty repartee during political paw-wow was in. The five yearly democratic fair – parliamentary and assembly elections – no longer remained in the purview of state. Exit polls, opinion polls and day long poll analysis went a long way in bringing the electoral politics to drawing rooms. Netas (politicians) now fought for airtime alongside Abhinetas (actors). If the face of news was changing so were the numbers which established beyond doubt that the 21 st century is the age of broadcast. The average news viewing share increased to roughly 55 minutes in 24 hours. The advertising pie for news channels passed over 500 crores rupees annually. News became a lucrative business.
But, the billion dollar question is how this genie was uncorked to make the masses dictate what they want to – from the days of state run electronic media in Doordarshan . The genesis can be traced to the forces of market which nudged India in the early nineties. Market reforms, liberalization and active participation of international players – unlocked the Indian economy. This necessitated ready availability of information which till then was under the purview of the government. Government controlled Doordharshan and All India Radio – the twin sources of broadcast was the lone window to the outside world. But the “American Crusade” against Saddam Hussain during the Gulf war in the beginning of nineties, changed all this.
In the corridors of power that be – the bureaucrats and politicians took a decision that changed the face of television. Private production houses were allowed to produce daily news programs for the official broadcaster – Doordarshan. The credibility, acceptability and people oriented approach soon changed the course of news that was to come.
Even the most optimist media watchers in the mid – nineties would laugh in your face if you talked about the possibility of multiple news channels in a span of five to seven years. Converts to television journalism were frowned upon by print journalists as shallow publicity hungry – bite soldiers. But, the mid- nineties itself, saw the beginning of private news broadcast. The Kargil skirmish between India and Pakistan in 1999 brought the vagaries of war into the bedroom of people creating war frenzy unseen since 1962. While the debate on the political front on the cause and effect of the Kargil skirmish was still being fought on television screens, hijack of an Indian Airlines plane en-route to Delhi – IC 810 – proved that news channels could shape domestic policies. The minute by minute coverage of the incident unleashed the power of television albeit at a cost.
With its reach, power and credibility established, television news as an industry was poised for the next leap. The year 2001 marked the beginning of a new genre – the first Hindi news channel. Again, nobody in the industry even gave it ten percent chances to succeed. But this was an experiment which opened the floodgates for the proliferation of channels in less than three years. Rapid developments like Gujarat earthquake – Pakistani President Pervez Mussarafs visit to India – terrorist attack on twin tower of World trade centre – Gujarat riots – propelled the the average viewer ship of news from a mere 12 minutes in 24 hours to a whooping 31 minutes. This was a trend unheard of, in the business of news channel. Media planner expected the growth in broadcast news market to be in the range of 15 percent per annum.
There was one front however, on which Indian broadcasters were actually ahead of the established western counterparts – Technology. News channels in India stared the international trend – No more Beta tapes. Networks brought in in-expensive but excellently portable digital CCD cameras. The footage was dumped on computer hard disks, could be accessed by anyone in the edit bays, editing was non-liner and the news reports interlaced with live anchoring up-linked straight by another set of computers. Whew! What a generational change for an Indian network. This technological revamp was attempted by foreign networks much later.
As a revenue model the first Hindi news channel Aaj tak formed the basis of the broadcast boom that unleashed its powers in year 2003. April 2003 saw the launch of a number of new news channels – NDTV 24×7, NDTV India, Sahara Samay, followed by a plethora of regional networks by Zee, Enadu and Sahara group and the re-launch of Star News – now in Hindi. Hence, began the reign of the masses.
People of this vast country today have the power of remote to decide, what – when – where – how, they want to see a news report. The remote today decides which the number one news network is and what news is today. While news editors of various news channels today appear confused as to what the audience wants – what will click – what will give them the viewer ship.
The audience may once again force the visionaries to put their foot in the mouth. One is still optimistic of a mature, seasoned and well – rounded news environment in the years to come. It may just be true; over a dozen Indian news channels may occupy the same global space as the likes of CNN, BBC World, Sky News, Fox News. After all – India is the Flavor internationally and India is shining too.