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“Trust has once again emerged as the most critical factor in people’s news choices”

The resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the last few weeks has put a dampener on the country’s fight against the pandemic. Even as the vaccination drive gathers momentum, the country is reporting over 40,000 new COVID-19 cases every day. Lockdown has been re-imposed in certain cities.

Experts are attributing this second wave of COVID-19 infections to people’s laxity in maintaining all the safety protocols such as wearing masks in public places, maintaining social distancing, avoiding crowded places. As per a recent survey report, titled ‘India becoming complacent against COVID-19’, social events are back in rural areas and Tier 2, 3 and 4 cities after reduction in the number of COVID-19 cases, and many people have “dropped the idea of wearing a mask”.

We have been seeing huge gathering of people at the ongoing Kumbh Mela, Holi festivities in Uttar Pradesh, in the India-England cricket series, as well as the poll campaign rallies by various parties in the five states going to Assembly elections.

In line with its brand ethos of ‘On Your Side’, CNN-News18 has launched a nationwide awareness campaign – #DontShowMeYourface. Through this unique initiative, the channel aims to promote the idea of how wearing a mask entails a sense of safety and helps others as well. Alongside on-air and online engagements, the channel has also launched a unique and customised AR filter for social media platforms, which will allow users to capture their pictures with a curated mask and support the campaign call.

In conversation with Adgully, Zakka Jacob, Managing Editor, CNN-News18, speaks about the thought behind the campaign, how the pandemic has changed the face of news television, news consumption behaviour of consumers and the road ahead.

Please elaborate on the thought behind the ‘#DontShowMeYourFace’ campaign. How are you ensuring reach and traction for this campaign?

It’s a unique campaign because on the face of it, it may seem to tell people off, but actually the desired effect is to surprise and shock them. Hopefully, this will motivate people to wear masks, which all of us are taking lightly as though COVID-19 is over. And we all know it is far from over. So far we have got good response to the promo on TV and on social media. We have introduced two new filters on FB and IG with the name #DontShowMeYourFace. They are pretty cool. We have been promoting the campaign through our social media handles while also leveraging the strength of our network handles such as CNBC-TV18, Moneycontrol and Firstpost to reach a large number of users. Promos are also being aired on CNBC-TV18 and CNBC Awaaz along with digital banners on News18.com. So, extensive editorial and marketing efforts are being put behind the campaign.

With COVID-19 cases on the rise again, how is CNN-News18 ensuring the safety of its workforce on the field and also at the workplace?

Our main office in Noida is still working with a lot of the restrictions that were put in place in the early days of the pandemic. The newsroom has two partitions, with each partitioned area holding a team. One team does not interact with the other. None of our reporters are still coming to office, thereby limiting their exposure to those in office. Also, all anchors work out of another floor without exposure to the main news floor. Plus, about 20 per cent of our editorial staff is still working from home. Our premises are deep-cleaned with anti-viral chemicals daily and work surfaces are cleaned several times a day. Overall, we have a best-in-industry COVID-19 mitigation and management strategy in place.

How has COVID-19 changed the television news industry?

For starters, during the lockdown more people started consuming more and more TV. And since news was the only format that had fresh content, the viewership overall for the news genre jumped over 30 per cent, according to figures by BARC. Overall for news, it’s been an upward trajectory.

How has the audience’s news consumption behaviour changed during this period? How much of news is now consumed on the Digital platforms vis-a-vis on television?

I am glad you asked that question because in a post-COVID world, TRUST has once again emerged as the most critical factor in people’s news choices. This is a trend not just in India, but across the world – people are going back to some of the most trusted and time-tested news brands. Digital for sure is the biggest disruptor as well as enabler – we don’t see digital as only the desktop, mobile or social media. We look at it as a mindset. For us, even the way TV operates is now digital – all our reporters, producers and editors think multimedia and digital is at the core of how the same piece of news gets amplified across platforms. We have one of the most converged newsrooms in the country – TV and digital work hand-in-hand on stories and we are proud of what we have built.

For us, what matters the most is that we are always first and factual – and the all-time high engagements we have had during COVID-19 crisis show the trust that audiences have in us. They are the real motivation behind what we have achieved during the COVID-19 crisis. We have seen a lot more awareness among audiences around health, environment, wellbeing and a shared future that we all need to create for ourselves and for the future generations.

Given the sensitive times, the importance of credible information has grown manifold. Do you think news channels have been able to be responsible platforms, because we also saw the TRP manipulation scam explode during this period?

It is unfortunate what happened during this episode. A few channels may have indulged in such corrupt practices which has hurt the entire industry. But since the matter is under investigation I would not like to comment further. But you will appreciate that nowhere has Network18’s name come up even by way of allegations in this entire dark episode. And we intend to keep it that way.

Currently the News channel genre is under a ratings dark period with the suspension of BARC ratings. How is that impacting the news channels? Could you give us an idea about the impact on the major national news channels as well as on the smaller, regional news channels?

While yes, ratings measurement going off has hampered the genre as a whole, the good news for CNN-News18 is that it has a very high brand recall. The brand CNN is associated with news all over the world. Also, we have seen some advertisers conscientiously shifting away from some news brands and move their advertising spend on to more responsible brands. It’s a move that has benefitted us.

What is your vision for CNN-News18 in 2021? How do you see the channel growing in these challenging times? How has CNN-News18 been in the pandemic-affected 2020?

I think 2021 could be a breakout year for us. The genre had faced headwinds in the last few years. But that trend is changing. 2020 was a good year in terms of viewership. I think 2021 will be even better. There is immense interest in this round of Assembly elections. There’s the T20 World Cup coming up later this year in India. Plus, we will soon be revamping our programming line-up. We have a solid line-up of anchors in the evening primetime from Anand Narasimhan to Marya Shakil, Shreya Dhoundial and the newly joined Shivani Gupta. I don’t think there could have been a better time to infuse a dash of credible, young faces to the genre. So, we are looking forward to that.

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