Are you disturbed by the way Sushant Singh Rajput’s death was covered by India’s news channels?
I would argue they had no other option.
The lockdown and India’s Covid-induced recession has dried up revenues for news channels. The only way they can stay afloat is by convincing advertisers that they have more viewers now, and their ads will get more eyeballs than they did before the lockdown began. That is why they have ignored their standard ratings drivers — national security, panning Rahul Gandhi, identity politics — and picked up a story that combines a whodunit with populist grievance politics against the “elite”.
To understand this, we will need a detour into the business of TV news. And I’ll begin with a quiz question that you must answer.
How much do you pay, every month, for your daily newspaper? At least Rs180-200, right? For that kind of money, you could subscribe to an English news channel for at least four years.
That’s right. It’s one month versus four years.
In fact, most news channels spend more in distribution costs to reach your home than you pay them in subscription fees. That is why virtually all of a news channel’s expenses have to be met through advertising revenues.
Companies advertise to target potential consumers. So, they need two things from a channel. First, a large number of viewers, what the industry calls “reach”. Second, they want channels to be able to hold their viewers for a long time, what the industry measures as “average time spent”.
Both these attributes of viewership are necessary because a channel might have a lot of people tuning in, watching for a couple of minutes, and then flipping channels. And advertisers believe that only when people get exposed to a product multiple times, do they consider buying it.
Therefore, they need both wide reach and high time spent. These together is what is known as TV ratings.
Now, it is a common mistake to equate ratings with the number of viewers a channel has. In reality, a channel can have lower reach than its competitor but still have higher ratings because of much higher time spent per viewer. The system has been devised for advertisements and not for news content. An advertiser needs viewers to watch the same commercial repeatedly, but a news organisation doesn’t need that.
Yet, since ratings determine earnings, and ad revenues are the lifeblood of news channels, the ratings system has started deciding news content as well. News channels constantly try to game the system by trying to gauge how ratings meters are distributed across the country. The higher the ratings weight of a city or region, the more importance it has for a newsroom. So, stories are aimed at these markets and distribution monies are spent on these regions.
Just making sure that each home is connected is not good enough. A channel has to ensure that a viewer “samples” it and doesn’t just flip past it while surfing channels. The best way to do that is through branding. If the channel belongs to a news network that is already well-known, viewers are likely to give it a chance. Similarly, viewers are likely to stop on a channel when there’s a well-known personality — anchor or guest — on it.
Even this is not enough. Studies done in the United States in the mid-2000s showed that people needed a screen to change significantly every 30-40 seconds for a show to hold their attention. By now, that “attention span” is most likely to have dropped even further. So, one key way to hold viewer attention, and increase average time spent, is to make the news channel’s screen extremely dynamic. That is why we see reporters walking while speaking to the camera, anchors making excited gestures on air, multiple text-bands swiping across the screen, sound effects and various other methods to hold the viewer’s attention.
The most crucial lesson about increasing time spent comes from the world of entertainment. Across the world, viewers spend much more time on entertainment channels than on news. In India, industry insiders say, an average viewer watches a top Hindi entertainment channel for about an hour daily, whereas the normal time spent on a Hindi news channel is about 15 minutes per day, and just five to six minutes on English news channels.
Repackaging entertainment as news
So, newsrooms have understood that the easiest way to hold on to viewers is to make the content more entertaining. Hindi news channels began this process in the mid-2000s, creating pockets of entertainment content which attracted non-news viewers to their platforms in the dull afternoon hours. Pretty soon, however, advertisers began questioning the model. They didn’t want to give ads for the kind of viewers they were already getting on entertainment channels.
The only reason to advertise on news channels was that they had a very clear male skew — the kind of consumer who wasn’t easily available on other channels. They were particularly valuable for banks, brokerages, carmakers and corporate brand-building advertisements. This is one reason why many news channels only publish their viewership in the male “TG”, or target group.
