In their search for sensational stories, ‘breaking news’ and high drama debates full of shouting and politically-coloured viewpoints, news channels are not only sacrificing serious news and in-depth stories on wide range of issues that confront the nation, but playing safe with dramatic content to grab eyeballs which makes them look like mass entertainment channels, observes A L I CHOUGULE
If mass entertainment channels are falling short of enough entertainment value for viewers, news channels are doing their bit to make up for the shortfall with dramatic and sensational content. The trend started a couple of years ago but is increasingly gathering momentum as news channels are stepping out of their genre to grab eyeballs through tabloid TV news, debates and analysis that’s full of protagonists, antagonists, villains, drama and shouting. In fact, in terms of drama and entertainment quotient it might be little difficult to differentiate between a news and entertainment channel.
Time was when news channels were largely focused on hourly news bulletins comprising major political and other news events, human interest stories, sports and entertainment stories. BBC still follows the same format even now with wider range of stories and documentaries. But most Indian news channels have moved from serious news reporting and analysis to tabloid television – sensational, impactful and dramatic – format which relies more on breaking news of every kind rather than serious news. The prime time has become a platform for political debates where representatives of major political parties speak less on merit of issues and more about party view point, thus making their presence redundant as far as the issue is concerned.
A few months ago Mark Tully, ex-BBC veteran who as Bureau chief of BBC, New Delhi, has observed growth of Indian news television closely, bemoaned that Indian news channels are far too obsessed with ‘breaking news’ phenomenon instead of serious news gathering. As a result, news television has become entertainment medium with successive ‘breaking news’ headlines and debates which are more argumentative and less analytical. It is not an exaggeration to say that like tabloid newspapers, news television thinks more about sensational stuff than what is important and hence, topics and issues chosen for debates often end in a shouting match.
In their search for sensational story and/or breaking news, channels have mastered the art of extensive coverage of news events even if there is no content or little meat in real news sense. Often some stories have little or no inherent longevity but channels continue their non-stop coverage with sundry details and insignificant or trivial news bytes, thus diluting editorial content. Hindi news channels are known for indulging in such ‘saas-bahu’ gimmicks for years but now English channels have started doing it royally.
Till a decade ago news channels were known for their news content, editorial standards and degree of impartiality. News readers and weekly debate anchors that were also newsreaders on weekdays were known as professional television journalists working for a certain channel. They were known for their reading skill, presentation style, language proficiency, diction and other professional skills. Today, newsreaders are passé; old hats or non-entities to be more precise.
They have been replaced by prime time news hour anchors that are the face of their respective channels. In fact, they are not only just the face of channel but celebrities and brands bigger than channel. As a result, today certain channels are known by their star anchors like Arnab Goswami, Rajdeep Sardesai and Rajat Sharma, to name just a few, just as daily soaps are known by their main characters and TV stars that play them. And just as entertainment channels promote their popular characters and stars through promos, news channels promote their celebrity news anchors, thus making editorial content secondary to faces.
The fundamental questions is, why news channels are sacrificing serious news and credible debate for sensational stories and shouting involving extreme viewpoints and extreme personalities. Whether in developed, developing or under-developed countries, it is a known fact that tabloid news culture attracts instant attention as sensationalism attracts more eyeballs. When competition increases and survival becomes an issue, editorial and ethical standards take a beating. Most news channels are still bleeding at the bottom line, no matter their top line.
Out of about 800 channels in India, there are nearly 400 news and current affairs channels. That’s a huge number for the category that enjoys only 7 per cent of viewership share against 30 per cent of general entertainment, 17 per cent for movie channels and 7.7 per cent for cartoon/children category. Among news channels, Hindi news genre tops with paltry 3 per cent audience share, while the English category gets 0.1 per cent. These figures indicate that too many channels are competing with each other for audience’s attention in a genre that commands less than 10 per cent of total viewership pie.
On most news channels political/government news is given prominence, followed by crime/law and order. Other sub-genres which get importance include sports, entertainment, social and mishap/failure of machinery. However, among all sub-genres, crime/law and order enjoys the maximum share on English and Hindi channels at 28 and 26 per cent, followed by sports at 24 per cent (Hindi, 16 per cent), political/government at 19 per cent (Hindi, 13) and entertainment news at 13 per cent (Hindi 14). But news channels are more government/politics/Delhi-centric and hence headline stories and debates centre on politics, political parties and government news, though the genre ranks third in viewers’ preference.
In short, like entertainment channels news channels are not only preoccupied but playing safe with limited range of content without bothering much about quality, depth and a wider range that should include in-depth stories on healthcare, corruption, development, infrastructure, education, illiteracy, water shortage, crop failure, environment, pollution etc. ‘Breaking news’, debates and newsbytes are no substitutes for hardcore news gathering.