With high decibel studio discussions dominating ‘prime-time’ news on television, good old-fashioned field-based reporting is on the decline

A well-lit studio; a celebrity anchor; half a dozen guests representing familiar, but conflicting, view-points on any particular issue; a couple of ‘neutral’ analysts or journalists thrown in; each panelist fighting hard to get a couple of minutes of air-time to express his views; provocative questions, screeching voices, loud arguments; and a wrap-up which exposes, but also sharpens, the polarized nature of discourse over complex issues ‘facing the nation’ or that the ‘nation wants an answer to’.

In the past few years, news channels have increasingly adopted such a template for shows in ‘prime-time’ slots. Studio discussions are neither new nor unique to India. They can also provide the viewer with a range of perspectives from key actors. But what is new, and some argue, disturbing, is that this format is no longer a supplement to ground-level reportage, but almost a substitute to it.

When asked why such shows have become the norm, Sreenivasan Jain, managing editor of NDTV, told The Hindu, “Various channels have experimented with different formats on prime-time. There was a perception that viewers preferred in-depth discussions rather than the bulletin format. But this is not cast in stone. The nature of programming shifts depending on viewer feedback.”

But two senior editors, in NDTV and the IBN Network, who wished to remain anonymous, said that economics and the imperative of ‘cost-cutting’ is a key factor. “It is the cheapest form of journalism. The success of Times Now’s show changed the paradigm, and all of us emulated it,” said one of them. The economic downturn had a major adverse impact on television channels, with reduced advertising budgets impacting revenues. This compelled channels to ‘rationalise and be prudent’ about expenses. But an infusion of corporate funds, and the slow market recovery, is helping things now. 

The rise of the studio discussion format has taken place with a corresponding decline in reportage on television.

Presenting evidence of the reduced investment in reporting budgets, a senior journalist in one leading English news channel said, “We have no correspondent in Guwahati. From about 25 people, the Mumbai bureau is down to 5-6 people. There is one reporter in a State of Uttar Pradesh’s size. There is no investment in the stringer network. Reporters are travelling less.” He also pointed to the increasing reliance on travel junkets, sponsored programmes, special shows dictated by advertiser interests, and agency footage as a growing trend which had replaced independent reportage.

Another journalist links reporting with television ratings, and consequently, the advertising inflow it can generate. She says, “Investment in reporting depends on whether it falls in our TRP zone. So for Kumbh, Hindi channels sent teams and did live shows for weeks but they would not do it for the North-East.”   

But the story is not black-and-white, and TV journalists are swift to list out the caveats. They claim there is no compromise on ‘essential stories’, and even studio discussions are preceded by short news stories on the issue. Established figures in channels still have leeway in determining their reporting priorities, and can travel with teams to do in-depth stories if they choose to do so. Delayed as it may have been, some big networks did send reporters out to the neighbourhood to cover key events like the Shahbhag protests in Dhaka recently.

NDTV’s Jain is one of the few senior journalists to have broken the trend with his weekly reportage show, Truth Versus Hype, which broke several stories including Nitin Gadkari’s dubious business interests. “I wanted to return to old-fashioned, grassroots, field journalism. And I certainly think there is a greater need to do that given the crisis of faith in the media.” He found that viewer ratings were surprisingly good for shows on issues like Chhattisgarh, which media managers are quick to dismiss as unappealing.

But these are few and far between. Sashi Kumar, Asian College of Journalism chairperson, is scathing in his criticism. “A package story would give the background, the context, perspectives and provide the viewer with a well-rounded picture. One doesn’t see those capsules on news anymore. They have studio guests, and a reporter giving his unsolicited opinion.” This, he says, is “impressionistic, subjective, and a violation of journalistic standards”.

Rejecting the ‘this is what viewers want’ claim as a ‘dope peddler’s argument’, the ACJ chair made a distinction between different forms of reportage. “Having half-an-hour specials, investigative documentaries would be the icing on the cake. But these are costly affairs that require expertise and even international channels are cutting down on it.” Its absence, he indicates, is understandable. “But daily news capsules are the staple diet and providing that is the duty of channels. TV has done away with the concept of reporting. It is all opinion now.”

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