It sounded like an innocuous question from a TV reporter-"It will be your brother's birthday three days from now, how do you plan to celebrate it?'' Except it was at the funeral of the boy in question, Abhishek Mishra. A final-year student of the Birla Institute of Technology, Mishra had drowned in a waterfall near Ranchi, a death instantly propelled into the spotlight because he was accompanied to the excursion by Railways Minister Lalu Prasad's daughter Ragini.
| 38 Satellite news channels in India, the largest number in the world |
304 lakh seconds of advertisement on Hindi news channels, up from 252 lakh in 2004
20 per cent yearly growth rate of the fastest growing genre of TV
| 20 per cent yearly growth rate of the fastest growing genre of TV |
| 650 crore-rupee news TV advertising market, 12 per cent of the total TV advertising market |
| 57 per cent male viewership of news channels, in contrast to 43 per cent female viewership |
Welcome to the loud, weird world of 24-hour news television with its parallel universe of breathless and sometimes heartless anchors, the unlikely stars and specials with cheesy B-movie titles. It's a mad mix of news and nonsense, causes and circuses, fundamental issues and feel-good frivolity. It is often grisly, sometimes ghoulish and usually plain voyeuristic. From the public visit to Varanasi of a very private couple (Abhishek Ki Ash) to the private spat between a very public couple (Rahul Ne Shweta Ko Rulaya), every episode is designed for maximum impact and minimum illumination. Want a quick scroll? Try this. Nagin Ka Khauf, the saga of a 12-year-old boy pursued by a snake; Prem Tapasya, the tale of a yogi living in with his disciple; Gharwali Baharwali, the story of a man's extramarital affair; or Maut ka Drama, wherein Kunjilal, a 75-year-old astrologer from Betul, Madhya Pradesh, had the country holding its collective breath after claiming he would die between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. on October 20 last year. It's the kind of shrill in-your-face coverage that had Naresh Gupta, Adobe India CEO, bowing before the media and beseeching them to stop the saturation coverage of his four-year-old son Anant because the kidnappers could have harmed him. It's also the kind of relentless campaigning that can force Priyadarshini Mattoo (see box) to get justice seven years after she was murdered.
| Force Multipliers |
News TV is mutating and the audience is changing. From political parties to Page 3, everything is being finetuned for maximum airtime.
| POLITICAL GROOMING |
Has led to the rise of a new breed of suave sound-bite savvy spokespersons who sit before a TV-friendly backdrop and dress in the right colours. Briefings for the cameras, usually at 4 p.m., are sacrosanct. Gag-orders on party workers ensure the best news is reserved for TV.
If you don't have a starlet or even a former Miss World, you can wave that picture goodbye. The first line of press releases usually lists the celebrities before it talks of the event. Has led to the rise of minor event-openers like Amrita Arora who charge Rs 3 lakh per appearance.
Baptised in Kargil, the first televised war, the armed forces are grudgingly accepting media as a force multiplier and talk of "information warfare". Prince was pulled out in an elaborate army operation supervised by a two-star general who got to hold him first.
All briefings are now meant only for television crews and between market hours 10 a.m. and 3.30 p.m. Mukesh Ambani's 10 words to CNBC in 2004-"there are ownership issues, these are in the private domain"-started the split in India's largest business empire.
The film promo has now crept into the news channel. Shah Rukh Khan bared his soul and plugged Don before NDTV's Prannoy Roy; in Namaste London, Akshay Kumar took viewers on a guided-tour of the city, even as news channels also took editorial positions around movies such as Fanaa.
Anything about cricket is breaking news. The Chappell-Ganguly slanging match is the world cup of TV coverage. Shows like Match ke Mujrim ensure the hysteria stays on after the stumps have been drawn, prompting a player to announce a boycott of at least one news channel.
