At the third edition of the annual event, Future of News, panellists discussed and debated various issues related to the news industry.
The first topic up for discussion at the forum was: Has the dramatisation of news on television reached its peak?
The panel comprised Jehangir S. Pocha, co-founder, IMN News; Sudha Natrajan, chief executive officer and president, Lintas Media Group; LV Krishnan, chief executive officer, TAM India; and Sandeep Sharma, senior vice-president - marketing and sales, Times Now and ET Now. The session was moderated by Sreekant Khandekar, director, afaqs!.
He invited the speakers to share their views on whether dramatisation in news has reached its peak, and where this might lead.
Natrajan took over and stated that in the name of breaking news, many news channels indulge in rumour mongering; for instance, making predictions such as the world coming to an end in 2008, or number eight being inauspicious. At other times, news channels are accused of inciting criminals, by demonstrating various techniques of committing crimes.
Having shared these two common examples of the kind of news Indian news channels pursue, Natrajan said that today, running the business is a big responsibility, and that one needs to examine why and how a successful news business is being run.
She pointed out that if the kind of programming that they do is being lapped up by viewers, then why should news channels not continue doing what is working for them? She went on to discuss the kind of content that news channels do dish out.
Natrajan said that currently, the content on news channels can divided into three broad categories - reporting, analysis and 'masala'. She said only DD News is engaged in pure reporting.
Sharing some data, she stated that on Aaj Tak, news bulletins comprised 20 per cent of programming; while analysis comprised 36 per cent. On NDTV India, on the other hand, news bulletins were 62 per cent of total programming. The rest of the content on these channels relates to other genres, such as comedy and entertainment.
Through this and similar data, Natrajan sought to demonstrate that viewership for various genres is fairly proportionate to the time slot they get. So, there is nothing wrong with what is being showcased on news channels.
However, she said, the question is that with the kind of coverage being peddled in the name of news, is a section of the audience getting alienated from news channels?
Taking the debate further, the second speaker, Sharma of Times Broadcasting urged everyone to first understand some of the fundamental characteristics that govern Indians, before debating the level of dramatisation dominating the Indian news space.
He called India an "emotional country" that wears its emotions on its sleeve, unlike the British stiff upper lip. "Since we are a passionate lot, any happening becomes worthy of news coverage. Thus, we, as a country, are experiencing an excess of news." He added that over the past few years, the depth and width of news coverage has increased.
Sharma stressed that amidst counting all the negatives of news media, the positive aspects related to news channels are neglected, such as their impact and influence in touching upon issues of national importance.
"Be it Jessica Lal, Ruchika case or CWG bungling in the recent past, media coverage has pushed the envelope when it comes to seeking truth and justice," he added.
Stating that Indians do not like "bland food", Sharma suggested that every news story has to have drama. Nevertheless, he maintained that despite a strong element of dramatisation, news has to be credible, factual and unbiased, because one is in the business of repeat eyeballs.
However, he added that drama is a by-product of news, which is what results in a handful of channels crossing the line at times.
Pocha's views on India being an emotional country were different from those expressed by Sharma.
He said, "Our trademark is Bollywood, because that's what inspires and influences TV news." With Bollywood itself changing and coming up with better scripts, fresh subjects and improved production and distribution, it was time for the news genre, too, to embrace new changes.
He expressed sadness and concern over the blurring line between 'pure news' and 'opinion', with the latter being pushed as news on news channels. He stated that newspapers continue to maintain the sacrosanct distinction between news and opinions, with the help of their news pages and edit pages.
He said that unfortunately, when it comes to TV, without explaining and making full disclosure, the news space is supercharged with opinions undermining news.
At the same time, Pocha expressed faith that the news industry has the capability and canvas to touch new heights, by reaching for better news, which is engaging, offers a fresh outlook and has a relevant connect with the audience.
An interesting view came from the fourth panellist, Krishnan, who appreciated the fact that news is the only genre, which comes together to introspect and makes an attempt to find out what's wrong.
"No other genre, be it GECs (general entertainment channels), sports or music does this. And this is remarkable, given that news is just a 10-year-old industry and growing, in both audiences and advertising revenues. This is a healthy trait and the change in future will come faster."
He spoke at length about the changing audience and business side of news. According to Krishnan, one lot of viewers comprised 45+ year-olds, habitual newspaper readers who are comfortable writing to a newspaper editor. Today, this section stands glamourised with the world of TV.
Then, there is the younger generation in the age-group of 12-15 years getting exposed to news. These youngsters are not carrying any baggage, and consume their news not only through TV channels, but also through the internet, mobile and word-of-mouth.
Krishnan emphasised that with the emergence of a discerning audience, emerging platforms can be built and content can be tweaked. According to him, business will follow where the audience is. At present, it is following the masses, as the eyeballs are there.
He further said that advertisers are looking at favouring certain segments. Thus, the subscription model, and not the revenue model, is the future of news. The choice is about offering specific content to the audience, promising them a clean feed and asking them to pay for it.
Khandekar asked panellists whether the fact of Indian homes being single-TV homes and the whole family watching news together influences what's being dished out on news channels.
Natrajan responded that there is a skew towards one set of the audience in every genre. The news genre exhibits a skew towards the male audience.
Krishnan cited some numbers, driving home the point that everyday, an individual spends around two-and-a-half hours watching TV. Within this, the news genre accounts for only 10-12 minutes per day. An average viewer surfs about four to five channels at any given time. So, he or she ends up spending only about two minutes trying to get the best information. He reiterated, "Most of the content that we talk about does not even get watched."
Khandekar also raised the query whether advertisers were influenced by the tone of news channels, or the viewership numbers alone. To this, the panellists responded by asserting that advertisers essentially buy numbers.
The panel also discussed the news industry's overdependence on revenue and the hassles related to under-declaration of numbers, when it comes to distribution. The panellists also debated on whether pay was becoming a reality.
Krishnan once again emphasised on the need for looking at new distribution platforms and models, say in the form of digital media. Marketing needs to evolve and impress consumers that they are missing something, and inform them of the availability of the content they are looking for at a price, he said.
(The third edition of the annual event, Future of News was organized by afaqs! in New Delhi on July 30.The event was sponsored by STAR News, Sakal and Business Standard.)