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"There’s nothing called unbiased news, only the degree of bias changes": ABP Network's Avinash Pandey

The channel has tried to move away from being aligned to any group.

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The television news ecosphere is battling great image issues in India. Their over-the-top, arguably, frivolous, coverage of sensitive matters and in certain cases, their eyes turning blind to many important issues are attracting a lot of flak from viewers and in a few cases from advertisers alike. Recently, ABP Network (earlier ABP News Network) CEO Avinash Pandey sat down to address these issues and many more with Indiantelevision.com founder, CEO, and editor in chief Anil Wanvari over a virtual fireside chat.

Edited excerpts:

How have been the past few months for you amidst the Covid2019 pandemic? 

When the Covid2019 pandemic started in March, there was a lot of uncertainty around it and no one had any idea how to exit. We could not predict the level of infections or the economic implications it brought. But we looked at it and thought, at the end-of-the-day, we can’t do what we do sitting at home. At the same time, it is important to keep our employees safe, understanding that we are making them face potential death. So, we set up a critical incidents management team and went on with our business. Some of our staff, including me, got infected but we were strong and brave enough to battle that. 

The viewers were glued to the screen watching the news and we knew our responsibility on the highest level. Business-wise it has been mayhem in the market. The advertising inventory went down and traditional advertisers for the news channels like white goods, car and mobile manufacturers, bike companies, etc., were out of the market because the shops were not open, markets were not open. But fortunately, it picked up at the end of May for most of us. June became a big month for us; it was over-filled and looks like we are slowly inching into a new normal.  

I would like to know from you what you think about the news industry right now. Roger Ailes, the man who founded Fox News believed that news channels have to have a lot of drama and he propagated that sort of journalism too. Do you think Indian channels have been impacted by his model of journalism?

In a very poor way, yes. The problem of news television in India is two-fold: how the channels are, what are the entry barriers in the industry and what sort of competitive advantage each product comes and offers in the marketplace. On the other hand, the existing measurement system and how it measures the news channels. 

As you rightly said, the big problem with news channels is drama but there was a time when there was a scope for intellectual drama. So, shows like Big Fight or sting operations on MPs, or Cash for Questions Scam got good ratings while performing basic duties of doing good journalism. Slowly, that disappeared. What you see on television now is that each channel has created a different type of Rafale and all kind of swings are happening in the studio. Ailes wouldn’t even have thought about drama like that. 

But I will not solely blame the editors, chief editors or the people who are producing these shows because what happens in that if you do a nice investigative story for 20 minutes, chances are there that you will not get good ratings but if you do 100 news in 10 minutes or five minutes, which is basically telling the same news in five different formats, it will bring ratings. 

The industry is heavily dependent on advertising and thus ratings, which makes you think what’s the future of doing good journalism on television in our country. 

So is it just the ratings or you think the Indian audience is such that it likes drama? 

I think ratings represent society. But also, if you look at the definition of NCCS A category today, our drivers will easily qualify for that. Now, the content sensibilities for different levels of society is very different. And largely because the NCCS model is so generalised, there is hardly any scope for good content. 

Look at the overall TV industry, so many unique content channels came and shut down because of zero ratings. It’s not that they don’t have an audience but ratings do not reflect their true constituency. It is hard to believe that an audience searching for the same content on pull mediums are rejecting it on push mediums. 

Both areas, the quality of content and how you measure it need to be worked on. All people have different views about how the rating system should reflect them and that is why we need to look at alternative methods. Some technologies are available and BARC today is headed by the best people in our industry. So I cannot say that they don't know what is to be done. The time for change is right here and if you don’t do it within the next one-two years, it will slim down. We need to refine the system for better and certainly move away from the NCCS system. 

So how do you see the future of news channels in India? You talked about the whole push and pull medium. How do you see them diversifying on your platforms? 

