It's a moment of truth, not TRP

Updated: 14 October, 2020 07:44 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

No, a lie does not have two sides to 'debate' on TV, and claim later that viewers were interested!

Representation pic/Getty Images
Representation pic/Getty Images

Mayank ShekharFirst thing that went through my mind, when a live news-anchor from NDTV 24x7 called for a general sound-byte on how there was no electricity across Mumbai, Monday morning, October 12 was: Why's this even news for the rest of India? Surely the guy in Meghalaya will wonder, so what? Mumbai will care. But then there is city-wide power outage, so no TV to switch on for this audience. And no television rating points (TRPs) to get from it anyway!

Yes, we're all allowed momentary lapses of cynicism! But the fact also is that Meghalaya or the entire North-East of India never gets covered on national TV news, because their viewership "profile" does not fit into the metric of TRPs that define what's news. Given the money that pours in from advertisers are based on these numbers.

Full-on crews of Hindi/English news stations in Noida and Mumbai therefore, hardly stepping beyond a 20 km radius, plan wall to wall coverage/spins on issues — from Delhi politics to Arushi/Sushant deaths — hoping it would somehow be deemed of national significance.

Each channel essentially eyes the other, making politics and media two industries, where competition furthers sameness, with inevitably an outlier driving the rest into a particular direction — which is 'pataal lok', for the most part.

India's newspapers, despite their own limitations, have historically unified this country, through varied news, views better. Aware of their role, you'll notice, they even hold mastheads/titles that aren't city-specific; unlike their American counterparts, New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Sun Times, San Francisco Chronicle…

Though we also associate certain Indian cities with their loved, legacy dailies — say The Hindu in Chennai, The Telegraph in Kolkata, mid-day (after ToI) in Mumbai, if you may. But no lay reader I know cares for their readership numbers/position, or of any preferred website, so long as they like its content.

TV viewership numbers, with its weekly (Thursday) TRP charts, operate more like Bollywood box-office. Because they belong to show-business. Over 90 per cent of TRPs, gauged from around 45,000 homes nationwide, go to general entertainment channels (GECs) and movies on TV.

Leaving news, usually, trundling at a distant third (garnering around 8 per cent viewers). Of which, over half is among various regional languages; the rest, Hindi. Sample size, therefore, that determines ratings for shows/exclusives on news channels are so low, that 700 homes can stand in for 80 crore potential viewers, plus ad-revenues thereof (in a scarily/irreversibly 100 per cent advertising model).

A fix here or there in content, or even the insignificant data/survey, could make or break a news channel altogether — shrinking staff, ignoring important news, shutting down bureaus, zero travel-budgets for anywhere outside Noida-Mumbai....

This is why, for the past two decades, you may have read about news channels being at war with each other — simultaneously questioning the authenticity of TRPs. I haven't heard of GECs/movie channels do the same — while 'people meters' are the same for all! GEC ratings also don't mismatch so much with their hits online (unlike news).

Latest was Republic TV being accused of fixing data, allegedly paying off R500 a month to supposedly classified homes with people meters, so they (claim to) watch Republic TV. The R500 a month would not cover their therapist's fee if they really did watch that channel for too long.

Which is the bigger crisis. The fact that utter nonsense — from 'chase sequences' to meme material — is peddled as news to reflect thereafter that this is what people, according to TRPs, want. Charts on Thursdays confirm. Circus continues.

Who gets hit? Since it's hard for such a commercially vulnerable industry to take on the really powerful, they direct hate, their essential USP, at all kinds of folks — chiefly private citizens, who can't hit back. The Rhea Chakroborty case (post actor Sushant Singh Rajput's death), was a turning point in that regard.

Lies, that don't have two sides were yelled, to drill murder into a suicide case, for nightly 'debates' and all-day 'news', to make weekly crores from (claiming) TRP numbers, over a young man's inconceivably tragic demise. Memory of the departed was played with, along with reputations of many others.

On October 12, when the lights shortly came back in Mumbai, a tube-light finally flickered in the film industry, when 34 production houses and four trade unions, slapped a defamation suit against two TV channels for running a relentless smear campaign against Bollywood, for three months straight!

These two channels were Times Now and Republic TV. Because Bollywood evidently hadn't watched Hindi news to know what was going on there. Viewership of all English channels put together is 1 per cent of all news; which, in turn, is only 8 per cent of all TV viewership!

Do the math. Look at the perceived damage. Lies can't be measured in TRPs, right? Who are TRPs for? Businesses to gauge if they'd like to advertise on a channel.

Unless AI takes over, would a brand openly associate with unfair media trials, witch-hunt, hate speech, communally divisive material, law-court type final judgments, cheap innuendos…? If the answer is yes, then the problem is not TRP. At the core of the crap is the advertiser.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14

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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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First Published: 14 October, 2020 06:55 IST

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