Vantage point

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The News Wars

A Hindi news channel had a 30 minute show about the impact of M S Dhoni on hair styles in India. The topic of the show, as inane as it sounds, seemed to be immensely and profoundly more relevant than the whole "Office of Profit" quasi-scandal that is being splashed on most English news channels.

Yes, Sonia Gandhi took splendid advantage of being in the spotlight by pulling her "sacrifice" move. But the spotlight itself was brought on due to the coverage being given to a story that is completely devoid of any relevance to the life of an Indian. So what is the reason behind this ill-advised focus on an otherwise lame story?

The main reason is the so-called "War for News" that is on at the moment. Until a few months ago, NDTV was the uncrowned King of the Indian English News Media. Aajtak's English arm, 'Headlines Today' was at best a "channel you switch to when NDTV has commercial breaks" and posed no major competition. Then a few months back the scene hotted up with the high profile launch of two English news channels backed by biggies - CNN-IBN and Times Now. CNN-IBN is a venture between CNN and TV18 (more known for running CNBC in India) spearheaded by Rajdeep Sardesai. Times NOW is the Times Group's attempt to spread its domination of the Indian media scene even further, spearheaded by Arnab Goswami.

Thus two of Prannoy Roy's proteges broke away creating some much needed competition. And the average English-news-watching viewer echoed Roy's sentiments when he said "Welcome" to the competition.

Media is a business like any other and depends on market-share for profitability. There are important factors like ethics, responsibility, role of a watchdog etc, but at the end of the day it is after all a business. And intense business competition is a lot like war without weapons.

In any business, the war for customers is won by providing superior products/services. But another thing that plays a huge role is to convince the customer that you are actually providing him the best products/services. In case of certain products it is very easy. Television makers will speak about the picture quality, screen technology, sound, etc. Car makers will speak about mileage, engine power, etc. Detergent powders will speak about how well the clean the clothes.

But in the business of news, the parameters are somewhat fuzzy. Standards of judging the product here are extremely subjective and so there is no clear objective direction in which a company can focus their efforts. A car maker can work on improving mileage, but for a news channel there are no indicators of the defining factor.

Thus the job of telling the customers that you are indeed the best becomes even more important. In the News business, this is achieved by boasting about being the "first to break it", or getting an "exclusive scoop", or "creating an impact". Let me evaluate, as a viewer, what part these differentiating factors play in my eventual opinion of a news channel.

The "first to break it" factor, very frankly, doesn't do much for me beyond the first hour of the story or so. Yes, if a particular channel is the first to break a story, it will get my undivided attention for a short while, but after a couple of days I do not care nor remember who was the pioneer in breaking the story. As a viewer, what matters is accuracy, depth and analysis of the happenings. So the "first to break" factor ends up becoming a brownie point that loses relevance to viewers rapidly. It seems to be more an attempt to show your thumb to the competition than convince the viewers.

The "exclusive" factor is similar too. Exclusivity of anything is lost sooner rather than later.

The "impact" factor is probably the most tricky issue. Prima facie it seems like a powerful factor. If a channel's activism is going to make some difference on the ground it really is admirable. But that does not mean I will watch that channel. If that were so, Indian Express would be miles ahead of other newspapers, since no other competitor can claim to havemade as much of an impact. But in the end, it is content that matters.

There are two phases through which a customer is taken. One is capturing the customer and the other is retaining the customer. The aforementioned three factors can at best help in capturing attention and thrust the particular brand into the customer's consideration set more forcefully. At the end of the day, it is all about retention though.

And since this media war is in its initial phase I find that the emphasis being placed on capturing customers is a lot more than ensuring the quality of content. The office-of-profit is an issue where there isn't any scope for depth in terms of content. Really, what is the issue in the first place? That there is a silly law that makes it illegal to hold posts which has the government paying salary?

Well, boo-effing-hoo!

Who gives it a serious thought? And what is it about this issue that makes it more important to the average Indian than Dhoni's hair? Nothing. So there is not much differentiation possible in terms of content. The meaningful content about this issue can be summed up in three lines.

Yet all these English news channels had hours and hours of programming about it over the weekend. NDTV actually had both "Big Fight" and "We The People" focus on this issue. There is nothing worse than confusing a pure "one upmanship" issue which can at best just give you these "impact" and "exclusive" type brownie points with one which gives scope for solid content. If anything, such an intensely depth-free issue can end up boring audiences and have them switching over to other channels, maybe even Hindi channels.

Yesterday I got so bored by the unnecessary rumination of the "at-best-three-lines" content of this issue on the English channels that I preferred the show on Zee News which featured a woman from Ghatkopar being purportedly stalked in a very bizarre manner.

The manpower churning due to the sudden birth of competition has meant that it is not exactly clear which channel has those factors which will make me choose it for a longer period of viewing. NDTV has a definite plus point now in terms of its sleeker presentation template. The bottom of the screen isn't cluttered with trivia, tickers, scrolls, scores and what not. In all other parameters, i.e depth, breadth, imaginativeness of programming, presentation, slotting etc, all channels seem equal right now because more thought seems to be going into "one upmanship".

That is again natural during the early stages of a business war where the focus naturally tends to be more on blowing your own trumpet, both for attracting customers as well as energising and motivating employees. But business wars have been won only by those who, through this trumpet blowing, do not forget that it is eventually their product that will win them the game.

Remember, even from a pure revenue generation point of view, money is not made during the "breaking news" moments or the claims of superiority. Money is made when your viewer stays on your channel long enough for your advertisers to sell him their stuff. And that can only be ensured by having a solid product.

As of now, neither NDTV, nor CNN-IBN nor Times NOW seem to have kept this in mind. Whoever realises it first and executes it properly will win the war.