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Television News in India: Crassness or Credibility?

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The year gone by saw more and more Indian television channels featuring news and current affairs programmes entering an already-crowded space. Apprehensions of an imminent shake-out proved unfounded even as channels attempted gimmicks galore to attract eyeballs, even for brief periods. As more players prepare themselves to enter this highly competitive arena in 2005, attempts to gain credibility, present content that is exclusive and add value to non-exclusive news that is widely disseminated would acquire paramount importance - these attempts would determine the difference between survival and slow death.

India's experience with television is unique in the world in more ways than one. This was the first country on the planet to use satellites for television broadcasting in 1975. During the mid-1980s, Doordarshan's terrestrial network expanded faster than any TV network anywhere in the world ever had. We were the first country to market news and current affairs on videotapes thanks to the government's control over the medium. The transition of cable TV from a class to a mass phenomenon in the early-1990s changed the TV viewing scenario in ways few could have imagined. Even today, India is the only country where the number of TV sets with cable and satellite connections exceeds the number of either fixed telephone lines or mobile phones and the only country where a subscriber can receive over 100 channels for barely US$ 5-6 per month.

Add to the above list of "firsts" the fact that we are the only country with such a large number of TV channels with news and current affairs programmes - at least two dozen in various languages, a number that is growing by the month. But quantity, as any fool knows, does not mean quality. If the reverse was true, as a country producing around 800 feature films would not account for less than 5 per cent of the turnover of the international film industry. Competition is supposed to be healthy since it cuts costs and offers choices to consumers - who remembers that until as recently as 14 years ago, almost all Indian TV viewers could only view public broadcaster Doordarshan's sub-standard offerings?

The problem with too much competition today is that, in the race to grab viewers' attention, TV channels end up dumbing down or using the lowest common denominator to produce programmes that end up insulting the intelligence of their viewers. Worse, channels trivialize, sensationalize and frequently cross the thin dividing line between between a citizen's right to information and the invasion of her/his privacy. Witness, for instance, the manner in which Zee News converted Gudia's poignant story into a "reality show". She, after all, had no idea that her first husband would return before she chose to remarry and bear a child.

As far as credibility is concerned, during the run-up to the 14th general elections, most Indian TV channels displayed feet of clay. All of us have our personal predilections and political preferences but to allow blatant bias to creep into news coverage damages if not destroys, credibility. Thus, it would be simplistic to presume that most TV news channels displayed a distinct bias in favour of the incumbent BJP-led NDA regime merely on account of the fact that they were beneficiaries of the India Shining/Bharat Uday advertising campaign.

Like many elitist journalists and opinion pollsters who falsely claimed that they could feel the proverbial pulse of the people, quite a few of these commentators who were heavily promoted by TV channels turned out to be little more than opinionated, self-appointed pundits. A study by a New Delhi based NGO, the Centre for Advocacy and Research, has placed actual numbers revealing the partisan manner in which TV channels covered pre-election news between March 8 and May 7 that is worth looking at.

If TV channels were not so biased, would they have covered former Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani's yatra from Kanyakumari to Kashmir in his air-conditioned rath with a portable loo by the hour and all but ignored Congress leader (now Chief Minister) Y S Rajshekhar Reddy's 1,200-km walk through Andhra Pradesh in the peak of summer? Not surprisingly, these channels were left with such a lot of egg on their face on May 13 that they needed a vacuum cleaner to remove the mess - to use Asian Age editor M J Akbar's memorable self-deprecatory phrase.

After the poll pundits were proved wrong, few of them had the grace to acknowledge the fact that they had put on blinkers, that they had completely misread the political reality but indulging in wishful thinking. In view of the lack of objectivity and the pro-status-quo attitudes displayed by a substantial section of the country's TV news media, if television in India is to play a more proactive role in the political life of the country -- as many think it already is - serious introspection is called for.

But all is far from being lost. The same channels that were gung-ho about the Vajpayee regime were far more circumspect in their coverage of the Maharashtra assembly elections. Many channels have been (and continue to be) at their sensitive best in the manner in which stories were (are) being carried about the victims of the natural disaster that has devastated so many lives.

As more news channels enter the fray - CNBC-TV18's monopoly on the business news space would be over in January itself -- the endeavour to ensure not just authenticity and empathetic portrayal of people, but credibility as well, would assume paramount importance. Unlike those who work in news channels, most viewers are less concerned about who broke the news first - the word "exclusive" was much abused by channels during 2004 - and more bothered about the quality and depth of the portrayal of news.

TV news in India could degenerate into something worse than eye-candy - or, if you so prefer, chewing gum for the mind! The idiot box could, on the other hand, become a misnomer by becoming a powerful tool -- not to titillate but to empower.

The author is Director, School of Convergence and a journalist with over 27 years of experience in various media - print, radio, television and the Internet. He has co-authored a book "A Time of Coalitions: Divided We Stand" and directed a documentary "Idiot Box or Window of Hope". He may be contacted at paranjoy@yahoo.com.

(The views expressed here are those of the author. www.indiantelevision.com need not necessarily subscribe to them.)

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