Awards - PR exercise or for healthy competition?

Updated: Apr 26, 2012, 10:52 AM IST

Dr N Bhaskara Rao

More recently television channels including news channels have been promoting and showcasing “awards” the same way they have been doing with TRPs for years as if they are an evidence of a “great job”. Some news channels feature every morning the number of awards they have won. Against only a couple of awards until 2010, there are many now. Now most channels have taken to in-house annual awards like “Star Parivar Awards”. These awards are even advertised in newspapers and promoted as “news events” and covered prominently on the channels.

Many awards have been given to television channels, and individual programmes of channels with much fanfare. The way these awards are given is as if they made a difference and that contribution was being acknowledged. Where as a critical analysis will bring out the fact that the awards have become outlets of self aggrandizement. Awards are expected to help differentiate “good” from “bad” content or not so good ones and promote certain standards or values or priorities as desirable. More recently most channels - both news and others – have been showcasing such awards annually.

If channels are not making a difference how are they getting multiplied? Is making a “difference” and being “popular” the same? Popularity is in terms of viewership rating. Making a difference is with regard to long-standing social behaviour on subjects like social development, environment, child development, etc. Popularity in terms of viewership ratings is more likely to ensure viability of a channel, than making a difference to the lifestyles or behaviour.

Awards are good particularly when they are given by independent civil society or professional bodies. Awards could be for different features. They could be for technical value, acting skills, good script, proactive news coverage, etc. They could also be for making a difference to the lives of the people. (For example, CMS Awards for programmes on girl child, girls dropping out of school, child marriage, trafficking, consumer rights, etc.)

Awards have hardly made a difference to the overall standards and concerns of channels. CMS award to Chetana of TV-9 in Telugu, or Prajapaksham of the same channel, for example, have encouraged other channels take to similar category of programmes. This is a good indication that the award has helped showcase the initiatives. But on the other hand, CMS awards for news channels for news bulletins and news and current affairs programmes have not made a visible difference. Giving awards for three consecutive years even involving role model personalities, is not good enough to make a difference in the practices and priorities of news channels.

“NTV Awards” for news channels are being showcased by most news channels as if they are the “industry awards” and getting those awards is an endorsement for them being the best and popular, and enthusiastically “participate” in the awards by sending entries together with “the fees” prescribed for each entry. That is, the more the entries from a channel to the organizer, the more the fees it had to pay. Also, these awards are not voluntary or held by viewers or civil society or independent bodies –awards are expected to be an acknowledgement of inspiring initiatives for excellence in one respect or the other. Awards are supposed to be for bettering standards in programmes, quality of content and the very credibility of a channel.

Whereas, earlier TRPs and now awards (like the NTV awards) are constraining or limiting channels, particularly news channels, from exploring original ideas and initiatives. They serve more to homogenize content for mass markets and further facilitate or sustain media to cater to the needs of advertising. In my view, based on the kind of trends observed such awards tend to promote fallacy of channels.

However, awards like “The Food Awards 2012” of Times Now, on the other hand, fall in a different category. They are more about others, out there, outside the channel and across the country in the real life. They give awards for the best local cuisine, fine dining, best roadside dhaba, and the like. Many channels are taking to such awards too, of late. Zee News with environment and CNN-IBN with “Real Heroes” are only a few examples. What I am concerned about is the way awards are bestowed on news channels as if they are independent, objective and professionally conducted.

NTV Awards

“News Television Awards” started some four years ago. They are organized by a Mumbai-based commercial company promoted by a former journalist. Its main business is to represent media enterprises and operates a fairly extensive website on Indian TV. Its awards ceremony, held in a five star hotel in Delhi or Mumbai, is showcased as an annual event. News channels showcase these awards on their channel prominently with claims of “best” and “most”, for awards received in different categories. It is intriguing how these awards have become a benchmark for news channels which are supposed to be concerned about credibility issues of what they cover.

