News Inc

April 12, 2006
Revati Laul

Are you one of the many thousand people who is FED UP of the words `sting operation,' 'exclusive' and `breaking news?' Join the club. And it's a really old club actually. There is an ongoing war between the editorial and marketing divisions of a news organization. Earlier this was visible in print. I still remember the huge fallout between Dilip Padgaonkar and the Jains when he was the editor of the Times of India.

It's only recently that we've all been subject to it as television news watchers and become conscious of the fact that news content exists in a market place.

And I think the problem lies first and foremost with the salesmen - i.e. the marketing divisions of news corporations that are increasingly driving content in the following ways:

1. Sensation sells. So does hype and flesh. Combine the three and whoa la...the winning combination is- you guessed it- STING STING STING!!! And also, Page 3 parties, fashion shows, especially replays of garments falling off. Filmy gossip.

2. Telling the editorial heads and directors of corporations that in order to sell, the above, carefully worked out formulas MUST be followed, or they will not be able to get enough ads and we all know where that leads.

The problem then lies in one square place; inside the minds of marketing gurus. They're damn good at selling cars, watches, colognes, even soap. Because that's what they've been trained to do. The trouble with news is, that unlike other products, what is really on sale, is dissent. A product that's an outlet for the people they cater to. Their chance to hit out, protest, voice their opinion and make their stories heard. And selling dissent, to my mind, is probably quite different from selling most other products isn't it?

For one, it means, unlike other corporate entities that need to cultivate the government, here, head honchos need to be prepared for run ins with the government from time to time. But selling dissent, well, needs the best, most refined salesman; one who has been trained to take risks, instead of what many management students thrive on practicing today -how to AVOID risks.

A bad salesman would keep selling the same story in the same package over and over again, not knowing that the next time, his figures will NOT be so impressive.
A bad salesman would constantly demand a formula - sting operations - so many per week equals so many notches up in TRPs...

A good salesman would say, "hmm, now what is my job?" To sell GOOD stories. That may cost more money. It may mean allowing your reporters to spend more time per story and instead of just slapping the word `exclusive' on it all the time allowing the content of the story to do much of the selling. SO much so, that if one television channel gets and interview with Rahul Dravid and another doesn't it becomes `exclusive' even if all he's doing is summing up the match. Or another may get Brian Lara. That's also `exclusive' where what gems does he have to offer...`I think Sachin has a lot to offer to Indian cricket yet.' Any story that is NOT a press conference is being sold, by these poor salesmen as `exclusive.'

These are the same people who have propagated some unique myths about what does and does not sell. Parties sell. Rural India doesn't, if you're viewers are English Speaking.

Hindi Speaking viewers want to watch more hard core politics, more stories about the Hindi heartland than English Speaking viewers.

We all know this is not true. Small town India and rural India love watching P3P parties because they don't go to them. And the English Speaking viewer often doesn't get to see what's going on in rural India and therefore wants to watch more of that in the news.

The bottom line is, understanding that this time the product is much more slippery. Not so easy to typecast people. I mean, look how all television channels get it wrong with election analysis, despite carefully worked out permutations of caste, class, region, religion et al. Not so easy to put people into neat little `rural' and `urban,' English and Hindi type boxes.

This, of course, will I think improve with time and experience at the selling television news game. Right now, the Indian news market is probably the most insecure in the world, considering there are at least twenty different news channels around. What marketing gurus also have to contend with is that they are trying to get not just more advertising money than the next news channel, but more ad money than say an HBO or a Sony and Star Plus. So they're really competing with blockbuster movies, soaps and MTV as well.

But in doing so, they're so far, not using the best techniques available, perhaps because those require taking more risks and asking proprietors of channels to spend more money per story. A telling comment by Nalini Singh on Barkha's 'We the People' on NDTV recently said it all. She said that apparently the Cash for Questions sting operation didn't really quite make news ratings soar. I'd like to believe her, because I'm by now quite fed up of people making a big deal of just catching petty corruption or bribing officers to show that bribes are taken, and then trumpeting these as great news breaks.

I'm much more interested in stories of how farmers in Maharashtra are now committing suicide. Or when Medha Patkar is on a fast, will someone go to the reason she is on fast? Will someone do a reality check on displaced persons and tell me if they HAVE been re-habilitated or not. Whether her claims bear out or not? So far, channels are content with just telling us about her condition.

Or take the nuclear deal with America. Were all the television channels looked like one continuous eulogy - in praise of the government's negotiating skills. No reporting on whether separating our reactors out into civil and military use would compromise our defence requirements or not. Or about how viable this is as a source of energy considering the fact that we're still not using it as a source of electricity much.

For now, media incorporated is busy selling the same kind of story and will probably realize soon that this will NOT get them more ad money in the long run or even in the short run.

Then, more corporations will realize just how risky and unpredictable the media business can be or at least the news business is. I had told a few friends when news channels had begun to mushroom, that in my opinion, the ones that will eventually survive will not necessarily be only people with the deepest pockets. But companies whose survival is totally dependant on the news business. Part of that came true - Rupert Murdoch, with decidedly the deepest pocket in the business pulled out of Star News a little over a year ago. Star News was then sold to the Anand Bazaar Patrika group.

I also believe that eventually, when the news market grows up, or wakes up and smells the coffee, they may discover that there is no substitute for a rich, heady brew. And that cannot be based on formulas.

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April 12, 2006
08:17 AM

How do we rectify this frankenstein monster "Mediaah" ?

How about staring some protests, effigy burning and demonstrations against Media ?

deepti lamba
April 12, 2006
09:52 AM

Indian news channels have not yet faced much competition from the Indian bloggers where the bloggers pick up real 'scoops' and everybody would know the scoop before the tv news channels.

April 12, 2006
10:50 AM

my biggest grudge with the media today: crass commercialisation of all the news stories. if something cannot be sensationalised, its not worth covering. i had enjoyed a couple of articles on the same topic by Rajdeep Sardesai too, though he too runs a tv news channel not too different from the others. this is what rajdeep had written on his blog:
"A few days ago, a young aspiring journalist rang up to ask me if he could be accomodated in CNN-IBN. What would he like to do, I asked. Pat came the answer: "Sir, I would like to focus on sting operations!"
source: Sting Season!!!

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