Team, I am aware the box office numbers this morning have disappointed all of you. I was disappointed, too, though I was not expecting anything other than a drubbing. We have suddenly stopped the supply of opium to our viewers and it is only natural that they should show severe withdrawal symptoms. Rather than restart the supply to them, we should stay the course and remove all traces of the drug from their veins, after all, it is we who put them on the dangerous drug diet.
That, or something like that, was the note I wrote to my senior colleagues at Zee News in early May 2008 to pep up the mood in the newsroom. We had just relaunched the channel (May 8). We threw out all dirty content (some of which, such as “kaal kapaal mahakaal”, we ourselves were guilty of introducing to news TV) and took an about turn towards news of relevance.
“News, not nuisance” was one of our war cries, and the channel tagline changed to “Zara Sochiye” (just think) to suggest we were now seeking the discerning viewer.
A few days later, the ratings arrived and we were vanquished. We dropped three points to end up in single digit TRPs after a long time. All the excitement of the relaunch went pssssss and the mood was low, prompting that pep talk from me.
I’ve been out of Zee News for nearly one year now, so no credit or blame for what’s happening there now should attach to me. Hence, I suppose I can talk a bit about the Zee News experiment to make a case against all those news channel worthies, editors and CEOs, who keep feeding you lies that they are like this only because you are like this.
The ratings remained sluggish for another few weeks, but Zee News didn’t blink. The alarms bells began ringing and we did consider if we should tuck our tails and return to the same old nonsense. Thankfully, those were only transient thoughts and we stuck to our guns. We put our trust in news that no channel worth its meager TRPs would touch with a barge pole.
Earlier in March that year, we had already tasted the fruits of putting our faith in news of relevance. On March 23, the Sixth Pay Commission turned in its report. That kind of story touches the lives of more than four million families of Central Government employees and millions more families of State Government employees, defence and paramilitary forces.
But it rates poorly in the TRP sweepstakes because though it might pauperise governments, it is tough to extrapolate and announce the end of the world, to the accompaniment of deadly, stolen-from-the-net, music. So, no channel would touch it. But Zee News covered it aggressively and exhaustively. It worked. It worked so much that our prime time show that day beat all the shows across all channels.
Though the post-relaunch drubbing was a problem, the Pay Commission experience told us news could deliver. Along came the big controversy on the nuclear deal with the US. It may have ended up in a very fractious vote of confidence on July 23, but in early May when it was raising its head, contemporary newsroom wisdom considered it a TRP dud. We did not. We saw an opportunity. Helped by some good reporting and led by a channel editor with a good political acumen, we grabbed the story by its horns. That helped send the message that something fresh was happening at Zee News.
The TRP worm started nudging upwards, though it never drilled a hole in the roof, really.
It makes sense to recount all this because this week’s ratings are very interesting. Aaj Tak, the leader, fell two points to 17, India TV came in second at 16, Star News at 15 and Zee News at 13 with a 2-point spike (Week 45, HSM, CS 15+, ABC). That’s just a 4-point difference between the No. 1 and the No. 4, perhaps the best for Zee in a long time.
That is creditable because of the four channels at the top of the Hindi heap, Zee News is the one, which has steadfastly stuck to the sensible news formula. When all channels scare the daylights out of you because an eclipse is round the corner, Zee tells you not to be afraid of such scientific phenomenon. When all channels tell you how the world will come to an end in 2012, Zee exposes the conspiracy of a Hollywood studio to hype its disaster movie by the same name releasing today.
Zee has stayed on the higher side of the average of its pre-relaunch TRPs for many more weeks than it has dropped below that threshold, if at all. Which is a very statistical way of saying that the faith Zee News has shown in news for 18 months has helped it more than it has hurt. If Zee News has not done better with the ratings, it is not because news has let it down, maybe Zee News still has a few things to sort out.
At around the same time that Zee News was trying this experiment, News 24, was doing exactly the opposite. News 24 came with a big promise: News is back, it claimed. For the first four or five months, it did seem like news was back. The channel steadfastly kept away from the India TV formula, a content no-brainer. It was stuck at the bottom of the heap with TRPs in the 4-6 range.
Suddenly, the channel caved in. It joined the nuisance bandwagon. It’s been there for the last 18 months, but is still in the same TRP band. In the 18 months that Zee News gained marginally and protected its profitability, News 24 is still a struggling also-running. If it had persisted with its unique content, it could have gained respectability and, who knows, a few points more, too.
You want to know what is the crucial difference in the experiences of Zee News and News 24? Come back here next week, please.
(Venkat, as the author is called, was Group Editor of Zee News briefly in 2008 and feels lucky to have been part of the team to initiate the changes. The views expressed here are of the author’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)