An analysis of NTV Awards held on 28 March 2012 in New Delhi brings out that national awards were in fact given only in four languages – English, Hindi, Telugu and Marathi, as if news channels exist in the country in these languages only. The awards started with English channels and Hindi, Telugu and Marathi channels were included in 2011. In the latest version, 137 awards were given in all to several channels in four languages. Consider some highlights of these news TV awards. The sponsors of the award ceremony of glamour and glitter were CNN-IBN, Star, TV-9 and a host of other channels. Who received the awards? The sponsoring news channels were given two-thirds of all the awards. This sponsorship is in addition to what is paid as entry fees. There were 30 entries by IBN, 20 by Star, 15 by TV-9 and 10 by Aaj Tak group. Many news channels including Times Now and DD News were nowhere to be seen as if none of their content deserved to win any award, under any category. Or, perhaps they did not send any entries with fees in which case that should have been indicated. Three English channels together received more awards than any other language channels got.

In the case of Telugu news channels, three of them got most of the 23 awards, including one channel of less than two years got eight awards. Half of 15 news channels got no award, under any category.

Hardly 20 percent of 137 awards of “News TV” in 2012 have anything to do with coverage of news of the day/week. Little over one-third of awards to news channels were for crime, entertainment, sports or business categories. There were no awards for any specific social issue that concerns the nation. For example, there were elections to State Assemblies during the year or calamities of one kind or the other. There were no awards for covering such things. But four awards were given for covering the Lokpal (Anna Hazare) debate! That is, there was an attempt to justify the kind of round the clock coverage of Anna Hazare related events at Jantar Mantar and Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi, which otherwise was criticized by some.

Some described the awards exercise as “bidding for awards” or “purchase of awards” as if the “sponsors get it”. That is the realty of these NTV awards. This is yet another mistake news broadcasters are making. Instead of truly unleashing creative potential on their own with their own “mission”, they tend to indulge in short cuts and public relations exercise. Why is all this possible? What is intriguing is why channels, even the ones with record of initiatives, have to resort to such deceptive measures?

Since “winning awards” is the new game that most news channels are in, one needs to understand this “award fraud” or self inflicting deception. First, this exercise is viewed as a business and PR opportunity, not as a standards upholding exercise or as an affair to encourage creativity in a competitive context. Second, there is no transparency in the process of going about choosing awardees or in deciding the categories that deserve recognition. Third, there is no objective or independent methodology to go about identifying the differentiators for awards. Fourth, there is no involvement of viewers at any stage in that process. Only a couple of film critics familiar with language TV were involved for their assessment as to who should be considered for the award. Fifth, there is no larger context in the process. That is, only those channels and those programmes or categories for which entries were submitted (with fees) are considered. Sixth, how can these be positioned as “national” when the exercise was limited to a couple of language channels while ignoring prominent channels in a selected language.

As against “NTV Awards” bash, consider the CMS Academy Awards for news channels in Telugu language. The CMS Academy Awards, held for three years so far in 2009, 2010 and 2011, followed a rigorous, transparent and objective methodology. First, it is based not on what channels nominate for each entry but on the total content of channels for a minimum period of one year to not less than three months. An analysis based on such monitored content showed categories selected for awards are identified independently of channels and such an analysis is used by an independent jury of eminent people of not less than six to identify the categories for which awards should be given. CMS Academy Awards are limited to Telugu only and described as experimental and held in Hyderabad for all the three years. The methodology of selection is four-step. In the CMS Academy Awards, the role of news channels is limited to ‘come and receive the awards on announcement’. Channel representatives are also invited for a “focus group” along with experts and concerned civil society groups to discuss the criteria for judging news channels. The organizer (CMS) has no role in deciding the awards as it is done by an independent jury of eminent specialists having no business interests in news television. Equally important is the fact that CMS Academy Awards ceremony is conducted by CMS with no sponsors having anything to do with advertising or channels or their content.

