One upon a time, “the Nation wanted to know”!

The year was 2007. When in my erstwhile company we decided to go for a brand campaign on TV for the 1st time, being in the business of business and enterprise products, we had English News and Business channels in mind. Our original idea was to spend much of the budget on NDTV 24*7, then an established leader in the category and some money on CNN-IBN, a challenger. Our creative agency and its media buying arm strongly suggested to add to the media mix Times Now, an upstart which had gone on air a year ago in 2006. I was hesitant and my 1st question was “Who watched Times Now?” I was told that Times Now with its firebrand anchor and All in All Arnab Goswami had the fastest growing viewership. Over and above that were willing to give an excellent deal. I gave in and we decided to put some money on Times Now as well for the campaign. Till then I never used to watch Times Now and was basically an avid NDTV and at times CNN-IBN watcher. To catch up with the campaign on Times Now during prime time, I started watching Times Now on and off in end 2007, mainly due to work compulsion!

For most Indians though, their tryst with Arnab started probably a year later in November 2008 when the dastardly terrorist attack on Mumbai happened. With rival channels beaming the entire counter operation live much to the exasperation of those carrying out the operation, it was Indian News Channels’ worst face palm moment in history. Being head quartered in Mumbai unlike other English channels which beamed from NCR, Times Now could deploy the maximum resources during the 3 day non-stop coverage of the attacks on Mumbai and garner the most eye balls of eager citizens wanting to know what was going on. For Arnab and Times Now, the 26/11 Mumbai attacks did what the 1991 Gulf war did for CNN!

I reckon that during this period, Times Now  became a serious player on prime time and in fact started boasting of TRPs ahead of NDTV 24*7 and CNN-IBN. There was no looking back since. The heady days of UPA-II offered much opportunity for Arnab to take the Government to the cleaners with scam after scam. The CWG scam, the 2G scam, the mining scam and the “Anna movement” all came in handy for Arnab. From here on, it is my belief that he ceased to be a News anchor or a journalist and started morphing into being the very righteous and highly moralistic “vigilante” leader! And the Nation lapped him up!

At 9.00 pm every night, Arnab was no more reading news. He was not even anchoring a news show. He was actually giving his “Address to the Nation” to gullible Indians for few minutes followed by debates where participants were literally “pigeon holed” and harangued. Those not on his side were interrupted, insulted and were handed over sermons. He became the advocate, prosecutor and the judge every night.  But in all this, he was doing well for himself. Arnab became a brand. In fact, became larger than the channel itself. Times Now became an undisputed leader in its category. For the middle class English news watching public, he was a hero who could question and tear apart a politician on live TV without fear. They kept goading him with more TRPs and he became unstoppable. So much so, in 2014 during the election season, when Rahul Gandhi wanted to give an interview and the Congress party decided to go with NDTV and Barkha Dutt, Arnab challenged them with facts and figures and ensured that the only interview Rahul gave was “Frankly speaking with Arnab”. And we all know how much that interview contributed to the Rahul folklore on social media! In the same token, in the run up to the election, the only English Channel to which Narendra Modi gave an interview was Times Now for Arnab!

While being on top of the game and world, Arnab decided to leave Times Now and he started his own channel named Republic TV which went on air in May 2017.  Here again, he has continued his vigilante model – only that his vigilantism is being applied only against the opposition party! Republic TV continues to rake up scams supposedly pertaining to the UPA era and at times even of the Rajiv Gandhi era! The Bofors story keeps popping up, not surprising as the original Bofors story architect, Chitra Subramaniam is associated with the channel. With the channel being funded mainly by Rajeev Chandrasekhar who is now been given a Rajya Sabha ticket by the ruling BJP, Republic TV’s loyalty is no more a secret. It never was. But now even that translucent mask is off!

