Monday, January 19, 2009

Selling News On-Air

Many people thought that television news channels behaved rather immaturely and irresponsibly during their ‘live’ and ‘exclusive’ coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks. Some of my friends were so enraged that they thought that these channels should be banned.

It was not for the first time when functioning of television news channels had attracted criticism. But the latest case was seen as a compromise on matters of national security and domestic harmony, and the channels appeared ready to go for this compromise in favor of TRPs. Reports suggested that the government was planning to put a leash on the media and authorize bureaucrats and policemen to determine what should a television news channel show on such occasions.

Expectedly, such reports met shrill and united opposition from the media, especially the television media, and the top editors of the news channels termed the proposed step similar to draconian laws during Emergency. They asked; Whatever happened to the idea of free press in the largest democracy of the world?

Press? But the government was talking about the cameras, not the pens. Are television cameras a part of press? Are television journalists really "journalists"?

TELEVISION AND JOURNALISM

This statement might look like another of those television journalism bashing statements, which have become kind of fashionable now. But it can’t be dismissed just for being fashionable. The truth is, many professionals working in the editorial/journalistic roles in today's television news channels, especially the Hindi news channels, ask this question to themselves and are asked the same by their friends.

Usually, the responses are of the following three types:

  • Of course we are journalists, what wrong are we doing? Is the so-called press, those page-3 newspapers journalists, doing any better?

  • There are some compulsions of television journalism. Reckless race to become number one has compromised on some aspects of pure journalism. It’s sad.

  • Give me a break. If we show anything wrong, why do people watch it and give us the TRPs? There is a "demand" for such style of journalism and content.
  • The first reaction is of a ‘television’ professional who is working as a journalist.

    The second reaction is of a ‘journalist’ who is working as a television professional.

    We will talk about the third reaction a little later.

    When we criticize television news channels, unwittingly ‘television’ aspect gets emphasized, and such an emphasis evokes either of the first two responses. But let’s be fair and rational; journalism is more about the message than the medium, and a critique of journalism should involve analyzing the message as opposed to the medium.

    In any communication process, message (the output) surely is a function of the medium, but the medium is constant. If we are uncomfortable with the output, it would be wiser to focus on the variables and the input, rather than finding fault with the constant.

    So let’s for a moment criticize television news channels with this approach.

    We are unhappy with their output – a television news report. Let’s find out the inputs and the variables. Input is surely the event or the ‘news’. What are the variables?

    For ease of analysis, and since it’s not a PhD thesis, let’s keep the number of variables to as low as possible. I can think of the following three variables broadly:

  • The journalist/reporter’s perspective/prejudice (say, on issues like what constitutes or defines 'news')

  • The editorial guidelines of the channel

  • The business strategy of the channel
  • The first variable can be controlled by proper training and development of a journalist. There are very few quality journalism institutes in the country and there doesn’t seem to be a strict minimum qualification to become a journalist.

    The second and third variables are determined by the ‘bosses’ of a television news channel. And some of these bosses (and their disciples) come up with the earlier mentioned ‘Give me a break’ reaction when confronted with the question ‘Are television journalists really journalists?’

    TELEVISION JOURNALISTS

    So do we blame the bosses or lack of trained journalists for the current mess in which television journalism finds itself today? I believe that enough talent is there in our country and one can always find people trained and suitable for the job of a journalist.

    But television journalism doesn’t seem to be attracting the best brains today (with all due respect to all the current television journalists). Either the best brains don’t opt for television journalism or they are not actively solicited by the industry bosses. This hast to change.

    There was a time when the best brains were supposed to opt for the civil services and then the trend changed in favor of MBAs from premier institutes. There are two factors common in civil services and MBA from premier institutes – compensation or the money making prospects and some minimum qualification standard (faring well at CAT and UPSC exams) making the group 'elite and restricted'.

    Though not as lucrative as financial sector, television journalism surely has got attractive compensations and money making prospects. So if it is not attracting the best brains, is it because the group is not elite and restricted (or is it?)? Is it even desirable to have journalism or journalists as an elite and restricted group?

