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The News Business Part III: The dumb blonde is here to stay

By Vanita Kohli-Khandekar , NA, NA | In Media | July 30, 2008
The tabloidisation of news is here to stay. It will coexist with serious news. The balance between the two will change when the structure of the news business changes

Try & #BANNER1 & # this. When you are at a particularly dull dinner party next, just mention the words 'news channels.' Then sit back and watch the conversation that erupts across the room. You will hear words like 'Sensationalist, trivialisation, tabloidisation, invasion of privacy... .'

Welcome to the party. The abundance of news outlets in India (See previous story) comes with its own set of social, ethical and moral issues that any serious analysis of the business cannot ignore. How much is too much? In the name of accessibility and relevance are we really destroying the news ethic? Why does 'dumbing down' happen in the first place? Will the tabloidisation of news fall to levels where advertisers will start walking out to avoid being associated with a negative content genre. Will investors get put off? What about the viewer - the fact is, he is lapping it up. Every time Rakhi Sawant, a celebrity whose only talent is the one she has for hogging publicity, is on air, the show beats everything else on viewership. It is the worst pieces of programming that the public most wants to watch, so why blame the media?

Alternatively, the question to ask is this - are we getting blinded by television news channels and ignoring the good things that an abundance of news across all media has done. It has helped bring to the forefront issues which would have never made it on to the news agenda. News outlets have become the new haven for people who don't have a voice. From activist Binayak Sen's arrest to farmer suicides to Aarushi's murder, the news -media not just TV news channels - has forced authorities to sit up and do things. As viewers flock to TV news, it has forced newspapers and magazines to focus on real issues and real people, not just intellectual babble about V.S. Naipaul or Paul Theroux (the English print media's obsession with Naipaul is something!). For the first time in years the whole issue of editorial being sold in newspapers, the unhealthy dependence on advertising in both print and TV that leads to unethical practices, and the blurring lines between editorial and business are being discussed openly.

The question is how far news media should be pushing. Can the now very public ridicule for television news help the government to force through changes such as the content code that could harm both the news business and democracy in the long run? If the future is the internet or mobile, (which is as mass as TV), should these also be subject to the same controls? One of the foundations that make this business robust in India is democracy. Does the freedom of expression come without responsibility? Does it translate into the freedom to do bad reportage, lousy analysis and post whatever you want to on the net in the name of user-generated-content?

No it doesn't. Just like other freedoms, the one to express yourself has to be earned and it is a freedom that not all news outlets have earned, yet. At the heart of a profitable (and free) news business lie credible brands that people trust and go to again and again. The BBC, The Economist, CNN, Guardian, The New York Times are all profitable, yet trusted brands. They don't sell editorial, they don't sensationalise news. It is their content and that from good mainstream news brands that drives the traffic on most aggregators and search engine sites, says research from Poynter's The State of the News Media. Of the top 20 news sites in the US, 17 are from old mass media brands. So whether the future is more digital, less print, more mobile less TV, being able to trust a headline blindly, is a real imperative in this business. That doesn't go away with a change in media vehicle.

You could argue that The Sun is still the most popular newspaper in the UK, not The Guardian or that people prefer ITV and Channel 4 not BBC for their entertainment. That is exactly what will happen in India. So the Mumbai Mirror will survive along with Hindustan Times and.India TV along with CNN-IBN. The tabloid (as in popular) and the serious both have a place because there are people who want them. In any market in the world, the tabloid is the more popular form and by definition has a larger audience and ad spend. The serious news media usually has a lower audience share but commands a higher rate.

There are historical and structural reasons why news is tilting towards the sensational, especially on TV (more of this later). But most are just signs of an evolving industry.

What's happening?
There is no doubt that TV news channels lead the 'tabloidisation' brigade. An analysis of content on the top six national news channels by the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies (CMS) shows that entertainment programming increased almost three times the level in 2006 while politics plummeted from 23 per cent to 10 per cent. Sports and crime saw big jumps. Development and environment issues got a fraction of programming time across the three years of the study. TAM data backs that. Non-news programming was 39 per cent of what news channels broadcast this year, up from 25 per cent in 2006.

"Everyone is trying to make a quick buck," says Bhaskar Rao, chairman, CMS.

"Hindi news channels have turned into cheap entertainment/reality channels dishing out content which is not fit for family viewing and can seriously disturb the social fabric of our country," says Raj Nayak, CEO, NDTV Media.

Newspapers, it would seem are, less guilty of ignoring the 'larger good'. So politics, for some reason seen as more serious news, remained at the top of the news agenda for the top four national English papers, according to CMS. The fact remains that newspapers are especially weak when it comes to advertiser pressure and deals that are not in the reader interest. So does another fact - it was newspapers that started the change.

