I might sound like a guy standing on a Saudi Arabian oil rig and proclaiming the advent of windmills, but has the decline of “expert opinion” on television begun? The noise of talking heads, cabined, cribbed, confined in an increasing double-digit number of on-screen boxes, existed in the pre-Arnab “You wanna know ‘ow I make diz country bettah? Iz simple, two words: Keep it real!” G television universe. But as is with Microsoft, so it is with Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd: pick up something making a sound, AMPLIFY it and make it your own.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not basing my hunch that Opinion Mandi TV is yesterday’s Breaking News simply because the Congress’ Sanjay Nirupam is shouting his head off while the Gandhi family’s Mani Shankar Aiyar is bubbling with anti-Nazi epithets while the Samajwadi Party’s Kamal Farooqi is spluttering away even as Meghnad Desai is making a blubber-interjection as Suhel Seth chuckles and talks incredibly at the same time while Chandan Mitra of the BJP airs his aghast-ness by being suitably aghast as some Pakistani commentator with a Jackson Heights accent provides some contrapuntal drive to the general Karlheinz Stockhausen-ish choral performance along with Abhishek Singhvi inside a panic room enumerating 15 reasons why something is something and not something else that his good friend Ravi Shankar Prasad is insisting.
I think that Noise Television is boring viewers after its very successful run as entertainment and the time has come for not necessarily something better (whatever that means) or quieter, but something different. And the way ahead could actually be shown by those “silly” regional news channels that have primetime news about a demonic possession, a woman who threw her garbage next door and has triggered a riot of four people, or Priyanka Chopra possibly having got a Brazil wax in Ontario (with a mini-capsule telling viewers what a Brazilian wax is). Even as traditional urban, English-listening “national” channel viewers may balk at the idea of following a looped broadcast of how a 12-year-old boy in some small town can recite the Complete Works of Shakespeare backwards in a molestation-free environment, the content that is being aired is overwhelmingly facts, not opinions.
Opinion TV has always used the valid reasoning that people want to know more about the “hows” and “whys” of big news stories than be satisfied by being bombarded by just atomised news. That is certainly the case, except what most viewers are getting on the English national news channels are more what a van-load of folks think in an environment that takes one back to trench warfare or what the star anchor thinks — which frankly is lovely to read in print but not really valuable coming out of the tap that’s television.
Opinion needs a calmer place to be sucked in and processed. To have even experts on the subject light sabre-ing — and most of the time, there’s always a moron (not always the anchor) on the panel with better “interjectory” skills to cut him off — is to have battle rap sessions in a library. For this purpose, online feeds, whether from websites of newspaper opinion pages or made-for-web analyses, are increasingly coming handy for a buzzing social media crowd who if they can’t have or share opinions of their own are ready to hire (for free as of now, of course) and share them.
And there seems to be this notion that viewers are interested in only political opinion. There is hardly any worthwhile news on trends, business, entertainment, arts or sports beyond cricket. At best, these “capsules” are cretinous items where a giggling fanboy-fangirl thrusts a mike into the face of an actor or conducts an interview that is as critical as Mother Teresa talking to Jesus. Even in sports news, we have a few ex-sportsmen swivelling on their chairs and — cricket apart – hard talking about the games or matches themselves but about policy, preparation, administration, the nation-is-behind-you fuzzy-wuzzy bits that are BORING. I’d rather pick up the next day’s paper, if I’m too lazy to read up online that very same day about the “whys” and “hows” of the impact in India of Microsoft buying Nokia rather than have a few experts make a quick power-point on telly.
But “only-news” too is being increasingly sourced online. So why should television bother to invest resources and manpower — especially when the office cellotape is supposed to chip in during these pink slip days — in spading out more news if viewers are getting it online? Here’s why.
While television, and the print media, are getting round to the view that what consumers value the most is choice and their ability to choose news (and opinion), too much choice becomes burdensome. To borrow a military terminology, no one, not even the 20-something professional who’s always on the “go-go-go!” wants to be “cluster-fucked” with info and opinion. Which is where professional news television can come in and play. Dudes and dudesses want a whole range of food to eat, but they still want Mummy to feed them. Because Mummies (should) know best.
It’s the idea of choice that is appealing, not the sometimes cumbersome act of choosing. Indian news television tried out “second screen”, a technology which allows viewers to “upgrade” their TV-viewing by mixing it simultaneously with the internet to enhance what they are following on TV. It’s apparently caught on big in Germany. Here in India — where configured to a channel’s online platform the “interactive second screen” allows anyone watching an opinion show to determine by voting what question the anchor should ask a panelist next, or even choose from a list of stories jukebox-style on a news programme – it’s bombed badly.
In any case, print and online media show that choice of news stories and opinions are already available to consumers in the form of different newspapers and websites. Television, on the other hand, is being smothered by sameness of news, sameness of pitch, and certainly sameness of talking heads on news shows. Even the thrill of watching a cat-fight on one channel seems to be getting dreary with or without Arnab G there to poke a stick in the melee.
Which is where a clue as to how to stand up and be counted as a news transmitter with some legible opinions can be found in Real Madrid’s (news-making and opinions-generating) purchase of Tottenham Hotspurs’ Gareth Bale for €100 million. News hours — as opposed to Times Now’s ‘Newshour’ that’s opinion-porn — need to be branded and given value. Bale is very unlikely to be worth the money he’s been bought for, but as sports writer Simon Kuper wrote in the Financial Times, “Buying Bale isn’t like buying a machine that will provide an annual return. It’s more like buying a Picasso: a beautiful thing that gives its owner status.”
It’s fair to say that media house owners here in India too aren’t looking for immediate returns (they wouldn’t be in the media business then). So building a strong brand based not only on trust (which is good) but also on being the carrier of news in exciting, value-added formats can take us out of the strange lack of choice that news television currently is suffering from and anachronistically believes that a continuous buzz of opinionated fruit-flies can solve. And a strong brand means better reporting skills, more journalists’ feet on the ground and a Garth-like bumping up of anchors in visibility and branding. Which has to go beyond the current stale line-up of opinion-cum-news anchors like Barkha, Arnab, Rajdeep, Rahul and… I’ve run out of names. As online might advise television, go “cluster-fuck niche”.