In this chaos and cacophony, it is easy to miss the real megastar-the medium itself: Twenty-four-hour news TV, which reaches out to 50 million cable homes in a dozen languages. At nearly 20 per cent per annum, it's growing full throttle. With 38 news channels at last count, more than in any nation on the planet, news TV is growing faster than any other genre in India. From just two channels six years ago, one new news channel joins the race every four months now. As a genre, television news viewership ranks fifth, below entertainment, regional, sports and children's channels.
| TV'S BODY LINE |
Even gestures, a lack thereof, make headlines and multiple action replays
SALMAN'S HUG: All his Salaam-e-Ishq co-stars got a hug onstage at a fashion show, except John Abraham
CHAPPELL'S MIDDLE FINGER: The coach showed it to Ganguly supporters at Eden Gardens
PONTING'S PUSH: The Aussie captain and his mates shoved Sharad Pawar off the frame
MIKA'S KISS: After Rakhi Sawant had kissed him on his birthday, the singer took to "lip sync"
UMA'S TEARS: Her tearful allegations of a murder plot at a press meet got her ratings
From a nation that first tasted satellite TV thanks to a news event, the 1991 Gulf War, India now binges on news TV. A study by public relations firm Edelman shows that 49 per cent of Indians tune in to TV first for trustworthy news and information, compared to just 31 per cent in Asia Pacific-TV has clearly beaten newspapers as the medium of first contact with news.
| CRUSADER TV |
News TV has turned the spotlight on the corrupt. The sound bite is this new watchdog's most powerful weapon.
This February, when Manu Sharma was acquitted in the decade-old case of gunning down a model in full public view, news TV's shrill campaign forced a retrial and, in October, cost his father Venod Sharma dear.
The Jessica Lall domino effect saw a retrial in the decade-old rape and murder case of law student Mattoo. In October, the high court sentenced accused Santosh Singh to death.
Everything has a price, even the questions asked by MPs in the Lok Sabha, as the Aaj Tak-Cobrapost operation showed last December. The images of MPs pocketing cash for queries cost 11 of them their jobs.
The heaviest rainfall in decades turned the country's commercial capital into a waterworld in July last year, but the dying city, as news TV told you, was already neck-deep in official apathy and neglect.
The images of BJP President Bangaru Laxman accepting currency notes in 2001 marked the birth of sting journalism and brought the ugly face of the rot at the highest levels into living rooms.
When a five-year-old boy spends 52 Truman Show-like hours in a 60-ft well, the entire nation watches and prays even if it means listening to: "Dharti mata ki god mein pachaas ghante bitane ke baad, ab apni ma ki god mein hai Prince (after spending 50 hours in the lap of the earth, Prince is now in his mother's lap)." "Sensationalism in place of substance, trivia in place of content, exaggeration instead of moderation and living for the instant and not even the hour have become the greed of contemporary visual media,'' says Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi, himself no stranger to the siren-like allure of the cameras.
From political parties to business houses, everyone courts news channels, timing their announcements around prime time and judging the importance of a news event by the presence of ob vans. It's also raking in the cash. Six years back, news television had less than a 2 per cent share of the total TV advertising market. It now stands at nearly 12 per cent or Rs 650 crore of the annual Rs 5,500 crore TV ad spend. "It's a demand-and-supply combination, because there is a certain male audience for products like automobiles, banking and finance which TV news brings in,'' says Shekhar Swamy, president of R.K. Swamy BBDO Advertising. The growth of news television has also been fuelled by lower launch costs. Aaj Tak, a 24-hour news channel which is part of the India Today Group, was launched at a cost of Rs 40 crore in December 2000. Today, however, it costs only Rs 3 crore to launch a small news channel. Bandwidth costs on satellites have dropped from approximately $3500 (Rs 1.5 lakh) per Mhz per month to $2000 (Rs 90,000) per Mhz per month for regional beam and $6500 (Rs 2.9 lakh) per Mhz per month for wide beam to $5000 (Rs 2.2 lakh) per Mhz per month.
This growth is now beginning to bite at the heels of TV's prime locomotive, the soap. Two years ago Delhi housewife Nancy Hajela, 42, cut down on watching Ekta Kapoor serials because they were getting increasingly predictable. She watches over four hours of news every day now. "It's much more interesting," she says. Now, Harish Tomar driving a car from the passenger seat triggers more public debate than Parvati's travails in Kahani Ghar Ghar Kii. This broadening of the audience has led to a change in the profile of the TV news advertiser. The usual profile of the TV advertiser-a mix of corporates and financial services-is now slowly giving way to FMCG firms and consumer durables. "News TV has managed to broad-base itself to a mass audience,'' says Television Audience Measurement (TAM) CEO L.V. Krishnan.