Arnab is today a metaphor for the aggressive, noisy, angry, rooting for nationalism type of journalism. And the success of Arnab has led to a spawning of Arnab Goswami wannabes in channel after channel! From Rahul Shivshankar to Navika Kumar to Bhupendra Chaubey to Rahul Kanwal to Gaurav Sawant to Anand Narasimhan we have a parade of angry men and women masquerading as news anchors in every channel!  And night after night one can see them howling at guests who for whatever reason choose to appear on their shows!

Similarly the success of Times Now and now the apparent popularity of Republic TV within a short span has led to every channel following the shouting match formula on prime time! Among channels, with the exception of NDTV 24*7 which has chosen to stay away from debates on prime time, there is hardly any product differentiation! In fact, Times Now seems very much a clone of RepublicTV in almost all aspects – the stories of the day, the editorial line they take, the boxed debates, the profile of guests, the doorstepping of reporters, the Arnab like anchors in Rahul Shivshankar (an Arnab protégé) and Navika Kumar and even in the harebrained hashtags they come up with every evening! No wonder Arun Shourie, known for his penchant for one liners, came up with the sobriquet of “North Korean channels” for both!

9 pm prime time news has been my every night fixation for years. Not anymore. I have stopped watching Republic TV.  Rarely do I watch Times Now. And more importantly, I just give a fleeting glance for not more than 5 minutes of even the other channels.  Results from unscientific polls conducted with my folks over WhatsApp reveal similar trends. That of die hard news consumers shunning Arnab and his ilk in particular and English news channels in general.  Now this trend is not reflecting on the viewership data at least for now. But then, methodology adopted for opinion polls and collecting viewership data in India are as unscientific as they can get and hence I treat them with the same contempt.

News today is more noise. And hence it is nothing but entertainment.  Soon news channels will fight for being classified under General Entertainment category. If a finger has to be pointed on one person for this degeneration of the News TV genre in India, it should be on Arnab Goswami. There was a time when the entire “Nation wanted to know” from Arnab. Every night. Not anymore.

Postscript:  Malayalis tend to pronounce “News Anchor” as “News Anger”! Time for the nation to follow Mallus on this one!!!

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Peepli Live Returns!!!

Peepli Live Returns or it could be Peepli Live -2 or may be Lagey Raho Peepli Live!!! In Bollywood these are some ways of naming a sequel. And there are more and more sequels these days. Peepli Live is an offbeat Hindi film released few years ago in the genre of satirical comedy. It did make the cash registers ring if not shatter at the box office. That film basically dwells around the way TV News channels make buffoonery around some trivial events happening around us and make a fool of themselves and may be in the bargain we, the viewers as well. Anyone watching the news channels in the past 1 week or so would realise that channels are dishing out the sequel of that Peepli Live franchise. I am referring to the non-stop, wall to wall coverage of the Sheena Bora murder case.

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On 25th August, when news tickers started flashing of the Mumbai police arresting Indrani Mukherjea, the erstwhile CEO of INX Media, on her alleged role in murdering her “sister” Sheena Bora, it was just a blip on the 24*7 news radar. But the events in the next day and after turned that blip into a 24*7 national obsession or so it would seem. The coverage started hitting a shrill pitch when skeletons started tumbling down (literally) of the many relationships, the conspiracy (alleged as of now) and money trail. With accomplices in 3 cities (Mumbai, Kolkatta and Guwahati) more and more reporters and cameramen got busy “chasing” the various actors in the saga sometimes on the road at a signal, sometimes midair inside a plane and where have you.

I’m not surprised at all by the interest of the public or the media in this case. After all this is not an Aam Admi murder mystery. This is a case involving murder of a young girl who was all along touted as the “sister” of the female protagonist who was in reality her “daughter”. I’m not getting into the complex web of relationships which have become the butt of pokes and jokes. Indrani was an extremely successful woman having climbed the corporate elevator in her own way. Similarly her husband (current one i.e.,) Peter Mukherjea is credited to be the man behind one of the successful foreign channels (Star) in India. Together they were part of the successful elite that too in the media business and naturally part of the thriving Page 3 circuit. All till the fateful 25th August and that’s when they moved from Page 3 to Page 1. There is an increased interest when successful people fail. And more interest when successful Page 3 people fall. And even more heightened interest for the media when someone from their own fraternity fail and fall. So the frenzy in the media and the various “forward” jokes on social media (atleast 1 question from the next CAT/IAS exam/ KBC got leaked I would think 😄) in the next few days can be attributed to the overflowing sense of Schadenfreude all around.

