Where is the 'News'?

News is back," said Anurradha Prasad at the launch of B.A.G Films and Media‘s Hindi news channel News24. Now does that simply indicate that news channels in India are currently devoid of "news" in its truest and purest form? A content analysis reveals something more…

India‘s experience with TV remains unique. It is the only country in the world with more than three dozen 24-hour TV channels broadcasting programmes on news and current affairs, barely a quarter-century after the world‘s first 24-hour TV news channel (CNN or Cable News Network) came up in 1980. Till 1991, television viewers in India could view only the channels broadcast by Doordarshan. That landscape significantly changed with the invasion of private satellite news channels.

Hindi news channels have been consistently accused of invariably having less news and more entertainment. Litres of ink and loads of paper have been spent, arguing that news channels are no longer part of the anti-establishment group as they carry only those stories that fetch them gold.

Agrees IBN7 managing editor Ashutosh: "Over the last few years, the concept of news has changed. Even for those who used to watch political news, it is no longer a good proposition, as there are no charismatic leaders. The UPA government has not thrown up any leader worth following as news. Even the newspapers‘ political coverage has changed. All this has happened mainly because it is now all about eyeball chasing, and it is getting from bad to worse."

While speaking to earlier, Aaj Tak news director QW Naqvi had said: "Talking of the year 2007, I feel the audience has changed its choice and appeal. Issues like corruption don‘t appeal to viewers anymore. Maybe, people have accepted it as an integral part of our society. Therefore, an exposé featuring corruption doesn‘t interest the audience, to a large extent."

Undoubtedly there has been a paradigm shift of news. While many argue that news in itself has shifted its meaning, others ask who defines news. For some, naag-naagin shaadi (marriage of snakes) is just as important as a barbaric killing in Singur or Nandigarm.

To further quote Naqvi: "No doubt, television news industry has grown at such a frantic pace that it has created certain pitfalls. All-out efforts in the past year were made to grab viewership. In this mad race, at times content was compromised and true journalism took a back seat. Compounding this malady, mushrooming news channels tended to water down the impact of many meaningful news reports."

Says Media Content and Communications Services (MCCS) managing editor Shazi Zaman, "Central to our selection of news is the impact it will have on people and the interest that people have in the story. The last few years have seen new viewers added, many of whom have non-traditional preferences. The changes in the content of news channels are a reflection of this shift."

In the last one or two years, it seemed Hindi news channels took a cue from the Hindi film fraternity. Whatever was hit in the news space was seen as a formula and followed thereafter.

First came a wave of family drama, matrimonial discord, violence and divorce. Once it reached its fatigue, the audience got bored and the news content searched for a different formula.

Then came ghost stories. News channels vied with each other for showing horror stories. While this content was very short lived, it was also alleged that some of the news reports were concocted.

After ghost stories, came the Baba wave, followed by amazing videos. This was a completely new phenomenon. In these videos, channels showed people performing crazy feats. But finally this, too, seems to be nearing its end.

Says Zaman, "Experimentation is the result of a desire to reach out to more and more people and to cater to as many tastes as possible. In 2007, news became more encompassing than ever before. Thus, it was no coincidence that the year of experimentation was also the year that saw genre expansion."

A study by the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies (CMS) says that the three C‘s of cricket, cinema and crime lord over politics in Hindi news channels. The study shows that news channels have undergone a radical transformation, whereby news has not only changed in its definition and content, but also in the manner in which it is presented.

Hindi news channels have seen a rise in comedy and reality show content, the emergence and establishment of trivia in news, and most significantly, the end of political news dominance.

According to the CMS Media Lab, the time spent on political news in the year 2007 has come down by more than 50 per cent. Political news coverage by Hindi news channels has dipped from 23.1 per cent in 2005 to 10.09 per cent in 2007.

On the other hand, sports, entertainment, crime and human interest news have managed to almost double up from 27.9 per cent in 2005 to 53.1 per cent in 2007. At the same time, agriculture, education, health and environment-related news have not seen any net change; their coverage has been as insignificant in 2007 as earlier.

Ashutosh reverts, "Careful studies show that it is not sports coverage that has gone up, but cricket. There is hardly any non-cricket sports news. For the past two years, there have been so many controversies, and cricket news is being covered even for other reasons like Sourav being dropped, Rahul Dravid becoming the captain, the entire Chappell controversy. Secondly, in cricket India has been doing exceedingly well. So far as crime reporting is concerned, there is a lot of drama, and it is just right for television."

