When content for the TV is produced according to heavily biased people meters, what we get on screen is either strident nationalism or paparazzi journalism…
Last week's two big stories spawned a unique dualism in the journalism offered: paparazzi journalism and strident media nationalism on the same evening platter. The Sania-Shoaib-Ayesha story on television recalled the Arushi murder case in the summer of 2008 for the sheer intrusive energy on display.
The Mirza family becomes a target of voyeurism, the OB vans come to stay just as they did in an East Delhi neighbourhood two years ago, a young Muslim girl who not so long ago was a role model for young women everywhere finds herself hounded. She fights back, alleging trial by media, and agrees to a press conference whose combined heckling force has to be seen to be believed. Should you treat the paparazzi as press and take questions from them?
Your jaw also drops at the performance the stand-up anchors put up. Grown men and women paid to harangue, and to sell the proposition that this is and can be the only matter of earthshaking importance for a large country of a billion-plus people. At some point you wonder where the Siddiquis would have been without a bite-hungry TV cabal obligingly picking up every scrap fed. But as events snowballed and the Pakistan foreign minister got into the act, it became more and more what Shobha De called a fantastic story.
Until Maoists killed 73 CRPF men. Then the haranguing turns, as it always does these days, on the alleged sympathisers of the Maoists, the men and women who can see two sides to a horrific situation. On Times Now, the nationalism has become almost comic: “Mr. Govindan Kutty, whose side are you on? Are you with the Maoists or are you with India?” I missed the names Govindan Kutty is supposed to have called Arnab Goswami but did catch the latter's assertion: “We do believe in the tricolour…the readers of Times Now know that we are nobody's agent.” What was less amusing was their security analyst Maroof Raza thundering about the need to send in airpower to win the war against the Maoists.
Not doing their job?
In Kolkata last week Sharmila Tagore and others pointed out that if the media had been reporting adequately on these areas and exposing their neglect, the war between the government and the Maoists might not have come to this pass. That has been said before, but if television is market-driven, the print media in West Bengal is increasingly politically partisan. And in any case to expect the media to compensate for the government's failures is unrealistic.
What is relevant for all those agitated by the extreme behaviour as well as the trivial concerns of Indian television is to understand the competing concerns different segments of thinking Indians have. As TV news programming comes increasingly to rest on the twin pillars of entertaining news and polarised debates (last fortnight, on prime time, Aaj Tak spent an entire half hour exploring why top movie stars find the sari glamorous) the government flits between trying to tackle regulation on one hand, and the audience measurement issue on the other.
The pressure on the government comes from the political class which occasionally thunders about TV excesses in Parliament. But the pressure on the channels which produce the news comes, on one hand, from advertisers who want bang for their buck, and on the other from such civil society groups as are sufficiently vocal. And collectively everybody, then, including the news channels, turns on the ratings system which drives the TV industry.
If people meters installed in homes have the same sampling audience for news and entertainment you have a problem. That of whose tastes in news you should cater to. Those who want to see a soap opera starring Ayesha Siddique and Sania Mirza or those who want many other kinds of news?
If the data from the meters is weighted in such a way that two metros of Delhi and Mumbai alone account for over a third of the weightage, you have a problem. What these metro audiences want to watch can influence the news offered to such an extent that many other cities ostensibly covered by the people meters (Patna and Gauhati for example) do not really count because they have been given almost non existent weightages like (point five) .5 per cent. Are civil society critics going into these issues?
If advertisers want news channels to respond to ratings determined by income groups and geography in particular ways, you have a problem. It will shape the kind of news put on air. Who are the men and women who represent this interest? Advertising agency people, media buyers, marketing executives of companies which want to advertise — people who when they are not wearing their professional hats probably think about themselves as civil society stalwarts!
To their credit, they were concerned enough about the unrepresentative nature of TV measurement in 2007 to set up something called the Broadcast Audience Research Council. They felt many rural and semi-urban areas of the country were being left out. But their point of concern was precise measuring that would enable them to reach audiences for their clients' products. Nothing more.
Doordarshan's ratings suffer when rural audiences are not measured. But has this Council been able to make any difference to the ratings that come out every week? And will their concerns make any difference to civil society concerns?
The broadcasters who are at the receiving end of criticism also set up a couple of bodies to represent them and decide how they should be regulated. Nothing much has happened there either. But are there any representative bodies set up by indignant civil society intellectuals who thunder at seminars, to lobby for a system that ensures more responsible TV content and to go into the issues around it? None that I know of.