    I would leave that upon journalism fraternity to think how they want to ‘brand’ journalists as a group and journalism as a profession. However, if not an elite and restricted group (which I guess goes against the ethos of journalism), journalism as a profession must have a minimum set of standards for including new professionals.

    If these standards are missing today, or if they exist but are not being adhered to or respected, who is to be blamed? The mad TRP race to make a television news channel profitable, which doesn't require 'pure' and trained journalists?

    In the above sentence, there seems to be two assumptions:

  • TRP race is the only force that drives the business of running a television channel

  • The ‘business’ of running a television news channel is incompatible with the ethics/mission of journalism
  • The first assumption is a bit tricky, and we’d come back to it later after analyzing some other aspects of television business and journalism.

    The second assumption seems to suggest that the nature of the television channel ‘business’ is causing news channels to stray away from ‘pure’ journalism, or ‘journalism’ in itself is not a good ‘television business’.

    So if not the 'television' business, what business is compatible with ethics of journalism?

    BUSINESS OF JOURNALISM

    Historically news organizations have been running the business of ‘printing and publishing’. The modern journalism is supposed to have started with the Gutenberg press in the fifteenth century, when Bible was printed and made available to the common masses, liberating it from the clutches of the clergy.

    The Bible printing press evolved into of a press that printed books, periodicals and finally Daily Newspapers by the seventeenth century. Soon, various newspapers were in business all over Europe and America. Journalism was a ‘mission’ as well as a ‘business’.

    Many of these newspapers were ‘promoted’ or ‘owned’ by people on a mission – people committed to the ideals of democracy. Even in India, journalism students are taught that modern journalism started with some of the great freedom fighters, including Mahatma Gandhi, starting their own periodicals or newspapers.

    So journalism started as a business of ‘selling ideals' of democracy.

    These ideas sold. People, the common man as well as the rich and the famous, bought them and they didn’t mind paying a price. The business sustained.

    By the end of nineteenth century, some businessmen in the USA could recognize that the massive reach of newspapers made them the most powerful tool of mass marketing and advertising. The term ‘yellow journalism’ came into being a few years after. Profits skyrocketed.

    Journalism became a business of 'selling advertising spots’.

    And it gave birth to page-3 journalism, it gave birth to sold out editorial spaces (by cleverly calling it advertorials), and it now allows the television news professionals to claim that even print journalism is not 'pure' journalism any more.

    The problem with television news was even more complex. Unlike the printing and publishing business, television business didn’t start with any grand mission of propagating ideals of democracy, revolution or education.

    Television had broadly two roles when it started – government controlled mass communication medium or an entertainment medium better known as the idiot box, which attracted eyeballs and sold advertising spots as part of business strategy.

    When independent television news channels started, they had the challenge to not take on either of these roles – a government propaganda machinery or an idiot box. While they ‘seem’ to have saved themselves from becoming a propaganda machinery of the government, they are definitely struggling to save themselves from adoption the idiot box business strategy.

    Therefore a statement that ‘television’ business is incompatible with the mission of journalism is actually the result of television business being primarily the business of selling advertising spots. And the business of selling advertising spots surely seems to be incompatible with the ideals of journalism, whether print or television.

    BUSINESS OF TELEVISION NEWS

    If not advertising spots, what should the television news channels sell then? This is a real interesting question. For that, we should find out what are the possible things a television news channel could sell? I guess they could be selling some of these:

  • ‘Experience’ in form of watching news shows

  • ‘Information’ in form of reporting and analysis

  • ‘Products’ in form of television advertising spots
  • I guess most of us, and industry experts, would say that a television news channel broadly lies in the third category amongst the above three.

    So that’s what is causing the trouble? Should the television news channels, and for that matter, other news organizations (print or online) change their strategy and adopt a business where they primarily sell an ‘experience’ or ‘information’ rather than a ‘product’?

    Now, based on the above three options, a television news channel can be run as a movie production company (selling 'experience'), a consulting company (selling 'information'), or a manufacturing company (selling 'product'). Does that mean that the news channels are being run as manufacturing companies at present?