CMS Awards for News Channels

CMS took to awards for news channels in 2007 as something to acknowledge and appreciate positive powers of news channels. The awards started with only Telugu channels as at that time their number was getting multiplied every year. Apart from an analysis of the content of news channels towards sensitizing larger pubic, we thought we should take on to the idea of awards. The CMS Academy Awards have been given annually to news channels more as an experimental initiative. The chief guest at the first year awards function in Hyderabad was veteran film maker Shyam Benegal, who made a difference to the feature film industry. The guest in the second year was the Founder Trustee of Public Service Broadcast Trust, Rajiv Mehrotra. Dr P C Rao, a judge at International Court and a writer, was the guest at the third year to give away the awards to news channels.

News channels in Andhra Pradesh were asked to select the best out of their own news bulletins and send them to an independent jury for consideration for these awards. Only two channels responded. Perhaps they were not confident or sure what to nominate. Or perhaps they thought that since CMS Media Lab is already recording news bulletins there was no need to take the trouble of sending nominations (although it was without any entry fee).

A general feeling among experts and well informed people also was that it is difficult to recall a bulletin or a programme of news channels for an award. In fact, a few felt that since “bad and ugly” or irrelevant ones are often in limelight on news channels, it is easy to name such shows.

Except in the case of one or two categories, the jury felt that none of the programmes could be described “as the best”. In fact, the feeling was that in a creative field the “best is yet to come”.

Nevertheless, we thought we should go about in a positive way. The awards are for Telugu news channels and for their programmes telecast during the year. To be valid for nomination, a news channel must have completed at least one year in operation.

These awards were based on a rigorously developed methodology, implemented transparently. This was developed to reflect the public concern. Broadly, a three pronged effort was made to select the awardees.

The six-member independent jury had people who were eminent and made a mark in their respective fields. It was headed by a retired jurist and activist and had one eminent editor, one senior academician, one lady who is a literary and media personality and well known as a media critic.

The second input was a sensitivity analysis of the content of news channels and bulletins in a meet of experts and civil society personalities. Summary of a three year analysis of trend, in the content of news channels, was made available to the jury and the experts at this focus group meet of not less than 30. This analysis indicates the priorities of news channels and the kind of competition, they are under.

The third input was a sample survey of TV news viewing households in three different regions of Andhra Pradesh to bring out perceptions and preferences of viewers. 13 attributes for news channels shortlisted based on sensitivity analysis of content, were also enquired into in this field study.

The independent jury took into account the outcome of all these various exercises, saw the clippings more than once together and independently, and finalized the categories that deserve to be appreciated and also the specific programmes that deserve to be awarded for that period.

The juries felt that for the category of scientific temper, no channel deserves to be considered for all the three years. In fact, the jury expressed its disappointment that even news channels are competing, to churn out programmes promoting blind beliefs and irrational ideas. And that such programmes are on the increase.

The three juries also felt that since the best bet for better programmes is the viewer, we should award a viewer who symbolises activism by way of expressing views on good and bad aspects of programmes of news channels. As there was no other way for awards initially to identify such viewers, we wrote to the channels themselves, to give us some names of people who have been writing to them, with their feedback. Only one channel responded with only one name. The message is clear and loud even after a reminder request. We need to promote “active viewership”. We thought awards are one way of doing that promotional role, however limited that may be.

Also, apart from what the jury decided, CMS Academy, as the promoter, thought it relevant to recognize certain special efforts towards promoting concerns in TV programmes. With such a view, special initiatives by the channels as well as by the print media towards promoting sensitive television viewing, was recognized by instituting special award for such efforts.

The high point here is, despite the fact that CMS Academy Awards are professionally and credibly conducted with no costs to news channels, directly or indirectly, prominent channels are not enthusiastic as they are for “NTV” awards!

A channel doing awards for its own in-house content and on its own, as is being done by most channels, is not the same as deceptive NTV awards. As Narayan Rao of NDTV said at the NTV Awards ceremony as chief guest, channels need to come out of deceptive policies for reaping the best of their potential. Such awards should not become yet another mistake in consolidating the strengths of channels, he said.

(The author is the Founder Chairman of Centre for Media Studies. The views expressed in the article are his personal.)