But what was appalling was the nature of reporting, coverage and the now infamous media trial of this case. Instead of just letting the police to do the investigation and reporting on the progress made by the police, channels are till today conducting their own trial and delivering their verdicts. Thankfully and rightly so, the Mumbai police so far has been conducting themselves exceptionally well with restraint without falling for the arc lights of the media. Avoiding the trap of feeding news bytes by the hour, by the day or preside over press conferences every evening to sync with prime time “Newshours” of what has become a spectacle. It’s ironical that channels day in and day out debate with so called experts in “increasing boxes” trying to decipher the case and delivering instant judgements based on hearsay leaks from vested interests. Apart from debates you also have analysis as to whether Indrani was a psychopath or some other path😠😠

Is it wrong if the Mumbai police takes its own time to investigate the case thoroughly before filing the charge sheet? Don’t we remember what happened in the other high profile Arushi murder case?? There, within 1 week of the murder, police declared in a press conference that the Talwars were perpetrators of the crime. The media trial in that case swung between giving a clean chit to the Talwars and consigning them to be with blood in their hands depending upon leaks of the day. So it was good to see the Mumbai police commissioner committing that he won’t let Sheena Bora mystery turn into Arushi case. We will wait and see.

The other horrendous aspect was the height to which the channels were going, in the race to be exclusive and breaking first the ever changing twists and turns in the saga. Here I am not referring to twists like “Indrani Mukerjea ne sandwich khaya”😄. To see a reporter shoving his mike into Peter and persistently posing different questions as he walked out of his place and chasing him till the car sped away was comical at times and ironical most of the times. As also a clip showing a clutch of sleepish reporters and cameramen waiting in front of the police station only suddenly to be jolted and woken up when one among them spots one of the Ex-spouses of Indrani being paraded into the station for investigation. I would only say that seeing the coverage of the Sheena Murder case, irony would have committed a 1000 suicides😡😡

Come next week, there is hope. Hopefully, our ex-jawans and veterans would come to our rescue. Or may be already they have. The Govt. announcing the One Rank One Pension and the veterans’ not so favourable response to it may push the Sheena Bora case to the sidelines. Till the next grand press conference by police commissioner Rakesh Maria where hopefully he will establish the motive and bring this Peepli live – 2 to an end.

Postscript: Coming back to naming of sequels, the makers of Bahubali can afford to have just 2 parts and call them as Bahubali-The Beginning and “Bahubali-The Conclusion” respectively. But, in the case of Peepli Live one has to follow the Yashraj’s Dhoom model. Dhoom-2, Dhoom-3,.. where the protagonists are different but the investigating officer is same. No, that was a not a reference to one Mr. Goswami 😜😜😜

“Broken” News!!!

It’s a common belief that “The More the Merrier”. Particularly if you are a consumer. One always gets a better deal if there is choice. The fact that you can exercise your freedom of choice makes marketers to provide a better deal in terms of Quality, Quantity, Value for Money, the works. It is also said that in a crowded market place, brands try to differentiate themselves. Differentiation by way of form, quality, price, positioning in the mind or overall offering and vie for the consumer’s wallet. But in India, there seems to be one product category which defies all these economic fundamentals. Here More is actually Less!!! Even in an overcrowded market place there is hardly any product differentiation. From one brand to another, they only provide good advertisements for “Cloning”. And when the number of players increase the overall quality keeps falling. Irony dies a thousand deaths at our drawing homes every day and night. Yes, welcome to the world of 24*7 News channels in India!!!