    If you still think that television journalists are not producing ‘advertising spots’, think again. In the current TRP driven business strategy, the journalist is producing a news story to attract maximum attention i.e. maximum TRP i.e. maximum eyeballs i.e. best slot for a commercial break, and hence maximum revenues for the channel because high TRPs would push up the advertising rates.

    Hence a TRP based television news channel or advertising rate based news channel seems to be working like a goods manufacturing company.

    A television news channel being run as a goods manufacturing company throws up very ugly picture – a journalist as a shop floor worker, those very senior journalists, who hang out with promoters, as toothless or sold-out labor union leaders, and the promoters/owners as the greedy monsters out there to make huge profits by making these workers toil hard.

    I don’t think a journalist would like to be equated with a shop floor worker. The idea is not so gratifying. And the current scenario is not so gratifying for a common person as well. He may not support the government to put a leash on television news channels, but he wants these channels to become ‘better’.

    A common person may watch sensational news, but he doesn't 'pay' for it. He watches it as an entertainment program. But is he ready to pay for it? Go and find out! He is willing to pay for Bollywood movies, but will he pay for absurd news? Somebody must find out, and my gut feeling says that he won't. Sensational news doesn't sell, it is being distributed free (Free To Air channels)! If anything is being sold, it's the advertising spots created by those sensational news. Hence it's flawed to argue that there is a 'demand' for absurd news or content. Rather, there is a demand for TRPs (by advertisers, who pay big money, unlike the viewers). Let's not confuse the two.

    Can a television news channel (or for that matter a newspaper or a website too) become better while still following the current business strategy of selling a ‘product’? Or does it call for a change in the business strategy?

    NON-TRP BASED TELEVISION CHANNELS

    If the television news channels shed the TRP-driven business strategy i.e. if they wanted to get rid of this character of being an advertising spots 'manufacturing company', what should they do? Should a television news channel be run like a consulting company or a movie production company, or something hybrid?

    Perhaps most of us would desire to see the television news channels running as a consulting company as the real ‘business’ of journalism should be 'reporting and analysis'. In such a scenario, a television journalist would become akin to a consultant or an analyst of a consulting company. Sounds gratifying…

    But consulting companies have government and corporate clients, from where they earn revenues. If news channels are run as consulting companies, how would they earn revenues? Who would be the ‘clients’ of a news channel?

    The government or corporate houses can’t be the major clients as that would compromise the credibility (the biggest asset in the business of journalism) of the channel. That would also make the channel accountable to government or corporate houses, a situation that would be no better than what exists today.

    A news channel should be accountable to the general public, and that means that the general public should become their clients. So are we willing to pay the consulting fees (higher subscription fee for a paid news channel) to see a change? Even if many of us are willing, it will require a radical change in the functioning of television distribution sector to achieve something of that sort.

    So what could be changed in the existing scenario to change the business strategy of a television news channel from being that of a manufacturing company?

    Since the television industry is not going to change overnight and is expected to remain advertisement rate driven for coming years, it’s not realistic for a news channel to completely shed the TRP based business strategy. But it must not remain solely TRP driven.

    THE TRP RACE

    I would now like to come back to our assumption “TRP race is the only force that drives business of running a television channel”. In the above sections, we have assumed that TRPs almost solely determine the advertisement rates of the television news channels. Higher the TRP values, higher the advertising rates, and hence higher the profits.

    We have also assumed that it’s mostly non-serious and non-journalistic television content that attracts higher eyeballs and hence higher TRPs.

    Both these assumptions are not completely unfounded. Television advertising rates depend heavily on TRPs (although not solely) and people tend to watch more of entertainment and non-serious content on television, because television remains a very important medium of entertainment.

    Could these two factors be changed?

    The first one (making television advertising rates a lot less dependent upon TRPs) would require a change in the market dynamics of the television advertising industry, while the second one (people start preferring serious television content) warrants a radical shift in social behavior, or mass arrival of a completely new and personal medium of entertainment making television an ‘intelligent box’.

    Obviously the change in the market dynamics of the television advertising industry seems more feasible than hoping to radically change the society or creating a new entertainment medium.

