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COMMENT: KNIVES, ARNAB, & THE OLD GUARD OF ENGLISH NEWS

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MUMBAI: The knives are out. The blades are being flashed around. And those involved in the street fight are drawing blood and bleeding as well. Only difference is that the street fighters are not the ruffian kind, rather they are gents who you watch on the TV screen or dressed up to the T in well pressed suits in boardrooms.

What has got these reasonably well-behaved folks from the English news channel space all het up?

Well, a possible shakeup in the pecking order courtesy a newcomer who likes a round - some say bouts - of fisticuffs – both on air and in the marketplace. Team Republic TV led by editor-owner Arnab Goswami is clear that it wants to own the English new genre – or create a new one combining both Hindi and English – by hook or by crook. After all, all’s fair in love and business isn’t it?

So far he and his CEO Vikas Khanchandani have used tricks which older players have resorted to in the past – multiple LCN distribution on cable TV networks and allegedly pinching content which was recorded when he was in another channel’s employment.

The courts will decide whether Arnab and team are thieves or not; we are not insinuating anything. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India will clean up the multiple LCN mess by coming down hard on the errant distribution platform owners who have fallen prey to the smell of money – lots of it.

But the affair Republic TV has thrown up a lot of deeper issues which could be thought about.

When all members of a gymkhana or club have agreed upon a code of conduct, and a new entrant does not adhere to it, then should he not be told to fall in line when the infringement is brought to the establishment’s chairperson’s notice? Could the chairperson give the older members a patient hearing and heed what they have to say?

Older players are an aggrieved lot. Yes, they admit that they have been bad boys in the past. But then they have mended their way, signed a truce and decided to follow the straight and narrow path. Should their old behavior be brought up to excuse that of the new entrant?

And when they decide to protest by not coming to the club, should they be further threatened that they will be banned for longer if they do continue with their picketing?

Of course the chairperson is BARC; the policeman/security is TRAI and the members are the NBA. No second guesses for who the new entrant is – Republic TV.

Would BARC have responded the same way had it been the general entertainment channels which would have raised a hue and cry? Remember what happened to TAM!) After all the entertainment broadcasters contribute about four to five times more to BARC’s purse then do the news channels.

Could broadcasting licence issuance by the ministry of information and broadcasting be linked to well-behaved and well-accepted distribution practices? If some one does not adhere to them, could the licence be suspended?

Should news channels be measured alongside entertainment channels? This modus operandi has forced them to resort to entertainment or outshout-and-out-abuse-your-guest kind of programming (read entertainment again) which seems to appeal to TV soap viewers wanting to have big names of society and public life being squashed like flies on TV. Some have called this the dumbing down or bimbo-isation of news television.

Is there a need for a new viewership currency or data points - which are more specific to the news genre - other than what BARC churns out? Could media agencies and brands resort to qualitative checks of content before signing cheques for ads on TV news channels? The most watched read/watched genre of content on the internet begins with a P. Do all major advertisers place their consumer messaging in that environment?

Could distribution platforms have stricter penalties if they fall for green dollars, violating codes set up by regulators? The DTH guys would not dare to go for multiple LCN placement because what they do immediately comes to the public’s and regulator’s eyes – they are accountable for their quality of service. Fear of punishment can be a big deterrent.

From an editorial perspective, questions are being asked as to how far will Arnab go? And then will the other channels show restraint or will they beat the same path? So far, it appears that some of them played follow-the- newcomer on the multiple LCN issue. Of course, they all did a volte face when the policeman/security guard waved around his night stick.

Whatever be the case, it is quite sure that the NBA English news members will kiss and make up with BARC, the TRAI and each other. Sooner then later. (BARC and NBA are scheduled to meet today to pencil out points that will help them resolve the crisis.)

Who knows Arnab may also find some sense in the NBA and its code of conduct and eat his own words and also house his channel under its protective roof? There was a time when another bespectacled news journalist was labelled the villain of TV news; today he is part of the establishment.

After all, they all need each other. This is despite some media blogs and websites which have sketched the industry’s execs as shaking hands while holding a dagger behind each others' backs.

Industry old timers are betting that ratings released after week 22 will give a true reflection of what’s going on with English news TV viewership. The three to four weeks’ data prior to that is simply something to be kept aside as an aberration as it will continue to show Republic TV as the numero uno. After that it could well go into a free fall and the older players will continue with their leadership position, is their prediction.

Republic TV executives are clucking that this is wishful thinking. Indian viewers have been waiting for the Arnab school of journalism like the Jews did for manna from heaven in the good old Bible, is what they have voiced. And that their channel will continue to top the charts for the foreseeable future.

Only time will tell which prediction turns out be true.

Until then, we will keep channel surfing with hope in our hearts that we will get to watch some real news.

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