News Channels: Sensation-fatigue, government's attitude and regional channels will decide future content

For noted media columnist Shailja Bajpai, her wish-list for 2008 includes cleaning up the news channels and getting back to 'news as news should be. Or as it was in the olden days of print media and just Doordarshan'.

The latest entrant in the Hindi news genre, Anuradha Prasad - with her News 24 - could perhaps bring some comfort to Bajpai, as Prasad has positioned her channel as one with the aim of "bringing news back to news". But that will be one Hindi channel anew with that sort of focus from the beginning, whereas the market is in a high state of flux and for sure, eyeball journalism has been getting a better share in the space.

A few aspects of news channels are quite married into each other and cannot be discussed separately: the growing number of channels in the genre, the issue of ethical journalism, where the advertising is going, the rating system and the government's Content Code.

Interestingly, though channels have taken their respective positions (which some differentiate as the 'perception route' Vs the 'numbers route'), there is a lot of cross talk within the channels themselves, and thus it is that we find a Hindi channel editor talking of values of credible journalism and an English channel editor talking of the 'robustness of Hindi news'.

It is a melting pot on the boil and the process is not going to crystallise in the next few months, but overall, there is a sense of a lot of soul churning and of the new, just decade-old industry trying to see where it goes and how it survives - and on which formula.

An analysis of the market share of the derided-by-some sensational (tabloid?) channels shows they have a consistent high rating, and India TV is a case especially in point, where it has become the No. 3 from a much lesser position.

So where is the market going? Chintamani Rao, CEO, India TV has been consistent: "We are going where the people are going, that is where the market is." And he cannot be denied this claim because of the consistent rise in the ratings of his channel.

The other pointer in the same direction is NDTV 24/7 going FTA after the rolling out of Cas in the three metros, as it was a clear indicator that people were staying away from it if it stayed 'pay', despite the 'ideological' position of sane, serious and credible journalism.

Hindi news channel NDTV India, despite sliding sharply on the ratings front since last April, has stuck to its 'credible' credo and promises to 'stay the copurse'.

NDTV Group CEO Narayan Rao, like his surname-sake Chintamani Rao, is consistent in his opposition to what the latter holds as the winning formula. Narayan Rao had told us during his mid-year statement on Hindi news channels: "It is a short term passing phase. In the long term, for any news channel, it is credibility and authenticity that matters. Whatever the situation is, we never opted to go down a certain route. We still have the same philosophy as we had when we conceived the channel."

In between comes CNN-IBN and IBN 7, in English and Hindi respectively. The statements from both Rajdeep Sardesai (Editor-in-chief for the group and directly handling CNN-IBN, and Ashutosh, Managing Editor at IBN 7 echo Narayan Rao on the issue of credibility, but are far more eager to experiment with both content and form.

IBN 7 has brought some of the best exposes through sting journalism but says it is steering firmly away from sensationalism, whatever the cost. Ashutosh says that if it benefits society at large, he is all for stings, but "why should any politician having illicit sex in a state guest house be considered serious journalism, unless this act is coming in the way of his public functioning?"

At the same time there is an in internal debate on what to show and for how long, and whether the sensational or even trivial has some place as 'entertaining information and visuals' punctuating serious news.

For instance, one channel was showing a half hour repetitive shot of a lion hugging a man from behind the grills of his cage. The side talk at IBN 7 was, this is an interesting shot and people would like to see it, but IBN 7 would perhaps just have a 10 second take on it.

This is where the moral debate is rooted in business terms: that eyeballs are important, but some say they will not veer a centimetre to get them, and some say a centimetre is OK if we can restrain ourselves to that. The other view is, of course, eyeballs is everything.

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