TRP Wars: The Battle Between News Anchors on Indian Television for the Most Eyeballs Just Got Personal

According to a report by the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), Arnab Goswami, the editor-in-chief of Times Now, commands nearly 76 percent of the English news viewership in the time band that he hosts from 9 pm to 11 pm. The India Today Group / Contributor
24 June, 2015

For the past three or four months, a media war that had been simmering among the English news networks in India has started making its way to the surface. This battle is primarily being fought between the pack leader Times Now, CNN-IBN and India Today TV—the erstwhile Headlines Today—with NDTV ( New Delhi Television) and News X following in pursuit.

The intensity of this Television Rating Point (TRP) driven war may not be proportional to the stakes involved: a minuscule 0.04 percent of the total time spent on the television (TV) by India's viewers. Nevertheless, it is being played out daily. Outside the news bulletin format through combative promotional advertisements, and within, mainly in the form of asides, innuendos and pot shots taken by the leading anchors against Arnab Goswami, the editor-in-chief of Times Now. The thinly veiled mockery is most often aimed at Goswami’s shrill, bombastic and hectoring style of anchoring that fosters a ritualised anarchy of sorts in his studio.

Goswami has not been a passive victim either. Recently during the course of the infamous Lalit Modi scam, Rajdeep Sardesai—a consulting editor at the India Today group and an anchor on India Today TV—got the first interview with Modi. In response, on his bulletin, Goswami repeatedly made mentions of “friendly” journalists who conduct friendly interviews instead of the tough ones that Times Now, or more accurately, Goswami is famed for. This, according to Goswami, was also why Modi wanted Times Now to sign a “deal”  as a pre-condition to an interview. What Goswami appeared to be insinuating was that Sardesai had managed to get an interview by agreeing to this deal.

Meanwhile, during a panel discussion on NDTV, Barkha Dutt—a consulting editor and anchor on NDTV—repeatedly assured a rattled Shaina NC, a spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the BJP’s articulate fellow traveller Swapan Dasgupta, an Indian columnist, by saying, “We don’t bay for anyone’s blood.” Dutt appeared to be suggesting that the channel she represented did not believe in the aggressive mode of questioning that Times Now and Goswami are both known, and often belittled, for. This is a trope that is being frequently used across several news channels now. On multiple occasions, I have noticed both Sardesai and anchors from CNN-IBN proclaim during their respective bulletins that, “we don’t scream at our guests” or that they do not “not talk over each other (on this channel).”

There is little clarity on what sparked the belligerence. However, Goswami’s sharp attack in March this year, on NDTV”s decision to telecast India’s Daughter—a documentary produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation on the gang-rape in New Delhi that took place on 16 December 2012—could have been a possible catalyst. Right in the middle of News Hour, the two-hour panel discussion that plays at prime time on Times Now and is hosted by Goswami, the anchor accused NDTV of being “voyeuristic.” He further alleged that the channel was providing a platform to rapists with an eye “only on TRPs” and nothing else.

Times Now’s shrill campaign resulted in a government ban on the telecast, which was slotted for 8 March 2015. NDTV responded to the intervention by running a blank screen on the day for an hour between 9 pm to 10 pm, the time at which the telecast had originally been scheduled. A little over a month later, on 30 April 2015, Prannoy Roy, the co-founder and executive co-chairperson of NDTV, expressed a deep concern for the “tabolidisation of news” during his acceptance speech at the Mumbai press club’s Redink Awards ceremony. Roy went on to question news channels for trying to emulate Fox News and asked why “every news anchor wants to be Bill O’ Reilly (the host of a show that focuses on political commentary called The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News) ” while observing that “some have gone so far, it may even make him a trifle jealous.”  Soon after, in the first week of May, NDTV released a 50-second long promo that caricatured Goswami’s nightly theatrics. The advertisement featured a hysterical voice screaming “kill them (Pakistani’s) now” that fused into angry voices, a pistol and a flying bullet, and led to twitter hashtags such an #eyeforaneye, before ending with “The biggest danger to Indian Television is Tabloid News.”

NDTV is not the only channel that has been taking aim at Times Now. India Today TV, the reincarnation of Headlines Today, relaunched itself with a 20-second promothat opened with full-screen graphics announcing “Breaking News” in the colour scheme adopted by Times Now.The camera then cuts to what appears to be an anchor dressed up as a circus clown who briefly performs his antics along with two identically attired sidekicks, only to be interrupted by a solemn voice that announces “Watch India Today TV for News that Makes Sense.”

Both of these advertisements left little to the imagination about who they were targetting. Both of these advertisements also appeared to be aimed not so much at Times Now, but directly at Goswami.

