News channels embrace entertainment, fun can't last

There was a time when only print could sanctify mere information into news. The power of print was so revered that it inspired from Arthur Miller a tribute that is yet to be matched. "A good newspaper," Miller said, "is like a nation talking to itself." Now most nations, including India, watch mutely as talking heads talk to themselves on news channels. And then there are certain types of channels in which petty salaciousness passes off as current affairs. Indeed, though TV news has pushed Jessica Lal's killer into jail, it has also brought out the voyeur in us. News on TV, in other words, no longer aspires to sanctity but to high TRPs, say the traditionalists.

So has news died and become a commodity in its rebirth? Or is the reality of TV much more complicated than that? Adgully speaks to TV honchos, marketing czars, and industry pundits to determine the truth.

Traditionalists' greatest grouse is that the very nature of news has changed; but so have the expectations of people, industry figures argue.

"The channels map what is going on in society, and effect changes accordingly," said Neeraj Sanan, the marketing head of Star News. "Change is constant. So content is created keeping the consumers' demands in mind." Sanan said that TRPs were only the by-product of content. A contention of this nature evokes a familiar response from the old school: if you give consumers what they want, you are commodifying a product. "I agree fully; news channels are no longer reporting news in an objective manner," said Rajeev Karwal, the founder of Milagrow Business & Knowledge Solutions. "They are in fact converting small talk into breaking news and serious breaking news into a joke. Channel after channel and anchor after anchor are just exploiting the common people's appetite for the absurd, violence, crime and sex. Many a times, they actually work for vested interests, which makes things all the more ugly."

Most channels attempt to appeal to the prurience-seeking part of the viewers' brain because their original raw material, hard news, gives little scope for creating a unique product. "Today, news channels are commodities in many ways," said Harish Bijoor, a brand-strategy specialist & the CEO of Harish Bijoor Consults. He said that news content was largely the same across channels. "The differentiators lie in the quality of the anchors, in terms of depth of knowledge and presentation skills, and the skills relating to graphic presentations," he said. "And of course, the quality of guests brought in to debate various issues." Bijoor said news channels strive to brand themselves as commodity offerings that wish to rise above the clutter of the commodity.

For his part Karwal, wants news channels to re-orient their agendas. He said: "News channels must be objective and analyse big stories in depth, while reporting the small ones "as they are' and leaving viewers to make up their minds about the stories' import." He said India needed realism and objectivity. "Just causes must be taken up by the media, not hype, sensationalism or voyeuristic opportunities."

As for Bijoor's idea of clutter-breaking strategy, some news channels have indeed implemented innovations, one of which is to jack up the entertainment value. However, other channels like Zee, say they are up on the ramparts warding off agents that dilute news. "We at Zee News are completely against this trend," said Rohit Kumar, the marketing head of Zee News. "We have maintained the news-entertainment ratio and have only two entertainment segments, "House Arrest' & "Zee Multiplex'." He said these were defined half-hour slots for entertainment-related material from TV and Bollywood. "Zee News is a news channel and that is the way we have positioned ourselves," Kumar said. "We respect viewers' intelligence and don't sensationalise or exaggerate news." He said that as TAM numbers demonstrated, viewers have always liked Zee's content.

In this context, it must be noted that viewers have a plethora of options today, with each news channel vying with the other to present news garnished with a sense of drama. "Earlier, there were only two types of channels," Sanan said. "One was pro-government, and the other was against the establishment. But now, there are so many channels that only the brand is remembered." Even as news channels battle for their share of viewership pie, the larger chunks are devoured by the GECs, industry analysts say. But according to Sanan, such comparisons are not accurate. "At any given point, the TRPs of GEC programmes are much higher than those of a news-channel programme," he said. "So, according to me, this comparison is not valid."

However, the traditionalists' response would be to assert that entertainment was so steadily encroaching space of news channels that one day the difference between them and GECs would only be notional. Notables in the media-planning field do not take such an extreme position, but are willing to concede that entertainment does indeed italicise the offerings of news channels. "Entertainment elements have obviously taken the front seat in terms of content on news channels," said Kunal Kumar, the account director of Madison (India). "But this is never the sole deciding factor while selecting a news channel for a media plan. The first and foremost reason is always the viewership and then comes the quality of the content on the specific vehicle."

Kunal Kumar said the selection process was governed by the nature of the brand. "For example, any brand from a cellular phone operator or from the bike category will have to be presented on a channel delivering good viewership, irrespective of the content," he said. "This maximises the reach in the tier-2 and tier-3 towns." But he said that in the case of brands like Chevrolet Cruze or IBM or iPod, it was important to look at the environment and content of the channel before riding on any vehicle.

Focus on content has driven many of Zee's new ideas. "Our "Non-stop @9' is a news bulletin without any break," said Rohit Kumar. "Maximum viewership is attained at 9 pm and this Zee News innovation has been performing well in terms of TA." He said that another programme, "Kal Ka Akhbar' features the most probable headlines from the next day's newspapers. "This programme targets the serious news viewer," he said. "And "Kiran Aur Kiranein', a Zee News initiative, unveils the success secrets of women achievers. It is hosted by Dr Kiran Bedi."

In the end, brands will be buttressed by innovation that is based on serious news and analyses, rather than on fluffy stories, according to Bijoor. "A good way to ensure brand-depth is to establish new properties like the in-depth interview properties seen in the American and European media," he said. "Individual properties afford branding focus to a channel." And it appears that content-driven branding makes not just ethical sense but also yields profitability. "In the case of premium buys, environment plays a very important role," said Kunal Kumar of Madison. "Some channels, like NDTV, Times Now, and CNN-IBN, always get preference because of their rich and clean content. If a brand wants to reach out to masses, then the obvious choice becomes India TV, Zee News or Star News." In other words, as Chetan Ahuja, the media director of Media Direction (India), affirms, the TG is the most important consideration for brands. "Certain brands are averse to risk, so choosing a Hindi news channel would be an issue, regardless of the TRPs," he said. "As for news, most news channels have entertainment-centric content. For hard news, you have to make do with 8 am to 10 am slot or the 9 pm to 10 pm band."

To a question concerning his experience with clients who were offered the option of Hindi news, he said, "The experience is scary." He said a couple of years back, he had suggested Hindi news to an FMCG client. The client's response: "Why not a Hindi film?"

But all said and done, "infotainment' will remain a strong presence on news channels till the Indian viewership matures. For now, channels will have to continue wooing the viewer to pull revenue. "News programming now is a blend of information and entertainment," said Bhushan Khot, VP (Marketing) & business head, Zee News, Zee 24 Taas (a Marathi news channel). "In fact, one needs to change content based on the needs of the advertiser. Besides regular news bulletins, news channels include entertainment features from the world of sports, cinema and television in their mix." Khot said the programming agenda was based on market and viewer feedback. "That is why our new news shows like "Jara Hatke' and "Non-Stop News' are faring well," he said. He went on to warn against comparing the TRP figures of GECs and news channels. "The average TRP on prime time for any GEC is between 2 and 3," he said. "Whereas for a news channel, it is 0.5 to 1."

On the commodification dilemma, Khot said, "Commodity branding and product differentiation cannot happen simultaneously. Those who are branding a channel like a commodity will lose out in the longer run as product differentiation is key for the television medium."

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