The TRP war is on, with all guns blazing. Speaking for the ruling party, as often as I do, I feel the searing heat. As a former TV anchor, I understand the significance of TRPs (television rating points) for channels, which are constantly striving to outperform each other and maximise viewership. As I look back, I slip into nostalgia and discomfort in equal measure, knowing the unpredictable stakes of the game.
I was the debut anchor for Star News when Prannoy Roy’s NDTV officially parted ways with the Star Network and Rupert Murdoch launched a slick 24/7 news channel in Hindi in 2003. The idea was to challenge the monopoly of Aaj Tak, which had turned 24/7 in 2001, in the Hindi news universe. In September 2005, when Star News edged past Aaj Tak for a good spell, on a show based on the live depiction of how an ashram alienated children from their parents, it was big news. Then, again, Star News got ahead by broadcasting the footage of gangster Dawood Ibrahim’s family wedding. Star News had managed a coup by exposing the links of the D-Family/Company to Bollywood and politicians. I remember the sense of jubilation at becoming numero uno in the news game.
TRPs do not always spike on sensationalism; they respond to authentic news-worthy content. Ironically, it was not so much as a TV anchor but more as an activist that I contributed to making news relevant. A number of my former TV colleagues told me they were happy to see the end of the tabloidisation of news and a return of real news with the Anna Hazare Andolan. This was one good reason for me to move on.
While I firmly believe that a meter or two in Mumbai cannot push one channel to the number one position across the country for nine consecutive weeks, the fact is that then TAM, and now BARC, call the shots with their meters. The 45,000 households which had these meters installed have become the coveted influencers of TV news — its form, content and translation into advertisers’ money.
The moot question in this season of open mudslinging between TV channels is this: Is this just a fight for eyeballs, or does it reflect a genuine desire of millions of viewers for quality, firepower and accountability from channels? Are we ignoring the existence of the elephant in the newsroom — the audience? This audience — or viewership — drives TRPs. It is this ecosystem of kids, teens, students, wage-earners, tenured employees, farmers, the self-employed, businessmen and shopkeepers, teeming with political views and leanings, that allows media to be what it is. Television cannot be blind to their dynamic roles as voters, democratic activists, and nationalists.
Is the assertion of a new aggressive channel seemingly about righting the historic and current wrongs of the Leftist ecosystem that is out of sync with the pulse of the people? Beyond big profits and advertising money, it is now a battle of ideas and ideologies, and eventually, the battle for Bharat and its pulsating collective subconscious, significantly represented by the Hindi heartland.
The fight is between the brawling camps of Leftists who rule the roost in university classrooms and newsrooms, and others, who are unforgiving and unapologetic, and wish to assert their presence. Call it an overreaction to an overdose. Or perhaps an over-correction to what was being served as news through the prism of the self-anointed, self-righteous intellectual pundits, who talked down to others on predictable lines. Past masters knew to spin the agenda on Akhtar-Junaid-Pehlu lynchings, but they were sadly silent when non-Dalits and non-Muslims got killed. Those aggrieved by the arbitrariness of the Leftists found an amplification in those who openly vowed to expose the deliberate deviance and gave space to Chandans, Ankits and Rahuls in the airwaves that reached out to the heartland.
Bari Weiss, the New York Times journalist who resigned in protest against the orthodox Left, wrote: “The lessons that ought to have followed the election — lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society — have not been learned. Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.”
This is a battle in which the viewers will have the final word. The point is the cow belt matters. BARC’s meter is the EVM of the news world.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 20,2020 under the title “The rest is noise”. The writer, a former journalist, is a member of the BJP
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