The timing couldn’t have been better. The way the Aarushi Talwar murder case has been covered by our news channels gives me enough reason to question the nature of live news coverage on Indian television and its larger impact on our collective awareness.
Live act: Mehta attempts to find out how news channels impact our thoughts and actions.
Clearly, something fundamental has changed in the way we consume news and live news consumes us. India On Television: How Satellite News Channels Have Changed the Way We Think and Act, a new book written by Nalin Mehta, former broadcast journalist and academic, attempts some answers.
It’s a well-researched and well-written book that begins with the beginnings: Mehta revisits the birth of television in India and its shaky initial years because of Jawaharlal Nehru’s apathy and neglect. He says that it was Indira Gandhi who first understood television’s power to reach the masses and shape opinions.
As the book progresses, we go through the chequered growth of Indian television — from government-controlled Doordarshan days to the entry of the private sector and eventually the near monopoly of Rupert Murdoch’s Star. Mehta interviewed over 50 people from, or connected with, the field and peppers his narrative with illuminating quotes from this diverse lot.
The more engaging part of the book is towards the end, beginning with a chapter recounting the circumstances surrounding the infamous News With Bunty & Babli on NDTV (coinciding with the release of the film Bunty Aur Babli, the channel aired a news programme in which the characters from the film, played by Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee, were faux anchors). Mehta goes on to examine the “cricketization” of Indian news and the corresponding “Indianization of television” (the marginalization of international news in most channels) before finally arguing in favour of the democratizing effects of satellite news.
Overall, the book works well as a historical account. The narrative is racy, and the theoretical foundation is strong without being overwhelming. There are parts in the book which take us behind the scenes of television news and Mehta, being an insider, manages to give us interesting details. The impact that TRP ratings play on the way news is aired is described vividly, none more so than in the instance of a news editor highlighting news about Jabalpur because it was part of the group of places where viewership was tracked to calculate ratings.
Mehta’s description of Aaj Tak, the channel that redefined news in India, is particularly useful as it reveals how deeply this channel understood the Indian viewer when it was launched, with its focus on covering the theatre of action (Mehta quotes someone in Aaj Tak describing the channel as a “badly made Hitchcock film”).
Mehta sees the Indian coverage of cricket and the conflation of the game with patriotism as a turning point in the journey of satellite news channels. The hype surrounding every cricket series as an event of national importance, and programmes such as Match Ke Mujrim, which turned the contest into a blood sport, are seen by the author as part of an exercise that spoke to the Indian need for verbal jousting. He calls the phenomenon of interactive cricket coverage, “SMS adda”—a virtual space where the game becomes a spectacle, and which, in turn, becomes the site for debate, discussion and diatribes.
The book is on less certain ground in fulfilling what it primarily sets out to do — provide perspective on the impact these channels have had on the way we think and act. Mehta’s thesis — that satellite television has fed off India’s argumentative oral traditions and is playing a vital role in sustaining Indian democracy — is well developed. But, barring that single argument, the book lacks original perspective. There is a lot of information, an enormous amount of background, which is commendable. At a time when the relentlessness of 24-hour television is erasing memory, a historical account such as this is eye-opening. Mehta reminds us that there are many worlds beyond those beamed by television news.
But useful as that is, one wishes that Mehta had pushed the arguments in the last few chapters a little more. As he himself points out in the epilogue, much remains to be said and done. The book is silent on how the nature of news coverage is altering the consumer’s view of reality. It does not address the possible counter arguments to the core argument he makes about the usefulness of satellite news channels.
For instance, by tailoring news exclusively to its defined audience, does a news channel create a spurious sense of entitlement in the viewer? Is the public discourse fostered by television an expression of democracy or consumerist narcissism? Mehta also does not address the question of whether any form of regulation is merited given the reactions that satellite channels elicit today.
Mehta has written a classic journalistic book in that he excels in reporting and fact-gathering. A little more opinion would have struck the perfect balance.
Santosh Desai is CEO, Future Brands.
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