Unpredictable Politics, Predictable Media

11 Mar,2022

 

 

 

By Shailesh Kapoor

 

Shailesh KapoorElection months (there are many of them in India) are money-spinners for the news business. Besides political advertising, which has been on the rise because of BJP’s aggressive marketing plans over the last decade, elections also generate advertiser interest, because of their ability to generate higher viewership and engagement.

 

But there’s a hint of predictability seeping into India’s elections coverage of late. The ‘issues’ and the controversies raised during the campaign period don’t offer anything new. It’s the same old rhetoric around caste, religion and personal attacks on opposing leaders. On the counting day, if there’s a cliff-hanger state that goes down to the wire, like Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat a few years ago, you get extended on-air interest from the viewer. Otherwise, it can be all over by 10am, as was the case yesterday for UP and Punjab, among others.

 

The younger viewer, in the 18-30 years age group, does not find much of this interesting. Consumption of elections coverage is driven by a segment of audience that’s both politically-informed and politically-engaged. These are men above the age of 35 years. And this cohort is only getting older with time, because younger people are not making a transition from being merely politically-informed to also being politically-engaged.

 

This is ironic, given that India in the midst of a highly-charged political environment over the last decade, with a leader (Narendra Modi) who enjoys a certain cult following. That’s, perhaps, where the issue lies. Our politics may have become too single-person centric over this decade for it to have shades and layers that interest the youth at large. There are regional leaders, like Mamata Banerjee or Arvind Kejriwal, who bring some freshness. But that’s only an odd state every two-three years. The vacuum in the rest of the polity is making the discourse predictable at large.

 

If we examine this from the media perspective, our news channels have not been able to cash in on the politically-charged vibe. By now, an equivalent of Presidential debates in the US should have been a reality in India. If not at a national level, then at least at a state level. But news channels are satisfied with a debates format Arnab Goswami started about 15 years ago. Many popular anchors and journalists will spend their entire career doing shows in just this one format.

 

Instead of playing a role in creating political engagement, news channels have focused on frills, like animation and graphics. They are trying to make elections entertaining. While that offsets general election fatigue that the core political audience cohort may face, it does nothing to the youth, who have better forms of entertainment at their disposal.

 

The larger question a news channel should be asking is: Am I losing a generation of audience altogether? If yes, where will my viewership come from in the next five-ten years? This question may not be news specific. Even movie channels will face this concern once streaming becomes a little more mainstream that it currently is. It’s a larger linear TV concern: the medium is getting ‘older’, and there will come a tipping point, perhaps a decade from now, when it may no longer be the first ‘family-viewing’ option, because a majority of family members are disengaged with the medium.

 

But that’s some time away, and there are a few elections lined up over the next 2-3 years, leading upto the big one in 2024. Can our news channels innovate beyond the predictable tropes while covering them?

 

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