What is wrong with English TV news and journalism in India
After a decade and more of private television news channels sprouting up in India, the scene and method of delivery of what is termed 'news' has finally attained a sense of uniformity.
And if the standards that they represented were in line with the principles of at least the basics of journalism such as independence, impartiality etc., this would have been good news for the viewers and consumers of news.
Sadly though this is not the case.
Instead, what can be considered a height of hubris and the true nature of the news broadcasting business- not a service anymore- can be seen through the screens of all such channels flashing big numbers, almost on a daily basis, claiming to be the 'Most watched' or 'Number 1.' This is truer of private English TV news channels as for any other. And what has made matters worse is that their claims have now proven to be not true.
When such channels first came up in India, there was a reason private news channels were welcomed by viewers so that people won't be dependent on the public sector broadcaster Doordarshan (DD) News and could get informed of the views of not only the government but also the other side of the divide, as well as better standards.
But the reality is that DD News in the English Genre is beating all its competitors hands down. As latest data from the Broadcast Audience Research Council of India (BARC), which uses a real-time television rating points (TRP) measurement system, shows that DD News bulletins are leading the market comfortably.
The problems with TV journalism in India
Serious issues that are noticed with the English news channels in India are by no means restricted only to the country, or just to the stream of broadcast journalism.
The peculiarity of the problem related to them though seems to be a uniformity in how they are functioning, in front of the camera and behind. A case that is not always seen in countries like the US from where India's news channels have picked up their ways of functioning.
While the hope and expectations from media houses whether in print, online or TV journalism would be that of impartiality, this in India, like in other countries such as the US seems to have fallen flat.
But while in the US, for example, alternatives, in the form of various channels related to not only the difference when it comes to presenting the stories but also the editorial line, put together complete a package where all the sides of an issue, especially related to politics and government, eventually get covered.
In India, the herd seems to move together in one direction depending on the prevailing political winds. This opens the industry up to justifiable criticism by viewers of dealing in propaganda rather than serious and meaningful news.
On top of all this, murky financial dealings of almost all news channels, though reported only in hushed tones, give additional material to those in power to force channels to toe the desired line. In addition to this close ties with politicians, interference from owners have added to their downfall.
Another major difference since such private channels came into being in India has been the turn of the field of journalism into a business, with advertisers becoming the consumers for channels instead of viewers, leading to a major shift in the content carried on air along with how it is done.
And the rise of hundreds of 24-hour news channels has brought with it intense competition for grabbing viewership. This is especially the case when it comes to the English medium news channels, which have a limited number of viewers.
This has led to a drastic fall in standards, from the expected in-depth works of journalism to more sensationalization of the news in order to grab the highest TRP ratings through what can be easily described 'WhatsApp Journalism'. This has not only led to falling of standards, no follow up on stories and non-issues becoming news where even before reporting on what has happened, the blame game starts and insults and accusations are hurled on top of their voices by journalists.
The Fox News culture
For a population used to news being read to them in a calm and composed manner, the sudden shift to a TV screen where the news anchor has transformed to judge, jury and executioner can be thought of as nothing but a shock. This can clearly be seen as one of the major reasons behind the poor showing of channels when it comes to viewership.
And for this, there can be no one but one man, the founder of American news channel Fox News, Roger Ailes, who can be seen as the reason.
Ailes, who died last month, brought a change in how and what kind of news should be given to the viewer. His clear motto was to change from delivering news that viewers need, to what sells, with nationalism and political leanings at the centre of it.
Along with this he also gave us the famous anchor, Bill O'Reilly, who was the face of such a change in journalism. He can easily be seen as the original version of the now famous Indian TV anchor who recently started his own channel after being the face of another well-known one.
Bill, like the voice, that in India behind the question that India wants to know, became famous for taking a hard line, including shouting, against those not agreeing with his point of view, and who generally belonged to the political side opposite to his.
And now the same formula has been adopted by anchors at almost all channels, which though might be considered a boost for viewership initially, become exhausting for the viewer and can finally lead to a fall in numbers among the general public except for a small dedicated following.
Such an approach also hurts as it plays a part in what content will be shown instead of a focus on general news from all over the country which would interest a pan India audience. This has been compounded by the fact that following the Fox culture, who delivers the news and how they do it have become more important instead of what news is reported.
Why and how is DD winning
These problems are the very reason that DD News, in the English medium which was supposed to be the domain of fancier private channels, especially in bigger cities, has been able to beat them.
The numbers related to viewership given out by BARC show that it has done so comfortably across various fields such as smaller and bigger cities, rural and urban, and across various age groups.
According to the data released by the Council for the week of 10th to 16th June of this year, when DD News broadcasted English News, an average of 34.2 per cent of well educated & high income group male viewers of age group 22 and above in cities with a population of 10 Lakh or more, watched DD News, leaving other English News channels far behind.
In fact other than Times Now (28.2 per cent) and newly launched Republic TV (17.9 per cent), all other channels combined did not reach number achieved by DD News. Along with this, the data of average for the same week shows that more than half of the viewers in the category of both male and female of ages 15 or above in rural and urban areas watched DD news when it showed English bulletin while all other channels were left fighting over less than 50 per cent of the market share.
The figure of average last 4 weeks shows that more than 40 per cent of the well-educated and high-income group Males of age group 22 and above watched English news bulletins of DD News, with most other channels struggling to even reach the 5 per cent mark.
Adding to the woes of the private channels is the fact that though they might claim to be the voice of the nation, out of more than a 120 crore population of the country they only reach a meagre four million people.
Though these might just seem like numbers, they clearly point to as to why the model of a conventional news broadcast that is the backbone of the profession which DD seems to have held onto while catering to its pan-India reach, is beating the new age journalism of private channels.
DD has quite clearly been able to resist the urge to follow the likes of modern day 'Anchor gods' and has stuck to delivering news keeping in mind the principles taught to all students in journalism courses around the world. And it is trying to evolve with the times rather trying to create a revolution that most TV anchors claim to do so almost on a nightly basis.
But the hopes that private channels will learn from the numbers released by BARC, can be thought to be clearly out of place, and the viewers need to resign themselves to the fact that claims of being the best and representing their voice are going to quite clearly dominate their TV screens, even if the number of how many tune in to watch keep falling.