    Television advertising industry has three major players – the rating agencies (who calculate and release TRPs), the media planners (who interpret these TRPs to price advertising spots), and the advertisers (who spend money to buy these advertising spots).

    All these will have to mutually agree to come up with a formula where some other factor is given equal importance alongside TRPs while pricing the television advertising spots. For example, the rating agencies could ask common television viewers to rate television news channels on some ‘credibility’, ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ index and media planners factor these ratings while pricing advertising spots.

    Yes, I am proposing that television adverting spots should have ‘quality’ (public perception) too apart from ‘quantity’ (eyeballs and reach) to offer.

    And it’s not an outlandish or too idealistic a proposition. In outdoor advertising, subconsciously or otherwise, advertising spots have surely a ‘quality’ attached to them. If you are driving on a highway, you won’t find a billboard at a spot that could be considered an eyesore by the passing people, even though the ‘eyeballs’ (traffic on the highway) remain constant all across.

    Therefore the major players of the television advertising industry will need to be convinced that advertising on a news channel, which is considered to be frivolous or irresponsible by common people, is like putting up a billboard near a stinking heap of waste on a highway. So an advertiser is advised to look for a ‘better’ spot. It seems a bit difficult, but not impossible.

    In fact recent researches have shown that an advertisement in a 'serious' newspaper turns out be more effective than the same advertisement appearing in a tabloid. Should the advertisers not care about 'effectiveness' of their ad-campaigns than 'reach'?

    The first step towards the above solution warrants that there should be a public rating to calculate and evaluate parameters like sincerity, seriousness, credibility, neutrality and objectivity of different television news channels, just like there is currently the TRP scale to calculate and evaluate the channel's reach. Will it happen? Let’s see.

    But what can be done in the current situation? Can the situation be not improved without waiting for the television advertising industry or the common television viewer to change their current ways? I don’t have a ready answer, but I have the following thoughts:

    THE CHANGED CHANNEL

    The current team responsible for the ‘output’ of a television news channel should be divided into two teams – the TRP team and the Journalism team. The TRP team should continue with what they are currently doing – producing attractive news stories to attract maximum attention and eyeballs, and hence advertisements. The Journalism team should indulge in what has been traditionally acknowledged as the ‘mission’ of journalism – safeguarding common man’s rights, keeping a check on government agencies, development journalism, etc.

    The TRP team members should periodically meet and brainstorm over TRP ratings of their programs, and come up with ways to improve them. Since they would be driving the TRP based advertisement revenues, their compensation could include high variable component based on profits, enabling them to earn much more than the journalists. The TRP team could have swankier cars but not the ‘press’ sticker on them. And I don’t say it in any condescending manner.

    Today, in most of the news channels, journalists meet periodically and discuss why their ‘stories’ could not fetch high TRPs. This must stop. TRPs, as a measure of productivity of journalists, must stop. An alternate measure or parameter has to be found out, which could vary from organization to organization, to measure productivity of the journalists. And they should meet periodically to brainstorm over those parameters and find ways to improve themselves.

    The output of both the teams has to be spaced out evenly so that they retain their individual identities and even the viewer can identify, and appreciate, the difference.

    We will have to leave it to the discretion of the ‘bosses’ to create a healthy combine of both the teams and not to mix them up or give unfair advantage or importance to one of them.

    The TRP team could be roughly likened with the ‘sales desk’ of an investment bank, while the Journalism team with the ‘research desk’. Both these desks are vital for an investment bank.

    In terms of accounting and business strategy, the TRP team should run as a ‘profit center’ while the Journalism team should run as a ‘cost center’.

    I propose such a starting step because we must stop the term ‘television journalism’ from becoming an oxymoron. I have friends working with the editorial teams of news channels and they are not happy with the kind of sensationalism and TRP based stories that are seen on news channels today. They actually feel like shop floor workers and are getting increasingly detached from the mission of journalism, which they strongly identified with when they started as energetic young professionals.

    A news channel would cease to be in the business of journalism if it runs out of journalists. The bosses have to save these journalists, and yet run the show successfully i.e. earn profits for the business. The status quo won’t achieve both.

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