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I belong to what I refer as the Doordarshan generation. A generation which grew up without much choice for anything but stayed contented. During our growing up times, DD was the only source of entertainment as well as visual news. So the 9’o clock prime time news bulletins were indeed bulletins which walked us through the important happenings of the day. The news readers were news readers and not “Anchors”. They were reading news and were not engaged in endless hysterical debates. At our homes, one of our favourite games at the dinner table used to be guessing who will be the newsreader that night – Among people like Minu, Geetanjali Iyer, Rini Khanna, Tejeshwar Singh, Usha Albuquerque, Sunit Tandon, Neethi Ravindran,…,… Blame it on my memory if I missed a few others.  Apart from consuming news, as youngsters we also had the opportunity to imbibe the way they modulated their voice, their English diction and the overall presentation.  Even sans the choice the prime time news bulletin served its purpose effectively of keeping us informed of current affairs in India and abroad.

Now cut to what I call as “Boredarshan” times and rapidly transcending now to “Boordarshan” times!!! Today, in the 24*7 news channel space we are spoilt for choice.  Or are we???

At any point in time, try to exercise that power of your choice. Across all channels invariably prime time news will start and end with debates where the participants across channels will be the same. I guess for the political parties, it is easy to prepare one spokesperson for a topic and make him/her parrot the same arguments across all channels. In any case as he/she moves from one channel to another, he will anyway meet the same counterpart from the opposition as well!!! Not just prime time debates. A new book is hitting the store? Between 2 days you will find the author providing “exclusive” interviews to 10 different channels! (As per English dictionary, the word “Exclusive” in its noun form means ‘an item or story published or broadcast by only one source! So how does showing up in different channels is termed exclusive has been elusive to me).  Come Friday and a new film is being released? You will see the film crew parading from one studio to another in the National Capital Region doing the same silly things in the guise of “Promoting” the film! And somebody emerges as the newsmaker of the day? You could meet her/him in all channels that day. (Except if the newsmaker is Lalit Modi 😃 He only gave interview this time to one channel that too in Montenegro! While the other channels also reached the Adriatic coast he changed his mind and refused to oblige). The questioners sound the same. The questions sound the same. There is a race among channels to get interviews from the newsmakers that very same day. And on weekends the channels dish out similar content like Retro Bollywood stuff, Tech reviews,…

Not just content. If you look at the style – Among anchors and reporters there seems to be no differentiation.  All anchors by and large keep interrupting and do not allow the participants to complete one sentence. As I had penned in my earlier post DA 24*7 (Read here) we find Devil’s Advocates in all hues 24*7 in news channels. Come weekends all the “Star” Devil’s Advocates take a break and leave their fiefdom to their juniors who undergo on the job training to what else – interrupt!!!

Even on form, differentiation seems to be zilch. The template across all channels seems be a crowded screen with too many details populated.

And oflate their own marketing and advertising also look similar. Every channel claims to be No.1 in viewership😲 Damn the devil which is in the “*”!!! And all of the channels cry hoarse against Noise, Sensationalism,… and exactly do that. Day in and Day out!

So what’s going on wrong here? One could blame it on the TRP driven advertising revenue model for the channels. So when one channel with a certain content/style/form gets high TRPs, the others follow the same. But I would blame it on the “TRP model” itself. I am not too sure if the present TRP system captures the preferences of the viewers accurately. For a diverse country like India, I do feel a more heterogeneous viewership capture system is the need of the hour. Lest in the garb of “the Nation wants to know” we will continue to hear more noise and less news – across all channels. And if you still recall  “broken Record” of yore, news will continue to be that – “Broken” News as you switch from one channel to another😞😞

Postscript: Recently I was forwarded this clip on WA. Wonder if we will ever get to see such an interviewer who doesn’t interrupt and an interviewee who doesn’t get flustered and stays calm throughout, in these times in India. Check it out.(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MATAqeiL-4)