Television News: Finding the Right Balance

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Updated: Jul 29, 2011, 11:00 AM IST

I feel not only television news industry, even life is all about the correct mix – striking the right balance – harmonizing different opinions at office, slotting different priorities, scheduling our 24 hours, giving time wherever it is due including our families and ourselves, or even what American author and political activist Orson Scott Card said: "Sometimes happiness consists of finding the right balance of misery."
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Emerging from the recession, let us assess the situation and ask ourselves if we have been able to find the right balance.
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<b>The First question on balance: News Media as the Fourth Estate and a Business unit.</b>
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While playing the role of the fourth estates can we be a successful business unit as well, which makes profits. There may seem some contradictions, but to my mind, it is all about striking the right balance.
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There are certainly business challenges – possibly more than what the industry can deal with. Overall, the industry is in loss. Its potentially largest revenue centre has been turned on its head and has emerged as one of the largest cost centres.
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ERs are under pressure. Fragmentation continues to make each pressure more intense.
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As a business unit, the industry would seek revenue sources, which in the Indian context comes from higher viewership. For argument’s sake if we assume viewership comes easily from packaged entertainment show. The question is would I pursue it?
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No, I think we would be cautious about our role of that of the fourth estate and also try and mould people’s choices. <br><br>

And this balance lies in the sheer market force. This balance is also in an auto correct mode. <br><br>

However, at the same time, News on TV would always be inclined to create visual excitement. To the best of my understanding, people are looking for news which is easy on the eye and the mind. Once news is presented interestingly enough, I can lay a wager, any relevant topic would be lapped up. <br><br>

The way Fox News did it and beat its rivals at their own game. Maybe classical style journalism may not click in this remote control era. Probably, matter of fact reporting does not work in television.
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What has happened in India is not a novelty. It has happened in the West before. No wonder American statesman Newt Gingrich had said, “If Thomas Edison invented electric light today, Dan Rather would report it on CBS News as, ‘Candle making industry threatened’.”
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Overall, we are not here just to pass the buck. The challenge, I would say, is for news media to accept responsibility. As fourth estate and an essential pillar of democracy, it is our duty to be accountable to ourselves and the people. <br><br>

The other deterrent is the overkill of inventory. That definitely exists and one single phenomenon that irks the viewer would be the overdose of advertising. I personally feel we do not have any other option than to correct ourselves.
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<b>The Second question on balance: We are a social watch dog but how much is too much?</b> <br><br>

Let me say that it is the success of Indian media campaign that Jessica Lall murder case got its due hearing. Or former DGP SPS Rathore was booked in Ruchika Girhotra case. Justice for Ruchika and Jessica means something to us – these incident horrify us – provoke us into contemplating our security and safety of our loved ones. <br><br>

Media also exposed the sordid cases of brazen venality concerning our ministers, bureaucrats and even the Army. These incidents may have existed forever but have been brought under the spotlight only now. The Houghton Line had once amusingly stated: “We can't quite decide if the world is growing worse, or if the reporters are just working harder.”
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Corruption can be contained, to my mind, through fear, transparency and accountability. Media has succeeded to some extent in instilling fear in the corrupt that they may be caught with their hand in the candy jar. Even Napolean is believed to have stated that he was more afraid of “three newspapers than a hundred thousand bayonets”. <br><br>

Aggressive media has its advantages as admitted by John F. Kennedy… and I quote: There is a terrific disadvantage in not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily. Even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didn't write it, and even though we disapprove, there isn't any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press. <br><br>

What is important is this decision of ‘how much is too much’. In England, a court threw out a case and let an accused walk free because it felt that television news had sensationalized the news to such an extent that a fair verdict would have been impossible. <br><br>

Our perusal of a cause, must not lead to trial by media. An accused cannot be pronounced guilty, till found guilty by court and on basis of corroborative evidence. We cannot express our interpretation which may influence the case or ignite unrest. <br><br>

Once again, I believe that the self regulation guidelines set by News Broadcasters Association (NBA) and News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) that keep us within limits are a huge achievement. <br><br>

The question finally is will trivialized content necessarily generate TRPs. Which brings me to ask, are numbers the right representation? <br><br>
The answer is: As business runs in perpetuity, the market would enforce the balance in the long run. Broadcasters have to strike their own balance so as not to get off track. You cannot be successful financially without being true to the fundamentals of journalism. Similarly, if pursuit of content crosses the boundary and spills into the territory of intrusion – like the case of Rupert Murdoch who has tripped due his tricks of the trade – then again finally the market would bring back symmetry.
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<i>(Mr. Barun Das is the CEO of Zee News Ltd.)</i>

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