The motivation behind this is not hard to fathom: Times Now’s continuing occupation of the pole position in the TRP race. The Bennett and Coleman–owned news channel was in the lead when TAM (Television Audience Measurement) Media Research—a market research outfit owned jointly by AC Neilsen, a global marketing firm, and Kantar, a UK-based research company—generated the viewership metrics. Times Now continues to be in the lead now, when the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC)—an initiative of all the stakeholders, broadcasters, advertisers and government—is collecting and analysing the data. In fact, according to the latest figures for week 23 (6–12 June), the viewership of Times Now has doubled, displacing India Today TV—that appeared to have upstaged it in the previous week—and moving NDTV to the third position.

Times Now has of course been rubbing these figures in with graphics proclaiming that the viewership of the channel is more than that of all the others combined—expressed in the form of an equation: Times Now > India Today + NDTV + CNN-IBN + News X. Goswami was quoted as saying, “Four smaller channels don’t match up to Times Now. I think it is time for smaller channels to realise that aping the leader, or spending a lot of time mocking the leader is futile.”

Goswami has a point. The fact remains that almost every English news channel has been aping Goswami, and all of them trail Times Now in terms of TRPs. Times Now appears to have become a sort of benchmark because other channels have also accorded it that position. For instance, reporters from NDTV told me that the channel’s new de facto news head, Sonia Singh, is infamous for her fury if a reporter misses a story on his or her beat that finds its way to Times Now.

Back when India Today TV was still Headlines Today, and while I was working there, Rahul Shivshankar, who had been a senior editor at Times Now, was brought in to “replicate” Arnab’s “magic.” It did not seem to have an effect on the channel’s ratings, and Shivshankar moved on to News X where he is now the editor in chief. There is an umistakable similarity between Shivshankar and Goswami. It is visible in the manner of the former’s delivery, his style of questioning, his pitch, the on-screen graphics of “Exclusive Breaking News” and “Exclusive News Angles” on News X,  and through the panelists that Shivshankar invites on his show. These tactics, whether intentional or not, do not seem to have worked for the network.

Goswami, for his part, has a distinct way of usurping stories from other networks and even creating myths about those stories being “broken” by his network. The Lalitgate—the name that was given to the nexus between Lalit Modi and certain politicians that was revealed through leaked emails recently—campaign by the channel is a classic example. The news was broken by London’s Sunday Times, but it is close to impossible to find that attribution anywhere on the network. Neither is there any acknowledgement of the fact that most of the incisive follow-ups in this story emerged from the Indian Express. Conversely, by 21 June 2015, a week after the Lalit Modi story had first surfaced, Times Now was claiming that it had  “60 newsbreaks in 8 days”—numbers that increased by the hour. The network cleverly lined up this claim behind some of the other stories it supposedly broke—the Commonwealth and the 2G scam, among others. The campaign against the misuse of public space and resources by VIPs was started by NDTV. But such was the high decibel coverage by Goswami and his team that they managed to appropriate that too as their own.

What slowly seems to be disappearing as collateral damage in this battle, is good quality reportage on television news. Instead of leveraging their resources to invest in and train reporters, channels such as India Today TV are reportedly spending close to Rs 30 crore annually to ensure a presence on dual frequencies—simultaneous availability at two places—and Times Now seems to have responded by doing the same.

Frankly, I cannot recall a single, significant story that Times Now has broken. Perhaps this is why Goswami steps in whenever there is a substantial news break, to wave inscrutable papers at the cameras while punctuating his delivery with routine claims of exclusive content by Times Now. His manner of anchoring is utterly subjective and lacking in nuance. His team of reporters leave much to be desired, overshadowed as it is by his marathon presence on the day of a “big” story.

Beyond declarations of the highest TRPs and the perennial mud-slinging, the fact remains, and this is not a particularly intelligent point, that all news channels appear increasingly identical—especially in the crucial marketing band called prime time. By 6 pm on any given day, the news agenda narrows down to one or two issues. Reporters disappear and anchors take charge along with panelists who are often repeated, with some even appearing on more than one channel at the same time. On 18 June for instance, Shaina NC was simultaneously responding to the same set of questions on the Lalit Modi scam during prime time across all the English news networks.

If one agrees that news networks resemble each other by prime time, then it stands to reason that the only difference remains the anchor. In the anchor-driven news culture that our television channels have propagated, Goswami is delivering the numbers.

According to a report by the BARC, Goswami commands nearly 76 percent of the English news viewership in his band from 9 pm to 11 pm. The next best is India Today TV that gets a mere 10 percent of the viewership. This a phenomenon that needs serious academic examination. It is hard to believe that Goswami’s popularity among viewers is a function of his excellence as a journalist. Goswami’s editorial position on Pakistan and China has always bordered on war mongering, and his penchant for blowing up trivia such as a tweet by Shobha De is downright exasperating. He never apologises or retracts a story that is proven to be false, an example of which is the case of an Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer from Karnataka. According to Times Now, the officer was compelled to commit suicide by dishonest politicians, a claim that turned out to be way off the mark.

However, since TRP numbers appear to no longer be about the news but about the performance in the studio, it would be hypocritical to grudge Goswami his success. After all, he does it better than any of his peers, and does it in a manner that consistently attracts attention.

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