The Indian government last week revamped its “Khelo India”, or Play India, initiative under which 1,000 athletes will receive an annual scholarship of Rs 5 lakh each for the next eight years. Twenty universities across the country will also be promoted as centres of sporting excellence, as part of the initiative.

On the occasion of National Sports Day last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also called for sport to “become a part of our lives” and asked children and the youth to play more outdoor games. “In this age of computers, the playing field should become more important than PlayStation,” the prime minister had said in his monthly Mann Ki Baat radio address.

While the government’s push for sports received widespread coverage in the Indian media, it is rather ironic that the television news industry does not seem to subscribe to Modi’s views. Case in point: out of the 24 Hindi news channels in the country, only five – NDTV India, Aaj Tak, India TV, News World India, and News Nation – still have at least one daily half-hour sports bulletin. In English, it’s only four – NDTV 24x7, CNN News 18, India Today, and WION TV – out of 11.

No more appointment viewing

NDTV’s English channel used to have as many as three half-hour sports bulletins per day – at 7.30 am, 7.30 pm, and 10.30 pm – just a couple of years ago. However, for the last two years, they have had just one at 6.30 pm.

“If there is a really important event going on, like an India cricket match, we are almost always given a slot for post-match analysis, but may have to make way for news if something really important is breaking or developing at that time,” said Suprita Das, Associate Sports Editor, NDTV 24x7.

“Instead of giving us half-hour slots, we are given shorter segments during regular news bulletins,” Das added. “During a regular half-hour news bulletin, sports is given a five-minute segment to put in your most important stories.”

The dedicated sports bulletins have been replaced with news, talk shows and debates.

The change in time from 7.30 pm to 6.30 pm is also worth noting. Apart from NDTV 24x7, CNN News18 also has its daily sports bulletin at this time, which is a neither-here-nor-there slot according to former CNN News18 sports editor Gaurav Kalra. “I would assume most of the people who follow sports will not be in front of television screens at 6.30 pm to watch sports bulletins,” he said.

NDTV 24x7 has gone from three daily sports bulletins to just one

The concept of “appointment viewing” itself has taken a huge hit in Indian television news, according to Radhakrishnan Nair, managing editor at CNN News18. Appointment viewing refers to the concept of people tuning in to a particular channel at a particular time to watch a particular show.

“Earlier, everybody used to have a sports show at 7.30 pm but that has changed,” said Nair. “In the Twitter era, there is a sense of no particular time that people want to watch sports news.”

Multiple people from the industry said that English news channel Times Now started the trend of ditching the appointment viewing strategy, and others just followed suit.

Times Now, which consistently topped television ratings in India among English news channels until its ideological cousin Republic TV was born earlier this year, had a restructuring around the 2014 general elections, when the network decided to employ a seamless structure of news, without any slots.

“The idea was to go with what is happening at that moment,” said a former Times Now journalist who did not wished to be named. “So, earlier if I had an interview, I would keep it for my slot. But once we moved to this seamless mode, we had to put it out as soon as possible.”

As a result of this, the mandate also changed from bulletins to covering and following only a handful stories in a day.

“Very soon, the philosophy was very clear – we had to do three stories in a day,” the person quoted above said. “Stories that were more issue-driven or more related to people reacting to it – a ‘people story’ or a public debate. It could be sport, it could be anything else.”

As a result, sports stories on news channels also became very direct. “Sports was always the space for fun feature stories, apart from just who won or who lost,” said Das. “But even that has been replaced mostly by just the direct news point. And if it happens to be remotely controversial, then that story drives the entire bulletin. The rest of the updates take a backseat.”

Focus on politics

Leading up to the general elections, most of the channel’s resources were also dedicated towards political reportage. “I remember we had edit meetings during that time where the focus was purely on the political coverage,” the former Times Now journalist quoted above said.