"Besides, the entertainment industry has grown tremendously, and they have realised the power of news channels. They are marketing their products through news channels, and all the big films have media partners," he adds.

News broadcasters also feel that serious stories without any element of drama have a short life in the Hindi news space.

Naqvi points out that "Operation Kalank" (the Aaj Tak-Tehelka exposé on the connivance of state administration in sheltering and helping the riot accused in 2002) in a normal news environment would have shaken the foundation of governance in both Ahmedabad and Delhi.

"But the shelf life of this haunting exposé was hardly a few days. It did shake up the intelligentsia and society for a while, but it was not the topic of discussion in most drawing rooms after even a week. Not much changed either. Even though our channels kept the issue alive for a few days, the story did not really move forward. And this, I presume, is largely due to a variety of news being aired by a host of channels."

He says further that there was another good story on another channel, portraying a major scandal in UP. That exposé showed how police in UP has surpassed all levels of corruption. For as little as Rs 3,000, police officers were acting as contract killers and shooting down people in fake "encounters." This was not an insignificant story. Rather, it was a crucial exposé showing the depths of corruption within the police force. Had this story appeared a few years ago, it would have made national headlines and would have been the talking point for a long time. But in today‘s circumstances, it vanished from the scene within days and could not even attract print media‘s attention.

A few broadcasters also believe that in the last two years there has been a clutter in the Hindi news space with some addition to it, which subsequently had its toll on the quality and focus of the content.

"This has to be attributed to the overcrowding in the TV news space, which has reduced the audience attention span. There are so many news items being dished out that your interest in something of importance vanishes swiftly. Rather, to retain audience interest many a time too many stories are being splashed, so that the audience doesn‘t move away," added Naqvi.

A general rundown of Tam‘s (television audience measurement) top five programmes on Hindi news channels cannot be hard to guess: wrestler Khali, stand-up comedian Raju Srivastav, Lord Ram have been a hot favourite with the Hindi news channels in the past few months.

Star News‘ comedy capsules edited out from Star One‘s The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, which is hosted by an anchor in a virtual studio with good number of ad breaks, has figured highest in the top five programmes in the last few months as per the data provided by Tam.

Cricket has been featured differently in Ye Cricket Kuch Kehta Hain (Aaj Tak), Nach Le Cricket (Aaj Tak), Disco Cricket (Star news) while Khali has seen a variety of presentations like Khali Ki Khalbali, Khali Karega Khatma and Khali Sae Bali. Gods blessed the news channels in shows like Zinda Hain Rawan, Sabko Mil Gaye Ram and Kaise Dekhe Ram.

Star News claims that in the week 9 ending 1 March, 41 per cent of the content in its channel was news bulletin while the rest was religious, crime and cricket-centric stories. Religious stories were 8 per cent while sports reviews, comedies, business shows, crime and thriller were 7 per cent each. Cricket-based shows grabbed 10 per cent while film shows managed 1 per cent of the entire content pie.

One of the senior editors of a Hindi news channel vehemently opposes the Tam rating system. He argues that content is mainly driven by the Tam ratings. Explaining further, he says that most of the time the editorial is forced to do stories which categorically caters to the places or states where the Tam Peoplemeters are placed.

A man hit by a bull in the streets of Delhi will get more coverage and footage than five men killed in Darjeeling or Assam. The reason is only that peoplemeters are located in places of Delhi and not in the hill zones. For a Delhite, the former story is about the neighbouhood which compulsorily gets more hits in the peoplemeter.

"The content is decided by the geographical placement of the peoplemeter to get spikes in the ratings chart. Hence, some parts of India (where peoplemeter is absent) and some stories are left untouched or given very little importance," says the senior editor.

Another complaint of the news broadcasters is the heavy distribution cost. Broadcasters say more than half of the outlay goes in the distribution cost, which cuts other costs like human resources. That is why a reporter cannot be placed in the interiors as it has its own costs. A virtual studio ultimately becomes the easy answer.

Ashutosh says, "Distribution cost has gone up tremendously because of the clutter of channels. This is in fact affecting quality as a lot of money from a fixed budget goes into distribution, and channels have not learnt to be patient enough to give quality products. If only we could be patient, a lot of difference could come in."

All said and done, Hindi news content is still doubted of its news value. Instances like a sting operation on a Delhi school teacher gone horribly wrong by Live India have forced the Information and Broadcasting ministry to consider taking the editorial reigns in its hands by the Broadcast Bill. Until then it is a merry time for all.

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