Of business model and soft power
News channels have swayed away from their primary purpose and settle for business model that favours fancy presentation above information
A well-informed society is essential for a successful democracy and media has the unique responsibility to empower people through news and information. However, it becomes an aberration when news service transforms into news industry. Scores of TV news channels engaging the society round the clock only seem to prove it. The channels seem to believe conclusively that they have the supreme responsibility to 'empower' society than other media. News, or no news, live debates are a fashion now and they generally are either urban-centric or about sensational socio-political events or scams. Issues of larger concern like development programmes, government schemes, housing, health, drinking water, etc. hardly receive focus. The panel usually comprises a senior columnist, a retired Army personnel, a young energetic but unknown social activist, young impatient spokespersons of political parties and an expert with enlightened looks on Skype. Sometimes they are almost a dozen and it is difficult to accommodate all of them on screen at a time. While academics are rarely invited, Bollywood stars frequently appear on the panel.
The anchor keeps yelling 'people want to know'; it is a mystery though, as to who the people are and how come the anchor acquired such an exclusive right to speak for them. Anchors vary in their disposition; some are revolutionary, some saintly, some vulnerable, some interrogative, and some are just confused. Sometimes debates are moderated and other times they are left to become 'war of all against all'. The freedom of speech reaches its pinnacle in the shows with sweeping remarks or judgments. Sometimes they resemble kangaroo courts. With perfect timing the anchor alerts 'gentlemen, I must take a break now' and also allures viewers saying 'it's getting interesting, don't go away, stay tuned'. A few jingles on commercials and a couple Bollywood teasers entertain viewers till the show resumes. How productive the debates are, remains an open-ended question. But being largely judgmental in spirit, they influence viewers in forming opinions.
The original purpose of the news channels appears to have been long defeated with the setting in of 'business models'. Tabloidisation was not far behind as a means of quick success. News, more often than not, is marketed with value additions influencing social thought process. Facts do not dissuade one to say, that news channels have become more a part of the entertainment economy rather than the information ecosystem. Even the signature tunes and logos of the channels are no less cinematic in appeal. Now anchors have also begun posing dramatically to promote their own channels. The business model seems to have pushed professionalism and social responsibility to the backstage. Even issues awaiting court verdict are debated live, before and also after the judgement is out. Sometimes sensitive details concerning anti-terrorist operations by Army are also telecasted in violation of Rule 6(1) (p) of the Cable TV Network (Regulation) Act.
The channels strike pay dirt with news business and amassed immense power over society- the 'soft power'. The reason, primarily, is how their role diversification is far different from the one originally intended. To begin with, a self-proclaimed vigilante of truth and honesty is one. Sting operations claiming to expose corruption and 'enemies of public good' is an innovation. It sells like hot cakes with acrimonious media trial following day in and day out. Viewers, of course, find such telecasts thrilling. The channels jubilantly market their victory by repeat telecasts. It's unknown whether all 'Stings' reach their logical culmination. Channels also began playing super 'Lokpal' (Ombudsman) on public governance. Stories of corruption and inefficiency in the delivery mechanism are aired by cherry-picking issues and Public functionaries are summoned live on screen to explain and fix. Public began to see a friend in news channels not only to address but also redress their grievances. News channels also play as 'promoter' for the entertainment industry. Alerts and commercials about serials, reality or comedy shows are run incessantly even during the newscast. Budding artists and actors find channels as a fast medium to market their films or serials. Every new release of Bollywood is discussed on news channels with interviews of stars and directors as if it is a unique piece of artistic excellence. The channels also work as a platform to promote aspiring young politicians and dynasty descendants as potential future leaders of democracy; the mutual understanding is understandable.
As best marketers, news channels help consumerism reach its epitome. A study conducted by Center for Media studies reveal that around thirty-five per cent of the prime time is devoted to commercial ads on goods and services as against the prescribed per hour limit of twenty per cent. Some channels also play host to spiritual advisors and fortune tellers. Astrological predictions are cast live with viewer interface alongside marketing of gems and stones for managing effects of planets!
With such multifarious activity and direct access to the public, the news channels acquired immense social power. Alongside allegations of misuse of such power, by way of 'paid news', blackmail, extortion, especially in less developed pockets of the country, are also in the public domain. However, there's no denying that there are also some right-minded professionals on the job, who keep struggling to hold their ground. Whether channels empowered society or not, they certainly empowered themselves manifold in the business.
One may not be unjustified in concluding that the 'business model' is transforming the fourth estate into a news industry. Schumpeter's 'creative destruction' seems to be at work. In-depth reporting and objective analysis are seldom seen on the screen. Unlike in the Western channels, educational and knowledge-based programming and documentaries are absent. Our channels do not even care to inform the viewers on important happenings across the world. Even in prime time, the newscast is replaced by debates. On channels like BBC world service, France 24, Al Jazeera, etc., almost all programmes start with news headlines. Unsurprisingly, the viewership of Indian channels is on the decline if the plummeting earnings through subscriptions, which are not even half of those from advertisements, are any proof. Some news channels now are even made free by DTH providers on 'request' by customers.
How productive the services of news channels is, has never really been a subject of audit. There are a total of 868 private satellite TV channels out of which 364 are news channels and still competition is stiff. But now the party seems to be over. Earlier, vacant slots on DD Free Dish were allotted to private broadcasters through e-auctions, but the practice was put on hold in 2017 by the MI&B. It was felt, the earlier policy helped only private broadcasters to make money (600 to 700 Crore per year) and did not benefit Prasar Bharati. Policies are stringent now, including the levy of processing fee for temporary uplink of live events and the need for security clearances for new channels. Indian Broadcasting Foundation is raising hue and cry. Be that as it may, it is high time the news channels undertake a soul-searching exercise in the interest of professionalism and excellence. Society and people have expectations. The 'business model' is the last to fit in the august profession – the news service.
(Author is a senior bureaucrat in Chhattisgarh. The views expressed are strictly personal)