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Stings, ratings & shootings

Print edition : Nov 30, 2012 T+T-
The TV channels draw their sustenance from TRPs that viewership measurement agencies bestow on them.-M. VEDHAN

The TV channels draw their sustenance from TRPs that viewership measurement agencies bestow on them.-M. VEDHAN

The single most important arbiter of the television industrys fortunes, the ratings system, is here to stay. It has the media by the throat and controls the expressions and discourses that emerge.

Dont shoot the messenger. With this firm admonition, anchors of television news shows routinely nip any questioning of journalistic practice in the bud. It has, however, just got a little more difficult for them to carry conviction with that tack after a corporate house actually went ahead and shot a couple of messengerswith a hidden camera . And it is not a pretty sight. The footage shows two editors of Zee TV bargaining with a representative of Jindal Steel and Power Limited for an advertisement deal of Rs.100 crores, spread equally over four or five years, to spike adverse stories on the business group by the media group.

The editors, for their part, claim that they were playing along as they were sought to be bribed and this was all part of their investigation into Jindal Steel in the coal blocks allocation scam. Implausible as that spin seems, at least on the strength of what transpires on the released video, it may well gain credence in the obfuscatory sequel to the expose. Also, one can always count on public memory being perishable. After all, the worthies caught cosying up to big business in the Radia tapes are cheerily back to business (read journalism) as usual on the tube.

Close on the heels of this reverse sting comes news of a reverse sterilisation campaign by the government, which seeks to undo the forcible vasectomy female Maoist cadres are subjected to by their leadership and enable them to marry and bear children and eschew the violent path ever after. It is tempting to wonder whether the reverse sting could serve a similar reverse social engineering role, a check and balance function, by bringing to heel, rehabilitating where possible, rogue elements running amok in the media. Where digitisation and miniaturisation give you cameras with in-built microphones masquerading as shirt buttons, tie clips, pens, wrist watches, finger rings, spectacle frames, briefcases, belt buckles and what not, tit for tat stings should be easy enough across the board, whether by or against corporations, the government, the bureaucracy, political parties, the media, civil society, non-governmental organisations and affected individuals. Of these, the government alone can only be stung and must not sting, at least not be caught stinging, unless it wants a Watergate-like scandal on its hands. All in all, this could well be a more exciting, self-correcting, not to mention entertaining, proxy for the external regulator Justice Markandeya Katju keeps harping on. It would be an extension of 24x7, 360-degree, reality TV into the social media delivered on computers, hand-held electronic tablets, mobile devices and what have you. This, surely, is worth a thought?

Meanwhile, another weird thought crops up. How much of the advertising spend on the news media goes towards publicising goods and services and how much towards keeping things from being made public? Where the advertiser, as we all along suspected and now know, is paying for both, we, as viewers, are obviously being short-changed, in terms of our right to information from, or our voyeuristic expectations of, the media, or both. Imagine the spice and sleaze and scam we are being done out of by secret, underhand deals of the kind the Jindal sting exposed. Imagine the opportunity cost.

If that seems like stretching things a bit, even for television news, which is given to stretch as a figure of speech, it is precisely such reverse or twisted logic with which the celebrated French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu deconstructs news in its contemporary phase of interaction between print and TV in his slim but incisive book, On Television and Journalism. Published towards the end of the 1990s and drawing mainly on his impressions and experience of the French news media, Bourdieus analysis is, nevertheless, so spot on that it is as relevant, and universally so, today as it was then. The performance of our own TV news channels almost uncannily illustrates his theses.

Take, for instance, Bourdieus point about the invisible forms of censorship on TV, among them the peculiar but common one of hiding by showing: ...it can hide things by showing something other than what would be shown if television did what its supposed to do, provide information. Or by showing what has to be shown, but in such a way that it isnt really shown, or is turned into something insignificant; or by constructing it in such a way that it takes on a meaning that has nothing at all to do with reality. In a situation where television is the dominant medium and time on it is so dear, when you use up precious time to say banal things, to the extent that they cover up precious things, these banalities become in fact very important.

Theatre of the flippant

Viewed in this light, the live newsroom has become a theatre of the flippant on Indian television. There are hardly any pre-packaged storieswhich have the advantage of being better thought out, informed, rounded, diverse, information-packed and more complete (even for an evolving story)feeding into the news programme any more. What we get instead in the live, as-is-where-is, rollout are, for the most part, reporters and correspondents who, apart from not being very articulate, add little to a story by their vacuous and half-baked views. They depend largely on the bluff and bluster of their anchor in the studio to give them the semblance of substance, and to give what they together fetch up the appearance of a big happening. The same stock set of experts hopping from studio to studio makes the whole affair both fairly incestuous and homogenous, leading to, what Bourdieu calls, circular circulation of information, a game of mirrors which produces a formidable effect of mental closure.

