Paritosh Joshi: Who is Nilam?

31 Oct,2012

By Paritosh Joshi

May be the name doesn’t ring a bell when you read this but before the day is over, it is reasonably certain you will know Nilam. For instance, you will know Nilam isn’t a ‘Who’ but a ‘What’. Nilam is the cyclonic storm brewing off the coast of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh that is expected to cross the coast later today.


This morning, I did a quick scan of the major Hindi and English channels to see what they were covering as lead stories on their 6 o’clock bulletins. Barring DD News, either they were on a non-network slot (think Slim Swift, Baba AvtarParmatma, Arthro Go or something similar) or, more ironically, Hurricane Sandy. While it is hard to debate the significance of Sandy given that it has impacted the crucial Eastern Seaboard of the world’s sole superpower and an area of interest to many Indians given that they have friends and relatives residing there, it seems like terrible editing if the terror lurking in our own neighbourhood is ignored in so cavalier a fashion.


Here is why Sandy is, in a ghoulish way, a better story to run than Nilam. Dramatic footage of capsized yachts lying on highways, Manhattan’s Times Square under knee deep water, uprooted trees against the backdrop of the White House and the Capitol: racy stuff compared to the Indian Meteorology Department’s satellite imagery of a grey blotch on a grey background that is Cyclonic Storm Nilam.


Our television news genre has an unfortunate reputation for tabloid and sleaze. Perhaps, news is the only genre where the (older) audience actually remembers the days of Luku Sanyal, Dolly Thakore and Preet K. S. Bedi with a wistful air. When news was delivered in measured tones, not harangue and cacophony. We also remember, with much warmth, the arrival of TWTW*, a path-breaking discontinuity that brought colourful, exciting images from around the world to our generally drab screens. A kinder, gentler era.


After the genre started getting private participation with the advent of satellite TV, a few things changed for the better. For one, the Government, and by implication, the party or coalition in power was no longer seen exclusively through a hagiographic lens and was routinely subject to searching questions and even scathing criticism. For another, stories were better edited with anchoring and on-site reportage alternating on the screen to keep the audience interested. Finally, the typical story duration was shorter and pithier, avoiding prolix rambling that often characterized the Sarkari predecessor’s presentation. Channels were few but were fronted by editors and anchors of distinction and authority.


Unfortunately, the idyllic period was also ephemeral. It wasn’t long before an assortment of unsavoury arrivistes with bags of money and dubious agendas saw the endless opportunities that the genre presented. All it needed was a licence from the Ministry and a transponder on a satellite and you could be well on your way. Threat, extortion, blackmail- it was suddenly possible to turn all manner of villainy into a broadcast business.


The swelling ranks of participants in the news genre revealed a fault line – on one side were the serious players with long-term interests in delivering honest and fair journalism to the consumer, on the other, the cads and bounders with nary a scruple. A slide began that continues, and even accelerates unto this day.


The analog cable plant had serious capacity constraints. A typical headend would offer a 550 MHz capacity with room for barely 50 channels. It was only a matter of time before platform operators discovered the lucrative, carriage fee opportunity. Most news channels were free-to-air and only earned advertising revenue. This could only be secured if the ratings and distribution reports picked them up. Clearly, ratings could only come if basic availability had first been ensured. In droves, then, news channels became willing victims of the menace.


If carriage fee was not a nightmare enough, TRAI’s ever growing laundry list of regulations seemed designed exclusively to injunct broadcasters in ever more onerous ways even as platform operators were at almost complete liberty to run amok. The television news business model was under mortal attack.


What could it do but pull out all stops as it battled back from the corner? The rapid rise of tabloid sensationalism and unglorified sleaze should, in this context, be read as more something to be pitied than censured.


Why is it that we seem to be in a news culdesac while more developed countries produce a wide range of high quality news outlets?


I have, even before this, suggested examining the Ofcom’s ‘Fit and Proper’ test as a model for examining whether a particular entity should be permitted to receive, or continue to bear, a broadcast licence in the news genre. I am not suggesting the establishment of a government regulator for broadcast. A ‘Fit and Proper’ test for India can and should correctly be developed and administered by the News Broadcasters’ Association (NBA) in cooperation with the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA). The government’s licensing bodies should work with NBA and NBSA in ensuring that every new aspirant is subjected to the test and even legacy broadcasters are subject to a re-evaluation at specified intervals.


In the meanwhile, midnight tonight will herald a very special dawn for India’s television industry- the arrival of mandatory digitisation in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. It is possible that the government may yet develop cold feet at the penultimate moment but that will only postpone, not cancel, the inevitable. This watershed is very good news indeed for the news genre. Once the cable plant goes from deficient to surplus capacity and passive viewers transform into active, demanding consumers, the single biggest cost challenge to the genre will begin to abate. Hopefully, we will enter an era when choice and not compulsion will decide what is watched and the ball will be squarely back in the news producers’ and editors’ courts.


Paritosh Joshi has been a marketer, a mediaperson and a key officebearer on industry bodies. He is developing an independent media advisory practice. He can reached via his Twitter handle @paritoshZero


Post a Comment 

2 responses to “Paritosh Joshi: Who is Nilam?”

  1. Sai Nagesh. says:

    Exemplary language & fantastic insights. WOW ! Hats off Paritosh.Cheers.

  2. Shaswati Saradar says:

    Loved this – very well put. The idea of fit and proper test for India is really interesting.