When did it start?
'Prime minister visits Yugoslavia.' Many years back this was the typical headline in Indian newspapers. This was the time when editors treated readers with contempt and readers treated editors with reverence.

That was till 1986 when a young man named Samir Jain took over an ailing Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd (BCCL). In an era when no one questioned what editors did, Jain, now vice-chairman of BCCL, tried to look at his paper, The Times of India like he would have at a consumer product. He played around with everything - people, pricing, content and format - to maximise returns. In a few years BCCL became India's largest and most profitable media company. At Rs 2,789 crore in revenues and Rs 760 crore in operating profits (2005-06), it still is.

That is really when the notion of news started changing. Almost every major newspaper followed Jain's lead in some form or the other. The content started becoming more accessible, less 'intellectually snooty,' and cover prices fell, in some cases drastically. The movement picked up speed with liberalisation.

As entertainment channels took off in the early nineties, reading time went down. Newspapers struck back with more colour, more supplements and lower prices, and in much of this Jain took the lead.

Today, 10 years after the first private news channel was launched in India, the entire notion of news has been turned upside down. That raises questions about the definition of news.

So what is news?

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News is about relevance and "What is relevant has changed," says Ravi Dhariwal, CEO, BCCL. Arnab Goswami, editor-in-chief, Times Now, points out to stories like Sunita Williams or the controversies around the recent India-Australia series. Earlier these would never have made headline news even if everyone was dying to know more. In the old days (let us call them the Yugoslavia days), consumers did not have a choice.

Between 1990 and now, four things changed - their numbers, patience, time and choice.

Of these, choice is the most critical to understand what is happening. All media is booming simultaneously in India. In the US, newspapers took off first, then radio, then television and later the internet. So each had time to evolve. Most of Indian media has been liberated only over the last ten years. This has meant over 200 TV channels, thousands of websites and dozens of newspapers and magazines all jostling for time and attention at the same time. As a result while the total time spent on media increased in this decade (it is now going down), it got split between more and more vehicles. (See charts on the time spend on media in opening essay). This coupled with liberalisation, rising purchasing power, stressed out lives and all the other accompaniments of a prosperous India changed everything - the notion of what, when, why, how and who, of news.

News now, "has to do with a greater degree of interconnectedness and relevance in the world," says Dhariwal. The biggest manifestation is the space that news outlets, even in regional languages ones, now give to international views, opinions, business and entertainment.

"People don't attach the same glamour to politicians that they do to sportspersons, entertainers or business people. The new generation is unwilling to accept people in authority, but are willing accept successful people," says G. Krishnan, executive director and CEO, TV Today Network. Sakshi, a Telugu paper launched in Andhra Pradesh this year with 23 editions, offers three pages of business, against the one page that leader Eenadu does. This would have been unheard of in a language paper till even ten years back.

Arpita Menon, vice president, Nine Dot Nine Mediaworx, puts it well. If you plot the centre of a concentric circle of issues that news vehicles carry then 15 years back politics was at the centre with lifestyle, crime or entertainment, the lurid stuff at the fringes. The target audience was one mass of Indians assumed to be interested in a common list of things that editors decided on.

Now, the target audience has splintered in dozens of clusters. And the centre of the concentric circle for each cluster, young middle-aged, old, is different. So young people want education and career guidance from newspapers, they want 'time-pass' from television and a social life on the internet. Older people want more politics and serious news and so on and so forth. Finally, the heterogeneity of the market is reflected in the way news is changing.

Why news standards are falling

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That news is becoming more accessible, more heterogeneous and relevant is wonderful. However, "A disproportionate amount of time is spent on things that can't be called news," says Goswami. Many point out that it is Hindi channels that are more sensationalist. That, says Krishnan is not correct. "The viewership numbers in other languages are so small, that it doesn't show up," says he. Even Tamil and Telugu news channels get a lot of viewership for dumbed down programming.

But really why is this happening on a scale where there seems to be a backlash in the making? Why are news channels showing fake godmen making predictions or MMS clips of a 14-year old murder victim? Why have things degenerated from accessibility to sleaze?

We came across several reasons, which work together or individually to make the Indian news business what it is.

One, is the "TRP trap," says Rao of CMS. India is an avowed one-TV market. Indian families believe that TV watching is a family activity and getting a second TV will isolate younger members. (See The Brand Reporter May 16-31, 2008). So news television vies for the same audiences that entertainment or sports does. To this add the pressure of 24-hour news which stresses the best brands. In the US, cable channels which run 24 hour news are the ones accused of sensationalising while the quality of news on broadcast channels, which have intermittent news, rarely draws any flak. Now factor in 67 24-hour news channels all fighting for every fractional increase in rating points. The result is what you see. Ditto for newspapers which try to get the largest mass of people possible with buckets or kettles as gifts. So what they get is gift junkies, not readers.

