Indian television

Channel surfing: English news TV doesn’t have the numbers, so why insist on setting the agenda?

Even combined, the weekly audiences of the five English news channels cannot compete with the straggler on the Hindi news list.

With claims and counter-claims as to who the nation is watching, who is news rather than noise, who believes they are putting viewers first, and who is writing what in the national interest (not to mention who’s displaying how much patriotic spirit at any given time), you could be forgiven for thinking that our raucous English language news media is setting the nation’s agenda.

Thus, a peek at the Broadcast Audience Research Council India ratings is eye-opening – though it bears stating that there are many challenges in measuring television viewership in India, including sample sizes.

To quote from an interview with the BARC CEO Partho Dasgupta in the Business Standard earlier this year, “BARC measures viewership habits of India’s 153.5 million TV households. Of these, 77.5 mn are in urban India, and 76 mn are in rural India. Currently, 22,000 homes are seeded with BAR-O-Meters. In the second year of operation, we will expand our panel homes by 10,000, as mandated by government guidelines.” As the article notes, after the “joint venture with TAM, it is now the only ratings body in the Rs 54,200-crore Indian TV sector.”

Info Courtesy: http://www.barcindia.co.in/statistic.aspx
Info Courtesy: http://www.barcindia.co.in/statistic.aspx

Of course, industry players, broadcast journalists and the entire media fraternity are well aware that Hindi news channels outstrip English news channels in terms of plain eyeballs. And yet, if you are watching English news channels, there is a lot of strutting and shouting, me-too catching up, pats on the back as to who sets the national agenda and made the most impact with which given story. Increasingly, it is about who can be the loudest and showiest.

There’s more. Hindi journalists and some anchors will readily tell you how each network seems to have its own internal hierarchies. They may get the massive viewership, but there’s still a snob factor inherent in the attitude of the English sister news channels. It sounds like institutionalised bias, perhaps, if not overt prejudice, but English channels are buoyed presumably by the bang-for-the-buck prestige advertising clients, not to mention our own complicated post-colonial hang-ups.

The bigger Hindi news anchors have a cult following, no doubt (exhibit A: Ravish Kumar of NDTV India) and they may not even notice this anymore. They also might be too busy going out to do stories to actually make note of this fact. But there is this “step-sisterly” treatment, mentioned by more than one peer at more than one media network.

So it always intrigues to note that even combined, the weekly audiences of the five English news channels can’t compete with the straggler on the Hindi news list, let alone the market leader Aaj Tak (with India TV close on its heels).

Who’s setting the agenda? Once we exit our echo chambers, you be the judge!

Who will watch the watchmen?

Which brings us to another talking point: when does news become propaganda? Presumably, when the so-called Fourth Estate toes a particular line by a particular stakeholder or political party or a point of view. The corporate ownership of channels is well-discussed elsewhere and beyond the scope of this article, but let’s look at other ramifications.

Since last year, there has been much commentary world-wide on decisions to air, for example, the brutal videos to come out of the ISIS propaganda machinery. Groups like ISIS (and previously, Al Qaeda) have mastered the art of mass dissemination. They clearly understand the power of the image, and work hard to keep their digital media footprint alive, thus being able to spread the word, gain new followers, inspire more violence and terror. This is multiplied exponentially by cable news. They must be delighted to have their material (sometimes with images blurred) beamed to millions world-wide.

Aren’t news channels sometimes the classic vehicle for propaganda? Was the news media complicit in spreading their message? Should they not have made the news wheel internationally? When does news go beyond informative to dangerous? And would it be even more dangerous for news-makers and gatherers to be stricter gatekeepers?

Where does that slippery slope lead? Who’s to say or prevent someone from taking the call to broadcast or not broadcast news of civil war, civil unrest, as “against the national interest” or national agenda? The news coverage of the situation in Jammu and Kashmir is the latest case in point – long past a flashpoint, actually. There is a trust deficit, that’s glaringly evident, and the English news media and several journalists seem to be playing into that “Us vs Them” scenario.

It’s dangerous territory. So the bigger question when it comes to the news – admittedly, in a country which has a little too much of Big Brother – who will watch the watchmen?

Amrita Tripathi is a freelance journalist and author. She can be reached @amritat.

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