We put out the same content that we show on television on our OTT platforms right now. For example, we are the only channel that doesn’t put astrology content on our channel. We do not even take ads from such babas. We do not run the news of death till it is certified and there have been cases that we have delayed in sharing the news of certain celebrity deaths too. So, we follow certain principles and that works for us. It gets us similar traction on all platforms. 

I am going to slightly contradict you here. Recently, National Human Right Commission had to intervene regarding the insensitive coverage of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. They even wrote to NBA and all of you responded in your way stating you did not go wrong with that but there are doubts about that. 

I am not in a position to comment on others but I looked at my content and it was certainly not insensitive. But a celeb’s death is to be covered in a big manner to get people’s attention. If you look at the coverage of princess Diana’s death at that time, all kind of things were written about that. I can tell you Indian media, Indian news journalists are far more sensible than that. 

We are in a business where people are watching us all the time and it makes our jobs extremely difficult. I have worked in print and late in the night, when the page was ready, we took it to the editor for the final check after some five layers of corrections have already happened. On television, when a piece of news breaks, the assignment receives it and the panel producer on PCR who is probably fifth or sixth in the pecking order in the organisation decides to put it on air or not. The filter and duration to implement are minimal and humans sometimes do make mistakes. 

When you don’t like something on a news channel you can complain to the NBA. But why should one be doing that? If you don’t like anything on a channel, simply change it. 

Another thing is that all channels have a stance. They are either left-leaning or right-leaning, or to right-to-the-centre or left-to-the-centre. How does it impact the reporting on news channels and how close are the politicians to these channels? 

It is a big question and I have a theory of my own, which many would not agree to, that there’s nothing called unbiased, only the degree of bias changes. 

Having said that, at ABP Network, we are not aligned to any particular belief, ideology, or way of life. That’s one of the reasons why I stopped our 4-5 pm debates because I noticed that whether you are arguing on migration, labour, defence issues or education policies there is a set of people decided by a political party who come and speak on all these subjects. They are not subject matter experts. 

So, what started happening across news television is that there is a kind of agenda being pushed through these debates. People are asking questions like how many zeroes or what is the full form on a panel, which doesn’t make any sense. If you are going down to that level, then we are not doing any service to our viewers. And that is the reason you are making an opinion that a particular channel may be aligned the particular group and we wanted to escape from that.

And if we talk about how the channels handled the involvement of Tabhligi Jamat in the Covid2019 cases? 

See, it was a very charged up time. The only reporting that was happening was death and that became an overbearing thought for most of the reporters too. The Tablighi conference, it used to happen each year and channels have covered that earlier too. But it was an irresponsible behaviour by the organisers this time to lock themselves up and thus leading to a spread. I am not saying that they did this willingly. 

Now, debates with shouting matches get high ratings and Rubika’s episode never got the highest rating. There are obviously questions being raised about the said episode but when a debate happens, it is the prerogative of the anchor and panellists to take it ahead. The channel or the management has no say in that. People watched the debate for Rubika and it was a charged up time then.

In the hindsight, it is not right to blame a certain community. But it was a time of unprecedented uncertainty. How do you blame people for reacting a certain way, too? 

Another thing I want to touch upon; do you think news should go pay or not? You changed from ABP News Network to ABP Network, taking on newer avenues. Why not monetise news and build from there? 

I have never been in favour of FTA channels. When you give anything in this country for free, people start taking it for granted. High-end content requires investment, then you have to try in that market, so that’s not an easy game. However, I am quite determined that we, as a network, will soon go pay

We are building that that kind of content for us to be acceptable for people who like to pay for. 

Do you think it will work in India? 

My regional channels were already pay. I only became free-to-air because of the uncertain environment set by NTO 1.0. But if you look at the GEC segment, their demand did not drop because they went pay. 

There is a science and logic behind how the distribution system works and I don’t see a decline happening. Advertisers will not go anywhere because they will get the eyeballs. And even if I have to take a hit for the initial quarter, I am okay with that. 

Our digital business became profitable last year. We want to be the largest video company in three months. There are a lot of other things that we have planned which we will announce in due time. 

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