It was a relief to see news television, or at least some channels, responding to the earthquake in ‘remote’ Sikkim on September 18 and covering it with enough of a sense of urgency to knock off the mindless discussions and coverage around Narendra Modi’s farcical Sadhbhavana fast. For once, lack of access to footage did not stop the channels from reaching people on the phone, showing the location of the epicentre on maps and discussing the impact. It would have been so much easier just to run a ‘breaking news’ ticker while continuing to discuss the Modi story. Can one hope that this represents the beginning of an acknowledgement by news television that there are stories waiting to be reported outside their studios and backyards?
If after the ‘Anna-mania’, as Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN-IBN called it, viewers have wondered why Indian television channels routinely fill their prime time with talking heads on the same subject for hours on end, there is some inkling available from a recent study of American television channels. Dave Marash, writing in the Columbia Review of Journalism, discusses the decreasing amount of time television news channels in the US are devoting to video footage of news events and the increasing amount of time on panel discussions, interviews and talking heads. “Interviews, panels, conversations among anchors, pundits, scholars, and ‘experts’ which, at best, produce intelligent but evergreen generalizations by people who haven’t ‘been there’ for a while, are preempting the current and specific observations available only from those who are there.
While more and more of the world is ‘speaking’ video, American TV news is ignoring it, in favor of cheaper but less informative ways to report the news.” Marash could as well be commenting about Indian TV news.
One of the reasons, he suggests, is increased costs. Even channels like CNN that built their reputation through live coverage of the first Iraq war are increasingly cutting down on video packages – that is stories reported and edited by their correspondents on the ground – and substituting them with live commentary by reporters on the spot and talking heads in the studio. The problem with tying up your reporter to remain on standby during these talk shows is that she is then not available to record and report away from this spotlight. The one channel that continues to have many more “boots” on the ground, as Marash puts it, is Al-Jazeera, the only channel that gives you a real insight into what is happening in the Middle East. But even Al-Jazeera, Marash says, is beginning to fall for the now established routine in older news channels in the West of live comment from correspondents on the spot and the rest in studio.
In India proximity, as news channel officials admit, determines live coverage. (Former NDTV staffer T. Sudhir’s article on this website about the coverage of the deluge in Delhi at the cost of coverage of the devastating floods in Orissa is a case in point.) This was more than evident in the case of the saturation coverage of the Anna Hazare fast and protest. It was in Delhi, where the major channels are located. It required little effort to cover it. Only after criticism about this obsession with one fast to the exclusion of other protests – especially of the decade long fast by Irom Sharmila in Manipur – have some channels invested in sending their correspondents to prepare video packages from Manipur.
Both NDTV and CNN-IBN telecast two half-hour long shows on Sharmila’s fast against the background of the repression in Manipur. Anubha Bhosle of CNN-IBN actually managed to interview Sharmila in her hospital room, something few journalists have done. As a result, viewers heard the voice of this remarkable woman, saw the expression in her eyes, felt her vulnerability as well as her determination, and got a glimpse of the reasons why she persists. It was exceptional.
What would be even more exceptional is if this is followed up with other stories from the northeast, ones that give Indian viewers a sense of what daily life is like for people living in that region. And if other protests, such as the on-going standoff over the Kudankulam nuclear power project in Tamil Nadu that has finally caught media attention after many weeks when thousands sat and protested, are also recognized as worthy of coverage. Surely, such protests are as much the voice of Indian ‘civil society’ as the Ramlila ground protests led by Anna Hazare.
Indeed, stories on life lived in places like Manipur, or Kashmir, will educate Indian viewers that people living in these conflict-ridden areas suffer more than just the fallout of conflict; they live with developmental neglect of the most basic kind. Srinivasan Jain’s attempt on NDTV to convey another story from Kashmir should be commended on that count. Jain looked at electric power generation in Jammu and Kashmir as well as unemployment and new entrepreneurship. Although the documentary was patchy in parts, you did get a sense of other issues of concern that do not detract in any way from the dominant issues of ‘azadi’ or autonomy.
Can one hope then that this is the beginning of a new trend on news TV in India? If it is, then it really is about time. Instead of complaining that weekly ratings are forcing channels to become more competitive and virtually imitate each other (note the string of ‘exclusives’ on Anna Hazare on the same day on practically all news television channels), should they instead re-evaluate formats and content to figure out what would appeal to their worn-out viewers? Just as the longer format is now gradually seeping into print – with Times of India leading the way with Crest and Mint with its Saturday Mint Lounge as well as the revival of Caravan magazine -- news television might be able to attract more eyeballs if it devised format and content that are distinctive and different. In the long run, surely this is a better way to keep the gaze of viewers rather than the current frenzied attempts to be the same as the competitor.