Politicians are masters of denying the obvious, so it’s not easy to get them to acknowledge defeat. But some of the defeats of Elections 2009 have been so stunning that even the most hard-boiled have not attempted to twist facts. From Advani to Modi to Karat, Laloo, Mulayam, Maya, Jaya, Naidu and Chiranjeevi, every leader has unhesitatingly conceded defeat.
Not that the facts would have changed had they denied the same (Advani can’t become PM just by denying defeat!), but the media would have lampooned them, laughed at their sense of denial and mocked at the apparent lack of grace in defeat.
And yet it is denial and lack of grace that characterised the behaviour of the news channels following their own comprehensive drubbing. It’s no secret that all the big channels got Elections 2009 damn wrong. Not by any stretch of imagination or innovative math were their exit polls anywhere close to target. Not once in their eight-week election coverage did we get a sense of the big swing in Congress’ favour.
They all misread, misreported and missed Elections 2009 big time.
How many acknowledged that? None. Not Prannoy, not Barkha, not Rajdeep, not Arnab. Not one channel had the grace to tell its viewers that they had got the exit poll all wrong. In fact, they were busy doing quite the opposite, celebrating minor battle victories even as they were bombed out of the war. Prannoy was taken up by colleague Dorab’s fantastic work in being the only pollster to catch the Chiranjeevi phenomenon in Andhra Pradesh. “Take a bow, Dorab,” he said when Chiranjeevi was leading in more than a few.
By evening, the Chiranjeevi phenomenon was as dead as a dinosaur. And Prannoy conveniently forgot to withdraw the certificate of merit to Dorab.
For Rajdeep, it was enough that his channel’s exit poll prediction was “the closest”. It didn’t matter to him that the UPA tallied 262 against the 225 his channel predicted. It is possible that Elections = CNN-IBN, but by no mathemagic is 225 = 262. The maths we know tells us that Rajdeep was 37 seats off the mark, a 14 per cent error margin where pollsters should be fired for hitting five. And remember, Rajdeep’s channel had already played safe by predicting a wide band of 210-225 for the Congress. Thus, it had already factored in more than the permissible error margin. The 14 per cent error was over and above. So, Rajdeep got it as horribly wrong as every other channel.
Try telling that to an anchor-editor ready to jump out of his skin in excitement and drill a hole in your eardrums. (CNN-IBN studio head: When Rajdeep hits the upper circuit breakers of audio, try switching off his mike. Yogendra’s mike will do!) Having missed the big picture fully, Rajdeep also took refuge in trivia: “We got UP right, we got Rajasthan right, we got MP right…”
Sir, you just got the whole country wrong, what about that?
The biggest surprise of counting day was Arnab’s Times Now. The fastest and the most aggressive with the news on normal days, Arnab’s channel was just not in the race. About 25-30 seats behind competition at any given moment, Arnab looked a little silly projecting how the UPA could form the government with the support of the Left an hour after it became clear (on other channels) that the Left was going to be nuked out of the Lok Sabha and projecting how the UPA could make it with the support of Maya, Laloo, Mulayam and Paswan well after they were erased from the equation. Arnab was so out of it that I was relieved he did not attempt to dig up consolation victories from the debris of defeat that day. But he didn’t square up with his viewers either on how badly off target his exit poll was.
My point is this: why does the media, which never tires of preaching honesty and transparency to all and sundry, always try to wish away its own omissions and commissions? If one of them had actually got the exit poll right, imagine the noise they would kick up for days on end. Nobody showcases failures, but at least a quick admission, however fleeting, was in order, was it not?
Will the heavens fall if these heavyweights looked the viewers straight in the eye and acknowledged that they goofed up on the numbers? That single act could have endeared them more to the viewer than their twisted logic would repair the damage. But when they were not trying to put a spin on their sad exit poll numbers, the best that any channel did that day was to avoid addressing the embarrassment. A far cry from what we expect from our politicians. For example, when Advani called Sonia and Manmohan to concede defeat, Prannoy said Advani was “graceful in defeat”.
