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T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan: Why is TV news so awful?

The breathless and ridiculous TV coverage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States in English and Hindi, and the blanket coverage of the Sweeping of India on a slow news day, has annoyed many people of an otherwise equable temperament. As one of them put it, she feels “somehow abused” by TV news gangs.

The reaction, fairly widespread, reminded me of an impromptu experiment I conducted some months ago. It was during one of those utterly depressing “seminars” in Delhi whereby think tanks seek to gain visibility, perchance to attract some funding later on.

There were nearly 50 people present, all but one or two highly educated. Most of them were there for “mooh-dikhai” (showing your face). Like me, they would stay till lunch, eat and scoot, which is par for the course in Delhi. The organisers only want their signatures to show the list to the donors.

To relieve the tedium, I thought I would conduct a small sample survey. I passed around a chit asking them to name five institutions in contemporary India of whom they were most ashamed. (My apologies to the hosts whose photo-copying facilities I used to get 50 copies made.)

The private TV news media figured in most of the responses and it came even higher than the bureaucracy and Parliament. That takes some doing.

Later, over the extended lunch, I started pestering the respondents to explain their answer about the media. Depending on their intellectual provenance, I got different answers. I present them below by categories.

Irritating on all counts
The economists gave the standard textbook explanation that this was the inevitable consequence of the free-for-all model of competition, wherein there are no barriers on entry or exit. Since entry is cheap but staying alive in the business is not, they said, all firms were targeting the largest market segment, which also happens to be the most illiterate in each socio-economic group.

Ergo, the news seeks more to entertain than to inform. Just how the entertainment is provided depends on the editorial judgment of the channel. Nonsensical sensationalism is the common element. To which I may add what we were taught in first-year college: product differentiation in a highly competitive market leads to exactly the same result as a monopoly – which, in fact, can provide greater diversity. In the case of media, Doordarshan (and the BBC) stands out.

The bureaucrats gave a much simpler explanation: much of what was reported as TV news was plain wrong, they said. The reporters, by and large young, inexperienced and ignorant, simply had no idea of what they were reporting on. Since a lot of it was either technical or legal or procedural, their reports were often just rubbish.

The politicians said each and every channel was biased in some direction. That isn’t surprising considering how many channels are owned by political parties, politicians and corporate entities. Some of the news anchors, they said, had political ambitions as well.

The journalists – all from print – said kids barely out of their shorts were allowed to editorialise since they didn’t have the facts. Indeed, they said, even if these were given to them in a news kit, they didn’t have the time to digest the facts, if at all they could to start with, that is. (This reminded me of the story about the young TV reporter who once asked a finance minister for a quote and after he had spoken, asked him who he was.)

The laypersons gave the best assessment of all. They said not all of the programming was bad but in general it tended to be more bad than good. They also grumbled that they were exhausted by the shouting matches on prime-time programmes marketed as news but which comprised only a lot of biased opinions. Since they were all highly aware persons, they also asked why the opinions of the people who were constantly invited on these programmes superior to their own. One of them even asked if some of the panellists were on retainer.

Looking ahead
These “survey findings” point to an interesting future for non-TV news, especially for ink-on-paper print but also for radio: digitise, shorten and be quick. Many newspapers are moving in that direction – though not quickly enough, because people have got used to free internet content.

But the moment someone comes up with a workable business model – which must exclude pop-up ads on your phone – TV’s goose would be cooked, if not wholly then, as Pandit Nehru said in a different context, in substantial measure.

How should TV pre-empt this? By getting back to what it should be doing, namely, improving quality in every possible way and avoiding parading opinions, especially of the anchors, as news on prime time.

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