How can you hand over the news on DD national to youngsters who are still in the process of learning? : Rajat Sharma

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For a man who has risen from living in a one-room tenement along with his parents and other siblings to a posh pad in the Capital's upmarket enclave in South Delhi and rubbing shoulders with the who's who of the country, Rajat Sharma, the print medium journalist-turned-TV personality, has come a long way. He, along with Zee supremo Subhash Chandra, can also be termed as one of the moving factors behind Zee TV when Chandra started the first Hindi satellite channel in the early 1990s. Later Sharma started Zee's news operation from a pigeon hole office which Zee in those days used to have, unlike today, in Delhi's South Extension area. But then came the fallout and Sharma moved on to shake hands with Chandra's partner-turned-rival, the Rupert Murdoch controlled Star.

Does he regret the initial mudslinging, which both Zee and he resorted to in the early days of the fallout in the mid-90s? Today, for Sharma (as also Chandra and his other senior executives), sitting in his sparsely decorated functional office, it may be easy to say he did regret those days of washing dirty linen in public, but the media loved it. 

With his publicly reported stance of being an ally of Star in India, Sharma seldom pulls his punches. In this interview with Indiantelevision.com's Anjan Mitra, Sharma answers questions frankly , rather than asking them, a la his famous Aap Ki Adalat programme which went on to become one of the longest running TV shows in Indian television.

You have been associated with news and current affairs TV programming for quite a long period now. What is your assessment of this segment of the electronic medium?

There are two aspects to this. I feel that over the last two years, specially last year which was very eventful, the number of news channels have grown and some more have been proposed, including Prannoy Roy's own channel . The revenue also accruing from news channels has shown a sizeable growth. However, in terms of respect and credibility, the news channels in India have taken a beating. My feedback is that viewers, in general, have started to get irritated by the repetitiveness of the Indian news channels as also the fact that young anchors these days seen on many channels ask reporters inept questions. If the viewer is upset, then the credibility also lessens..
 

These seem to be contradictory views. On one hand you state revenue from news channels has grown (a result of increasing viewership) and on the other you maintain credibility has taken a beating. Can you explain this further through an illustration?

To give you a crude, yet simple instance, there is this trend amongst youngsters on TV is to ask reporters present on the scene the general environment. I have often heard anchors from the studio reporters questions like `Madhavrao Scindia jinka ek hadse mein maut ho gayee hai, unke ghar ka mahaul kya hai (what is the state of the household of Madhavrao Scindia who has died in a mishap)?' Do the anchors expect the reporters to say that a live band is playing hearty tunes at Scindia's house? If TV managers think that viewers do not notice such things, then they are wrong. Viewers certainly do and they also object to such behaviour on TV.

News channels and anchors thrive on credibility. The better the rapport of an anchor with the viewers, the better. Moreover, if you see international news channels, they do not have back-to-back news, which helps in avoiding repetitiveness. News, for example, on BBC will always be followed by a current affairs programme and then followed by news. This also helps in updating a news item if developing and give the viewer a feeling of newness.

 
"I don't really subscribe to the view that all global trends can be successful in India. We have to create our own Indian model and do programmes for the Indian audience, which is certainly different from its counterparts elsewhere in the world. If you copy a Hard Talk from BBC, it need not necessarily work in India."
 
What is the reason for this erosion in credibility of news channels and news anchors in India, according to you, specially at a time when at least four other news channels are in the proposal stage?

Experience certainly. For example, when Prannoy Roy used to present and anchor news and programmes on television, there was a unique rapport with the viewers. The viewer believed in Prannoy and what he said as he had managed to develop that special relationship with the viewer. Though Prannoy has now taken a backseat appearing rarely on television, others have failed to evolve into a personality like him. However, Rajdeep Sardesai and Barkha Dutt on Star News do have that flair. My feedback from viewers is again that they hate the sensationalism resorted to on television and newer news channels haven't helped the matter much with their quickfire approach. Credibility is certainly at stake.
 
In this let-me-get-a-sound byte-first scenario, how would you assess the pubcaster Doordarshan which claims through data that viewers still give preference to news on DD compared to the fare on other private satellite channels?

It is unfortunate that DD, which has got such a massive reach and enviable infrastructure, is attempting to follow, rather ape, the satellite news channels without going into the merits and demerits of everything. How can you hand over the news on DD national to youngsters who are still in the process of learning? What was the USP of DD News earlier - mature and experienced newsreaders who used all the tricks in the trade to deliver, people who were known for their diction and clarity of thought. What you have on DD is a bunch of youngsters, who may be good, but are still learning.
 
