Two of the biggest Khans in Bollywood—Aamir and Shah Rukh—have an uncanny ability to court controversy at just the right time: before a film release. The latest episode has been the row that erupted ahead of the release of SRK’s My Name is Khan. Whether it’s his cricket team or a film release, the actor ensures that you cannot ignore him. With some controversy or the other preceding the release of most new films, it’s difficult to say if these are stage-managed or just coincidence. But what happened in early February could be studied as a strategic use of a political controversy fuelled by our news channels to promote and market a film.
No doubt the Shiv Sena’s campaign against SRK was provocative. While this deserved to be in the news and debated, the prominence given to the issue and the film in this coverage was quite distinctive. It’s interesting to note how television served to raise the pitch, thus unwittingly marketing the film. The table below shows the prominence given to the ‘real-life’ drama, which fizzled out immediately after the film’s release. Given that films make most of their money in the first weekend, the controversy breaking out two weeks before the film’s release on 12 February ensured that Khan and the film were in the headlines throughout.
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The table shows coverage of the film from 29 January to 9 February. The debate received a total of 1,441 minutes on six prominent national channels (CNN-IBN, NDTV 24x7, Star News, Aaj Tak, Zee News and DD News), with daily 20 minutes on average on each channel. Except for DD News, which had eight stories during these 12 days, all other channels gave more than 10% of prime time space to this issue, with news stories, special programmes and discussions. In fact, most channels treated the story as a law and order issue of national prominence.
During that period, the 7 February meeting of chief ministers on internal security was completely overshadowed, receiving less than 50 minutes of total prime time coverage on all six channels (compared with almost two hours of coverage on average for the SRK-Shiv Sena controversy). Home minister P. Chidambaram’s special meeting on 9 February with the chief ministers of states hit by Maoist insurgency was also given short shrift, with a few channels such as Aaj Tak and Zee News having no coverage at all.
On the day of the release, three out of every four headlines on almost all news channels were on the film—featuring Khan’s appeals or the Shiv Sena’s comments.
While the news channels may have milked the drama surrounding My Name is Khan, the biggest winner was the film itself. The prominent media presence created curiosity about the film and boosted its appeal, leading to full-house openings all over India. Despite the growing electronic and print media clutter (not to speak of the Web), Bollywood has ensured that its films and their stars are constantly visible in every way possible. Professional image managers ensure the right “placement” and “message” to maintain brand value, besides which it’s now common to have special tie-ups with news channels for the promotion and marketing of films.
Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint; Photo: Rajanish Kakade/AP
On the one hand, the news channels don’t want to lose out on the celebrity value of stars or the immense popularity of cinema in our film-crazy nation. Then again, the media is held up as one of the pillars of India’s democracy, setting the agenda and enjoying a privileged position.
Unlike the West, we still do not have niche news channels providing exclusive celebrity gossip or even entertainment news. That gives Indian news channels an added area to cover, although they need to balance that with the need to maintain the credibility that sustains them.
There are lessons and implications in the conversion of a political storm into a marketing opportunity, irrespective of how the film fared at the box office. The episode goes to show that the country’s news media needs to think about whether it was used to raise the pitch of the controversy to sell a film. The news channels need to have stronger and clearer editorial guidelines that will help them make the right judgement calls and serve a discerning audience.
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies.
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