News channels: why self regulation will not work

BY Media foundation| IN Opinion | 29/03/2009
Systemic problems have to be tackled before we can see substantive change in the content, tone and type of the news served up to us.
Presenting the substance of a MEDIA FOUNDATION discussion.

This is the expanded English version of a column carried in Hindustan on March 29, 2009




No matter what the time of year, news television brings us a reason to  comment on its excesses. When IPL becomes an issue it drives out all other kinds of news from news channels, and when Varun Gandhi¿s communal comments are the issue they are amplified by tv coverage, leading again to protests from viewers.  In between we continue to see a daily, dramatic obsession with the Taliban on some channels, and news about aliens and ghosts on others. 


Six months ago an effort at self regulation was put in place when the News Broadcasters Association set up a News Broadcasting Standards (Disputes Redressal) Authority.  So has anything changed? In the last two weeks  I have had two occasions to hear operational heads of  news channels defend the conduct of their channels and the compulsions under which they operate. One has also heard a member of the NBA authority talk of what they have been able to do so far. Other voices from news organisations  have also been heard, both from India and abroad, at a  panel discussion organised last week by the Media Foundation in Delhi.


In the final analysis what emerged is a number of systemic problems which have to be tackled before we can see substantive change in the content, tone and  type of the news served up to us.


News executives always profess to be hurt at all the criticism. From their perspective (as expressed at public fora) they are more sinned against than sinning. They work within a ratings system which forces them to raise the pitch of what they are telecasting, and show pictures which will stop a viewer from switching to another channel. Two voices, from IBN 7 and from a rival English channel (he did not want to name it) said the same thing: every Wednesday morning, when the ratings come in, you live in tension. If your channel has gone up or down by a single point, it means you have gone down to six from five, or gone up to five from six, and it affects you advertising. You channel bosses then turn up the pressure.


Asutosh from IBN 7 floated the idea that news channels should come out of the ratings system if they can, should collectively decide to boycott it, and force advertisers to find some other means of assessing who is watching what. Two others, from other channels felt the government¿s licensing system was to blame. Entertainment channels are penalised for carrying news and forced to change their licensing category even if one per cent of their content is news. But a news channel can be 100 per cent entertainment without attracting any penalty at all. This needs to change, they need to lose their license when they carry programming that does not fall within a specified definition of news. 

For instance, according to industry research body TAM, in the January-June 2008 period, 54.2 per cent of the content on Hindi news channels was not news. And among English channels, the number is 38.4.  There¿s a little bit of everything for everyone from cricket and comedy shows to serials, reality tv shows, daily horoscopes, ghosts, superstition and most of all crime shows. Mostly on Hindi channels.

The ministry of Information and Broadcasting gives licences but does not review them. Meanwhile the Telecom Regulatory Authority which is the regulator for the television business as well is now looking at regulating TV rating agencies. Pressure needs to be brought upon both by civil society to correct anomalies which affect the content of TV news.


How does the ratings system operate?   Unlike newspaper circulation audits which take actual circulation into account, TV ratings function on the basis of sampling. Some 7000 homes  in a country of  80 million satellite tv homes deliver data on who is watching what.  The homes which allow their TV sets to be metered are paid Rs 1500 a year. Would homes that agree to participate for such a fee represent a whole gamut of income groups in the country? Would data based on such a sampling provide an accurate feedback on the kind of programmes people actually want to watch?


Those who work in TV news say that these are systemic issues that need to be tackled if you want to curb the excesses of television channels.


Meanwhile, six months after the news broadcasters¿ association  set up a disputes redressal authority to take viewers¿ complaints about television excesses, what is the situation on the ground? Have any stricture been passed against anybody? Has any complaint been upheld?


The answer is that guidelines are now in place,  complaints are now being regularly received, and very soon the Authority will begin to publicise the judgements they have arrived at on these complaints. The problem is, it is not a statutory body.  Whether its recommendations are implemented by the News Broadcasters Association is something we still have to see.


Broadcasters in the meantime claim that they are changing their ways. Within channels, they say they check with each other whether something should be carried, or not. They gave the example of  a recent MMS scandal in Faridabad involving a schoolgirl. They claimed that while newspapers covered this, TV channels did not.   They also claim that they are conducting workshops to improve the quality of the work their reporters do. But cynics will ask, can leopards really change their spots? Can those working in a highly competitive situation in a dramatic medium with its own compulsions, tame themselves and become ethical? Unless perhaps they are in danger of losting their license to broadcast news?



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