Perspective | Debates and talk shows rule; Is 'hard news' taking a back seat?

If you were born in the 90’s and are an avid television news channel viewer, you ought to remember the fearless reporting done by, then known as faces of TV journalism, Rajdeep Sardesai during Gujurat riots and his colleague Barkha Dutt in the Kargil war time. We would associate television news to ‘hard news’ reporting on issues that mattered to each strata of society across geographies in the country. These cases-in-point along with many others stand in evidence that the early successes of news TV in India consisted of such ‘reporting-based’ triumphs.

Patterning their offerings like their counterparts from the west – BBC and CNN, these news channels began altering their content and programming strategies. It was not just confined to information dissemination via on-field reporters (just like the newspapers would do), but they also created extended platforms, that of panel discussion, debates and issue-related talk shows. In that sense, they stuck to the traditional model followed by most news organizations everywhere in the world.

Though to some extent, this model still persist, news programs that we watch on national cable channels and their local television stations today, have changed significantly in recent years. An observation would show that ‘talk’ or ‘debate’ has become the dominant feature of all programming on news channels. We see that the news structure has changed in terms of packaged segments, live coverage, interviews and debates. This has, in a lot ways, hampered the look and feel of ‘news’ as well. There have been instances, where the actual story takes the beating and is suppressed under agitated voice-over, repeated visual footage (something that is meant to support a television news story), loud background music and dramatic tone to the lines said by the reporter / host. Industry minds have time-and-again indicated that the programming balance is (and will continue be) tilted towards ‘talk’ much more than was the case earlier. A package, of say two minutes, will be followed by a debate or discussion that could take up to an hour.

In today's edition of Adgully Perspective, we got some industry experts on board to share their thoughts on ‘Why the change?’ ‘Why have our channels moved from being reporters of information to becoming forums of opinion, places for debate and discussion?’ Is it true that we Indians are no more interested in hard news and are rather looking for opinions expressed by the television debate panelists? Our experts include Alok Agrawal, CEO, Zee News, Neeraj Sanan, CMO, ABP News, Ravindra Ambekar, Editor-in-Chief, Mi Marathi and Harish Bijoor, Brand-expert &CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc.

According to Agrawal, today, news is available to everyone and with time the format of news been changed. “Before we read news in print medium, we already have the news on TV and new mediums like internet and mobile. So, by the time we reach home to watch news on TV we already know the news. People like to know more detailed information on the specific news and that’s where talks show or debate shows comes in”, he said.

Sanan states that viewers are rewarded with over eight hours of ‘hard news’ reporting every day. Adding further he said, “News continues to be the main stay but yes 'debates' have been added as a value addition since this format finds favor with the viewers”.

Drawing parallels between print and television media, Ambekar said, “Electronic media is parented by print and space of editorial is occupied by debates in TV. Some anchors are capable to conduct debate shows; they have authority to do so”.

Bijoor however, cites a simple and insightful reason for the transformation. “We have harvested viewer-insights and have arrived at the fact that India is a nation that loves debates. We love debate and discussion to an extent, that this is exactly what happens over a cup of tea and at times over a bun or a samosa at the 'nukkads' in 

our country.  Television in India has therefore discovered this fact and has created an electronic 'nukkad' of its own. Only here, you have articulate individuals who come with a whole diverse set of thought and heated words. There is word, there is heat, there is semantics and there are fights as well”, he explained.

Bijoor also remarks that television to an extent has aped real life and we have viewers lapping it up with gusto. Adding further he said, “Viewers are so fascinated by it all that they switch channels form debate to debate as well. The next day, there is enough reference to the debate at the office or the factory or wherever you work, and the debate continues...from the virtual to the real! In many ways, these television debates provide fodder for the physical debate, heightening the quality of debate altogether as well”.

So, how does one understand as to whether these debates and talk shows aired by news channels are correct in terms of information and sources and they are more liked by the makers or viewers.

Agarwal states that all the topics are analyzed, the various aspects surrounding it, the background for the same, are all researched extensively as its more complex than basic news.

“Hard news helps a news channel win the battle for eyeballs and drives the debates too. Viewers look forward to the ‘informed opinion of experts’ on hard news since it sometimes, helps put things in perspective. Debates are therefore a platform where counter views are presented on important national issues and help viewers to form their own informed opinions. However, it is important for news broadcasters not to force their view-point and facilitate the debate as a news show format”, explained Sanan.

Ambekar added saying, “Shows are planned after some studies. Surveys and journalists ability to assess the public sentiments are part of debate shows. Views are integral part of news”. Bijoor feels that, viewers are interested in hard news, but love to make that hard news soft, mushy and digestible in a 360-degree format. Television helps do that with its debate and fight format”.

Is this format taken over by news channels across language just as a trend or news channels support this change of their formats based upon some scientific study.

“I must tell you that ratings of hard news continue to do well inspite of debate shows. Viewers are more engaged towards talk shows and want to be part of discussions. We do pre-work but yes it’s a fact that news channel copy each other, copying goes on but how it’s been taken and delivered by the individual editors is what matters”, shared Agrawal.

According to Sanan, “This is more of an evolution rather than a revolution, when it comes to news formats, they are based on scientific study. The popularity of debate format finds expression in ratings of programs and proves that this is not something one can look away from”.

“Everything which we telecast on news channel goes under proper research. Yes, I agree that now having a debate show has become a trend, as many times policy makers get time to watch TV in evening. Common man watches debate to gain some knowledge and readymade views”, opined Ambekar.

Concluding this ‘debate’ and ‘discussion’, Bijoor said, “I have worked with some channels on this format and this is ‘insight’ rule of having debate shows, picked from the great Indian marketplace. This is the consumer and viewer insight harvested and not been manufactured in a factory”.

We believe that every medium has its own importance and role to perform. Print medium has its role so does the television and the other new mediums. We believe that, while print handles the reportage best, television handles the debate, discussion and fight-format best. But every medium should use itself as a medium for its best advantage.


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