Ratings chase robs India's newscasts of distinctiveness

Indians accessing TV news are spoiled for choice, with four English-language and a plethora of Hindi and regional-language channels pitching news at them 24/7 — in what looks like a largely homogeneous blur.

The sudden explosion of channels from four in 2000 — excluding pubcaster Doordarshan spewing the government line — to more than a dozen today has transformed the TV news landscape.

Case in point: the weekend of July 23, when channels across the country interrupted regular programming to cover the plight of a 4-year-old village lad named Prince, who’d fallen down a dry well in a tiny town in northern India.

His rescue managed Television Audience Measurment (TAM) ratings that would turn successful soap producer Ektaa Kapoor green with envy and made Prince an instant celebrity.

With channels each out to outdo the other, a simple accident turned into a media frenzy, with all channels carrying the same footage, differentiated only by news anchors.

On what fuels this herd mentality, Rohit Kumar, head of marketing for Zee News, opines: “Close to 60% of the news-watching population is very fickle. So no channel wants to be left out. As auds channel-surf, stopping only if something niche catches their eye, channels have few chances to garner TAM ratings points, all within the short time the audience spends watching news — averaging between 5 and 15 minutes per day.”

With Indian news topliners having trained with either of two media houses — NDTV and India Today’s Aaj Tak — sources believe similarities extend beyond footage to ideology, presentation, colors of the channels and even linkages across the breaks, making differentiation difficult.

Just a few years ago, channels with firmly established ideologies produced vastly different programming and were able to create loyal audiences. Those distinctions have eroded. With too little news and too many hours to fill, Indian news channels are looking to their competitors for inspiration.

While English and Hindi news channels are trying to service the whole highly linguistically fragmented country by dishing out similar fare from crime reporting to Bollywood news, regional language channels have it much easier.

They cater to smaller niche audiences with clearly defined concerns, allowing the channels to innovate and produce more relevant programming.

“Differentiation on the Indian news channel space will come as the market matures and consolidation takes place,” Kumar says. “With people choosing to watch their favorite news anchor, and the anchor choosing to go with the highest paymaster, all that will survive will be the news channel with the deepest pockets.”

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