Rat-ings race on News TV

In a world of 56 news channels, the only objective currency of success is high placing in the rating meters. The battle to beat the ratings means that news channels are constantly ‘experimenting’ and ‘looking for the magic formula’. As one editor points out, "The approach is to hit entertainment TV… to enter the market of Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi… News is trying to enter into the area consciously… deliberately." Three genres of news television started specifically as tactics to capture high ratings: reality television, lifestyle shows and crime news.

Reality television is not an Indian innovation but it has taken an interesting form on news channels here. A case in point is Zee News’ two-hour special on the Gudiya case in late 2004, a programme that the Zee News director proudly refers to as his achievement…

The week Zee ran the show was the only week it became number one in the ratings that year. The Zee News editor explains the rationale behind the show, “…As far as news is concerned, earlier it was only about politicians. We are changing that. Various kinds of things are now news because the canvas has increased.”

The rush for ratings was the backdrop to this coverage. Gossip that once might have ended at the village well was now prime-time national viewing. The battle for ratings turned the private tragedy of Gudiya into a public spectacle. Zee wasn’t the only channel to pursue the Gudiya case in this manner. While Zee had her entire family into the studio, other TV channels too rushed reporters who woke up her remaining relatives in her villages at midnight on live television to get sound bytes.

The Gudiya example spurred similar experiments with reality television in a bid to increase ratings. In January 2006, Channel 7 telecast a live six-hour argument between a divorced mother and her estranged husband in the Middle East over custody rights for their child. The anchor introduced the show as one that took a deep look at social issues and the mother appeaed live with her seven-year-old daughter in tow. The channel then called her estranged husband on telephone and the two argued bitterly over the next six hours, fighting over domestic matters while her underage daughter looked on. She was even asked to comment on who she would like to live with, all in the cold glare in the camera. It was the kind of battle that should have taken place in a divorce court. Here it unfolded on national television, and it wasn’t a one-off. For channel 7, such programming, along with cricket and crime, was the key component of its strategy to register on the ratings.

It was the quest for ratings that spurred Star News in 2004 to start a new afternoon show called Saas, Bahu aur Saazish. It is a show that seeks to build on the popularity of popular soap opera on Star’s sister channel Star Plus – Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki. The storylines of these soaps are based on intrigues within the huge extended families and they have been among the most popular television shows in India since the early 2005...

The third new genre that Indian television has experimented with is lifestyle programming. In 2003, NDTV started prime time shows called Night Out on NDTV 24X7 and Raat Baaki on NDTV India. These were the daily shows which were anchored live out of a different night club in a different city each day and the idea was to take viewers on a party trip with the hip and the happening. The producers took care to choose a nightclub where famous models or film starts were partying that night, and that was the selling point: party with the stars. The shows proved so popular that all other news channels started similar shows in the time and 2003 became the ‘Year of Night Outs’ in news parlance. Advertisers liked these shows because they brought in new non-news viewers and, more importantly, young viewers.

After the experiment with party programmes in 2003, news channels turned to crime programming in 2004. Aaj Tak experimented first with a programme called Jurm. Uday Shankar, who was then news director of Aaj Tak, says he got the idea from American television where crime is hugely popular. NDTV followed suit with FIR, Crime and the City, and Dial 100. Zee News started Crime Reporter and Crime File, Sahara aired Hello Control Room and Crime and Punishment. Aaj Tak responded with a second crime show Vardaat and Star News launched Sansani. CNBC India also started a programme on economic crimes.

The move towards crime shows can be explained by one factor: they fared well on the yardstick of TRPs (television rating points). Zee News’ Crime File in the 10:30- 11 pm slot on Saturday nights registered a 100 per cent jump in ratings over the show in the previous block. Similarly, Red Alert (Star News) showed a 63 per cent jump and Jurm (Aaj Tak) an 18 per cent jump from the previous show. The ratings were much higher than any other genre in Hindi news. And advertisers came in thick and fast. The most remarkable aspect of these shows remains the presentation. There is an overt, overdone bid to create tension with the visuals as well as soundtrack, as though the crime is happening next door. Even the anchors seem to have a certain edge: they speak loudly, menacing voices taut with tension. According to one observer, it is as if “KN Singh, Pran, Ajit, Gulshan Grover, Amrish Puri and other such screen villains have all been rolled into one composite face.” According to one editor, the anchors are deliberately styled in this theatrical manner because their ‘personality helps stylise and package the show.’

…But television is a complex business and ratings do not always translate into revenues. They do most of the time, but not always.

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