The market and news media
Try this. Do not, I repeat do not, watch news channels for one week. Avoid online news. Just read the newspapers. After a week, you will feel a sudden peace, a de-stressing taking hold of you.
Your patience, tolerance, everything will start going up. This is not a joke. I did it to myself last week when the media was going mad about the chopper deal. I did not feel anger, irritation or anything about the deal. And I ended up reading some really good opinion pieces and editorials about it.
The individual is obviously not a sample that reflects 700 odd million TV viewers. But this experiment points towards the answer to the question of falling news standards and our apoplectic feeling about them. It involves giving up on television news for a bit, till the medium and the people running it get their act in order.
For very long we have discussed all that is wrong with news television. What however is wrong with us as news viewers? Or as consumers of any media? Why can we not change channels or switch off the TV, if something is not good enough or doesn’t agree with our sensibilities? One part of it has to do with psyche. This column will not tackle that.
The other is the way our TV and its navigation is structured. In an analog world we are snackers because there are no electronic programming guides (EPGs), no menus and no flexibility to choose. But for seven years now we have been digitising, thanks to DTH. Add the recent mandatory cable digitisation going on and roughly one-third of India’s 140 million TV homes are digital. And you can see a huge change in how they watch television.
One of the first genres to lose share, post digitisation is news. This is because surfing becomes easier on digital TV, thanks to an EPG, that menu you see on your DTH screen. It ensures that people go straight to the channels or shows they want instead of roaming around aimlessly. This, typically, has benefitted specialised genres such as kids’ programming or movies. And it has hit genres that do not have a focussed offering, such as news or music.
It also tells you one more thing. That we have matured significantly as an audience, especially in areas that have had cable TV for long, such as Mumbai or Delhi among the top 20 cities. This by the way is evident also in the way we read magazines or see films. In magazines for instance the specialised consumer titles are showing the maximum growth in readership and ad revenues.
So IT, lifestyle magazines are doing well, while news magazines which operate in a commoditised market are struggling. Ditto for films where the mass market films do well on single screens while the somewhat more evolved stuff does not go beyond the multiplexes in mature metro markets. Our palates as media consumers are getting finer and we are getting more demanding. So the shrill, over-the-top senseless debates may work in small towns where media exposure is not yet complete.
They don’t in the bigger cities which are more mature markets. It explains to a great extent why English news continues to stagnate or fall (depending on which quarter you look at) in the overall viewership pie. The four metros, the biggest consumers of English news are simply not interested in watching the same anchors they were watching ten years ago, offering the same points of views, with the same experts.
That tells you more clearly than anything else that you don’t need regulation or controls on the media. You need a free market and good editors who can create news brands that cut through the clutter. As digitisation spreads, news channels will find themselves caught between consumers who are not willing to pay for them and advertisers who will question these very falling viewership numbers. Wait then for news channels to refocus their businesses around content instead of distribution. It may take six months or more. That is when I will try watching a news channel again.
The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik