Almost a decade ago, I lamenting the then appalling and precipitously plummeting standards of television news. The purpose was to comprehend the cause behind the embellishment of television news with drama and to grasp its consequences.
My mind harkened back to the days of Doordarshan News when it was customary for families to assemble before their television sets to watch a newsreader with a dreary countenance read the news in almost staccato fashion. It was bitter medicine we were obligated to ingest.
As children, we felt an inexorable revulsion for this ritual. This wasn’t bitter medicine, but poison that was killing us with tedium. We wished we could watch Amitabh Bachchan's blockbusters instead with the action, heroism, and instant justice.
Back then, there was a clear distinction between the purpose of the news business and the entertainment business.
Doordarshan News was impervious to public perception since profit or TV ratings were not the objectives. They had a monopoly and could afford to be monotonous and unengaging. Their job was to read government-approved press releases disguised as news. This wasn’t, as some naively think, the golden era of TV news.
Movies and TV programmes, on the other hand, were brimming with liveliness since they had a function to entertain such that audiences packed cinema halls and caused them handsome profits.
The satellite TV boom had corporates leap into the news business. It was presumed that news channels would be relatively independent and hence unencumbered to report and opine on myriad stories that they couldn’t do earlier owing to government compulsion.
But instead, proprietors darted in the opposite direction and set the reaping of profits as their solitary goal.
They adopted the “hero versus villain” formula of the Amitabh Bachchan blockbusters. The audiences hence had someone to cheer for and someone to jeer at, based on their political leanings. There was seemingly instant justice where partisans were challenged for their mendacity and hypocrisy, also ideological or political biases were confirmed. It was thought of as the worst of times and that those standards couldn’t possibly plunge further down.
Alas, the abyss was yet to be traversed.
If one does revisit the news debates from 2012-13, they seem relatively calm, fact-driven and coherent. There were not more than four participants. There was almost no cross-talking and seldom were there raised voices. The participants were people of standing such as veteran journalists, former judges, industrialists, and politicians. There was an attempt to be balanced, ie the first debate was an obvious win for the right and the second was for the left. Despite the drama and partisan display, they were at their best stimulating and at their worst entertaining.
Where are we right now?
There are not two, not three, not four but 10 participants in almost every debate stuck in postage-stamp-sized windows. The participants are crass party spokespersons, social media trolls, washed-up celebrities, and random bomb-throwers (thankfully just metaphorical). Boisterous cross-talking is a regular occurrence with news anchors often leading and instigating these squabbles.
The subjects of these quarrels often range from the irrelevant to the preposterous. The discussion points often emanate from social media rumours and are hardly ever countered. There are seldom any apologies or retractions for the blatant falsehoods. The humor is almost always unintentional.
This display has been erroneously called a distraction from the real issues or propaganda.
But creating propaganda requires painstaking effort, flair and talent. The news organisation has to earn credibility by being critical of the trivial so they can support the vital. To create good material, the propagandists must apply their mental acumen to spin the facts to show the ruling party in good light. Subtlety is essential for the deception to seem believable. Propaganda works only when it doesn’t look like propaganda and can function as a distraction.
These are worse than the cringe-inducing reality shows. The audience isn’t being deceived or distracted, they know exactly what they are in for. The absurdity appeals to the basest human urge of voyeurism and schadenfreude, much like crowds swarming around a street scuffle. Social media has played a huge part here as each individual tries to outdo the other by being more provocative.
Amitabh Bachchan movies are no longer the inspiration; those were well-made films that offered entertainment and even had a message. The influence here is indifferently made Z-grade slasher flicks whose goal is to offer only cheap thrills.
The question is, how long can this cacophonous carnival continue?
Judging by the ratings, the abandonment of the inane spectacle isn’t occurring any time soon.
As a solution, some have attempted to target advertisers to surrender by labeling the shows as hateful. But to allow the personal tastes of a few to dictate what should be allowed to be expressed in a public arena is illiberal and undemocratic.
Terms such as “hate” are subjective and, for viewers of these programmes, sound like a condescending moral lecture. It is often counterproductive, since driving away one advertiser will earn another. It also makes the bond between the viewer and channel stronger and provides the purveyors to claim victimhood for ages which results in more recognition.
The abandonment has to be voluntary.
What about bias?
It also has to be remembered that Indian news has always been deeply partisan. Delhi-based news organisations will always be loyal to the centre while state-based news organisations' loyalty is to their respective state governments.
The difference is in the earlier days, the news agencies were astute enough to keep the presentation subtle. It has to be remembered that a private channel had conducted their annual award function at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
But what seemed invincible back then has been vanquished today.
The partisanship continues but the pendulum has swung emphatically to the right. The only difference is that the display is blatant. Like the phases before, this phase will pass too. Partisanship can never be eliminated, the only hope is to have a variety of news organisations that cover myriad stories. In the end, when quarrels and stunts meant to shock audiences become a regular occurrence, they cease to be outrageous and eventually become monotonous. The question is not if the audiences will abandon this cacophonous carnival, but when. I know of friends and relatives, even right-leaning people, who have abandoned primetime TV news.
It is up to relatively independent digital news media to rise to the challenge and provide a viable alternative of audible, intellectually compelling, and balanced news programs.
While the use of humour, graphics, and informality is essential to engage, it must also be remembered that the news will never ever be able to beat entertainment shows in terms of viewership. Hence, there must be no attempts to compromise on content merely to make it entertaining.
They say it is darkest before the dawn when night surrenders to the sunlight breaking through to a new day. As we celebrate 75 years of independence, one hopes that the light illuminates the darkness soon.
I would hate to pen another piece several years from now where fistfights and gun duels occur within news studios and one long for the era where we had just vicious verbal spats and baseless allegations, but at least nobody was hurt.
Wondering just how we got from the days of Doordarshan to Republic and co? Watch our latest episode of TV Newsance for a brief history of television news in India.