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Guest Column<br>Newsmanic: It’s time for that friend to call Raghav Bahl again

18-September-2009
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Guest Column<br>Newsmanic: It’s time for that friend to call Raghav Bahl again

“Our editors run their businesses without any commercial consideration. Let me give you an example. It came to me as a compliment from somebody the other day. On CNN-IBN our film ‘Welcome’ (a film we’ve taken a huge bet on) was reviewed by Rajiv Masand on his very popular show. Rajiv said: “The film is so bad that anyone who goes and sees it and enjoys it, I will personally pay for his psychiatric treatment.” This was his line, on our own channel, about our own film. There is no influence on our editorial…

I am an editor. I know that the only thing you sell as a news media company is credibility. The moment there is a question mark on your credibility, you’ve actually bartered away your entire asset.”

That was Raghav Bahl, Managing Director, Network 18 Group, in an interview to exchange4media late in 2007. I remember citing this example to support the line that there are still businesses in the news media that believe every square inch of real estate need not be sold to make a venture successful.

But alas, Bahl’s friends are not watching his channels or Bahl’s friends are not telling him any more; there has been a steep fall from those lofty editorial ideals. One Sunday afternoon (4.30 pm) during summer, CNN-IBN ran a full half-hour paid show on LM Thapar University. It paid glowing tributes to the university (which is okay, we do that these days even without getting paid!), but the highlight of the 30 minutes was how the channel tried to hoodwink the viewer.

Firstly, it did not mention, not even once, that it was a fully paid-for feature, wherein a client such as LM Thapar University would sponsor every bit and byte of eulogy.

Secondly, the feature was put together by Paras Tomar. Tomar was one of CNN-IBN’s most recognisable faces in its birth years, but quit some time later. Either by design or by default, the channel’s marketing team seemed to have roped him in to do the feature (a damn good one he did, I must admit), so that the cycle of deceit would be complete.

Without any disclaimers from the channel and with a familiar face doing the reportage, the average viewer would think that it was a fully legitimate editorial assessment of the university by the channel. God knows how many parents and students invested their monies and futures on the university based on that illegitimate half-hour.

Network18 is now a news and entertainment media conglomerate. Its many arms keep promoting each other, which is okay, but many times they forget the “disclosure” clause. World over, honest and transparent news channels “disclose” their filial links when they report about group companies. Rarely so in India (‘Mint’ is one definite exception) and definitely not so on CNN-IBN and IBN7.

Some time in June, when the Star Plus’ nine-year domination was hanging by a thin thread and all that Colors needed was a push and shove to dislodge the former, CNN-IBN hosted a prime time show (8.30 pm) on the seismic changes in Prime Time entertainment. On the face of it, the channel took a detached editorial perspective but the subtext was clear: half an hour of plug for Colors.

Everything was about Colors, Colors and Colors – from the theme of the discussion (“no single channel is guaranteed to stay at the top”, a taunt for Star Plus) to the thrust of the discussion (“Colors has changed the GEC scene with ‘Balika Vadhu’”) to the choice of the guests (Ashvini Yardi, Programming Head, Colors, who spoke of ‘Balika Vadhu’ as “creativity at its peak” and Rajeev “what’s-his-connection-to-TV-serials” Masand). For form’s sake, they had Smriti Irani as the third guest and Masand, to his credit, did not plug for the group channel.

It was patently dishonest of the channel not to disclose its lineage. Especially because there was a legitimate provocation for a half-hour show as Colors had indeed caused seismic changes in the genre. A disclosure would have actually added to that legitimacy but, no, we have to steal even that which is legitimately ours.

As you can see, I’m not unused to Network18 news channels deviating from base principles as defined by Bahl in that interview. So, it needed to be a deviation of giant proportions to shock me. I got my shock about two months ago on IBN7 (and have been getting it every day since).

As important as Bahl’s answer was to Anurag Batra’s question: “With business interests in multiple areas, how does one support other ventures from the group without interfering with editorial integrity of an individual media product?” (Anurag also asked Bahl about Private Treaties, but I have omitted it for this discussion.)

Thus, you can see that the basic question was about how the Network18 Group manages its cross-promotions without the “editorial integrity of an individual media product” being compromised. That “integrity” was what Bahl was illustrating so eloquently when he gave the Rajeev Masand-‘Welcome’ example.

Well, at 9.30 every morning (except Sunday and Monday), I wouldn’t expect Raghav Bahl to be watching IBN7. But he should. For, here is an example of the grossest form of cross-promotion that makes a mockery of the “editorial integrity” of IBN7. Five days a week in this slot, IBN7, a licenced “news” channel of the group, plays the recording of the entire ‘Balika Vadhu’ episode of the previous night.

Yes, 30 minutes of a prime time entertainment serial, just plucked from Colors and played on a news channel, almost frame by frame. The ad breaks in a news channel are more and longer so they eat up about 5 minutes of last night’s ‘Balika Vadhu’. I stumbled on this abomination some time in July and it’s been there regularly. The average length of ‘Balika Vadhu’ on Colors is 20 minutes. I have clocked IBN7 playing, on an average, 15 minutes of it, going up to 18 on the odd day.

It’s all done with a ridiculously mock seriousness to make it look like a “news” story. It has a story “sting” (the name and overall branding of the story, which appears before and after every ad break), “live” anchor-links, voiceovers and headlines in the normal IBN7 style running up and down. For example, the first day I caught it, this was the hilarious run of headlines: ‘Suguna ne ki bagawat’ (Suguna rebels). ‘Suguna par nahi chala Dadisa ka hukm’ (Dadisa has no hold over Suguna), ‘Ek hi thaali me khane se kiya inkar’ (Refused to eat in dinner plate used by husband), ‘Shyam ne diya Suguna ka saath’ (Shyam stands by Suguna), ‘Bigad gaya Jagdish’ (Jagdish has gone astray).

In the middle of all that, the announcement: Balika Vadhu sirf Colors par; somvaar se shukrvaar raat 8 baje (‘Balika Vadhu’ only on Colors; Monday to Friday at 8 pm). That’s a lie. They must now start advertising it for IBN7 at 9.30 am Tuesday to Saturday.

And then that comic sequence of stings. The ‘Dukhi hain Suguna’ (Suguna is sad) story sting would be followed each time by the channel’s signature sting ‘Khabar, har keemat par’ (News, at any cost).

All channels have an afternoon show that is devoted to a general update on what’s happening on serialdom. IBN7 has its own show at 1.30 pm, but chooses to showcase ‘Balika Vadhu’ as a news story every day. This kind of transgression of news space must be hard to find anywhere in the world. It’s great credit to Star News and NDTV India that they have resisted similar urges.

Here, we are not talking about disclosure. When a news channel is openly ducking the law (news channels should not be airing GEC serials) and cheating its viewers (by inventing news around last night’s stale soap) you don’t care about disclosure. You care about closure. A closure to the farce called the ‘Balika Vadhu’ news show.

It’s time for that friend to call Raghav Bahl again.

(The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)

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