And there was plenty of it last week on cable TV.
Three big stories over the last fortnight, very different from each other, confirmed that what pulls in audiences over several hours, even days, and makes a winner on cable news is something which primarily clicks as entertainment. And increasingly, celebrity value is what resonates. It does not matter if new information is only occasional as long as there is a constant stream of patter that you can relate to. Is the Queen's hat buttercup yellow or primrose yellow? Or, jingoistic patter that either gets the blood pressure up or resonates with a receptive viewer. The stories could not be more different: the Sai Baba of Puttaparthi passed on, Princess Diana's son wed his long-time sweetheart, and Osama bin Laden was killed in a daring US operation.
The Sai Baba's death, followed by mourning and a funeral, had the appeal of catering to the devout and bringing together the important and the famous with an enduring godman. Sachin Tendulkar's tearful presence led to an almost comical excitement in the Hindi news fraternity. While it would not have rated more than a few paragraphs in the next day's newspapers, TV looped the footage, and presumably their hunch was right, that it was something people wanted to see. And because you could not let the story get too bland, colourful stories about the wealth of the ashram, and truckloads of gold being shifted from Puttaparthi were judiciously introduced into the mix. Sai Baba's passing was a big story, and when the gods are kind, they let a day or two elapse between one eyeball grabber and another.
So we got the royal wedding. One does not know how these two billion viewers estimates are arrived at but in India we are told with some precision that the figure was 42.1 million. Totally different appeal here: romance, spectacle, British pomp and tradition, and the spectacle of the grey eminences of the British press asking each other whether the princess's choice of wedding dress was Britain's Grace Kelly moment. How do you stretch it out all day, and well into the night? In India? You roll out panels with your celebrities and fashion designers cooing about how Prince Harry was Hot. Headlines Today had Lord Desai in London, Lady Desai in Delhi, and Rohit Bal and Rina Dhaka basking in the airtime they got. Gush was called for, and there wasn't much for the anchor to do except smile and keep the patter going. And know enough about colours to know that the Queen was not wearing lemon yellow, as an out of depth Headlines Today anchor asserted, somewhat tentatively.
How do you stretch it out on the BBC? You do a wedding dress poll among people who understand these things. Why did we lap it up? Because, even with the lulls, it was such irresistible entertainment. Any crumb would do so long as it was about the royal wedding. BBC World was confident enough of its draw to replay the wedding ceremony the next night.
Again, an obliging two-day gap before another incredible news gift. It is interesting how this one, while being one of the news stories of the decade, got only marginally more attention from Indian viewers than the royal wedding, at 42.6 million viewers, according to the aMap ratings. But then, audience ratings will probably show that a royal wedding too figures in the top ten stories in a decade review.
Increasingly, news TV is about not going beyond the studio. You have your international feeds, your linked up panellists, your in-studio panellists, and you are all set to sail through a couple of hours or more of what passes for news. And on a big complex story day, national news is more about pitching the jingoism right than about aspiring for balance and restraint. Times Now and Headlines Today were quick off the mark, so were Star News and Aaj Tak. While information came in, they made do with headlines and questions on the screen: “Will Pakistan explain how Osama was hiding out in their care for five years?” “Will Pakistan Answer?” “Can the Pakistan army really claim they had no idea?” “Pakistan Sarkar kya jawab dega?”
How did they sell the story for prime time after a full day's coverage? Day one: “Pak faces Global Anger — Watch at 9 pm”. Day two: “Pakistan's ten lies — Tonight at 10.” By the second day, the channels turned creative with archive footage. Times Now simply ran without comment soundbites of Pakistan's information ministers over the years, rubbishing assertions that Bin Laden was in Pakistan. It was pretty damning. What was bad news for Pakistan was a godsend for this channel and its competitors. Doubtless, national interest shapes coverage, but there is poverty of opinion when everybody on the panel is hounded by the anchor to answer leading questions. But did it work for a long-running news story? It did.
At the time this column is being written, the story is only half told. But its playout here and elsewhere showed both how much you can bring to the story, or how little. Thanks to the TV discussions on international channels, including Al Jazeera, and the syndicated stories from the Western press in our newspapers, told in meticulous detail and without emotion, we are learning that the news business on Indian TV has a long way to go. At least when the big story requires sophisticated treatment. But maybe our audiences don't care after all. They will watch any way for reasons of their own.