'We have stepped up work on digitalization for Prasar Bharati' : Asutosh - IBN 7 managing editor

His father wanted him to be a doctor, but he chose science as his discipline in college. Within a short time, having done his graduation from Allahabad University, he switched over to philosophy as his master's degree subject. He did not stick to that either, and did his M Phil from JNU in Foreign Affairs.

Today at 37, Ashutosh is the managing editor of the Hindi news channel IBN 7. He has been with TV journalism ever since it took off in the country.

But why journalism, and why so many changes? "Restlessness," he smiles, almost apologetically. Suave and affable, Ashutosh got a prize fellowship, the Dag Hammejoldt U N Scholarship in 1996, and that was one of his two "major jumps in life."

He has got pretty strong opinions and does not believe he needs to pussyfoot his industry for some of the ills that have gotten in and are sticking out like snot. But he has the analytical tools to examine why these problems are there and tries to find a way out.

Ashutosh spoke to's Sujit Chakraborty.


Why is Hindi news television so loud, often crude, repetitive and boring?

I agree with you, but only partly. There has been an unbelievable level of dumbing down of content, so much so that some of it ought not to be there at all. I guess the editors of Hindi channels would have to soon sit and decide what goes and what does not. It's just the rating, the grabbing of eyeballs, which has become the single focal point and, therefore, all this is happening. But as time goes by, we shall have to mature. This is an evolutionary process.

Eyeball journalism?

Absolutely. To that extent, I agree with you. But there is the other positive side. Hindi TV journalism has completely revolutionised the news universe. It has educated and broadened the frontiers of news audience. Things have gone so local it is difficult to believe. And yet, we have become unbelievably global as well, for a Saddam story is as important to a Hindi viewer as a rape in Nashik.

The other huge positive is at the cultural level. I mean, who knew Karva Chauth? We in the Hindi channels went and did Karva Chauth and now it is a nationally recognised Hindu festival. So is Ganesh Chaturthi…

But Ganesh Chaturthi was always a huge affair…?

Yes, but in Maharashtra. We now have brought it to mainstream news with round the clock coverage. Look at Dandiya dance from Gujarat. It is now an elite-class affair in Delhi, and our people here deck up and go for Dandiya. So we have brought Ganesh Chaturthi and Dandiya to Delhi and taken Karva Chauth and Chhat out of Hindi heartland to the rest of the country. Hindi news TV has re-unified and revitalised Indian culture and identity.

The other thing is that Hindi journalism has brought terror to the law makers and law enforcers. They have changed radically after the sting operations. Corruption has not been wiped out, but things have changed, because now no one knows who is a sting man and who is a common person.

Most importantly, Hindi TV journalism has brought in a sense of urgency, which has forced newspapers to change. They had lost all urgency, till we came along and gave them such a fright by being there 24 X 7. They had to wake up… I mean the Times Of India front page today is not what it was a few years ago.

Is it that Hindi news channels introduced crudeness and audiences lapped it up? Or is it that the audience itself was like that and you catered to their tastes?

Both are responsible. But much of this is misunderstood. Take for example: the 'F' word…. It sounds OK when said in English but if I were to translate it in Hindi and use it, there would be a horrific repercussion.

Hindi itself and the people who speak the language are robust, rustic, loud, feudal. Hindi is used in the area where feudalism is still prevalent largely. Hindi journalism is evolving to be more liberal and things are changing.

English journalism is sophisticated, modern and in touch with global realities. But English news is only for South Block, India International Centre, South Delhi's sophisticated lot, may be. Even in Delhi, it makes no sense in Shahdara, a few kilometres from the heart of the Capital. Hence, all these account for the complaint of crudeness, etc., but things are changing.

In what sense?

Well, there is this stereotypical image of the Hindi journalist, that you have to be the jholawalla and chew paan masalaa….

And try your best to be dirty and scrumpy, like this major presenter who makes you feel he could any time spit out the paan juice on the floor of the studio, despite the fact that he is a fine National School of Drama actor…. Why?

(Laughs) But for him that is his achievement, being sophisticated and yet doing the opposite… Things, though, are changing fast. I mean, look around our studio here, there is none like that. Most of them are fluent in English, dress well… the Hindi news reporter's image is changing fast. Today, in fact, Hindi TV scribes are better paid than their English counterparts. Because in English TV journalism, there is less competition, so there is less demand and the salaries are lower. We have to compete against huge odds.

What are the synergies you draw from CNN-IBN?

We are two entirely different and independent channels. Our outputs are different, but at the level of logistics and information there is a lot of synergising. If there is a murder somewhere, and we do not have that, but they (CNN-IBN) do, they tell us. If they are short of an OB Van where something is happening, they tell us and we give them the back up.

Why are the names of programmes in your channel ( from Breakfast News downward) in English?

This is a planned thing. It is a clear signal to the viewers that we have to be international in our approach. There is no point in forcing a bad Hindi name for a good Hindi programme. So if the name sounds good in English, and it catches on, we shall use English names. That is a conscious approach.

'Hindi journalism has brought terror to the law makers and law enforcers. They have changed radically after the sting operations'

Breaking news… all the time, Hindi channels are giving breaking news. Pramod Mahajan dies, that is breaking news for all the channels, from morning to late night. Don't you think this is ridiculous?

(Laughs) Those two words are the most misunderstood and misused in Indian TV journalism. Breaking News is a TV technique for catching the eye of the viewer; it is vibrant and attractive, but it is being used for everything. We have to evolve somehow to have different methods of presenting big breaking news and the ordinary news.

Some of your programmes are very long drawn. Do you think any audience would stay that long with a channel?

These long programmes are meant to tell the audience that here is a basket from which you get everything, from Saddam Hussain to Bollywood to travel and lifestyle. Stay with the channel and you will get everything from the same basket.

But is it getting reflected in your TRPs?

(Somewhat uncertainly), Yes, there is a good response. We have gained ratings and respectability.

What would you say is the driver programme for your channel?

We simply do not subscribe to the idea of a driver programme. If the driver programme is good, the channel's showing is good. But if the driver programme flops, it all goes down. So we cannot have one or two driver programmes. The idea is to create a channel that has all good content across.

I asked a friend once why there were no programmes on environment on Hindi channels, and he said it does not sell. Is that true?

True, that is the worst tragedy of Hindi TV journalism. There is a lack of concern, and I am party to that crime. Blame it on eyeball journalism. Besides, can you imagine what kind of money BBC or CNN or Nat Geo spend on their programmes?

Forget big money. Environmental programmes are the most ethical sting operations you can carry out at minimal cost and people would stay glued to them because it relates to their life. Also, corruption is rampant.

(Ponders) Yes, I see what you mean, but may be we need to give some real thought to this.

How do you see yourself in the ratings warfare?

Everyone wants to be number one, and so do we. But as a group, we are have decided that the biggest thing that we need to develop is credibility. We need to bring back the credibility of TV news journalism. In the process, if we become number one, so be it. I would prefer to stay at the second or third place if people told me that we are hugely credible.

You see so much sophistication in foreign channels. Why do Indian channels never pick that up?

Oh, Indian channels are way ahead in terms of energy, vitality and intelligence. And we make mistakes, from the exuberance of youth. That can be corrected. But foreign journalism is not what we want to do.

Indian journalism is far superior. We also went to war in Kargil, and we were taken there by the Indian army. But Indian channels did not spare the army for the mistakes they made. We did critical stories against the army as well.

We have that freedom. But look at CNN's embedded journalism… they not only go with the army, they become the army. This is unimaginable, there is no democracy. BBC was marginally better, but just that.

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