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News channels- Uncorking the mirth: News channels are increasingly including the political spoof in their programming

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Political spoofs  as short vignettes  seem to be the latest trend among Indian news channels. As part of their never-ending endeavour to attract viewers, many top channels like Aaj Tak and NDTV are exploring the quirkier side of people in the news. The trend is a 10-minute comic filler that portrays a political leader in a tight spot or just an ironic situation. It could be called the equivalent of an editorial or pocket cartoon in a newspaper -- maybe even a You Said It, by Laxman.

The news channels vehicles differ: NDTV 24X7 has it in the form of a puppet

show  Double Take. The broadcasters Hindi equivalent NDTV India has Gustakhi Maaf. Aaj Tak ushered in the New Year with Charsobisi Ka Saal, a quirky series on the misadventures of 2003. The channel also aired a series of spoofs called Aaj Ka MLA, during the Assembly elections in December last year. Sahara Samay Rashtriya also had the Dharti Pakad series during the elections.

This appears to be just the beginning. These short vignettes are fast becoming very popular among television viewers, as Rajdeep Sardesai managing editor at NDTV told IndianTelevision.com. NDTVs Double Take and Gustakhi Maaf take a dig at social and political problems. Sardesai says, It is a five-minute programme, but I dont call it a promo or a capsule. It is a complete show  with a beginning and an end.



NDTV's Rajdeep Sardesai - "Not all people are concerned about serious news, but almost everybody watches Double Take"

Sardesai says he considers Double Take very important for the channel because it interests a variety of viewers, irrespective of their age, sex and social economic class (SEC). He says, Political takes are very interesting Not all people are concerned about serious news, but almost everybody watched takes. In that sense, you may say our target audience is the widest range of viewers.

Conceptualising

So what goes into conceptualising these vignettes. Sardesai explains, We have an entire team working towards conceptualising and handling the shows. Its very competitive, as we pick current issues and have to immediately visualise and work on the puppets. Our work doesn't stop with creating the puppets, we have to think of a voice-over and setting the stage for filming -- all in a limited time-frame.

Rajiv Bajaj, editor of Sahara Samay Mumbai, says, Obviously, a great deal of character study goes into conceptualising spoofs. Just before the assembly elections (December 2003), Sahara Samay (Rashtriya) had come up with a character called Dharti Pakad. He was a mocking, sarcastic individual who spoke the language of the people and grilled politicians. Bajaj says, Dharti Pakad was in fact a real character  Kaka Joginder Singh, an illiterate who used to try hard to contest elections in the 1990s. However, his nomination papers would always be rejected.

Bajaj says, We had to get enough background on Kaka before we were confident we could develop the character perfectly.

Popularity stakes

One proof of the spoofs popularity is that it appeals to a wide audience  people in almost all age groups. Channel heads themselves agree that while news and news shows are watched only by a select few, spoofs appeal to a wide variety of viewers, like school and college kids, working women and housewives.

And its no fluke that spoofs have such a wide appeal. Sardesai says, When we come up with concepts for Double Take, we keep in mind that our target audience includes the widest range of viewers. Political takes are very interesting  even for people not interested in news.

Money matters

Another factor that shows how seriously channels are taking spoofs is the amount of money they are spending on them. Considering that these spoofs are just short 10-minute fillers, while the channels main business is news, one

would expect only a minuscule portion of a channels money to be budgeted for spoofs. Surprisingly, thats not the case. Sardesai says that not just a substantial budget is allocated for them, but a budget that rivals the money spent on news. While I cant specify the exact amount we shell out for them, I can say the budget allocated is equal to the budget for all news programmes, he says.

Credibility at risk: An on-air farce?

While political spoofs certainly seem to kindle the viewers interest, a compelling question follows: will such shows affect the channels credibility when they report the actual news? A journalist at one of Indias leading newspapers says, It very well might, well have to wait and see. Airing spoofs, cracking jokes on political parties may be entertaining, but the main aim of any news channel is to report and inform in an unbiased manner. The moment a channel takes a dig at a political leader or a party, that basic objectivity is lost. Channels like NDTV and Aaj Tak probably dont realise it, but these 10-minute capsules could damage them irrevocably. People could lose faith in their credibility.

Taking the examples of two foreign news channels, the journalist says, Take a look at CNN or the BBC. They would never air anything whose aim is first and foremost entertainment or ridiculing a newsmaker. Even their features and other programmes are aimed at being mainly informative and reportage. Entertainment and comedy programmes, like Royal Canadian Air Farce, are left to the entertainment channels. CNN or BBC would never air a show like that. It would quite simply destroy their credibility.

Zee Telefilms director Laxmi Goel wants to instal live news tickers in Mumbai and Kolkata too

In India, Royal Canadian Air Farce airs on Zee English. As for Zee News, it is keeping away from spoofs, though it isn't shying away from innovative marketing strategies. Recently, the channel installed live tickers at various busy road signals in Delhi. The tickers flash the day's 'breaking news'. According to Laxmi Goel, Zee Telefilms director (News Group), the marketing initiative will soon reach Mumbai and Kolkata too.

One channel that probably believes that spoofs can damage a news channels credibility is Star News. Maintaining that Star News is a serious news channel and should stay that way, the channels brand director Keertan Adyanthaya says, "We dont want to indulge in any such promotional or marketing gimmicks. We report straight news and would not want to digress under any circumstance."

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