Indian TV hits nadir with Prince saga

BY IANS| IN Media Practice | 28/07/2006
Wasnøt this publicity lopsided? Didnøt channels go over the top?

Indo Asian news service

 Murali Krishnan

The wall-to-wall coverage of the dramatic rescue of five-year-old Prince from a 60-ft deep pit in Haryana`s Kurukshetra town has taken television coverage to a new and disturbing low.

Sure, it was a poignant story that merited coverage with the boy falling into a shaft and lying trapped there for 50 hours with soldiers from an engineering regiment working overnight, scooping out drums of mud and then creating a connecting passageway in their rescue effort.

But for most major television channels to suspend regular coverage Sunday to devote nearly all their airtime to the rescue effort and its accompanying images was a different ballgame altogether.

In fact, television channels went the full Monty. Cameras panned on citizens organising prayers for Prince in various cities, showed a Sikh community starting a langar (community kitchen) to offer food as well as a group of people placing `chadars` at the dargah of Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer. All this as the flow of SMS mails increased.

And if that were not enough, channels buffeted viewers with constant images - with the help of a closed circuit TV camera that had been lowered into the hole - of Prince looking around nervously, munching on chocolates and drinking milk from a can along with biscuits and tea made by his mother.

Young mothers held on to their dear wards, a prayer on their lips as they watched Prince`s plight with bated breath. And when he finally emerged, wrapped in a white towel, celebrations abounded. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was not far off, sending out a missive praying for Prince`s speedy rescue and good health.

Wasn`t the coverage disproportionate to the event in this vast billion-plus nation where 25 violent crimes take place every hour, 59 housewives commit suicide every day, and where two rapes, four murders, 10 culpable homicides and one dowry death occurs on an hourly basis? Wasn`t this publicity lopsided? Didn`t channels go over the top?

As Paul Danahar, BBC`s South Asia bureau editor, insightfully pointed out in a recent article on "How TV news is distorting India`s media", TV news channels are now setting the standards for the whole industry.

"Too much time to fill, too many channels, not enough news and reporters just out of their teens are all factors dumbing down the news agenda across the industry," he said.

That the "bizarre" sells in India, draws eyeballs and can catapult a channel`s television rating points (TRPs) was established two years ago when eight-month pregnant Gudiya from Uttar Pradesh was brought into an air-conditioned studio.

A mock village panchayat was organised by the channel and she was subjected to the cruel dilemma of having to choose between two husbands and securing the future of her unborn child before a host of Muslim religious leaders. It was a different matter altogether that Gudiya received little publicity when she died in a city hospital of lung infection early this year.

Then, in an almost similar action replay, akin to Prince`s coverage, channels flocked to a village in Bhopal in October last year to see if an astrologer who forecasted his own death would die as predicted.

Important news coverage was given the goby as cameras panned on 75-year-old Kunjilal Malviya, in deep meditation, waiting for the opportune time with his maker. As cameras waited with breathless anticipation and a reality show turned soap opera, Malviya decided to take a rain-check on his `death`.

With a new consumer culture swamping the country, media managers in television channels know how to take advantage of the situation. Competition is cut-throat as newspapers and magazines battle for space in an age of increasing celebrity profiling and PR puffery.

Next time around don`t be taken aback when channels focus on a hapless pet having fallen into a manhole or stuck in the branch of a tree, unable to climb down!

(Murali Krishnan is a senior editor with IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at )

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