So, news channels needed to crack the “time spent” game for the kind of content that would attract the core male viewer. Editors realised that the average primetime male viewer didn’t really want information. He would have just returned from work, tired and probably bitter. The way to catch his attention was through news that triggered strong opinions: national
security, terrorism, identity politics, and confrontational party politics.
The first step was to prioritise news stories that fell within this broad formula. Then came debate shows, which had already worked very well on American cable news networks. Studio chat shows which initially began as informed debates, soon became a game of creating an adrenaline rush for the viewer. The more people fought with each other, the more the viewer stuck to a channel.
It is no surprise that this rise of “Shout TV” coincided with the long economic slowdown and political turmoil in India that began nearly a decade ago. Viewers sought reinforcement of opinions that they had already acquired outside the news process. Prominent anchors on news channels fed these prejudices by skewing their debates to confirm the viewer’s biases.
This model also saved money. All you needed was a star anchor, a studio, and some guests who were willing to shout at each other. There was no need to spend on newsgathering, since news didn’t fetch viewers in the first place. Big anchors managed to get high ad rates for the channel on their primetime shows. As channels became dependent on them, the stars accounted for the biggest chunk of their salary bills. Reporters became dispensable, and new recruits were hired at the lowest possible wages.
The ratings race was always very tight, especially in Hindi news. The gap between the top channel and the next was just a few percentage points of market share. The leader had to consistently be on top, or else it could cause a big dent to its revenues. So, the race to the top in terms of ratings was simultaneously a race to the bottom when it came to content.
This is how news TV was already set up, well before Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. The difference was that it came in the middle of the Covid lockdown, which initially caused a huge jump in news viewership. Industry watchers say news viewership saw a massive jump in the first few weeks of the lockdown. English news ratings increased by 2.5 times of what it was one year earlier, while Hindi news ratings increased three times.
SSR and the ratings game
By the time the Sushant Singh Rajput story broke, things had begun to cool down. English news ratings were now, just about 25 percent above average, while Hindi news ratings were about 50 percent above what they were a year ago. At the same time, advertising revenues had plummeted. Industry insiders say that advertising revenues for English news channels dropped to half, while Hindi news channels were earning about a quarter less, compared to pre-lockdown days.
One reason for this slide in revenues was that traditional news TV advertisers were badly hit by the lockdown. FMCG companies, which were doing well, usually do not advertise on news channels.
Under normal circumstances, we could have expected news channels to go all jingo-ballistic over China. One would have expected them to manufacture a pro-government alternate reality, to convince people that India had taught the Chinese a lesson. We could have expected them to focus on the Bengaluru riots, which was right up their alley. News channels should have spent hours attacking Rahul Gandhi for questioning the government on Covid.
But all these standard ratings drivers were ignored.
Instead, Republic TV floated a trial balloon of calling Sushant Singh Rajput’s death a cover-up. The channel also played on the outsider vs elite theme, which has great political resonance in India today. This “chip on the shoulder” thematic has worked very well for Zee News in the past few years, and helped its primetime show become the market leader at 9 pm. Republic Bharat played the Zee game on steroids. Where Zee News pushed an aggressive right-wing populist agenda, but presented with calm polish, Republic Bharat presented the same content but in the form of a street brawl.
It is interesting to note that Republic Bharat’s gain has been mostly at Zee’s expense. In fact, right after the week with Kangana Ranaut’s interview on Republic Bharat, Zee News slipped from the Broadcast Audience Research Council’s weekly list of top five Hindi news channels. Industry insiders say that nearly two-thirds of what Republic Bharat gained in market share in the past six weeks has come from Zee News.
The Sushant Singh Rajput story has been extremely successful in driving up overall viewership for news channels. News channels can now offer advertisers significantly higher reach at the same, or even discounted ad rates. This has helped revenues limp back to their normal levels over the past couple of weeks.
As India’s economy has fallen down a deep hole, so has the quality of content being produced by our news channels. Because plumbing the depths appears to be the only way to survive.
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