The media’s ‘leisure beat’ during the lockdown is mainly celebrity fluff

From Virat Kohli’s haircut to Shilpa Shetty’s baking, sections of the media merely rehash celebrity social media feeds.

ByAnand Vardhan
The media’s ‘leisure beat’ during the lockdown is mainly celebrity fluff
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There is a different kind of worry that has only become bigger during the lockdown. You should be worried too if Virat Kohli plans to write an autobiography after he retires. The rate at which he’s sharing things on social media, he might not be left with much to say by the time that comes. Even in autobiographies, Indian sports icons are too guarded to reveal anything beyond a point.

There are strange ways in which Indians seek motivation. Two weeks ago, Virat and actress Anushka Sharma, also his wife, held a session for students on their journey and beginnings. The Indian cricket skipper revealed how he had cried early in his career when he was rejected in the selections for the state team. Almost all major media platforms in the country dutifully picked up this happy-ending story.

But one wonders how relevant such stories, spoken from the distant glow of achievement of the enormously successful few, are to the prosaic struggles of the most — especially from unrelated fields. However, this isn’t even the most significant detail we’ve learned about Virat-Anushka in the last few weeks.

Media platforms have duly kept us updated about Anushka giving Virat a haircut, and the historic moment when Virat defeated Anushka in a game of Ludo. We also joined in mourning the sad demise of their dog Bruno.

Most of these updates stem from the couple’s personal social media posts. The news media only needs to turn these posts into news feeds on their online portals or feeds.

According to a celebrity brand valuation report by Duff & Phelps, Virat Kohli is India’s most valued celebrity. Now at the peak of public adulation, it’s unlikely that he needs the mainstream news media to amplify the slices of his life that he shares on social media. However, the lesser stars — and those insecure about shifting public attention in the long lull period of lockdown — may need that. More so if they are entertainment industry professionals, where anxiety over a prolonged disappearance from the public gaze is quite plausible.

More significantly, many news platforms in India are relying further on celebrity-driven feeds to compensate for their lack of content, in order to engage readers or viewers in a period where leisure isn’t in short supply. The failure of a large section of the Indian media to enrich what could be called the “leisure beat”, independent of the easy trappings of celeb talk, is becoming obvious during the lockdown. In some ways, the Indian mainstream news media’s idea of leisure is limited enough to be seen as philistine.

This isn’t an overnight revelation. In the broadcast news media, it once even threatened the primetime news slot.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed in media critique either. One might remember a September 2006 piece by Jerry Pinto in Outlook. As it slammed the trend in the wake of the director and the star cast of a film, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, filling the evening news slot of NDTV with a long promotional show, Pinto’s piece carried the cheeky strap: “Hello and welcome, I am Karan Johar, and this is the news at 9”. Along with NDTV, Pinto scrutinised other news broadcast channels for ceding too much ground to star-driven content and the resultant fluff.

“We've taken our star worship to its natural conclusion. In our desperate desire to know anything about them, we've allowed our media to turn into panders for the producers,” Pinto wrote. “The next time we watch a saccharine Simi or a cosy Karan, we should know what we've done. We've thrown out the baby and now we've got into the bubble bath. Bring on the froth...”

Nearly 15 years after Pinto’s piece was printed, the advent of social media has meant new terms of engagement between celebrities and their followers. In its essence, the social media outreach of stars has become unmediated by the news media. But what’s also true is that the news media can still amplify the social media activities of the stars and bring a new set of followers.

More importantly, they can ensure they are talked about — particularly important for second-rung and small-time claimants on fame. But what does it say about the new media’s lack of ideas on how to engage viewers and readers in the non-news sections? In other words, their inability to fill their “leisure beat”?

This lockdown has further exposed some fault-lines. If Pinto was concerned about leading English news channels letting stars do the talking in primetime news slots, there are some parallels visible now too. As an exercise, look at what English newspapers, for instance, are doing in their social media feeds as a form of lockdown engagement.

The Indian Express has regular slots on its Facebook page — what it calls “taking over its page” — for public personalities, predominantly actors and TV show hosts. They talk about their lockdown experiences. The paper also keeps us updated on how Shilpa Shetty’s son helps his mother bake choco-oats cookies during the lockdown. And in case you thought Kriti Sanon would get out of shape during the lockdown, the Express tells you that she is working hard on her fitness at her home.

Being the lead chronicler of tinsel town, the Times of India is never short of such stuff, especially now it’s customised its content and social media feed for the lockdown. Among other things, if you were perhaps missing lessons on sibling bonding during the lockdown, the paper asks you to see how actress Jahnvi Kapoor is bonding with her sister Khushi while staying indoors.

The TOI’s daily social media feed has many more such stories to tell. So does the Hindustan Times, ranging from how Mira and Misha — wife and daughter respectively of actor Shahid Kapoor — are discovering embroidery during the lockdown, to how comedian Vir Das looks at quarantine.

It’s not that these publications don’t otherwise resort to celeb-bombing in their social media posts. It’s just that during the lockdown, it’s become more glaring, since the urban middle and upper middle class — the major consumers of the English news media — expected the supply of leisurely content to go up. And these English dailies, like most language papers too, responded by ceding more space to celeb-tracking as a form of leisure journalism.

But there are some points of divergence from this approach. That’s something for which credit is due. The Hindu, for example, in normal times (read the pre-Covid phase) continued with a more versatile sense of leisure in its daily offerings to readers: engagement with the worlds of art, culture and literature. Unlike other dailies that curtailed such engagement to fleeting affairs, the Hindu’s reservoir of it, and perhaps the nature of its readership, helped it to avoid limiting leisurely content to celeb talk.

With some exceptions, the lockdown has reinforced what we already know: that a large part of the Indian media can’t be your leisure companion if you have eclectic tastes and some time to spare. Instead, it has sought the easy way out: amusing you by feeding you more and more about well-known faces that are supposed to amuse you. In the process, it either limits the idea of leisurely engagement, or makes you tired of those well-known names and faces.

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