Thursday, October 10, 2013

Prime time devoted to Sachin…..our news channels lose direction again

At the best of times, our news channels make a mockery of the news business. They take political sides. They pack their panels with more members from the opposition. They misreport facts in the pursuit of speed. And they ape each other, even having identical programs. One prime example of this was yesterday after Sachin announced his retirement from cricket.

Now let me clarify. I love Sachin myself. Sachin has been one of India’s finest cricketers, and his departure is going to leave a huge emotional hole in the hearts of most of us. More than his strokes, it is his gentlemanliness that has etched a mark inside all of us. Hopefully we will continue seeing more of him, either as a commentator or something more worthy. So my grouse is hardly with Sachin. My grouse is with our news channels.

In any case, our news channels are accused of being more like entertainment channels. For them, news is fiction. They trivialize news to the point where anybody serious about news is forced to go elsewhere, mostly to newspapers the next morning, unmindful of the overnight wait that has to be endured. This is proven by the plummeting GRP ratings of TV channels. English news channels have suffered a more-than-75% erosion in viewership in the last 2 years, down from already pathetic levels. And yet the editors of these channels learn no lessons. They continue with their charade. They refuse to analyze their own performance, even as they are ever-ready to analyze the government’s performance. They can be as critical as a hawk with the latter, but they are as soft as a dove when it comes to themselves!

News channels love to spread negativity. They are quick to run up hour-long debates when the price of petrol goes up by Rs 3. But when prices come down by the same amount, they don’t spend even a minute on the subject. When an Indian soldier is killed on the borders, they put up a panel of fiery back-room boys who’ve probably never seen any action, and retired generals desperately seeking some publicity, to lambast everyone in authority. Yet, when our army repels an attack, they don’t have anything to say. We accuse Pakistan of interfering in Kashmir (and they surely are), but we never ever debate whether Pakistan’s claims of India interfering in Balochistan are true or not. For that, we have to turn to the newspapers or web publishers. When the 2G “scam” broke, our news channels became “parrots” (caged by the opposition maybe!) repeating the opposition’s charges of corruption of Rs 1.76 lac crores (the CAG disgraced his office, but he never used the corruption word himself!). Yet when years later, its become amply evident that that number was a bogus number, no one in the TV news business has the guts to put up shows saying the government has been unjustly accused; that the scale of the taint is much smaller (perhaps “only” Rs 200 crores – the amount DB Realty allegedly paid to DMK though it’s not been proven yet). For TV news anchors, negative news is the life-blood of their business. When Anna fasted in Delhi, they provided minute-by-minute coverage, as if some Indian spring was in play. Yet none of them analyzed how damaging the provisions of the Jan Lokpal Bill were. This is the quality of our news TV journalism.

That’s why its hardly surprising that they lost direction again yesterday. A whole hour (and more) was devoted to Sachin. Why? If people wanted to know so much about Sachin, they could have got it online (English viewers all have access to the internet) or waited for today’s papers to come. Newspapers have also given prominent coverage on their front pages, but that’s the beauty about newspapers. They can do a lot more than TV channels can. Besides, readers have an option. They can skip the articles and move on to something else. On TV, they cant. So they just move onto something else. At this rate, English news channels will be dead in no time.

And what’s with this peculiar habit of aping each other? Why do all anchors feel like doing the same story all the time? If they weren’t so focused on each other, surely its probabilistically impossible that they would do the exact same thing again and again? All channels run their sports shows, or car shows, or food shows, or music shows, or entertainment shows at exactly the same times! There is a reason for this. I have seen this personally – news channels beam their competitor channels right inside their studios, tracking each other on a second-by-second basis. If one channel “breaks” a story, another one copies it and also claims it to be a breaking story! There is probably another reason. All present anchors have originated from the same school of news journalism – Prannoy Roy’s NDTV. Maybe, they have all been brainwashed into thinking absolutely alike!

News channels should have talked about the ongoing Telengana struggle, and Jagan’s abrupt departure from his fast. And on the anti-Congress, anti-BJP third front that is soon to hold a rally. Or the “government of youth” statement of Rahul Gandhi. Or the President shortening his visit to Bihar to avoid a clash with Modi. And a small dose of business is always welcome. Maybe they could have brought up Walmart’s decision to sever ties with Bharti. And the moves the RBI is making to steady the rupee. But they chose to talk about Sachin. Even ignoring the fact that cricket lovers were actually glued to Star Sports for the edge-of-the-seat excitement that was unfolding in the T-20 game with Australia. Pathetic.

The real truth is that much as I love Sachin, I hated the coverage devoted to him on TV last night. It made me angry. News is supposed to be about politics, and issues of national concern, and spreading the truth, and so on. Maybe these are just lofty ideals that none of our anchors subscribe to. Maybe they yearn to be in the entertainment business. Maybe they actually like the tag they are often given: “Horror Entertainment Channels”! It’s a shame really….

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