The New Age Circus!

Circus – as we know it traditionally as a form of entertainment, may be on the decline. But a new age Circus has taken centre stage now and is threatening to overtake all forms of entertainment on offer. And that’s the TV News media circus.  Ever since the explosion of satellite and cable TV in India, there has been an explosion of TV channels in India in general and the News variety, in particular. A Wiki entry says that there are 400+ TV channels just for News in India presently, all clamouring for a share of the viewership pie.

With that kind of competition, survival needed a re-engineering of the News broadcast model. And that’s when most of the channels modelled their News programming to present wholesome entertainment. Today, if there are different options in channels like GEC (General Entertainment Category), Sports, Children entertainment, Religion & Spirituality and so on, for the grown up man, (I am not being sexist here. Just that I believe more than women, men tend to relish the entertainment on offer on News channels) News channels are a new category of entertainment that can be called as NEC (News Entertainment Category).

For the past several weeks now, this category has been buzzing with activity after the unfortunate death of Sushant Singh Rajput. Much has been written about how the goal posts in this case have shifted from suicide to abetment of suicide to murder to financial fraud to nepotism to drug consumption with the latest being Bollywood’s connection with the drug mafia. This unravelling of the story has been partly driven by a vigilante TV media which is conducting its own trial every night during prime time. It’s unfortunate that the TV media and not the investigating agencies has been in the forefront of setting the agenda of this case and every turn has been a result of some expose or other by the TV media.

As a result, what we see today is a competition among channels through orchestrated leaks and PR stunts to set the agenda for investigation.  Today, the Rajput case which was just pursued by one channel or media house in the beginning has now become an obsession for most channels/media houses. The result is a full blown war among channels, media houses and its star anchors and them taking sides depending upon what suits them and their TRPs. So, when Rhea Chakraborty gives interviews to a few channels, the other channels label it as a PR stunt to extricate herself from the case. And when Kangana Ranaut talks to few channels on nepotism, other channels label it as a distraction exercise and so on.

There are those who are integral part of the media but not part of the Rajput saga who have been critical of the tamasha going on in News channels. And they have also blamed the viewers of their choices which as per them is responsible for the degeneration of TV News channels. As per me, they only reflect the “these grapes are sour” sentiment. If they had got an opportunity to be part of the saga, the commentary would have been different.

There is no doubt that the Rajput case has heightened interest on TV news for many in India, going by the BARC statistics before and during the Rajput saga. A channel like Republic Bharat has managed to become Number 1 in Hindi News category dislodging Aajtak just during the Rajput saga! I do not watch Republic TV these days. But many do. And that’s why it is the leader in English News category by far. As kids, we liked watching a Circus. And as adults, many enjoy watching TV News which is increasingly resembling a Circus.

In this News age Circus, the reporters are like the poor animals which are paraded to perform certain items in front of the crowd. Today, the reporters are pushed by their bosses to get sound bites and capture sensational visuals which are put on a loop on TV.  Some of the guests in debates are akin to Jokers or buffoons in a Circus who are there to provide comedy relief.  At times from across the border. They are routinely insulted and howled upon. The spokespersons of the parties are according to me like the trapeze artists in a Circus.  They do the fine balancing act irrespective of the situation, swinging from one position to another as per the need and continue to “hang in there” during the heated debates.  The anchor is the ring master who is often seeing cracking the whip.

What I am trying to say is, as viewers we have long before concluded that News is another form of entertainment and is consumed as such. So, if a particular channel or show is high on ratings, it is because it is considered more entertaining than others. This doesn’t mean that we like that style of journalism. For consuming actual News or for high quality journalistic insights we have our own other sources in the media.

TV channels are sustained by TRPs – Tamasha Rating Points, I mean. And in every genre, the clamour for TRPs has brought in a big shift in programming content. In General Entertainment, from sober family value serials to “Saas Bahu” sagas and Big Boss shows, in Cricket from classical test/One day matches to T20s, in Children entertainment genre from pious Tom & Jerry cartoon types to High Octane adventure shows, in Music category from concerts to Reality shows filled with drama. The genre of News is not an exception. Hence the change from staid reporting of events of the day with visuals to noisy and sensational shouting and screaming matches around events.

The traditional Circus may be on the wane and struggling. But the New Age Media Circus is alive and kicking. And you get to watch that every day, 24*7 that too from the couch of your drawing room. And as a viewer do not have any other pretense about it.

Nate Silver, an American writer and editor famously said, “A lot of news is just Entertainment masquerading as News”.

How wrong he was!

All News is just Entertainment masquerading as nothing!

Cartoon credit: Satish Acharya

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!!!