Arnab Goswami is back – and in overdrive. On Saturday, May 6, 2017, Goswami catapulted himself back to Indian television with the launch of his news network — Republic TV — after his unceremonious exit from The Times Group, India’s biggest media conglomerate.
Goswami had turned the Times Group’s English news channel into an advertising and audience-rating juggernaut in the 10 years since he took charge. Times Now was Goswami, and Goswami was Times Now. With his exit, Times Group was reasserting its control over its flagship television channel. “Today, the game has just begun”, were Goswami’s parting words when he announced his departure from Times Now in an editorial meeting on November 14, 2016.
On November 19, a day after his official departure from the channel as editor-in-chief, he was appointed as a director of ARG Outlier Media Asianet News Private Limited, the parent company of Republic TV. Other directors include Rajeev Chandrashekhar, who has significant investments in media, infrastructure, weapons and war technologies industry, Goswami’s wife Samyabrata Ray Goswami, and Ajay Garg, an investment banker.
On May 6, in his opening monologue on Republic TV, Goswami said, “I don’t know what the nation wants to know today”. He was beaming. Earlier this year, Times Group had sent him a caution notice threatening life imprisonment for using the phrase the-nation-wants-to-know. He repeated, “But, today, the game has just begun”.
Times Now was built on the Times Group’s distribution prowess and Goswami’s aggressive debating skills. He introduced a combative style of partisan journalism, that is now the default template of most news debates across Indian television news. Republic TV takes the same formulaic approach a step further: the general tone of the broadcast is high-pitched and hyper-conservative, the journalists are combative to the point of manhandling, stalking and trailing politicians. Goswami himself seems a more aggressive version of himself from his days at Times Now.
Republic TV has begun on a solid distribution strategy. The channel is free-to-air and is available on all major dish networks and internet platforms. Its Facebook page and Twitter handle endlessly update the same stories, generating trending conversations around them.
As much as it is a business proposition for him, for Goswami it could very well mean an opportunity to avenge his unceremonious exit from Times Now at the peak of his career. In his opening monologue, he called The Times Group’s decision to send him a legal notice, unscrupulous.
A week since it was launched, Republic TV broke, chased, debated and relentlessly “reported” on five news stories. The channel is still struggling with broadcast and production glitches. Guests are often inaudible, graphics and voiceovers are out of sync, silly spelling and grammar errors flash in white, black and gold across multiple tickers on the screen, and reporters often credit their stories to Times Now instead of Republic TV before correcting themselves. For all the fanfare and hype surrounding the channel’s launch, Goswami and team seem unprepared for the launch. And there is an air of desperation and misplaced derring-do in the manner in which he and his team bully guests and instigate lynch mobs.
In terms of programming, there is little that differentiates Republic TV from the existing channels: everything from the layout, the colour scheme to the tone resembles the standards Goswami set at and popularised at Times Now. There are fewer bulletins on the channel. And all the resources, the time and the attention is spent on exclusive stories that the channel is chasing.
The editorial qualities of the five stories broadcast so far are questionable. They barely stand scrutiny and are twisted to manufacture outrage, a tactic Goswami mastered at Times Now. Goswami’s adversarial journalism takes on the opposition instead of those in power. The channel is taking on the BJP’s opposition in states and at the Centre in a focused manner. In fact, the Centre has been reacting faster to Republic’s stories than the opposition itself. A majority of panellists on the channel are either directly or indirectly related to the BJP or the Union government.
What does it mean for television news in India?
Goswami isn’t doing regular television journalism here. Relentlessly chasing, broadcasting and squatting on one story a day is unheard of in television news. And doing it day-after-day is unsustainable. This is new. A week since going live on Hotstar, the video platform where the channel is broadcast live, Republic TV claimed the channel has broken the platform’s viewership records.
Viewers are hooked to see the next rabbit Goswami pulls out of his hat. Unlike his persona at Times Now, Goswami on Republic TV is open about his allegiances, something most journalists frown upon. For most viewers, however, it is an expression of sincerity. It is likely that in the opening weeks, Republic TV will break through the existing league of television news broadcasters in India. Outrage journalism worked for Goswami and Times Now in the dying hours of the previous Union government. It remains to be seen, however, how Republic TV’s editorial strategy will affect audience numbers, and whether the audience and the advertisers will stick to Goswami’s strategy of hanging on to a story and manufacturing outrage for days.
News has historically been a loss-making business. The English news category is a minuscule portion of the promising TV audience landscape in India. Goswami turned it on its head 10 years ago by turning it into an outrage-generating machine. With Republic TV, Goswami isn’t doing journalism. He is selling himself as a brand and pushing the existing idea of infotainment, reality TV, stalking and manufacturing outrage to their logical extremes. As much as the channel might turn into the voice of majoritarian violence espoused by the BJP, Republic TV signals the beginning of a new era in a politically hyper-polarised news ecosystem in India.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @cyrilsam