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Sex, sleaze spell boom for Hindi channels

By Shuchi Bansal
June 02, 2007 10:15 IST
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Earlier this week when Rajat Sharma's Hindi news channel India TV grabbed almost 18 per cent share of the news market, top management teams in rival companies such as Zee News, Aaj Tak and Star News, among others, went into a huddle.

Zee executives, it is learnt, spoke to TV Today managers who run Aaj Tak, and wondered if the two could jointly take steps to curb India TV's growing popularity. Star News' top brass, too, reviewed the threat from Rajat Sharma's channel which grew from 12 per cent to 17.4 per cent in the last six or so weeks.

Tension ran high in the editorial and advertising sales team of competing channels with people pledging to quit the TV news business if India TV dislodged the leader. Such reactions, a bit alarmist, were understandable. Surprisingly, India TV, which inched its way to occupy the number two position and continues to sit there, is hardly celebrated for its credibility or content.

Take a look at the kinds of stories that are helping it climb up the popularity charts. In the last few weeks, among its most watched stories was a private video of a starlet sauntering about her house in lingerie. Jahnvi, the aspiring heroine was in the news some time ago when she slashed her wrists during Abhishek Bachchan's wedding. The video, played by India TV (and refused telecast by others or so they claim), fetched the channel a 26 per cent viewership share and a court notice from Jahnvi.

In the weeks gone by, it has aired stories with pulp fiction titles: "Masjid mein sex" (where couples are allowed into ancient monuments for a fee) or "Sex on the Rajdhani" (call girl in the first class train coupe). Snakes mating also made news on the channel as did stuff like "Joota bhagaye bhoot" and "Aurat bani maa Kali". Cold numbers show that viewers have given a thumbs up to India TV's tabloid-like content.

Interestingly, people are not only watching it in larger numbers, they are spending more time on the channel. Those in the 15-plus age group are watching the channel for 42 minutes a week, much higher than 34 minutes that the market leader Aaj Tak clocks.

Broadcasting industry's most acceptable television monitoring mechanism -- TAM -- shows that even its elite panel (households owning an AC, PC and car) has given India TV's popularity a leg-up by tuning in. On the other hand, a hard news channel like NDTV India saw its viewership slip by four per cent in the last few months.

To be sure, India TV is not the first Hindi television network to have used tabloid-like content to get eyeballs. When former Aaj Tak executive producer Uday Shankar was driving it, Star News, the JV between ABP Ltd and Star India, did just that.

In fact, media industry veterans indict Star News for starting the trend of blowing up the inconsequential. Among the first trivial stories that occupied Star News' small screen for four to five hours was "Mandir ka rahasya". The story focused on children who visited a temple and, mysteriously, never wanted to return home to their parents.

That week in 2005, Star News displaced Aaj Tak from the number one position. Not one to go down without a fight, Aaj Tak came up with "Yamraj se mulakat" where a dead man came alive and recounted his experiences after death. "That was the beginning of the battle for eyeballs and 'naag, nagin, bhoot-preyt' started surfacing on news channels," says a former Aaj Tak producer, adding "racy tabloid content on news TV became common".

However, at the same time India TV was taking the definition of "tabloid" content a little further. It not only conducted a sting operation on Bihar politicians' sexual escapades at Delhi's Bihar Bhawan but also aired explicit visuals.

Little surprise, then, that media observers hold Hindi news channels collectively responsible for tabloidisation of content.

Says Starcom Mediavest's CEO (South Asia) Ravi Kiran: "Pulp and sensationalism are dominant across news channels. News may be the fourth or the fifth element in their content plan after crime, sex, violence etc." Agrees TBWA India's senior vice president, Gopinath Menon: "Hindi news channels are straddling the entertainment space."

India TV's CEO Chintamani Rao, formerly a media specialist with McCann-Erickson, is unruffled by such criticism: "People watch what is relevant to them and it is they who decide what is relevant. In a free competitive market, they choose and buy products and brands they prefer. The same applies to TV news," he says.

To be sure, sex, sleaze and the slight are driving content on Hindi news in general. But Zee News editor Raju Santhanam would have you believe that sleaze is a subjective term. "What was sleaze earlier is news today. The kind of stories that appear in print today would be defined as sleaze 10 years ago. TV channels too can't remain unaffected by the changing environment."

While not all content on news channels is crass, it is, more often than not, flimsy. A senior news channel executive says that most players are weaving content around the four Cs: crime, cinema, comedy and cricket.

High viewership of Sansani on Star News and ACP Arjun on India TV clearly show that crime sells. Two weeks ago, Star News' top rated show was not one of its bulletins, but Parde Ke Peeche Kya Hai -- the behind-the-scenes story of Vivek Oberoi' new film Shootout at Lokhandwala.

Rao rubbishes the allegation that India TV airs sleaze, adding that "sex, crime and supernatural sell and so does violence on TV, newspapers, magazines, movies, books, the Internet. . . "

Psychiatrist Sanjay Chugh, too, isn't surprised by the popular vote to tabloid content on news TV. "Horror, superstition, sleaze, crime has always been part of our life. The only difference is in numbers. What came in spurts, is rolling now," he says.

The trivialisation of Hindi news TV content stems from severe competition in the genre. There are at least eight major Hindi news channels fighting for the Rs 550 crore (Rs 5.50 billion) advertising pie growing at 20 to 23 per cent a year. Santhanam says there is increased pressure on channels to deliver ratings to generate revenue.

"We don't have the luxury of being a public broadcaster where numbers don't matter. The challenge before a news channel is to keep its reputation ahead of rating. It is a tough call." Unfortunately, sometimes reputation is sacrificed for rating, he adds.

