It's a challenge for tabloid content producers to outguess the readers, to give them what they want in terms of news and entertainment.

The attention focused here on the News of the World and its demise led inevitably to some ancillary focus on how India's tabloid culture compares with Britain's lurid red tops, and their cheerfully criminal practices. And that's an interesting story.

The man whose TV channel's rise has become synonymous with tabloid content ranging from bizarre to titillating  has just this year got to number one in viewership ratings, pulling ahead of all other news channels.   He also claims to have cleaned up his act in the process, partly because Indian TV audiences have changed post 26/11. They want more activism and less titillation from their news channels. So he dropped the ghosts and murderers and casting couch sting operations and turned to speed news and populism. “We took a calculated risk and cleaned up,” he says.

People's sentiments?

Last week, that meant cleverly dishing out some really alarmist populism. As the clash of interests between  the farmers of UP and would-be  home owners of Delhi went to the Supreme Court and the Allahabad High court, Rajat Sharma's anchors spent hours shrieking on India TV, “Extension ka aakhri tension! Kya kal 70,000 sapne tutenge?” (Will there be 70,000 broken dreams tomorrow?) The reference was to Noida Extension where the construction of flats has been frozen, awaiting a court directive.   He calls it touching the heart of the viewer.  “We take the sentiments of the people and put it into the news.”  The tabloid formula has to keep evolving, he says.  “Entertainment news does not get you numbers now, inviting stars to studio does not work.” Anna Hazare is likely to be more of a draw. Price rise, terrorism, corruption, land being grabbed — these are issues which excite India TV's audiences today.

Then there is the experiment in print, not yet four years old, which Aroon Purie, owner and chief editor of India Today, began when he entered into a joint venture with Britain's Daily Mail, to publish a blacktop tabloid newspaper in Delhi.  The same Daily Mail Rebekah Brooks was citing in her Select Committee testimony last fortnight as having paid off policemen in Britain for years. But Mail Today gets its scoops without hacking into phones, and offers much the same news as the broadsheets here, alternating with eye candy for the reader. Again, it is a formula grounded in what the Indian middle class reader wants.  The tabloid formula has to vary from country to country.

Both Rajat Sharma and Mail Today editor Bharat Bhushan are clear that the sort of invasion of privacy which gives British red tops their daily scoops is not something that will work in India. Sharma says, “The tabloid chasing of private lives will not work here. Invasion of privacy people don't like.” Which is not to say that he has not used sting operations capturing bedroom romps to build viewership for his channel in the past. But a public figure's private life is not fair game here. “Indians have no public interest in personal lives,” says Bhushan. “We leave personal lives alone unless they themselves bring it into the public domain.”  

The tabloid approach is more about treatment than subject matter. Sharma harps on presentation being the key. And Bharat Bhushan notes that while they imported much of the externalities from the Daily Mail, the Indian middle class is different in so many ways from the British middle class that he had to do a detailed assessment of what would work here content wise, and then experiment.  The main reason for choosing to be tabloid was the size, which is easier to handle than a broadsheet. Mail Today is narrower than the Daily Mail, and uses some of the Mail's fonts.

Content is another matter. In India people do not like a paper that is not political, says Bhushan. Mail Today initially had a lot of Bollywood in its mix, but changed it when they found the readers did not want it.  “What we borrowed from the Daily Mail is their understanding of news. Understand your reader, listen to what he is saying or not saying. He won't say I want to know about the sex life of celebrities, but he would want to know it.”    Mail Today's formula is to intersperse hard news with light news and be irreverent in approach. Be irreverent in your approach to the State — we don't take the State seriously, he says. On page one, both a hard story and a pretty woman are mandatory. Last week it was a glamorous picture of Pakistan's new foreign minister.

Stories everywhere

Getting stories with tabloid possibilities is in any case not difficult in India. One of the most popular stories Mail Today has done was about a dog called Moti who was tried for murder in Bihar, and actually brought to court! If you go by Rajat Sharma's analysis, the TV audience for news in India has matured whereas the initial broadening of the audience for news meant doing just about anything people would watch.

He says he began virtuously in 2004, no gore, no crime, Maneka Gandhi doing a show on environment, Madhu Kishwar and Tarun Tejpal doing their thing.  He claims that this got him 7th or 8th position among nine news channels, and no advertising at all. After two years he was so broke that he had to sell some land to pay salaries, and then decided he had to either shut down or go for ratings.

“We looked around to see which programmes at that time were getting the most ratings. There was “Kaal Kapal  Mahakal” on Zee news, a show about tantrics. There was “Khaunf” on Aaj Tak, a show about ghosts. And the third most popular was “Sansani” on Star News. There were shows like “Nagin ka Badla” and another on a car without a driver. I said, we'll do all of that.” They switched to half an hour of news, alternating with half an hour of a ratings driver. Within six months, he claims, his ratings climbed to 4 out of 9 news channels, a year and a half  later they were No. 3 and sometimes No. 2. “Our ad rates went up. Our inventories were full.” Then he changed the prime time formula to anchor a live three-hour news show himself and that clicked. When he began to alternate for number one position with Aaj Tak and Star News, he felt he could dump the old ratings drivers and experiment with new ones.

It's a nice story but the chronology does not quite bear him out. One remembers clearly that in early 2005, less than a year after he started what he calls his virtuous run, IndiaTV was using the Bihar elections as a news peg to run a sting operation (more likely entrapment) of Bihar legislators frolicking with undressed women. And right after there was the famous Shakti Kapoor casting couch sting. But the point is that once lurid stories got him the ratings, Rajat Sharma leveraged that to get to the stage where he is number one, close to announcing an English news channel, talking about getting ratings with respect, and functioning from a very impressive 1,30,000 square feet  premises  that IndiaTV  has built.

India's tabloid formula is what works for Indian audiences at any given point.