But don't they say that old must give way to new?

That's the change, which is happening in DD and other satellite channels. But change must happen for the good and better. Not what we are witnessing on DD or elsewhere.
 
With this inexperience abounding on telly, as you say, how would you rate yourself?

I will leave that to others to judge me. However, to overcome shortcomings in me, I do go out to smaller towns like Varanasi and Jammu and interact with people. Not only do I let them ask me questions on news and current affairs programming, but I also ask them what, according to them, are the negatives in news channels and news programmes in India. This way I learn a lot.
 
Do you foresee replicating of global news and current affairs programming formula succeeding in India ?

I don't really subscribe to the view that all global trends can be successful in India. We have to create our own Indian model and do programmes for the Indian audience, which is certainly different from its counterpart elsewhere in the world. If you copy a Hard Talk from BBC, it need not necessarily work in India.
 
You mean that Star Talk, modelled on Hard Talk, on Star News is not as successful ?

I'll reserve my comments on Star Talk, but what I am trying to say is that Indian viewers generally don't like television anchors to be very aggressive because the viewers' psyche is different. News and current affairs programming will have to be custom-made for India viewers.
 
"Indian viewers generally, don't like television anchors to be very aggressive because the viewers' psyche is different. News and current affairs programming will have to be custom-made for India viewers."
 
Do you mean to say that Star's attempt to replicate the Fox News model in India, after its current content agreement with NDTV for Star News comes to an end in March 2003, may come a cropper ?

Whenever the Rupert Murdoch group starts a news channel in India, I am sure it 'll be the best technically. But it's a bit too early to sit in judgment on the content as the format is still to be finalised I am told.
 
Don't you feel that you and your company are too much identified with Star in India? Is this an impediment to getting work from other channels?

If I am identified with Star then it is deliberate and there are no plans to neutralise or nullify this image. I have decided to primarily commit myself to do programming for Star and it is a very professional company. I have done work for Star for almost five years now and there has not been a single instance when a dispute has arisen between us on programming or the treatment of a news item.
 
And there have been disputes and disagreements with the other major news producer for Star ?

I cannot speak for others and that includes NDTV. I can only say that our relationship with Star has been very good and we plan to keep it that way. Even when the company did some work on Doordarshan, Star's concurrence was taken and was given too.
 
If the relationship is good with Star, then it must be true that your company is slated to get a large chunk of current affairs programming on the revamped Star News channels that Star is planning. Right?

Considering the relationship that both share, it is natural for people to speculate that I'll be given more work (when Star takes editorial control of Star News). I am open to the idea of doing more programming for them.
 
What are the plans for the company now that the news segment on telly may see a spurt in activities?

Now we are in the process of evolving both as a company and its future activities. We are working on a few things at Independent Media Pvt. Ltd (IMPL) - the company which is looked after by Sharma and his wife, Ritu - but it is a bit early to reveal the plans.
 

How about a sneak preview or a trailer of future plans?

We are looking at developing and doing news programming which will be more interactive in nature where the involvement of the viewer will much more than what it is at present. The viewer should be able to ask you, the anchor, questions and react to his/her statements made on television. It's evolving towards a collaborative effort. But the details need to be fine-tuned.

We are also looking at supplying more news footage to foreign broadcasters outside India. The idea came to us after the 13 December attack on Indian Parliament. We had exclusive footage of the whole event, including close shots of the attackers. There was a demand from the likes of CBS, NBC and even BBC did use some footage. So, we do want to develop the business of Independent News Service, a sister company of IMPL, also.

 

Where do you see yourself five years down the line?

If you had asked me this question three months from now, probably, I would have been able to answer you in a better way as by that time I hope things will have fallen in place.

However 10 to 20 years from now, I'd like to have built up an organisation that becomes an institution. At present, the company is driven too much by my personality. I 'd like that to change when newer stars will have taken over from me. I will also be pleased if the company manages to create TV stars over the years that need not necessarily work for me then.

 
But won't you be doing the same thing for which you criticized Dr Prannoy Roy - of withdrawing from day to day activity? What will happen to credibility of news?

Prannoy has withdrawn a bit too soon and there are not many stars like him in NDTV. I'd like to take some more time before I do that and let the organisation be run by talented youngsters.

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