In one way, while the coverage of the September 11 events in New York underlined the enormous role that the United States has in today's world, it also underlined the enormous command that US networks have over international news. "The US networks were able to ensure that the attacks became world news in about 15 minutes after the planes crashed into the towers. It shows the overwhelming reach that the American media has. At the end of the day, the overall media hype around this event has been far greater than anything before," evaluates Partha Pratim Sinha, director, marketing, Zee Network.
Even as the dust is settling down in New York, the reverberations of the crashing towers are being felt in such unlikely areas as Indian media planning. News channels are suddenly in the news, and media planners are considering investing more to reach viewers. But the question is, will this last? Many media planners think so. For one, because of the uncertainty, or, as one analyst puts it, "the fears of shocks to come."
But, at the same time, it is likely that there will be a change in focus and direction, especially, as US troops rumble around in the region. Currently, despite the implications for the region, the focus has almost solely been on the western perception of the region. This is one thing that will change. "The war theatre is shifting to South Asia, and there will be a greater focus on Indian stories. The news will be more relevant to Indian audiences, and the emphasis will be more on Indian channels," predicts Atul Phadnis, associate media director (strategy), Starcom India.
Analysts also point out that unless something dramatic happens, news channels will have to switch to in-depth reporting to keep viewer interest alive. Even then, it would be an uphill task given that there could be analysis only to a certain extent, and then little more. And if indications from the United States Government of "slow secret wars fought away from the public eye" are going to be the norm, viewers are going to flick the button on the remote. "It would be like the days of good old DD. One knew that the first five minutes of the news would be occupied by Rajiv Gandhi. Many people used this time to catch up on other things," is how one journalist at CNN puts it.
Keeping the viewer glued to endless commentary on how Osama will or will not be caught will be a tough task. News channels that cater to special interests will not find the going so tough. CNBC, for example, has already resumed normal scheduling, while CNN continues with live coverage. CNBC, which caters to corporate India, will have a lot coming in. "As long at the crisis drags on, there will be a sustained interest in the markets. And in those sectors that are affected, such as airlines or insurance," says Haresh Chawla, chief executive, CNBC India.
Given the indications, this is one aspect that will continue to dominate news for quite some time to come, even as the pure political story dries up. The U.S. economy is in sharp retreat, with the collapse of consumer sentiment in the face of talk of a long war and "a clash of civilisations". With economic losses many times greater than the physical losses inflicted by the attack, and the effects sure to wash up on the Indian economic shores, this will be one area that will continue to get coverage.
At the same time, channels are poring over the data that has been gleaned about viewership patterns. One benchmark of comparison is the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Some interesting facts: when Princess Diana died, more women tuned into the news channels, and there was more interest in south India than in the north. In the present coverage, male viewers dominate, and the greatest spurt in viewership was in Cochin.
Some analysts have attributed this to anxiety about the large Diaspora, as well as concern about the impact of the events on West Asia, where many from the state work. For Indian television, media events such as these have been turning points. In 1991, when George Bush (Sr) sent US troops into Kuwait, India discovered CNN. Some Indians planned to buy satellite dishes, others flung cables over trees and fences, and began offering makeshift C&S services to their neighbours. Satellite television had come to the country.
Ten years on, things are very different. The events in New York unfolded live on television. In 1984, anxious Indians had to tune into the BBC to get the latest on the assassination of Mrs Gandhi, even as the public broadcasting system, DD, continued as if nothing had happened. Times have indeed changed.
Meanwhile, as the rubble gets towed away, nearly three weeks after the event, September 11 continues to be the lead story. An international relations professor once cynically remarked that for the media, the death of one American is equal to the death of 10 Europeans, 100 Asians, and a 1,000 Africans. Whatever the course the war takes, the media has proved the professor right.
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