Growing up in the 1980s, it was considered good parenting to get one’s child to read the newspaper or watch the news bulletin. Then the 90s were an exciting time when private news channels started to make their presence felt in India. It was such a difference from watching the news on Doordarshan.
Doordarshan was pro-government. The private news channels launched in India were all 24-hrs channels and were probably inspired by CNN. I am not harking back to the days of Doordarshan. Any “good old times” can be viewed with a sense of “hiraeth” a welsh word that roughly means a deep, wistful longing for a long lost home or for a home that never was.
These days, I hardly watch any news on television. I prefer to get a couple of newspapers and watch some interviews and get my news online. News on television is extremely toxic and I largely manage to avoid it. I am sure there are several people like me who do the same. But if you are active on social media, it is inescapable knowing what’s happening on television news from Twitter and Facebook. High octane panel discussions, loud graphics, terrible special effects, high decibel shouting matches, and sometimes downright abuse.
And of course, a lot of the news is fake. So much of it is fake, that one could spend entire days exploring a website like Alt-News which fact-checks fake news and a lot of it from prime time television news.
One has to wonder every evening, what special hell would be telecast tonight at 9 pm on Mad News.
Business of News
Let’s think of a typical urban household in India. “What is the plan for tonight?” someone might ask or think aloud. “Well, the usual” might be a common answer.
The usual in this case would mean the television. While television is an easy escape, during the pandemic, millions have nowhere to go out in the evenings, no real socialising with friends; are stuck watching the television.
The year 2020, is a watershed moment for news channels in India. They had millions tuning in to watch the news every day. With sporting events canceled or postponed – reality television shows also ended up being canceled. So television news never had it so good in terms of getting a tuned-in audience for so many months on end.
Zaka Jacob who is also a prime time news television host writes on TheNewsMinute about how TV news will survive and thrive.
To quote from the article
“Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) data shows that overall TV news viewership has increased by 15-20 percent even after the lockdown lifted. During the lockdown, there was at one point, a viewership increase of as high as 50 percent.”
The article by Jacob also touches on remote working models by the news television crews and how that is helping trim down costs.
So the stage was set, with a global pandemic and an economic depression looming over India, technology allowing media outlets to trim budgets, and put together news in a distributed way.
But mainstream media has never been as irrelevant when it comes to its primary duty of informing the public and questioning power.
The day India’s GDP contracted by some 23%, news channels were busy trying to find a drug angle to a sordid story around an actor’s alleged suicide. The actor was apparently struggling with depression and was seeking treatment.
Popular primetime news anchors have already declared showing photographs in which the actor was smiling as evidence that he was not depressed.
Surely the ratings were great that day but the damage done to several people struggling with mental health issues and depression will be unseen but nevertheless significant. Right since the COVID-19 pandemic started, we have had absurd bigoted and hate-mongering conspiracy theories often masquerading as the news on some of our biggest news outlets.
For starters, back in March, the Covid-19 spread was communalised and Tablighi Jamaat members were blamed for spreading infections in India. A despicable hashtag was created around “Corona Jihad” – a term that could only be invented by someone running a news talk show.
The extremely low on logic or any common sense theory was that sections of a religious minority are spreading a virus by first infecting themselves and then traveling around the country as part of a holy war. This could be called a Monty Pythonesque comedic skit which was written as a satire on the state of media. But this was no satire, this actually happened
News channels had done their jobs. They had good TRPs from intimidating entire sections of society and were now on to the next thing. I doubt anyone of them reported with the same zeal what the High Court said about the sordid story. Because the courts largely blamed the media.
But the news channels were not yet done with obscure theories. A news anchor flipped his silky hair, spoke with false bravado, and anchored the news on locusts in northern India and blamed Pakistan for it.
This was when the news debates should have been around the lockdown, the plight of the migrant labourers with their families who were walking thousands of kilometers on our highways in the middle of summer, interviewing scientists, epidemiologists, and economists about what would be happening next and how India could cope with these issues.
Race to the bottom
One might offer a simple explanation of why news channels are doing this. They are all paid to hide the news; with agendas that are politically driven is the common complaint.
The fact is most news editorials throughout history have always had a political slant. What we are watching now is not a slant to ideas but the complete erosion of any thought or any capacity for it.
P. Sainath in a recent video, covered why talk tv makes money. He points out that big media might be betraying its viewer but staying true to its design and purposes. The purpose here is that the panel discussion on the news is a lucrative business model.
Journalism requires reporters gathering information, writing copy, traveling to places, and checking out stories. It requires interviews with experts on economics, policy, governance, law to make sense of the raw reports. All this requires a lot of money.
Then comes the actual dissemination of the story, then to chase down follow-ups and more.
In comparison, a panel discussion requires something that resembles a headline, sometimes these days it requires just a made-up twitter hashtag, a studio, and a discussion panel.
A panel has two types of experts. Type one expert is someone who can shout loudly at the top of their voice in a self-righteous tone. This expert sometimes in their shouting matches is joined by the news anchor.
The type two expert is a masochist. They exist to be humiliated and berated on national television. They get shouted at, called names, and shut off while speaking, but they must be reimbursed for exactly that because a couple of days later these experts return to again go through this process of being shouted at on television.
This proverbial car crash on television has millions of people tuning in. This leads to TRP ratings that are high. That in turn brings in the advertisement revenue. Why do real journalism? Easy money is there to be made from entertaining panel discussions.
One would wonder, why are high TRPs so important? Why do all the channels need to chase this metric? Why can a channel not just charge more to their subscribers per month and serve up more quality than to join the race to the bottom?
Amit Varma and Vivek Kaul in this episode of EconCentral 101: Out-Arnabing Arnab nicely explain why chasing TRPs and ad revenue has become absolutely important.
TRAI which regulates channel pricing has in 2020 January (source) reduced the maximum price of a television channel to ₹12 from the previous ₹18. An artificial cap on what a channel can make from a subscriber forces channels to rely on advertising revenue for which they need a higher number of viewers.
A good sign is that a lot of older journalists have altogether quit television news and are focusing their energies by bringing news to the net. These are still small revolutions but are nowhere close to being a true alternative to the reach and resources of the dead corpse of television journalism.
I am not a journalist so I usually do not write up a long article about current news. But I try to imagine that the year is 2040 and we look back 20 years in the past and wonder what was the state of television journalism? It would be difficult to argue what we witnessed in 2020 was simply nowhere close to journalism, let alone quality journalism.
I have decided to unplug cable tv and hence do not subscribe to any news channel. But clips from news channels do show up from time to time in my social media feeds.
Here is a video by NewsLaundry called Newsance about last weeks prime time news coverage. I watch it for a laugh and feel thankful that I do not watch the news anymore on TV. But even an episode of Newsance; which can often be triggering.
Seeing the effect of all this on people I know, friends and family members is troubling. Highly educated and seemingly normal people I personally know have been radicalised so much via the television screens that they bought bogus theories from news channels and spread it across via WhatsApp.
I know many of them are good people at heart, they make good choices and mean no harm. But then comes 9 pm, they switch on the news and watch shouting matches break out on television.
They recognise that they are watching entertainment, not the news. They also recognise that a lot of the news they consume is probably fake and yet they cannot help it. They curl up on their sofas and like some cocaine addict, feel a tinge of regret about the excitement they feel. The excitement of wondering and looking forward to another human get shouted at, harassed, and sometimes even abused on national television. But their regret disappears and they tune in, to get their fix for the day, from a panel of experts and anchors who seem unhinged.
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