How the television news industry scripted the Indian elections

Much of the television coverage of Narendra Modi was predictably reverential, and was guided by ulterior motives.
15 May, 2014

History will judge the just-concluded elections as republican India’s first intensively televised elections. Never have close to four hundred news networks (they equal the number of entertainment networks, such is the saleability of “news” in our culture) in a bewildering variety of languages and dialects communicated political messages from an equally bewildering array of politicians and political actors across the country. But, equally, never have so many news networks dished out the same fare: Narendra Modi. The Narendra Modi persona, for good or for bad has been largely a television media construction, amplified by saturation-point coverage of the leader, spread out over more than six months—staggering and almost unprecedented, even by global standards. Only Barack Obama’s campaign, which officially began in April 2011, for a second term in 2012, eclipses it.

But what remains opaque is the cost of this media blitz. What was the trade-off between Modi and television networks? Was it the phantom of television rating points? Or was it a matter of ideology? There are no clear answers to these questions. Several factors appeared to have played a part to varying degrees.

At a seminar in Gujarat last year, Rajat Sharma, the owner-editor of India TV, said, “The TRP of our news channel increases by more than 60 percent when Narendra Modi is there on TV.” Modi’s interview with Sharma’s India TV in April this year “garnered the highest number of eyeballs in the Indian news television genre,” according to the channel’s website, which doesn’t provide a clear frame of reference for the claim. The extent of the channel’s focus on Modi should come as no surprise, then, considering similar TRP-chasing was on show by channels during other high-profile media events, such as the Anna Hazare led anti-graft movement in Delhi in 2011, which was covered to saturation point.

But was it TRPs again that propelled Zee boss Subhash Chandra to openly take political sides with the BJP? In an alignment that can only be considered brazen, Chandra actually campaigned for the Haryana Janhit CongressBJP alliance in the state. The PTI quoted Chandra’s press release saying, “Kuldeep Bishnoi’s victory would strengthen the hands of Narendra Modi, who has become the voice of the nation.” The fawning came full, absurd, circle when the network placed the PTI copy, which quoted its release, on its own website.

The Zee editorial team recast their boss’s political slant into some shoddy spin doctoring, though it is possible that it proved effective on some viewers. Terribly made “features” (on Modi’s mother, brother), which aimed to wrench hearts and portray Modi sympathetically as a self-made chai-wallah-turned-chief minister, were dished out on an hourly basis. But easily the most horrifying was the channel’s “exclusive” Modi interview, which was played (with the tagline “the biggest interview of 2014”) every single day on Zee network’s prime-time band, right up to the day Varanasi went to polls. The network’s news anchors transformed into Modi cheerleaders, especially when it came to the BJP’s pet peeve—the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

As for CNBC-TV18, nobody knows for sure what has happened to the network after Mukesh Ambani acquired control over it. But something evidently has, which has created a deep rift within the organisation. A series of leaked email exchanges between Network18 founder-editor Raghav Bahl and editor-in-chief Rajdeep Sardesai in February this year revealed serious disagreements within one of the leading news networks. The trigger appears to have been a tweet by CNN-IBN regular, Ramachandra Guha, which said, “A disturbing story of senior journalists being silenced and cautioned by proprietors currying favour with Modi,” and was linked to a story by the news portal Scroll ('Why CNN's Sagarika Ghose may no longer criticise Modi'). This followed earlier tweets by CNN-IBN’s deputy editor Sagarika Ghose, where she had loudly complained about threats to journalistic freedom, though she did not specify whether she was referring to the situation within the TV18 group.

In the mails, Bahl insisted that either the company, or Sardesai and Ghose individually, must act to rebut Guha’s tweet. He wrote: “Rajdeep - this one is too close/credible/influential for comfort/silence. Ram Guha endorsing this is almost equal to you/Sagarika saying this (especially since Sagarika was in Bangalore yesterday, where Guha is based). A full, formal and UNAMBIGUOUS clarification/denial of the sort Sagarika wrote to me, must be issued.” Sardesai advised “staying above the noise,” maintaining that denials would only lend traction to the story.

