Soft news, hard sell

News channels are changing and how!
When Sony‘s plain Jane Jassi turned into a television temptress, NDTV India‘s cameras went behind the-scenes to capture this metamorphosis. In fact, the channel known for fusing lifestyle reportage with hard core news programming brought out a special episode on the make-over journey of Sony‘s most adored character.

Would P Chidambaram‘s budget be able to meet the aspirations of a billion Indians? To weave in the yuppy urban metrosexual into the discussion; CNBC TV18 tied up with MTV to present Budget Fundas And to add sizzlers to the rather heavy discussion were the likes of Bollywood hottie Mallika Sherawat, Zayed Khan, along with CNBC anchor Govind Ethiraj and MTV VJ Cyrus Broacha.

Crossover programming, news channels doing lifestyle shows, TV soap reviews, infotainment programming; newer formats and experiments continue unabated. And these special endeavours are proving to be the real differentiators for news channels wanting to break away from the clutter. With the mushrooming of news channels on the Indian skies and many more tipped to enter the market, analysts say it‘s now all-out war for the viewer mind space.

And the war is not just about being Sabse Tez, but also about garnering viewers across various TGs. As a seasoned newsperson put it, "The mantra seems to be to build up softer content and hard sell it, instead of just haggling over male eyeballs with hard news or breaking news."

Adding perspective to the current scenario, NDTV Media CEO Raj Nayak says, "News is not just about politics, sports or business. Also, when we plan our programming, it‘s never about restricting ourselves to a particular TG or a section of society. For us, it‘s all about presenting ‘news you can use‘ without diluting the essential character of the channel. Our different formats like Night Out, Gustaki Maaf or Double Take, Hum Log, Walk the Talk are all attempts in that direction and have done very well for the channel."

Analysts believe that over the years some stereotypes have settled in that have engendered a certain dislike for innovations which has hampered the genre from attracting more viewers. Today, there seems to be a certain paradigm shift and a fresh look at "old assumptions". It‘s not that women don‘t watch news but it‘s just that women watch different kind of news. So, even if teenagers are mostly clued to music channels they will definitely also tune in to a programme on say jobs & career planning.

Says Uday Shankar, CEO Editor & Director Star News, "For the major part of the population; news watching is still an in-between activity between the ‘K‘ serials. So, the challenge for news editors is clearly how to get more people to watch news and for longer durations of time. This cannot just happen with some subtle changes in terms of covering news or events; but news has to become conceptually and fundamentaly different."

And to do this, the fare being dished out seems pretty palatable; there is Saas Bahu Aur Saazish in the afternoon slot targeted at women; and Poll Kholl to make political television journalism more fun and alive."

But then, as news managers take on the task of strengthening content and creating an impact on the viewer, critics believe that there is also a risk we run in terms of news becoming too risqué at times. The sensationalisation of news with blood & sleaze, as is being seen on some of the crime shows across a few news channels is a good example of this.

Giving his viewpoint on the overall programming across news channels, Ajay Chacko, head marketing CNBC-TV18, says, "Should we be doing a page 3 show just because it will give us more numbers? This would then be at the cost of losing our core audience. We believe that even if we try out different formats, the programming should retain some amount of the basic character of our channel. And though some news channels might claim that lifestyle programming is giving them the numbers; I think its all casual sampling that is happening."

As more players prepare themselves to enter this highly competitive arena in 2005, and as attempts to present exclusive content attains paramount importance; we decided to take a look at all the channels; in terms of their philosophy behind the content, newer formats and what these formats have been able to achieve for the channels.

The news genre generated barely Rs 400 million a few years ago. Today, ad spends have crossed Rs 4.5 billion and are tsill growing at a fast clip. Yet, on the other hand, as the data for year 2004 reveals, viewership share for news channels remained pretty dull stagnating to around 6 to 7 per cent (though some say it has grown to 10 per cent).

A steep rise in the viewership has only been seen during certain important events or when powerful personalities make news. Like, last year viewership for the genre reached a record high when the final Lok Sabha results were announced and Sonia Gandhi refused prime ministership despite being the head of the single largest political party. So, for the pie to grow analysts believe the challenge for news channels is to rise above the clutter and try to look different.

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