Television news, which would have completely ignored nobodies like Kunjilal even two years ago, has now begun chasing them. The interest is often mutual. So when retired government employee Chedi Lal, borrowing from Lage Raho Munnabhai's Gandhigiri, stripped down to his briefs in Lucknow in October to demand a revision in pension, he remembered to bring a TV camera crew along. If the definition of news has changed, so has the coverage-with well-groomed anchors, designer clothes and colloquial Hindi. "TV covers everything from a funeral to a Friday cricket match with the same sense of breathless urgency. If everything is important and nothing is trivial, then what is news," asks sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. Well, how about rival ghosts battling over a village belle and women claiming to be reincarnated snakes-Zee News even runs a half-hour weekly show, Kaal Kapaal Mahakaal, devoted to the paranormal. Critics say the channels that blur the distinctions between news and entertainment run the risk of diluting their brand character. "The day you become entertainment, you lose your credibility as a news channel,'' says Channel V head Amar K. Deb, who has launched the show Well Done, a spoof on the TV news genre, with fake anchors like Charkha Bahar. MTV veejay Cyrus Broacha, who anchors another news spoof on CNN-IBN, is on his knees: "We were always the most shallow form of television and we looked up to news TV. Now, after stories of milk adulteration and casting couches, we bow to them. They are the originals."
Sometimes news TV crosses the line altogether-media persons who handed 30-year-old Manoj Mishra diesel and a matchbox in Patna to set himself on fire on August 15, now stand charged with homicide and abetment of suicide. Sometimes, it gets taken for a ride-TV crews in Delhi were shocked to discover that the 'special police officer' they were interviewing over a Belgian diplomat's murder in September, was actually a local resident who did a Borat on the channels. TV reporters from the "aap ko kaisa lagta hain (how do you feel)" school of journalism routinely quiz their subjects with this line. When asked how he felt when his older brother Shammi was in the ICU, actor Shashi Kapoor retorted that he felt like dancing. Another bright-eyed reporter asked Naresh Gupta's distraught wife if she felt like crying because her son had been kidnapped. "Vultures aren't becoming extinct,'' rues a senior TV journalist, "they are joining TV.''
Channel heads, however, say trivial TV is the exception and not the rule, and point to the larger crisis of content that all media faces. "There are competitive pressures and we cannot be oblivious to the market; the challenge is to avoid getting into the sandpit,'' says Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief, CNN-IBN. The sandpit is the mayhem called primetime which has Hindi language channels battling to the death with stories of shock and awe. "In an average of 500 hours of fresh programming beamed every day, such incidents don't take up even five hours or just 1 per cent of programming,'' says Star News CEO Uday Shankar. Yet, it is these exceptions which supply the rocket fuel for channel ratings in an age when channel heads say the ordinary simply doesn't sell.
The problem is no one knows what will sell. "How can we explain that even in a mature market like Delhi, the viewership of Mumbai blasts was a lot lower than that of the small boy who miraculously survived a 60-ft fall?'' asks G. Krishnan, CEO, TV Today, which broadcasts Aaj Tak and Headlines Today (both sister concerns of INDIA TODAY). On December 12, 2005, Aaj Tak exposed 11 corrupt MPs accepting cash on camera in return for asking questions in Parliament, a moral victory for the traditional tenets of journalism. "Yet, when we showcased a car being driven without anyone on the driver's seat, it drove our viewership through the roof. The car story got a channel share of 41 per cent, while Operation Duryodhan got just 35 per cent,'' says Krishnan.
Sameer Manchanda, joint managing director, CNN-IBN, says the media is at an evolutionary cusp which channels looking for their own evolutionary positioning. "It's not always a numbers game-a loyal audience gets a bigger premium than a mass audience.''
With channels engaged in a bloody war for ratings based on TAM, channel heads privately rue what they call the TAM-ification of news TV. "If you don't have high ratings, you don't have ads and if you don't have ads, you are dead in the water as TV has no secondary revenue source,'' says a channel head. Is this race sustainable? Sociologists predict the end of tamasha news. "Indian viewers are gradually learning to discern the difference between news and trivia and they are now much more critical. I only expect it to get sharper over the years,'' says sociologist Ashis Nandy. Until then, it's going to be snake chases, ghost sightings, reincarnation dramas and driverless cars.