Needless to say, in the numbers game, news broadcasters need to generate consumer stickiness to their channels through non-newsy spice dressed as news. According to ABP Ltd (which runs Star News) CEO Pramath Sinha, some broadcasters may be under a different kind of pressure. "The new players have raised money from investors who may want quick returns to cash out. News does not give such fast returns, so you have to show numbers."

Besides, the distribution cost of a news channel

is very high. Having spent Rs 15 crore (Rs 150 million) to Rs 30 crore (Rs 300 million) a year on distribution, there is little money left for investment in programming. "So channels resort to cheap programming," says Sinha.

Compelled to drive viewership, channels hire stand-up comedians, invite astrologers to the studio for viewer phone-ins and put up dance and music shows. While light content gets viewers, do advertisers fall for such "news"? Chintamani Rao says yes. Advertisers are already moving into India TV. Among a slew of local advertisers are major brands such as Tata Motors, Coca Cola and Amul.

However, news is a not a rational game as you don't buy it for numbers. "The channels are bought for their image," says TBWA India's senior vice president (media) Gopinath Menon. Agrees Ravi Kiran: "Advertisers look at brand fit. They will not advertise in an environment that doesn't suit them."

Hindi news channels have eroded their own brand equity by under-selling themselves. "There was a time when DD's news bulletin sold a 10-second spot for Rs 90,000. The category has degraded itself." While that could be a function of DD's monopoly then, Menon makes a point when he says that today channels follow a marketing and not an editorial model. "There are no benchmarks, no rules for content," he adds.

But that is set to change. And it must, say media observers. "If I show a film on a news channel, it will get eyeballs. The question is what you want to do. Viewers may be watching your content, but they are certainly not defining it," says the CEO of a Hindi news channel.

Adds Rao: "Viewership is voluntary. If people wanted serious news, DD News would have been the most watched channel."

TV Today's executive director G Krishnan, while refusing to comment on India TV ("It is not our competitor. We are in the news business," he says), points out that some serious news channels are slipping not because of content but poor presentation and packaging.

"You must remember that the Hindi audiences needs some masala."

The Regional Divide

Sex on the Rajdhani or in the Masjid will not find takers in Bengal, Kerela or even Andhra Pradesh. "The kind of stuff you see on Hindi news channels is peculiar to the North or, say, the Hindi-speaking belt," says Sanjay Salil, a broadcast media consultant.

Salil has studied these markets as he's putting up news channels in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and the North east. "In these markets, sleaze on news doesn't sell."

Agrees Star News' business development head Barun Das: "There will be a furore in West Bengal if we put out what the Hindi news channels show." Das should know.

He looks after Star Ananda, the ABP and Star JV's Bangla news channel. There are four news channels in West Bengal and none seems to be competing with the Hindi news channel content. Again, Kerala has four news channels.

"Their storytelling may evolve but they are unlikely to go for 'tamasha'news of Hindi channels even when competition comes in," feels Salil. But with Rajat Sharma now eyeing the Gujarati news market, will the rules of the game change?

However, the news broadcast industry is pausing to give its content some thought. Informal discussions have been on among the Hindi news channels to form an ethics committee and create an ombudsman to do content audit for channels. The information and broadcasting ministry, too, is revising the content code for television.

Cracking The Code

The information and broadcasting ministry is revising the programming code for TV channels. The review committee, set up more than 15 months ago and comprising people from different sections of society (NGOs, government officials, FICCI members, Film Guild representatives, advertising industry bodies etc), met yesterday to modify the existing programming code.

The revised code will spell out details on how sex and nudity, crime and violence can be depicted on the small screen. Explicit visuals of sexual activities and complete nudity will be banned. Crime shows will be allowed but crime cannot be glamorised. Programmes promoting superstition or the occult will not be allowed and "Adults Only" content can be aired post 11 pm.

The revised code, part of the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act, is also expected to incorporate rules for news channels which, media representatives feel, may stifle their freedom.

"People may think that we just sit here doing nothing, but we do keep an eye on all the TV channels. There is a long process which involves the nod of an inter-ministerial committee," says a senior I&B official.

The existing guidelines state that TV programmes must not show obscenity or "encourage superstition", which Hindi news channels happily do.

"We send notices for such programmes. Often, news channels hide behind the garb of educating and informing people," says the I&B ministry official. With the committee spelling out the details, the ministry should have fewer reasons to fret.

"What constitutes obscenity will be explained. The revised code will encourage self-regulation as we have no desire to be 'thanedaars' or the moral police," says the official. The much awaited Electronic Media Monitoring Centre (EMMC) will also come up.

"Currently, we informally divide channels to watch among our section officers. Now we will have at least 50 people monitoring them round the clock," he says.

Some channels have resorted to introspection and realigned their strategies. Henceforth, Star News will focus on the social aspect of news. Last week it started a consumer affairs programme called Main Hoon Na. "Another pilot of a programme on similar lines is on the cards. We will do a reality show with a social conscience," says Sinha.

IBN 7's managing editor Ashutosh (he does not use his surname) claims that the channel tweaked its positioning and content some months ago. It got out of the race for the frivolous to focus on hard news.

"In the last six months, we've seen 100 per cent growth (from 6 to 13 per cent) on the back of serious sting operations on corruption among MLAs and spiritual leaders, among other things."

The view is that tabloid news is a short cut which eventually does not make much headway. Star News tried it and succeeded up to a point. "It got viewers but advertisers did not follow," says an industry observer. Clearly, the way forward is segmentation between hard news and tabloid news channels.

In any case, if Hindi news content on the small screen does not change soon, there will be a consumer rejection of news channels, warns Ravi Kiran. He speaks from experience of holding focus group discussions for his advertisers.

Adds Zee News' Santhanam: "Most channel heads are hoping that viewers will get back to news and that news will give us ratings. It's a challenging time for Hindi news channels."

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Shuchi Bansal
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