April 04, 2020
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Samachar: Sorry... No Interruption

From 30-minute slots to full-fledged channels, TV news has come a long way

Samachar: Sorry... No Interruption
Atul Loke
Samachar: Sorry... No Interruption
It's frightening to be called an "expert", because then you have to say something which is zara hat ke, ie which "adds" to the existing perspective, which instigates people to give up 10 minutes of doing something else (like, perhaps, watching TV!) and spend that time imbibing your worldview....

Anyway, the minute you get bored, remember there is a sleek black plastic monster called The Remote. All you have to do is press a button, stop reading, and begin watching TV.

The story of India's television news is largely the story of three extraordinary companies, two super-skilled professional entrepreneurs, and an apprentice. The companies are NDTV, TV Today and TV18. The two super-men are Aroon Purie and Prannoy Roy. The apprentice is yours truly (in quite a literal sense, since I actually won my spurs in news, learning directly from and under them, in the late '80s).

The milestones of each journey are stunningly similar. Each company started as a "news production outfit", that is, it was commissioned by a broadcaster to make a news "programme". Each company continued with this "aberration" for about half a decade. Why do I call it an aberration? Because nowhere in the world was news outsourced, as it was in India in the mid-to-late '90s. News is an infrastructure game. You can't produce it for 30 minutes every week, or even for 30 minutes every day. That was an aberration. TV news needs hundreds of reporters, camera crews, editing units, broadcasting vans, live links, transmission stations...it's an "all or nothing" game. All three companies saw the future quite clearly—become a news broadcaster, or perish. All three became news broadcasters.

But it wasn't a monochromatic transformation. Each company signalled a unique facet of India's electronic news industry as it transformed itself into a broadcaster. Let's just dig into their individual stories, should we?

NDTV (in its earlier avatar as Star News) proved that a 24-hour news channel works—before this happened, almost everybody had thought that news would survive only as a "band of programming" on a general channel—conventional wisdom was that a 24-hour news channel would have no commercial legs to stand on.

TV Today stunned the world with Aaj Tak, a 24-hour offering in Hindi. Again, it was conventionally assumed that "vernacular" news would get the numbers, but not the moolah. After all, India's well-heeled people read their newspapers in English, and so would consume their TV news in English, too...and if that were to be the case, Aaj Tak's "vernie viewers", ie "vernacular/Hindi-speaking type" viewers, may tot up numbers, but simply not be viable. Who would pay for these "starving eyeballs"?

But the makers of Aaj Tak spotted a trend that escaped almost everybody else. India's upper middle-class preferred to read English newspapers and novels, and frowned upon anything printed in Hindi—but when it came to entertainment, they consumed Bollywood films with an unmatched ferocity. The argument became compelling. For a consumer, the experience of reading the printed word was utterly different from watching an audio-visual product. Clearly, people like my dad found it impossible to read Navbharat Times, but they enjoyed watching Aaj Tak. So devastatingly simple in hindsight, yet so difficult to decipher before that!

And then there was us, poor ol' "business wallahs". Whenever I would speak of a 24-hour "vertically focused" business news channel, I would be greeted with polite, silent scepticism..."young man, have you ever thought that people actually get all their business news on NDTV-Star News? Prannoy and his team already cover business news for about 30 minutes each evening. So why would I or anybody else want to go to a channel dedicated, 24 hours every day, to business stuff?"... Polite tut-tuts and firm headshakes would follow. .."no, young man, India is NOT ready for a 24-hour business news channel...you are trudging down a street with no name, lad, and will lose a lot of money".

Oh no sir, we were trudging down a street with an unambiguous name, called "vertical" street, or for those who enjoy choice, called "niche" street. As India's television news market matures, it will get even more "vertical"—we have already launched a Hindi business channel, and the day may not be far when we will see a Gujarati business channel, a Bengali one, a Telugu one...and then "business" itself may split into a consumer channel, a shopping network, a stocks-only channel, a technology channel, an education channel...call it narrow-casting, call it "verticalising", call it what you want.... TV news channels will get even more vertical/niche, as a higher number of viewers reach out to news/information products.

Let me make a quick "future call", and then get out of here. Soon the acronym "TV" is going to get out of television news. It will be replaced by "multimedia broadcasting". The television picture will be married to text on a device—on your desktop, in your lap, or in your hand. That device may be called a TV, a computer monitor or a mobile phone. You could be watching a story on an airline company's ipo. You would click on the screen, and make an online application to subscribe to its shares. Or you could go and read its prospectus. Or you could click and see the current valuation of all airline stocks trading on any exchange in the world at that moment.... Hey, now I am getting into "theoretical territory", ie I have absolutely no first hand experience of any of this.

All I know is that content will ALWAYS be king, but new multi-media distribution options will define the frontiers of its kingdom!

(Raghav Bahl is managing editor, CNBC-TV18)
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