While Bahl cites a mail from Ghose to him, in which he claims she says she has never been “muzzled” at the channel, he also asks Sardesai of the Scroll piece: “How did a private conversation, known only to the three of us, get into this “leftist” website?” It is revealing that the only internal conversation pertaining to Ghose referred to in the Scroll piece, is an alleged instruction from the network’s management to Ghose not to post disparaging tweets about Narendra Modi.

Whatever be the truth, Sagarika Ghose’s election coverage was limited to doing “chaupals” (thirty of them, by her count), or simulated street-side discussions, in different towns and cities with the “aam aadmi”—not considered very high in the pecking order of election coverage, compared to, say, the sit-down interview. Ghose’s anti-Modi pitch is now confined to the print media outfit for which she writes.

But beyond obvious and hidden pressures that have driven television news, the real rupture in narrative has been a sea change in the very grammar of television content. Owing to limitations of space, let me briefly mention the trends in television coverage that have emerged in the course of these elections—all uniformly designed to strengthen the studio and the anchor, instead of empowering the reporter.

What is clear is that many election battles—Lok Sabha or Assembly—will be henceforth fought on television screens. This puts the Congress at a serious disadvantage. While Modi has impressive communication skills (as evinced in the dramatic, and almost interactive character of his speeches), the Congress comes across as half-hearted and timid. Neither Sonia Gandhi nor Rahul Gandhi hold a candle to Modi—one reason why the BJP wanted to pitch these elections as presidential in the first place. But it is not just the Congress. Every party has to find such a communicator or they stand to lose even before the first vote is cast.

This means only one thing: if your candidate does not log impressive TRPs, news networks will not show them. Thus, if you are Mayawati, with a large base of Dalit support, you will not figure in primetime calculations unless your persona is telegenic and can further the cause of soap and toothpaste manufacturers. The market as a “rational” determinant of a politician’s “saleability” and worth is the new elephant in the room.

The 2014 elections were another nail in the coffin of reportage, at least when it came to the Delhi-based national media. There was a palpable reporting deficit. As reporters took a backseat, it was anchors all the way as studio shows with familiar faces migrated to the Ganga Ghat in Patna and the Dashashwamedha Ghat in Varanasi, among other places. There was a dreary sameness to all the shows, which were set against the same backdrop, with identical discussions on Modi, and often with the same cast of characters participating. As for the reporter, NDTV’s coverage of Varanasi illustrates my point. While Barkha Dutt hogged visibility, a fine story by the reporter Rahul Srivastava on Dalits just outside Varanasi, was only shown on a few occasions, during the channel’s downtime.

Much election rhetoric was geared towards grabbing space in primetime television. Opposing viewpoints were played out in studio discussions, not towards creating any meaning for the viewers but largely to entertain and dumb down debates. Politicians competed to create enough controversy in their campaigning, so that they would be the subject of studio discussions in the six-hour band that defines prime time (6 pm to 12 pm), which invariably focus on one or at best two issues across networks (often with the same studio guests). There couldn’t be a better way to do this than abuse minorities and stoke sectional feelings—precisely what the likes of Azam Khan, Amit Shah and Giriraj Singh did with some degree of success. Studio discussions that followed did not seek to create a climate of tolerance and debate. Instead they were seen as occasions to foment endless slanging matches and studio rage. In the end, it was about television and political actors feeding off each other.

The other issue waiting to be explored is the visible impact of television on the print media. The format pioneered by The Guardian online, of giving live, minute-by-minute coverage of events—such as the Arab Spring—was replicated in newspapers such as the Indian Express, partly in an attempt to match the speed of news delivery in television. Online or digital platforms of newspapers invariably have short video clips of important news items, with newspapers like the Times of India leading, leveraging their synergy with the group-owned television network.

The irony is that all networks routinely talk about “deepening democracy” within the rarefied confines of the studio. But they seldom permit the creation of news content that will reflect the country’s unfolding diversity, especially visible during election time.

Sandeep Bhushan was a television journalist for twenty years. He is currently an independent media researcher.