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TV is subject to much more scrutiny than ever before

Is the tide turning for TV hosts? There was a time when they were regarded as icons, as role models and widely admired. Now, they are reviled in postings on the net, routinely sent-up and ridiculed and frequently, the subject of internet hate groups.


   Once they were hailed as symbols of a new India. Now they are accused of being too pompous, too full of themselves, of shouting at the camera, of haranguing guests, of hogging the show, of injecting too much emotion into news coverage, of letting their biases show and of acting like they are more important than the news they cover.


   If you don’t believe me, just google some of India’s best-known TV anchors. You’ll be surprised by some of the hatred, contempt and vitriol you find on the web. Almost every blogger has his or her own insult for TV presenters. It’s like that in private conversation too. You’ll hear people saying things like “Gosh, So and So is a pompous ass” or “My God! How much that bloody So and So spits at the camera!” or “Doesn’t he realize it is not about him/her but about the story?” or “How does that mad woman get on to TV?”


   When was the last time you heard the sort of praise and hero-worship that greeted say, Prannoy Roy, when he emerged during the Nineties. Or the kind of national affection that enveloped Barkha Dutt after Kargil? Or the admiration that people felt for Rajdeep Sardesai after Ahmedabad?


   You can still come across expressions of that sort of positive emotion but they have become rarer and rarer.


   What’s made the difference?


   I offer some explanations, none of which is enough to explain the turnaround but which may address part of the problem.


One: The honeymoon is over. The novelty value of news TV has worn off. The generation that grew up on Doordarshan’s bland and anodyne newscasters and therefore appreciated the change that the private channels had brought about has faded away. For a new generation, this is the only TV they know and they are less willing to be kind. In fact, they are now ready to be cynical.


Two: Not only has the novelty value of news TV worn off but there are now too many TV anchors for any of them to seem particularly special. In the old days when it was just Prannoy, Barkha and Rajdeep, they seemed like symbols of a new India. Prannoy was the guy you could trust. Rajdeep was the brilliant and charismatic journo who told it like it was. Barkha was the plucky girl reporter who dared to go to Kargil and who made audiences open up to her every Sunday evening.


   Now, the old stars may still be the clear market leaders but the gap is narrowing. Each year, a dozen new anchors come on to our screens to do exactly what the Big Three did in their heyday. It doesn’t seem that special any longer.


Three: Anchors have begun taking themselves too seriously. Too many of them have forgotten the distinction between news and views. They confuse reality with their own perceptions. They believe we are interested in their emotional reactions. They fail to keep their emotions in check and shout at the camera. They act as though they are judging the world from some Olympian height. What was once irreverence has now become arrogance.


Four: News TV itself has suffered a drop in the esteem with which it is regarded. Once it was seen as representing the educated middle class’ view of India. Now it is increasingly seen as a commercial activity, fighting for TRPs, cutting corners, dropping standards, trumpeting phoney scoops, inventing stories or exaggerating their significance and following a Breaking News policy that is hysterical and borders on dishonesty.


Five: TV has also dropped its old standards. Now, there’s no clear distinction between news and advertising. Companies get their brand names into the titles of shows. Movies do deals with channels which afford them hours of publicity. The definition of ‘news’ has been relaxed to include cheapo sensationalism, entertainment of the worst kind and too much crime. It’s all become a little tabloidesque. These days, for many channels, the model is not the BBC. It is Fox News.


"So yes, feelings run high on the web against anchors and against TV channels in general. But do these views represent the opinions of the millions who actually watch TV?"

Six: There’s just too much competition. The glory days of news TV – at least in public esteem – came in the era when there was just the NDTV-run Star News which had the field to itself and set the rules. Now there are too many channels and the competition for new, so-called scoops and interviews has led to a mad and unseemly scramble.


Seven: The viewing public has changed. It’s not just the age difference (the emergence of a new audience). It is also that news viewership is more democratic. So a class system has developed. Because tabloid news gets ratings from the masses (to the extent that the term ‘masses’ can be used for viewers of English news), those who regard themselves as more discriminating or better-educated, feel disenfranchised. They are the ones who complain the loudest.


Eight: Viewers are fickle or over-emotional so it is hard for TV channels to judge what level to pitch news coverage at. One instance: most people feel that TV covered 26/11 in an over-emotional and intrusive way. But it covered Kargil in almost exactly the same way and we loved it. The style did not change. Viewers’ reactions did.


Nine: Anchors have become like movie stars. Because so many viewers have grown up with them and are used to seeing them in their living rooms everyday, they have become familiar figures. So, we bitch about them just as we do about movie stars and TV actors. But because anchors are journos and not actors they find it difficult to accept the kind of ridicule, abuse and criticism that say, Rakhi Sawant or a Shekhar Suman would regard as normal. One instance: when Shah Rukh Khan did Paanchvi Pass, he got more abuse and criticism than any anchor has ever received. But because  Shah Rukh is a star, we did not find this at all odd. TV anchors, on the other hand, are affected by this kind of ridicule.


Ten: We are making the anti-TV case on the basis of an unrepresentative sample. The people who attack anchors or form hate groups on the net tend to be a noisy minority. When channels do SMS polls, they are nearly always a joke because a) samples are small and b) they are self-selecting, depending on who chooses to reply.


   Much the same is true of the anti-TV mood. Almost the only concrete evidence for this mood comes from internet postings. But how many people generate these posts? How many people join hate groups on Facebook? How many people get on to Facebook anyway?


   The danger with the internet is that those of us who use it, often attach a disproportionate importance to its feedback. Perhaps one day the net in India will get to the stage where it can compete with the huge readership of print. (A column in the HT, for instance, is read by four or five million people a day!) Or the net could get the  large audiences of TV (also running into millions). But that day has still to come.


   So yes, feelings run high on the web against anchors and against TV channels in general. But do these views represent the opinions of the millions who actually watch TV? Is a hate group of 10,000 people significant when a show has a viewership of several million? I don’t know.


Eleven: No matter which of these reasons you accept or reject, here’s my view: the party is over. TV is subject to much more scrutiny than ever before. And all too often, the anchors fail to realize this.


  • Kollengode 12 Dec 2010

    I find that most anchors are bullies. They try to browbeat the interviewee into saying what they want them to say - rather than allow them to speak their mind. Whether it is Rajdeep Sardesai or Arnab Goswami or Barkha Dutt they all take the same aggressive browbeating route. The Anchor is supposed to be only a moderator not an instigator !!

  • Santosh Gairola 07 Mar 2010

    Quite old blog, but I would like to add one point in defence of "hate group of 10,000 people". Since they are on internet, they tends to have access to much larger information base than the one who watches TV or reads the newspaper only.
    That larger information tend to have impact on his/her observation and judgements.

  • arvindban 26 Dec 2009

    Its one thing to be able to read a teleprompter,...quite another to be able to connect with audiences...a handful like Rajdeep, Sardesai , Barkha Dutt & possibly Udyan Mukerji do.
    The rest ..well...Vir said it all.

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