Another paradox with a similar circumscribing effect that Bourdieu puts his finger on is how the fear of missing a story rather than an original search for one leads to consensual herd behaviour in coverage. When the editor of a TV channel (or newspaper for that matter) observes in a review meeting that we missed the story, all that he means is that another channel (or paper) had a story his did not carry. If a channel, therefore, is not to miss a story, it must ensure that it covers all the major stories other channels do. Reporters across channels who are in touch, and compare notes, with one another, then, flock to the same set of stories. In the process, sameness rather than difference, barring the occasional scoop, is incentivised; the variety and choice that pluralism offers are forfeited in this mock competition.

Ratings mindset

The single most important arbiter of the television industrys fortunes, the ratings system, also seems the product of a backflip logic. Bourdieu points to the larger social malaise of a ratings mindset, which conditions us to choose the books we read, the music we listen to, or the films we see, from the bestseller, star-rated, short and long, or countdown lists generated for such cultural products. Apart from the subjectivity of the critics who pick and hierarchise them, the process of the listing is obtuse and, one suspects, subject to a variety of pressures. There are two kinds of problems here. One, idealised by the poet (Thomas Gray in Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard), where possibly, surely,

full many a gem of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air

and we may never get to know of their existence as we stay fixated on the one or the other list. The second, and perhaps more important, concern is the surrender of culture to the dictates of the market via the register of popular demand. The market mediation of the popular, exercised by the ratings phenomenon, strikes at the very root of art and culture as autonomous, even contrarian, fields of activity. Hardly 50 or 60 years ago, as Bourdieu recalls, market success was seen as suspect for truly artistic endeavour, and the biggest advances in literature and cultureas much as in science, math or philosophywere made against the grain of the popular. All that has changed as anything now cannot but seek its place under the overarching sway of the market.

The market model for the media sector is premised even more crucially on a formal ratings system, which determines the advertisement revenues accruing to a newspaper or broadcaster; and, with a few exceptions of regional Indian language papers, which post healthier subscription returns, advertising continues to account for three-fourths or more of their revenues.

Bourdieu looks beyond at the implications of the ratings-advertising axis for the practice of journalism in the media: like in the political and economic fields, and much more than the scientific, artistic, literary, or juridical fields, the journalistic field is permanently subject to trial by media, whether directly, through advertisers, or indirectly, through audience rating. Furthermore, journalists are no doubt all the more inclined to adopt audience rating standards in the production process (keep it simple, keep it short) or when evaluating products or even producers (thats just made for TV , this will go over really well), to the extent that those who better represent these standards occupy higher positions (as network heads or editors-in-chief) in news media more directly dependent on the market (that is, commercial television as opposed to PBS). Conversely, younger and less established journalists are more likely to invoke the principles and values of the profession against the more realistic or more cynical, stipulations of their elders.

The tyranny of ratings is particularly acute in the Indian television industry with channels literally drawing their sustenance from the TRPs (Television Rating Points) that viewership measurement agencies such as Television Audience Measurement (TAM) bestow on them. Unscientific, distorted ratings with skewed and disproportionately small sample sizes or, worse, corruptly slanted to favour the one over the other, wreak havoc on a channels fortunes. The unscientific methodology and unrepresentative scope of this exercise in India has been a talking point in the industry for some time now. But matters came to a head recently with the NDTV group filing a $1.3 billion suit against TAM India and its parent company, Nielson, in a court in the United States.

On the other hand, a faulty ratings system also becomes a convenient alibi for a channel that finds itself losing out in the competition for reasons that may be of its own making, including perhaps the poor or waning appeal of its programmes. In what is essentially an endogenous market arrangement among the channel, the rating agency and the advertiser, and where there is no external mandatory requirement or legal stipulation for advertising budgets to be allocated to channels on the basis of their ratings, how, or how far, can a channel bring a rating agency to account except perhaps on the grounds of invidious, or discriminatory treatment, or malpractice? It is, in fact, surprising that the industry has lived with what it considers a flawed or foul rating system, a virtual monopoly to boot, for so long and not put in place an alternative, perhaps under the joint aegis of broadcasters and advertisers as has been discussed off and on. But then, the players who notch up good TRPs in the current system may not want any change. And who is to blame them in an industry not marked by a level playing field in the first instance, and where strong entry barriers protect the turf for the reigning media czars?

It is too much to expect that the media can, with some magical will, heave themselves out of the ratings cauldron, especially when the rest of society has become so ratings prone. After all even the financial reputation of nation states seem at the mercy of rating agencies such as Standard and Poors (S&P) who can, for instance (with the flick of a figure, so to speak), reduce India to junk status. The bottom line is that the ratings culture is here to stay as a market imposition on the political framework of democracy, which at the same time detracts from the representative and inclusive nature of democracy. It has the media by the throat and controls the expressions and discourses that emerge.