Is Bollywood taking over TV news?

 As the world’s largest television news bazaar – with over 40 dedicated news channels, unrivalled by any other country – India offers exciting possibilities for broadcast journalism. At the same time, just as elsewhere in the world, television news in India shows a clear trend towards infotainment - soft news, lifestyle and celebrities - and a decline in journalism for the public interest.

While news outlets have proliferated globally, the growing competition for audiences and, crucially, advertising revenue, has intensified at a time when interest in news is waning. Audiences for network television peak-time news bulletins have declined in the US from 85 per cent in1969 to 29 per cent in 2005 (though in India news audience has grown).

With the growing commercialisation of television news, the need to make it entertaining has therefore become a priority for broadcasters. They borrow and adapt ideas from entertainment and adopt an informal style with an emphasis on personalities, storytelling and spectacle.

This has been reinforced by the take-over of news networks by huge media corporations whose primary interest is in the entertainment business: Viacom-Paramount (CBS News); Disney (ABC News); AOL-Time-Warner (CNN) and News Corporation (Fox News/Sky News and Star News Asia). This shift in ownership is reflected in the type of stories - about celebrities from the world of entertainment, for example - that get prominence on news, thus strengthening corporate synergies.

In the process, symbiotic relationships between the news and new forms of current affairs and factual entertainment genres, such as reality TV have developed, blurring the boundaries between news, documentary and entertainment. Such hybrid programming feeds into and benefits from the 24/7 news cycle: providing a feast of visually arresting, emotionally charged infotainment which sustains ratings and keeps production costs low. The growing global popularity of such infotainment-driven programming indicates the success of this formula.

Infotainment - a term that emerged in the late 1980s to become a buzzword - refers to an explicit genre-mix of ‘information’ and ‘entertainment’ in news and current affairs programming. This new news cannibalises visual forms and styles borrowed from TV commercials and a MTV-style visual aesthetics, including fast-paced action, in a post-modern studio, computer-animated logos, eye-catching visuals and rhetorical headlines from an, often glamorous, anchor person. This style of presentation, with its origins in the ratings-driven commercial television news culture of the US, is becoming increasingly global, as news channels attempt to reach more viewers and keep their target audiences from switching over.

As I demonstrate in my new book News as Entertainment: The Rise of Global Infotainment, such type of journalism has been very successful: in Italy, infotainment-driven private television catapulted Silvio Berlusconi from a businessman to the office of the Prime Minister. A study of journalism in post-Soviet Russia found that the media were ‘paying huge attention to the entertainment genre’, while in the Chinese news world, Phoenix channel regularly runs such soft news programmes as ‘Easy Time, Easy News.’

In the world’s largest democracy, what I have described as – the three Cs – cinema, crime and cricket – encapsulate most of the content on television news. Here global influences are important: As in many other countries, the greatest contributor to infotainment in India has been Rupert Murdoch, whose pan-Asian network Star, launched in 1991, pioneered satellite television in Asia, transforming TV news and entertainment. Murdoch was responsible, among other things, for introducing the first music channel in India (Channel V); the first 24/7 news network (Star News) and the first adaptation of an international game show (Who Wants to be a Millionaire).

Murdoch was also the first transnational operator to recognise the selling power of Bollywood, its glamour and glitz. The obsession of almost all news channels with Bollywood-centred celebrity culture today dominates coverage. Crime is big too: as the ratings battle has intensified, news networks have moved towards reporting sensational stories, which are becoming progressively gruesome: murder, gore and rape are recurring themes. The paradox is stark: although crime coverage has spiralled, especially on more populist Hindi channels, in the real India the crime rate has in fact fallen dramatically in the last decade.

A third obsession is to be seen in the coverage of cricket: cricket-related stories appear almost daily on all networks – and not just on sports news. And as Bollywood stars start bidding for cricketers, the ‘Bollywoodisation‘ of news is likely to continue.

These three Cs are indicative of a television news culture that is increasingly becoming hostage to infotainment. The lack of coverage of rural India, of regular suicides by peasants (more than 170,000, in the last 15 years, according to government figures), and the negligible reporting of health and hygiene, educational and employment equality (India has the world’s largest population of child labour at the same time as having vast pool of unemployed young people), demonstrates that such stories do not translate into ratings for urban, Westernized viewers and are displaced by the diversion of infotainment.

The lack of concern among television news networks for India’s majority population is ironic in a country that was the first in the world to use satellite television for educational and developmental purposes, through its 1975 SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment) programme. The interest in broader questions of global equality and social justice appear to have been replaced among many journalists by an admiration for charismatic and smooth-talking CEOs and American or Americanized celebrities.

Should we worry about this perceived dilution and debasing of news? In the early 1980s, years before media globalization and rampant commercialization of the airwaves, Neil Postman, in his influential book Amusing Ourselves to Death, argued that television militated against deeper knowledge and understanding since it promoted ‘incoherence and triviality,’ and spoke in only one persistent voice – ‘the voice of entertainment.’

A quarter century later, looking at the Bollywoodization of news in India, Postman’s words ring truer than ever.

(Daya Kishan Thussu is Professor of International Communication at the University of Westminster in London. His latest book is News as Entertainment: The Rise of Global Infotainment - the first book-length study of this phenomenon, published by Sage.)

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