Wednesday, Dec 13, 2017 | Last Update : 10:06 PM IST

When anchors become news

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy
Published : Oct 5, 2017, 3:21 am IST
Updated : Oct 5, 2017, 3:22 am IST

Arnab’s new channel is funded with rightwing money, and Rajdeep was at one time touted as the AAP’s man in Goa.

Arnab Goswami
 Arnab Goswami

In his seminal study, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshal McLuhan, the new age’s first media prophet proposed that: “a medium itself, not the content it carries, should now be the focus of study”. He said that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered over the medium, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself. In other words it’s the singer who matters more than the song. Why then do pop stars prefer those outlandish outfits?

India now has over 167 million households (out of 234 million) with television sets, of which over 161 million have access to cable TV or satellite TV, including 84 million households which are DTH subscribers. Digital TV households have grown by 32% since 2013 due to migration from terrestrial and analog broadcasts. According to a BBC survey The most important news sources for Indians in a typical week are television (mentioned first by 37%), newspapers (36%), radio (7%) and news magazines (4%) with no gender bias. Clearly, TV is a major influencer.

The power of television first went home to media observers after the historic Kennedy-Nixon televised debate in 1960. The 60-minute duel between the handsome Irish-American senator and vice-president Richard Nixon fundamentally altered political campaigns, television media and America’s political history.

What happened after the two candidates took the stage is now a familiar tale. Those who saw the debate on TV overwhelmingly thought Kennedy won the debate. But here was the surprise. People who heard the debate on radio thought Nixon had won. But those listeners were in the minority. By 1960, 88% of American households had televisions — up from just 11% the decade before. The number of viewers who tuned in to the debate has been estimated as high as 74 million

Back then and for decades after the US had only three major networks that provided both news and entertainment on the same channel. But the advent of CNN changed all that. For the first time there was 24x7 news. But even so, in the US it is still mainly CNN and C-Span.

The proliferation of such channels all over in the world was what followed. But even more so in India. At last count there were 402 24x7 news channels in English and all the regional languages. When all the news is about the same, its personalities stand out in this swarm. TV channels create personalities for themselves through their presenters and presentations. Audiences now demanded news performances instead of just news. They also know who purveys how and who is aligned with whom. Naturally the emphasis now is not on content but on style of presentation. The personality of the newscaster is now even more important.

With few exceptions all channels now have provocative and eye-catching styles. The male anchors all wear suits, as if it were some symbol of their professionalism and modernism. Even Ravish Kumar, who I particularly like, wears an ill-fitting suit for his Hindi show. The ladies exude similar professionalism and modernity in their Western attires. Even the regional channels have ladies similarly attired. And have you ever wondered why there are no dark skinned news anchors?

Nowhere in the world has media become so personality driven as in India. Our anchors now are media personalities and several of them think of themselves as the news and believe that they shape and form opinions. People like Arnab Goswami and Rajdeep Sardesai most of all. They also make no secret of their political leanings. Arnab’s new channel is funded with rightwing money, and Rajdeep was at one time touted as the AAP’s man in Goa. He never really denied it.

In the Mecca of modern television news people like Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite of CBS, and later anchors like Dan Rather (CBS) and Peter Jennings (ABC) became trusted names and it was the trust they engendered that made the news credible. They created their aura by being politically neutral, unemotional and self-effacing. The self-effacing blandness with which Cronkite narrated the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War are now classics of an age where the news was in the content and not seasoned to popular tastes by the anchor.

In the frenzy for eyeballs and TRPs, content is increasingly meant to put the viewer in a kind of REM trance. REM is a unique phase of sleep in humans characterised by random and rapid eye movement of the eyes and the propensity of the sleeper to dream vividly. The REM phase is also known as paradoxical sleep because of physiological similarities to waking states.

Rajdeep and Arnab are the most representative of the new age anchors who dominate our consciousness with their projected personalities — not by being self-effacing and rational — but by their combativeness, imperiousness and sheer political partisanship. We know where both are coming from. They dominate a universe of watchers who hand over their minds to personalities every night rather than to reason and sanity. Rajdeep and Arnab fight for a similar space and it should hence come as no surprise that they are also bitter adversaries.

Goswami, the one-time king of the anchors, doesn’t have many friends but has many imitators. The anchors he has left behind in Times Now carry the same venom, obnoxiousness, partisanship and blinkers to their daily shows. This has been somewhat infectiousness. TV discussions are more slugfests and shouting matches with anchors often taking sides to badger a hapless victim of the day.

Arnab makes no bones about what he is doing and why. When a reporter queried him on his abrasive and partisan style he is said to have replied: “How does it matter?” he asked perfectly reasonably. “I’m playing the story this way, and I’m getting 45% in the TRPs. My two principal rivals are trying to be calm and moderate, and they’re at 13% and 11%”. Arnab may be happy for now. But he will do well to realise that in the last US presidential it was Internet which determined Hillary Clinton’s fate not popular TV.

Internet is now growing exponentially in India. The number of Internet users in India is expected to reach 450-465 million by June, up 4-8% from 432 million in December 2016, a report from the Internet and Mobile Association of India and market research firm IMRB International said. “Urban India with an estimated population of 444 million already has 269 million (60%) using the Internet. Rural India, with an estimated population of 906 million as per 2011 census, has only 163 million (17%) Internet users.” Indians are spending 28 hours on mobile as compared to four hours on television, with 45% of time spent on entertainment and 34% time spent on search, social and messaging. Clearly TV news faces a major challenge and it has to fight hard to be seen.

Tags: digital tv, ravish kumar, arnab goswami