Too much TV, a good thing

Updated on: Dec 16, 2013
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Time was when we jumped at the early morning’s newspaper to read about election results, to read more fleshed out versions of what Doordarshan had lectured about the evening before. And while it has been a while since satellite television broke all the rules (and boundaries), the mind boggles at number and range of analyses on a total of 182 news channels — the largest number of news channels anywhere in the world.

The coverage of the State elections held recently where the Aam Aadmi Party upset everyone’s applecarts, les affaires Tehelka and Ganguly, Tendulkar’s retirement, the Supreme Court ruling on Article 377 — ‘Headlines’, ‘Breaking news’ and ‘Just in’ dominate our screens minute by minute.

But when the content is the same, and the tone is generic, what sets English and Hindi news channels apart from another? The differentiation is transient, based partly on content and partly on the form of different individual presenters.

The difference lies in the editorial stance of the channel, and in the ways the same news is presented — in its depth, canvas and volume. The power and influence of anchors becomes the major draw. Anchors become brands, and it is no surprise that Arnab Goswami, Rajdeep Sardesai, Rajat Sharma and Barkha Dutt are now well-known brands with their own fan following.

Shouting match A justified point of criticism levelled against all channels is how an extraordinary number of newscasters and anchors actually shout. In this respect, TV news sees itself very differently from print news that is inclined to be balanced and reflective. Most panelists — even when they are repeated across channels — inevitably ask the anchor to allow them to finish. On the other hand, however, we need to recognise that TV works on finite time and speakers have to be cut off in order to allow for others to speak, and of course for the omnipresent sponsors to advertise their wares.

Television shapes its content by its form, and because it is set in real time, news is designed to create impact rather than memory, as commentator Santosh Desai remarks. Desai notes how a channel’s English version tends to set a loftier tone while letting its Hindi counterparts run riot with a dramatic soundtrack. On the whole, English news follows the pattern of print news with the notion of editorial voice.

News is more an ordered account of what a worldview should be like. In that sense, all newspapers develop a baritone when they speak. Hindi news, on the other hand, is more a breathless account of reality as it unfolds. But in recent elections, both English and Hindi news channels repeated and amplified the news. It is story-telling at its best, television as spectacle.

Still, with the elections now looming large and most news channels now preoccupied with this, we need to remember that covering elections in a country as vast and diverse as India is an extraordinary challenge. For all the talk of the influence of the internet and social media, its access still remains restricted to a miniscule section of the population. Television as a media product has the largest reach, and is the greatest leveller. People watch it individually or communally, even. To be sure, television channels do not determine how the voters actually go out and vote, but they can influence the polls through proxy wars.

Proxy Wars TV debates on election polls are ultimately proxy wars. They reflect on the leading candidates, amplify rhetoric and set a tone. It will, of course, be helpful if news channels move away from the cult of personalities and deafening decibel levels that make it practically impossible to distinguish one channel from another.

But variety also means that one gets the good with the bad. And, with the number of news channels now on offer, it becomes harder for any one of them to gain long term dominance.

What, however, provides value to the viewer is the number of channels providing news coverage. So, let a thousand channels bloom!

Despite the homogeneity, we have come a long way in our coverage since the days of Doordarshan.

(The author is a professor at the American University of Kuwait.)

Published on December 29, 2013

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