The huge increase in the number of television news channels in India is well chronicled. From one TV channel—state-owned Doordarshan—and a couple of news bulletins a day just two decades ago, we have some 60 news channels in 16 languages today, many with round-the-clock news and half-hourly news bulletins. As a result, for many, TV has replaced newspapers as the primary source of news.
This has clearly driven more and more newspapers to embrace entertainment and TV-like offerings, be it an HT City or Delhi Times, where glitz, glamour and titillating “news” is dished out in mini-bites around photographs. But, what most people, including many media pundits don’t know, is that research increasingly shows newspapers are still considered as the more credible source of news.
In an unexpected twist, these studies also show what I call the “appetizer effect” of channels. Essentially, it shows that those who watch news on TV are far more likely to read newspapers! As a result, contrary to conventional wisdom, the recent proliferation of news channels is helping newspapers consolidate their news relationship with readers—and grow.
What our media lab, which has been monitoring print and electronic media for some five years now, shows is that although news channels are on the rise, the choice for the viewer remains rather limited, with content across channels more or less the same. Almost all of them end up giving a curtain raiser on issues that are covered, bereft of depth and, thus, build a growing appetite for newspapers to get details and, indeed, cross-check television coverage.
Consider the chart that looks at three years of offerings by six national channels: Aaj Tak, Star News, Zee News, CNN IBN, DD News and NDTV 24x7, in their prime-time slot of 7pm to 11 pm. What it reflects is the rise of sports, entertainment, crime and human interest stories, and the decline of political coverage. Surprisingly, and maybe because there are now plenty of business-only channels, business coverage has also fallen dramatically. At the same time, agriculture, education, health and environment news have not seen any net change from insignificant levels.
The analysis also shows that rural India is still nowhere in the news bulletins even as coverage from small towns has gone up. But, news from Delhi and Mumbai, still accounts for at least 50% of all news.
Television news in India has come a long way in making news more engaging, but it is still in its identity-forming stage with ongoing experiments in both content and presentation—incorporating reality shows, comic programmes, documentaries, special programmes, style, presentation.
It is also this experimentation that has led to creating or manufacturing news, putting the credibility of television “news” at risk in the channels’ pursuit of audience ratings that, in turn, directly impacts ad revenues. And as competition intensifies, older channels are caught between living up to “standards,” even as newer, less inhibited channels try all sorts of innovation and gimmicks to create a niche.
But if intense competition forces more channels to sacrifice credibility or trivialize content as “news”, they will only help newspapers win the credibility battle by going from appetizer to the main course. Then, the ability for TV news to garner more audiences—and advertising—will be at risk.
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization, Centre for Media Studies. Your comments and feedback on this column, which will run every other Friday, are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org