In defence of the now-vanishing ticker on TV news screens

They’re an important textual companion, and offer viewers a chance to get a round-up of what’s happening in the world.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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Something is happening in the lower half of TV news screens across India.

The run of tickers, once a round-the-clock news update feature, is now either becoming infrequent or has completely vanished from the frames of TV news channels. There might be editorial or technical explanations for this change, but the curtailment, or even disappearance, of tickers reveals the low priority that Indian news channels give to the dissemination of information.

The diminished role of tickers is, for instance, evident in leading English news channels like Times Now, Republic, NDTV, India Today and CNN-News18, to name a few. Here, it’s relevant to remember that ever since Republic was launched in May 2017, the channel has not found any use for tickers on its screen. So, with Republic, it’s not a question of the frequency or proportion of tickers; the channel has simply dispensed with the idea of running tickers.

One is tempted to ask whether Republic’s ticker-free approach has nudged other English news channels to reconfigure their screens. In other words, has Republic catalysed a process that was already underway in English news channels — the fading away and eventual disappearance of tickers?

Even if such speculations are valid, the scale of loss that such a trend implies for some sections of TV news consumers needs to be gauged. Such an understanding is tied to important aspects of the nature of the TV news media in the last two decades, which is pretty much the period when private players were allowed to enter this news space in India. Tickers must be placed in this context.

First, the Indian TV news media in general, and English news channels in particular, leave viewers with the feeling of being uninformed in the information age. Driven by the race for exclusive news breaks, endless debates, and narrative-hunting news stories, Indian TV news channels aren’t the answer to a news consumer’s need to have an idea of important news developments across the country and globe.

Even hours of watching TV news does not take you beyond a few news stories. And these are stories that the channels have invested with a sense of importance, milking their contention quotient for debates or shock value to produce outrage. It’s oblivious of the needs of a type of news consumer, one who’s returned from work and wants to spend 20 minutes in front of the television to get a round-up of key news developments of the day. Similarly, it has no place for a student who made the mistake of updating his knowledge of current affairs with TV news.

For both these types of news consumers, TV news channels in India are simply the wrong address. The information deficit in the outcomes that they are likely to get from their time spent in consuming TV news is obvious. Even the primetime slots of English TV news channels don’t go beyond self-congratulatory “exclusives” and talking heads discussing (or fuming about) a supposedly newsmaking event or issue.

English news channels like NDTV and CNN-News18, realising late, did try the tokenism of a news wrap show in the primetime slot. However, they proved to be limited, and could not go beyond a restricted assortment of news reports. It was an inadequate exercise in news-synopsis.

Perhaps that explains why some news consumers believe that TV news in India does not have a news product that’s useful in terms of its information value. For a more informative return on their time, they would still prefer conventional hourly news bulletins and the longer morning and evening news programmes produced by our public broadcasters, DD News and All India Radio.

In the context of the glaring information deficit on TV news channels, tickers serve an important purpose. Below the stretched run of exclusives and talking heads swinging from outrage to policy prescriptions, the running text of snippets is sometimes the only semblance of the core function of news media — namely, information dissemination.

Although restricted to bullet-point nuggets, tickers are useful in giving a sense of the number of news developments around the country and the world around us. In fact, some viewers resort to putting news channels on mute for a few minutes, just so they can follow the ticker’s flow. Leaving aside the information deficient English TV news media in India, even a news channel making an effort to cover important developments would find an important textual companion in tickers. DD News continues to value tickers, and its news programmes and bulletins share their screens with them.

Notably, regional TV news channels continue to seem to find tickers useful, though their presence on bigger Hindi news screens, those perhaps part of the Delhi media circles, has been declining.

The screen space that’s been vacated by tickers on TV news has generally been grabbed by programme notifications, enlarged statements made by panelists, or remarks made by interviewees. To add to that, the bottom half of screens has also ceded more space to running sponsored features and advertisements.

In an age of information overload, a certain degree of news hierarchies are applicable to the content of tickers too. Despite the inevitable scope for subjective decisions about what’s running, the extent of ground it has to cover ensures that a considerable set of information reaches news consumers. That’s where the role of plain old-world news dissemination is still useful. Tickers represent the possibilities of such dissemination in moving text.

The movement of tickers down the screen gives many news consumers the feeling of getting the drift of the world. That’s not a small purpose to serve in a world in flux, and a world coming to terms with an information overload. The diminution, and disappearance, of tickers from English news channels in India deprives their viewers of one of textual compensations for the news-deficit seen in these channels.


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