Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Italian Marines issue shows why English news channels are becoming irrelevant….

A new “crisis” broke out yesterday over the “snub” the Italians gave “us poor” Indians. The words in quotes are to indicate where the TV shows last night focused. Italy had snubbed us, not betrayed our trust. We are the poor victims, not just an offended party. And then the perpetual “Why is India soft” angle….this time with Italy? And since its Italy, how can we forget the hint of an explanation for that supposed softness…..after all, Sonia Gandhi is from Italy. Aha….nailed her!

A few days back, the Pakistanis apparently “humiliated” “us Indians” (again) by chopping off the head of one of our soldiers. My god. Does Pakistan have anything that they can humiliate us with? Then a few months back, when Kasab was hanged, it was “what about Guru?”. Later when Guru was hanged, it wasn’t “Good job done”, but “What was the rush? Was it to divert attention from the other crises?”. And all throughout, allegations, and sometimes mere hints of allegations are enough to develop a full one hour (or more in one channel’s case) prime time show. It’s a lot of mischief really, with scant regard for ever basic journalistic ethics. Remember “who is that family named in Agusta Westland?”. If there is some evidence, then please put it out. Else don’t give such a bad name to journalism.

India’s English news channels are burying themselves into the ground because of the kind of journalism they are practicing. It’s amazing how none of the editors or owners of these channels look at data and ask questions of themselves. For if the strategy of these channels – to sensationalize and blow every single thing under the sun sky high – was succeeding, surely more viewers would be watching them, right? Well, the data indicates otherwise.

I am talking of the slide in viewership numbers over the last four years. I am relying on data available from TAM, the body that measures TV viewership. Specifically, I am looking at what is called GRPs (Gross Rating Points) in the industry, a sum total of TRPs (TV Rating Points, also called just TVRs) of all shows run during a full week. The more the GRPs, the more the viewership of the channel.

When I look at the period Jan-March 2009, the number 1 English news TV channel garnered some 2.2 or 2.3 GRPs. Now this is a piffling number. The number 1 Hindi GEC (Star Plus) had ratings of some 250 odd (100-125 times more). So for every 100-125 people watching Star Plus, there was 1 watching the top rated English news channel. Two years later, in the Jan-March 2011 period, the English GRPs had dropped to around 1.8 odd. And this year, in Jan-Feb 2013, the top rated English news channel gets just about 0.55 or so. In short, over the last four years (most of it over the last 2 years), English news TV viewership has dropped by 75% or so.

Many will argue that this is because of increased channel fragmentation. Well, since 2009, there have been very few channels added, and not a single big one, because of the economic slowdown and the big hit that media businesses have taken financially. As evidence of this consider the number 1 Hindi news channel, the biggest of whom used to get about 24 GRPs back then, and continues to get about the same today (maybe 5% lower). Likewise, the biggest Hindi GEC hasn’t dropped that much at all. It’s only the English news TV channels that have been punished.

This makes me wonder what’s happening. Firstly, why are people not watching news on TV? (Hindi: about 10% of those watching entertainment; English: about 5%). More importantly, why are people actually moving away from the English news channels?

To understand that, we must look at what has happened to the English news genre over the last four years. It all started off with the Mumbai attacks in Nov 2008, when all channels provided minute-by-minute coverage of the terrorist activities for 3 full days. The kind of response the channels got convinced them that bad news sells on TV. A minor twist was made to convert bad to “sensational”. Earlier also, in 2006, another sensational story – the one of a young boy, Prince, falling into a well and being rescued after four days – had “changed the way news TV worked”. These, and other similar incidents, convinced our news editors that this is what the public wants from news TV. And they went in this direction full blast.

But they forgot that the Indian public is inherently a happy, sunshine crowd. In survey after survey, Indians are shown to be content with life; seldom complaining. In fact, Indians are an inspiration to the financially better endowed Westerners who come to India seeking solace. When news TV went down the “sensationalize everything” path, they succeeded initiatlly because no one minded a small dose of such news. But when they persisted, their goose was cooked.

And boy oh boy. Have they sensationalized the news?! Read the opening paras again. “Who is that family?” in the Agusta scam should have been answered by the news fraternity, not merely asked. They should have researched the subject, done some investigations…..but till then, kept their traps shut. Likewise, they raised anti-Pakistan jingoism to such heights that it looked like India would jettison its pursuit of economic growth and send its army marching down to the battlefield. Our TV editors made it appear that India was a wimp; that our soldiers worshipped Mahatma Gandhi every morning and practiced non-violence through the day; that they didn’t know how to handle such issues locally.

In every such example, they have harmed India’s interests. In politics, they have given a greatly enhanced space to the permanent naysayers (opposition leaders, misguided activists, motivated NGOs), even if they were harming national interests (Remember Koodankulam? If Medha Patkar is to be followed, India should shun all the major three sources of power – thermal, hydro and nuclear power). All for what? A few TRPs. On a typical panel discussion, there are 4 times as many attackers (government bashers) of any development, as defenders (typically ruling party spokespeople), completely ignoring how the voters voted. There was a recent story about a man acquitted of rape demanding that media (largely TV) should cover his acquittal as much as it did his arrest a few years back. But why should our TV channels do that? There is no “juice” in that at all!

Well, its time for the news channels to wake up and smell the coffee. Fewer and fewer people are watching them. And even if they are, they are spending lesser and lesser time. I guess the trigger for “switching away” comes soon after they have started watching. When a news channels calls the row with Italy a “snub for India”, I feel like puking; not at the row, but at the way the channel is trying to draw my blood. I typically respond by switching away. If everyone does the same thing, I just quit the genre.

In contrast, see how newspapers have been handling the same stories. The Italian marines is a sensitive subject. It needs delicacy in handling. International relations are all about give and take; about pressure applied in calculated manners. Maybe India can use a third country to push its case. Maybe it can use its market attractiveness as a bait. Newspapers know how to handle such subjects. They ignore prime time TV shows. Typically, the topic of a prime time TV show goes into one of the inside pages; usually getting no more than a few column cms. That’s why newspaper stories are more credible. Typically, the tone is factual, not sensational. Typically, the provocation, the attempt to make us feel miserable, is lesser.

And how have people responded to newspapers? By reading much more. All newspapers are reporting ever growing Readership numbers. More and more editions are being opened up, as demand grows. And most importantly: Newspaper revenues continue to grow almost as fast as news TV revenues; and remember this is on a base at least 10 times bigger than that of news TV channels (Newspapers: Rs 15000 crores. All news TV channels put together – less than Rs 1500 crores).

The real truth is that English news channels have made themselves irrelevant. Very few people watch them; and even those that do keep switching all the time. People still turn to newspapers for credible news. Sad….how such a powerful medium has been turned into a joke….

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