The television has been with the world for about six decades, but in this comparatively short period, it has established itself as the most popular and the most powerful medium of communication for information, ideas, values and skills. Its potency and influence as a carrier of news is phenomenal. Globalisation made expansion not only necessary but unavoidable, which was reflected in the spurt of 24X7 news channels. The market of news channels became highly competitive and even crowded.
De-regulation of broadcasting brought in a multiplicity of channels; they overlapped in transnational reach and influence and were pitched against not only each other but the army of local and regional news channels.
It is difficult to pin down the exact number of channels because there are so many news stations offering both, rolling content and current affairs programming. In 2009, however, there were more than 200 indigenous satellite networks in Indian broadcast news and more than 70 of these were estimated to be 24-hour news networks. Most of these were hard news channels, offering political and social content. Before the emergence of these networks, it was the time when all the national and international news could be summed up in prime time news bulletins. The quantum of really important news suddenly multiplied a zillion times to require minute-by-minute coverage to get through it. Things took a turn and the lead news item of the morning kept getting repeated right into the afternoon and sometimes well into the evening. This led to an overdose of an element required in small amount throughout the day. People needed news to gain a perspective of what’s happening around them— some of it as information on current affairs, some of it just to shake off the dullness of being, some of it to react with interest or emotion.
Much as these were popular, slowly the 24X7 news channels started coming under criticism for alleged sensationalisation and activism. Questions were raised on the utility of these channels amid concerns that to raise viewership and market share, news channels were indulging in paid news and other illegal activities. Besides being disarrayed by criticism, fear of losing advertisers and revenues forced news channels to take on a new avatar, break the traditional boundaries of news and offer to their viewers wholesome entertainment, mixed with information. Entertainment came to rule news channels. This is despite the fact that there are more news channels than those of any other genre.
The new trend that began to emerge was that the news channels, both to avoid monotony and cash in on TRPs, ventured into untouched zones by offering programmes focussing on fashion, food, lifestyle, and even Bollywood and entertainment industry gossip. Today, each news channel has such programmes. NDTV 24X7 runs ‘Will Travel for Food’, with its Hindi sister concern showing ‘Zaika India Ka’ hosted by Vinod Dua. Times Now runs the popular ‘Foodie’ and a Bollywood songs programme show. Aaj Tak has its famous ‘Saas, Bahu aur Beetiyan’, the popularity of which led arch-rival Star News to launch ‘Saas, Bahu aur Saajish’, the show that showcases the current happenings of the (in)famous soap operas across Hindi television channels.
The Indian television industry already came to host health and cookery shows on news channels that technically do not fall under the entertainment genre. But there was no stopping for the trend, which was followed by special programmes on various channels on entertainment available on other channels, forcing the scripting of shows such as ‘Saas, Bahu Aur Betiyan’.
Cinema has also always been a major content provider for television and it is no different for news channels, many of which have special programmes on the movies — ‘Khabar Filmy Hai’ on Zee Multiple, ‘e-tonight’ on CNN-IBN, ‘Big Pictures’ on Sakshi, ‘Cinema Scope’ on NDTV, ‘ETV Talkies’ in ETV2, ‘Movie Mantra’ and ‘Bollywood.com’ on TV5, and ‘Matinee Show’ on TV9. CNN-IBN also started ‘Bollywood Blockbuster Flashback’, ‘Southern Stars’ and now ‘Living It Up’, a signature show that showcases health issues and offers solution for them. ‘E Lounge’ on IBN is the daily dose of all the entertainment news and newsmakers of the day.
Then there are special shows to catch up with celebrities and their partying ways, much like the Page 3 coverage in newspapers, on special shows such as ‘Night Out’ on NDTV. On some Telugu news channels, special programmes showcase even functions where the soundtracks of movies are released. The year 2008 saw the emergence of E24, an exclusive entertainment news channel targeted at Bollywood fans. Times Now also recently started its weekend show called ‘Star’ that gives viewers a peek into the life of Bollywood actors.
The emergence of these programmes highlights the fact that the takers for serious news are growing fewer by the day. Television audience today are like a hungry mob. The competition is fierce and TV content is dictated by the choices that advertisers make and their assessment of what audiences want. To save face, to retain their audience and to give them something more than hardcore news were reasons such programmes were conceived.
But the shows seem to have gained popularity as well. For instance, ‘Saas, Bahu and Saajish’ is in its seventh year, with other channels also emulating the show to give viewers a break from the daily and repetitive news dose. Similarly, ‘Zaika India Ka’ remains a popular food show, with the channel showcasing the episodes all over again on popular demand. This also goes for ‘Foodie’ and ‘Cinemascope’.
It is clear that the evolution of television news channels has changed the way we see and perceive news. But the burst in the number of these channels demanded reinvention that has now led to blurring of the lines between hard news and infotainment over the years. And it is this blurring that has marked the venturing of news channels into entertainment programmes. One can criticize the channels ideologically committed to news to have forayed into entertainment zones. But the fact remains that in a highly globalised world today, the decision-making power rests with the market in the form of the advertisers and also the audience, the king whose interests generate content. These shows are a reflection of all that.
The author is Editor-in-Chief and Chairman of exchange4media Group