Two, even with low ratings it is possible to capture the high impact of the viewership of niche channels, but at 7,200 meters for 72 million cable and satellite homes, most analysts say the sample for measuring viewership is too small. Media buyers' obsession with numbers makes it an uphill battle for a niche brand to prove that the 30 minutes even 10 users spend on it, is high-quality time. Chandradeep Mitra, president, Mudra Max agrees that, "the buying community is to blame for what is happening." Since advertisers, marketers or media owners, seem unwilling to pay higher fees for a bigger sample, metrics become a limiting factor.

The third factor, is the lack of revenue flexibility. In TV pay revenues remain a distant dream because pay TV platforms like digital cable or DTH are some way from reaching critical mass. On analog cable, the widest mode of distribution, most news channels are afraid to go pay for fear of losing viewers and therefore ad revenues. In newspapers the debate on raising prices has been going on since Samir Jain came. A newspaper costs anywhere between Rs 15 and Rs 30 to produce but it sells for Rs 1-3.

Therefore there is tremendous pressure on making money through advertising and the abject dependence on it. It is routine for advertisers to pull out campaigns from papers that critique them even a bit. "That explains," says Tehelka's Tarun Tejpal, "why there has been no single corporate corruption story in newspapers in the last five years."

Four, operating costs across the board are going up even while capital costs have fallen. In dailies, newsprint, marketing and content costs have gone up the highest. In TV it is distribution and content costs that have doubled over the last couple of years. As a result, "the depth of coverage has reduced," says Krishnan of TV Today. Against every four hours earlier, TV news is now refreshed every half hour. That means more anchors, more reporters and a wider coverage so that the chances of getting a fresh story increase. In newspapers beats are becoming redundant; anybody is put onto any story creating a sea of people who know a little bit about everything.

What does it mean?
"This massification would have happened earlier if controls had not existed, so this is a natural progression," says Bala Deshpande, senior director, ICICI Venture. True. In entertainment TV, the demand for differentiated content has come now, after 15 years of free private television. Whether we like it or not, in spite of the freedom to do so Indian audiences are not switching off the Babajis and the lurid stories. Only when news audiences are sated and sick of the popular form of news will they look for news outlets that offer serious analysis or cutting edge talk shows. Even then a larger proportion of the audience will prefer the popular form of news.

What are the implications of this massification? It may mean that the advertiser who comes to news because there is a male skew and high involvement is going away. L.K. Gupta, chief marketing officer, LG India says that he hasn't decided because he can't see the evidence. "If news channels go more mass we will have to cherry pick what suits our TG (Target Group)," says Ambi Parameswaran, executive director and CEO, Mumbai, DraftFCB-Ulka. He illustrates his point with cricket. A brand has to choose the tournaments and the channels best suited to its needs.

Mitra of Mudra Max, reckons that the male skew is coming down in newspapers. This makes news more attractive to a larger set of advertisers. For instance, ever since Aaj Tak changed tracks three years back to become more mass, the Amba Sariya kind of advertiser has been replaced by the more premium Gili Diamonds type. FMCGs or Fast Moving Consumer Goods such as soaps and shampoos, which would have never touched news, are now regulars on news channels. For the serious news advertiser the options are limited - BBC, CNN-IBN, CNBC, NDTV 24X7, business newspapers and magazines.

In the long run, the players who diversify beyond news in other genres, geographies and media are the ones that will emerge healthier, more credible and profitable. They are also the ones investors lust after. The few broadcasters that are refusing to massify such as NDTV and Network 18 are the ones with a diversified portfolio. NDTV Hindi is seen as losing share because it is the only channel that does not have a crime show. In newspapers, though, this is not necessarily true. The most serious and credible papers like The Hindu or Business Standard are the ones whose record on diversification is not as good.

There are other ways of bringing credibility back. One is reduce the dependence on advertising. "The reader is reluctant to pay Rs 3 for a paper, but pays Rs 3 for a one line SMS," wonders A.S Raghunath, a media consultant. His point is that media owners have to move towards charging a fairer price for their product and improving the advertisers' perception of the audience that they offer.

The other is better metrics and research. Since most research agencies come from markets where newspaper circulation is declining, they have very little incentive to invest in newspaper research and measurement and make it more real-time. That would apply to TV research too. Media owners need to get together to invest in measurement tools that make the sample more robust and reduce the 'TAM town' bias or the 'readership' bias.

As the money that rides on news keeps increasing, news outlets will have to get their act on both the quality of content and metrics in order. That is the only way to avoid attracting the regulators' eye, losing advertisers and putting off investors. It will also safeguard the future of a free news market.

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar is an independent media consultant and writer.

The Brand Reporter Special Report on The Future of News is available in pdf format, which can be downloaded here.

afaqs! is also organising an event on The Future of News on Friday, August 1, at The Oberoi in New Delhi. To register, click here.