Exit polls are a necessary election entertainment, a kind of political titillation for the nation; we have long stopped expecting the channels to get the numbers right. If they do, that’s a bonus and they earn the bragging rights. But when they don’t, why should they be so uptight about it? Why can’t they ease up a bit, even poke fun at themselves for getting the polls wrong repeatedly much like the weatherman can’t seem to get the weather right, ever?
Well, there’s a simple answer to that. They couldn’t care less what the viewer thought or expected, all that matters is what story they can sell to the media planner. And that’s why the trend of lies, half-truths and mangled statistics has been carried forward to the box office. After Wednesday (May 20), the fight quickly shifted to who got the most eyeballs on counting day. By accepted industry standards (the TAM/TRPs), Rajdeep was a runaway success (38 per cent market share, with Times Now a distant second (28 per cent) and NDTV 24x7 a close third (26 per cent). So, Rajdeep clogged the airwaves with the news. But so did Prannoy’s NDTV, claiming a market-monopolising share of 53 per cent, more than all the other English news channels put together. And where did he get this figure from? His own survey by Gfk-Mode! (Look for another business, LV Krishnan).
If CNN-IBN and NDTV 24x7 are both No. 1, can Times Now be anything but? So, ladies and gentlemen, meet the nation’s third No. 1 English news channel. “Times Now sweeps the elections” claimed their ad citing 35 per cent market share to CNN-IBN’s 25 per cent and 24x7’s 23 per cent! Times Now was referring to a particular market (million+) and age-economic status (AB 25+), but forgot to mention that in their “sweeping” headline. The devil was, of course, in the detail. In invisible, 6pt size.
This sleight of hand is not restricted to English. In the Hindi news genre, Aaj Tak beat all competition hollow and advertised showing Zee TV as No. 2, Star News as No. 3 and NDTV India as No. 4. Enough to make NDTV India see red: “Sach se khilwad nahi (don’t twist facts), NDTV India No. 2 on counting day”, it retorted. The friendly, paid Gfk-Mode survey came in handy once again.
Not one to be left out, Star News has come up with its own innovative claim to top honours: MCCS is the No. 1 News Network of India with 35 per cent share! MCCS is the parent company of Star’s news channels in Hindi, Marathi and Bengali. Having been decimated by brand Aaj Tak (not necessarily its content), Star News, which conceded an eight-point lead, needed to come up with something original for the media planner and they did. That became necessary after another very original idea of packing the newsroom with an assortment of 20 (yes, t-w-e-n-t-y!) completely unknown experts fell flat on its face.
For news channels, the flag position is obviously not a solus position. They have, on their own, amended the FSI rules to create room enough for all at the top. Don’t be surprised if tomorrow channels at the bottom of the heap come up with their own very original logic to claim leadership. Let me help. How about a headline that screams: “The news channel most watched by journalists*” and below the colourful pie-charts, in invisible fine print: “*Our own”!
Lies, damned lies and statistics can throw up as many No. 1 channels as the number of channels. For, every channel has to serenade the media planner and they will do anything to fool the media planner. Is the media planner a fool? Well, that’s for another day.
Torture? Say that again Prannoy
Prannoy’s channel may have missed the top spot by a mile, but they beat competition hands down for one honour: “The-happiest-newsroom-on-May 16” honour. For some reason, Prannoy was smiling broadly, Barkha grinning from ear to ear and all their guests were in great spirits. The happiness was so contagious that everybody started talking, laughing and joking among themselves. So much so, viewers called to complain. “We are enjoying here, but it is torture for the viewers,” Prannoy reminded his guests on one sane occasion. That made no difference, especially to Barkha. She forgot all studio etiquette in the merriment, making faces at her staff (whenever a link didn’t come through) and even taking a call from Varun Gandhi while on air (Hi, Varun, I’m on air, she told him)! Her good mood spilled over well into the next day’s prime time when she burst into uncontrollable laughter at a silly joke by a panelist, almost falling out of her chair as she signed off.
Torture? You can say that again Prannoy.
(Venkat, as the author is known, thinks there’s nothing wrong in going wrong and everything to gain by squaring up with viewers. The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not necessarily those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)