This is India's first real "media-election": Prannoy Roy
India's original 'Election Man' and Executive Co-Chairperson, NDTV speaks on the role of TV in the ongoing polls, noise versus content, what Narendra Modi has done right & why it makes no sense to ban opinion polls
With the long-drawn General Election process in its last leg, Roy, the original election man, is also the best person to speak about the evolution of Indian poll coverage over the years. While Roy believes that this is India’s first real “media-election”, he also shares his concerns about the beginning of the homogenisation of the Indian voter on the back of explosive growth of news coverage. Roy looks at how political parties have handled the media and predicts that the next general elections will be social media-driven. He also gives us his take on opinion polls and why in the era of tabloidisation, NDTV channels attract a high premium from advertisers with quality content.
Having mentored many of today’s leading news channel heads, Roy takes pride in their success and quips that “no matter what persona they adopt on screen, they are off-screen good human beings”.
You are the original election man on Indian television. How has election coverage evolved in India? How does coverage of the ongoing Lok Sabha elections compare to that of previous elections? What are the marked changes you see?
Perhaps the biggest difference is that this is India’s first real “media-election”. The role of television has increased exponentially and its impact has been the greatest so far – from the hundreds of regional channels, to the high profile national channels – the penetration and the impact has been considerable. When we visit villages deep in the rural areas, everyone seems to have a TV set and is much more aware of what’s happening than ever before. In fact, it has led to, perhaps sadly (I don’t know), a greater homogeneity in views across each state of the country. People in both villages and cities, who used to get their information from a variety of sources are now being bombarded with similar messages from a single source: television.
This election is about the beginning of the greater homogenisation of the Indian voter – we are of course nowhere near as homogeneous as the electorate in the US – we are just beginning on that path and one of the underlying causes is the media. From now on, no politician can win an election without winning the battle for airtime.
Observers suggest that election coverage on TV this time has been Modi-centric. Is the current election coverage personality-driven as against issue-based? Is it also about noise versus content?
It is true that in genuine democracies all over the world in the battle for airwaves, politicians tend to hit the lowest common denominator (if that’s what you mean by noise versus content). It may be an exaggeration, but there’s an essential truth to the view that you can’t win elections in India any more unless you are an ‘acceptable face of television’. And there is little doubt that Narendra Modi and the BJP have handled all forms of media much more skillfully and strategically than any other party.
Would you call NDTV’s poll coverage performance cutting edge? Do you think competitors have managed to be more seen and heard?
A recent nationwide survey of 90,000+ voters – that is a huge, huge sample – shows that 50 per cent watch NDTV 24x7 while the viewership of both CNN-IBN and Times Now add up to 50 per cent. That is conclusive and as someone pointed out it is also ‘untampered’ evidence!
Social media has emerged as perhaps the strongest and quickest source of information and debate in poll-bound India. How do you think this has impacted viewership of television news channels?
I honestly believe, not this one but the next elections are going to be centered around social media as much as television. With the imminent launch of 4G, and with the rapid spread of cheaper and better smart phones, social media users will quadruple by the time the next election campaign begins. Once social media users hit the 600+ million mark (which should happen well before the next elections) it will be a serious contender for the top spot in voter mind-space. It has already had an important role in these elections – and the future belongs to interactive, personalized, instant, real time, online media.
How much has NDTV exploited the synergies between television, Internet and mobile during election coverage? Are you satisfied with the performance of your websites and app?
Wherever I go, everyone says to me that NDTV’s app and website are the best there is and a great value-add in their day. Our number of unique users, times spent and page views also indicate that our Internet team – an amazing group who I learn something new from every day – is the finest there is. NDTV’s Internet strategy is the next big thing for us – it is the future of NDTV and, honestly, of journalism.
There has been a lot of controversy around opinion polls. What is your take on them?
Unfortunately, the truth about polls is currently distorted by so much innuendo and misinformation. First, there has been tomes of research done into the impact of polls on voting behaviour – on the possibility of a ‘bandwagon’ effect versus an ‘underdog’ effect – and the conclusion of all this global research is that ‘opinion polls have zero impact on voting behaviour’. Now, banning anything is a major decision in any democracy (and I am deeply proud and’ like all of us, jealously guard our democracy in India). Therefore, before banning any process, any scientific procedure, there must be incontrovertible evidence to suggest that it is an activity with significant negative consequences. No such evidence exists. It is all based on conjecture, bias and fear.
Those who fear that opinion polls have a bandwagon effect need to answer one question: when all the opinion polls were showing a victory for the BJP in the 2004 election, the bandwagon impact should have been an even bigger victory for the BJP – yet the BJP lost. Whither the ‘bandwagon’? There are so many issues about polls that I’d like to discuss but that’s for another time. One final point: polls can be wrong – after all, the BBC recently got its exit polls wrong twice in a row and nearly gave up exit polling; and in the latest US elections the great Gallup forecast that Obama would lose (in fact they had Obama trailing by a huge 5 per cent margin until a week before the election) – these are caused by normal statistical errors, and that is no reason, no reason at all for banning anything in a democracy. From my experience, voters treat opinion polls with the scepticism they deserve. Banning polls is the thin end of the wedge. We must all fight against any kind of ban that is based on such flimsy evidence.
All news channels look similar today in the matter of election programming. Why don’t we see innovative or clutter-breaking programming?
While I agree that tabloidization is the trend these days – in the desperate desire for eyeballs – I see an informed backlash happening at last. The backlash is coming from both viewers and from advertisers and ad-agencies. Advertisers are beginning to distinguish between high quality content – which they would like their product to be associated with – and not to be associated with low-grade tabloid news. I remember seeing a news channel lady anchor saying “break ke baad aap ko ek rape dikhayengey” – would any advertiser like to see their product follow those words? All across the world ad rates are not dependent solely on the number of eye-balls: serious journalism, like the Economist or The New York Times quite rightly get much higher ad-rates than their ‘eyeballs’ would command. This is now happening in India too.
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