Ten years back, editors would perhaps have shrugged their shoulders if they heard that Madonna fell down from a horse or that Govinda’s family got injured in a bizarre road accident. But today, with the mad rush for TRPs and cutthroat competition among TV channels, such events come as ‘breaking news’ to viewers.
What’s interesting is that the whole process is faster than a nuclear fission reaction – within seconds, you find one channel following the other, adding ‘big noise’ to the ‘big news’! Most channels seem to have missed the terminology “news update”. So, even news like Lalu Prasad Yadav visiting Sonia Gandhi at her residence flashes on the screen, diluting the dividing line between updates and breaking news.
Most marketers and editors of news channels blame it on the medium itself. “Television has value-for-money for every second on air in terms of rating and ad spend. It is a medium where the essence of reporting lies in tracking the process itself rather than the final analysis as in newspapers,” reasoned Ashish Kaul, VP, Corporate Brand Development Group, Zee Group.
Competition, in fact, is cited as the main culprit in this trivialisation of news. Kaul pointed out that if there were two or three channels competing with each other, things would have been different. “In a scenario where more than 12 prominent channels are competing, the decision tends to be subjective.”
On the extent of influence of competition and market dynamics in deciding on breaking news, Rajat Sharma, Editor-in-Chief and Chairman, India TV, said, “A seasoned newsman looks at several factors simultaneously while defining breaking news. Certainly, competition and the market you serve play a role, but in the absence of any ready tools to map them, a newsman uses his news sense more than anything else.”
Rajdeep Sardesai, Editor-in-Chief, Broadcast News, echoed a similar thinking. He said that sometimes the “manic competition” did lead to strange decisions, which was the reason why one had to be even more cautious while making the final decision.
“It’s true that 24-hour channels need to keep the screen buzzing with activity because of the very nature of the medium, but this should be done to the extent that there is validity in it. There should be some ability to clearly define the hierarchy of news,” he added.
Although the rules of the game have certainly changed for Indian news channels, interestingly, most channel heads are aware of what’s happening and concede that there is a need to lay down guidelines to clearly define exclusivity.
G Krishnan, Executive Director and CEO, TV Today Network, said, “We have been very careful in the selection of news because the moment you post anything and everything as breaking news, the essence and credibility get affected. We have been extremely cautious because across media this is happening.”
Siddhartha Gupta, Director, Channel 7, admitting that news often got unduly sensationalised, observed, “August was a very adventurous month with the Mumbai rains, political upheavals, etc, and across channels a dip in sensitivity of news was visible.” He added that channels often tended to get carried away, which was why the top level at Channel 7 were clearly defining exclusivity in news.
So, are there any lessons that Indian news channels need to pick up from international leaders like BBC and CNN? “Not really,” said Sardesai. “We have done far better considering the way news channels have evolved in India.”
Others, too, were of the opinion that there was nothing revolutionary in terms of news formatting or on-air treatment done by the international channels that Indian news channels needed to follow.
Gupta, however, added that perhaps Indian news channels should raise the quality of reporting to international standards. “Internationally, reporters in the television space are seasoned and this is something that should happen in the Indian television space too,” he maintained.
Clearly, it’s different strokes for different folks. Channels have their own freedom to define their limits while breaking a story. Just a word of caution – viewers cannot be taken for granted.