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The signals were not picked up

The General Elections found TV channels vying with one another to predict the results. But the outcome proved them all wrong. SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY points out that the multi-crore jamboree, was just big business for them.

NDTV's Prannoy Roy, who along with his team, covered the elections extensively, yet failed to be accurate.

LIGHTS, SOUND, camera — elections!

Lights, sound, camera — post-poll picture.

Conjectures, declarations, two and two estimates, a little prank, some on-camera head-scratching with a guest or two.

On retrospect, one wonders, how many General Elections did one have simultaneously this time. One, of course, was the real election where the public voted, and the product of which befuddled even the pollsters. And the other, on the small screen. And, did you say, the twain shall never meet. It indeed did not.

With no less than five news channels completing a year in 2004 and some more testing the waters before beginning their innings, the just-concluded polls were seen to be more of a prospect to snatch bits of TRPs from each other than any accurate projection of pre and post poll scenes. So, the divide was clear from the word `go.' Be it opinion or exit polls, be it hundred reporters on hundred hours of election duty, be it deciphering the poll plots to know who will become the next Prime Minister, or selling of faces ... it could not guess the trends that Real India signalled.

All one got to see were the same bunch of old media-savvy faces of politicians darting from one high-tech studio to the other; novel shows in terms of graphics; comedy shows on polls; modulated voices doing a high and low of headlines in rhyme, funky poll slogans in tow. A calculated, multi-crore jamboree.

Shekhar Suman offered some comic relief on STAR News' 'Poll Khol'.

The anchor-conducted carnival lifted one to such a make-believe world that when the real results of the voting pattern came, no viewer could believe it. With round after round of opinion and exit polls splashed on the screens and endless discussions coiling up from it, they not only made one think that India's next Prime Minister has been decided, it must have made the former Prime Minister believe that he has actually made it for another term. Be it Aaj Tak, NDTV, Star News or Sahara Samay, the National Democratic Alliance partners were made to jostle with positive energy by being repeatedly told by them either through figures or by the anchor's words that they were the sure-shot winners.

At the same time, members of the Congress were seen weakly admitting on the same screens that they stood no realistic chance in the elections. Some politicians from the Congress nearly agreed that it is, after all, a build-up for the next elections! To pull some TRPs, Star News even tried its successful show, Poll Khol on the counting day to comment on the results coming in. Overall, an amazing show of a no-show.

While the real voters took some decisive decisions, the news channels were busy tailing celebrity candidates and star campaigners. Whether it was Vajpayee in a Lucknow rally, or what Advani had for breakfast before `wooing' voters from his modern-day engine-driven chariot, or a smiling Sonia waving at the electorate in Rai Bareli, or the young and hyped Gandhis — Rahul, Priyanka and Varun — being welcomed with open arms at Amethi and Sultanpur, a `blood-sucking' Dharmendra, a `Tohfa' of a Jayaprada, or a `Hero No. 1' Govinda delivering film dialogue in the snaky lanes of Bikaner, Rampur and Virar ... one has seen them all.

But from the post poll counting, one now realises that rural India wanted to have its say too. And more important, the news channels, which are always ready with the promise of breaking news, went dry. For money per pulse of an ad, they missed the pulse of Indian voters.

Post May 13, watching the news channels was still a revelation. For instance, Rajdeep Sardesai of NDTV 24/7 asked his political guests — Ambika Soni and Tariq Anwar — whether they would accept Amar Singh in their government and also who would form part of the next Union Cabinet at a time when even the PM's name was not clear! Obviously, not satisfied with their answers, he then worked out on his own the likely Cabinet, its size, its faces and its portfolio listings.

When speculation was rife with whether Sonia Gandhi would become the next Prime Minister, Aaj Tak talked to a few fashion designers on how they would like to dress her up as a presentable PM. Going by that yardstick, it was quite a relief when another channel did not try to compete by trying to make Sushma Swaraj look the way she threatened to if Sonia had taken the PM's seat. Unlike the print media, the electronic media worldwide needs a daily breaking story, a hero or a heroine everyday. To deliberate on an issue, more than going to the people in the street, the channels usher in expert guests.

Though election is a two-way street, most of the airtime was focussed on politicians, their politics and their issues. And in this, one got to see a whole lot of motivated politicians no doubt, but nothing that was representative of the masses. Who abused whom and in what manner and where, who wore what during the campaign, who changed poll tactics and why ... all these points that the channels uniformly discussed, looked so trite towards the end due to overuse.

One wonders now whether such a brouhaha would make viewers treat TV news lightly hereafter. Watch a `K' serial tonight and forget about it by tomorrow morning. Watch a news programme in the night and tomorrow is another day, another story, another hype.

A behind the scene look at the Aaj Tak studio.

Though the first tenet of journalism is to be objective, as poll results began to trickle in, the personal preferences of the star anchors, whether it was Aaj Tak's Prabhu Chawla or NDTV's Prannoy Roy and Rajdeep, took no time to surface. And, when Sonia Gandhi heard her `inner voice,' it was only a repeat show.

It is public knowledge that all the channels made enough money through poll advertisements, some amount of which was also spent on opinion and exit polls. A platform where one saw both the BJP and the Congress coming together was the channels' ad slots.

To bring in `different' and `exclusive' opinion and exit polls, a rough estimate says that close to Rs. 11 crore was spent. The winners primarily, in monetary terms, were the research firms, the so-called pollsters. Money paid for delivering the wrong goods. One should have learnt the lessons from the U.K. and the U.S., before so much money changed hands, where polls often turn out to be inaccurate too. A study done by the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developmental Societies pointed out that only three per cent of Indian voters get influenced by exit and opinion polls.

But then, like public memory, the politicians' is short too. For the channels, it is just business after all at the end of it. Big business.

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