A leading British television personality once remarked: "Television is the first truly democratic culture-entirely governed by what the people want. The most terrifying thing is what people do want." As someone who is in the TV news channel business, it is both exciting and daunting to see the manner in which television news channels have exploded and the kind of impact they are having. Today, 24-hour news television is huge, all-pervasive and in your face. From just two channels six years ago, India now has 38 news channels, the largest in the world. It is recording the fastest growth rate of any TV genre-20 per cent a year. It commands a Rs 650 crore advertising market and reaches out to 50 million homes in a dozen languages.
Our May 1982 cover
A recent survey shows that almost half the viewers use television as the first stop for news and information. With rising viewership and increasing number of networks, the intense competition for eyeballs has pushed news channels to innovate in their programming. Regular news has become a commodity. Even Breaking News has become a parody of itself, sometimes reaching ludicrous levels. As all channels cover the same news, there is a compulsion to differentiate from each other. In this process, news is veering towards newstainment in order to attract larger audiences. This has meant TV news channels are paying greater attention to crime, sports and what can best be described as voyeuristic television. This voyeurism has meant coverage of family disputes, lovers' spats, driverless cars, Bollywood scandals, occult sightings and reincarnation dramas.
Not all is bad though. There has been a spate of very creditable investigations and sting operations which have shown the powerful in a not-too-flattering light. All this has created a raging debate within the media on the redefinition of news and its implication for society at large. Assistant Editor Sandeep Unnithan spoke to a large number of people for the story, from victims to politicians, journalists to business managers. They all had differing views but seemed to agree with Unnithan on one thing: "News channels have become a part of our lives in a way that we could have never imagined." So has Tamasha News gone too far, has it become too intrusive, too sensation-seeking, just too much? How long this trend of watching boys fall into wells for endless hours or be chased by snakes will last, is anybody's guess. Like in any free market, the power lies with the consumers, who have the ultimate choice: they can vote with the remote.