“There was not much happening in sports that could draw the attention away from the political scenario. There were some controversies and results/victories that were highlighted but they were momentary. Sports coverage became event-centric. We would prepare for the Olympics, the IPL, or the World Cup, that’s it. Television ratings [for sports] had come down and there weren’t too many sponsors coming in.”

Political news and debates take up most of the air time on Indian news channels

Another major reason was the restrictions that the Board of Control for Cricket in India imposed on broadcast networks starting 2011. While access to cricketers is only reducing by the year, news channels are restricted from using more than 20 seconds of match footage by the BCCI. News channels are also not allowed to shoot net sessions at the ground. This left them with no option but to use footage from external sources such as news agencies or the BCCI itself.

“As a result, cricket coverage has been reduced to writing a match report, which can be done from anywhere as long as you are watching the game and doesn’t have to be at the stadium,” said Das. “That is followed by post-match analysis with experts, who are also expensive.”

One-off appearances for half-hour bulletins, where an expert speaks for eight-to-10 minutes can cost a network anywhere between Rs 5,000 to Rs 5 lakh per appearance, depending on the stature and influence of the pundit, according to industry estimates. If you are contracted long-term with an expert, that could cost you Rs 1 crore or more for a year.

“Because of these restrictions and expenses, the frequency of my cricket colleagues going on tours has also reduced,” said Das. “Travel is restricted to only big tournaments like the World Cup.”

Reducing desk strength

The reduction in sports coverage also reflects in the strength of sports desks across the industry today. From an average of 10-12 journalists a decade ago, news networks have halved the strength of their sports desks to around five-to-six today, according to multiple people from the industry.

Another way networks are cutting costs is by hiring bilingual reporters who can speak both English and Hindi and work across their sister channels, according to a television news industry professional who did not wish to be named since he wasn’t authorized to speak with the media.

“A lot of sports journalists in news television have moved on now,” the professional said. “That was a factor of them being frustrated about their roles diminishing to the extent that their stories get dropped at the drop of a hat.”

Sanjeeb Mukherjea, who quit CNN News18 after 12 years, said, “While sports is on the rise in India, television news networks seem to be culling the coverage. It beats me. India is doing well in multiple sports, we have a chock-a-block calendar. Just look at the value of the media rights of the IPL.”

Post-match analysis by experts such as Sunil Gavaskar can cost news channels more than Rs 1 crore per year (Image: IANS)

Broadcaster Star India recently secured the Indian Premier League’s media rights for the next five years with a winning bid of Rs 16,347.50 crore. That’s Rs 3,269.50 crore per season. The 10th season of the tournament earlier this year garnered 1.25 billion impressions, or television viewership in thousands.

“News channels just don’t seem to get it,” said Mukherjea, who was CNN News18’s cricket editor. “It’s a sad reflection of the way news is done in India.” However, news channels also contribute a very small portion of the total advertisement revenue that comes from the Indian television industry, according to Mukherjee.

This is a direct reflection of the eyeballs that news channels garner compared with other genres on Indian television. Not a single news channel features in the top 10 channels across genres in terms of television impressions, according to the Broadcast Audience Research Council of India’s latest weekly figures.

Way forward

Kalra, who quit television news to switch over to online media, believes there is a way forward for sports coverage on Indian news channel.

“I don’t agree that only political coverage gets you TRPs,” he said. “It’s a question of designing the programming. I think channels have just lost interest in that area.”

News channels will have to revamp their sports coverage, said Kalra, who worked at CNN News18 for eight years before leaving in 2014.

“It can’t be done how it was earlier – retelling of the day’s events or a round-up,” he said. “Sports fans today have multiple options to watch match highlights rather than waiting for a sports bulletin to show it to you, which wasn’t the case five or six years ago.”

News channels will have to become a lot sharper in their sports coverage and experiment with different formats, Kalra said. “There is greater space for very sharp analysis, opinions, a less formal way of talking about sport. You also have to integrate with the web and digital. Right now, it seems like television and digital live in different ecosystems.”