Television news in India faces crisis: news channel heads


New Delhi : News channels in India are facing a qualitative crisis today because programmes that cater to the "lowest common denominator" are lapping up the viewers, according to heads of prominent news channels.

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The "race for eyeballs" is forcing news channels into crime shows and sex shows that are voyeuristic and unless the broadcasters regulate themselves now the government would impose a regulator, channel heads said while participating in India's first news television summit here Wednesday.

The topic for the channel heads was "News Channels … the Thirst for News, How Far is Too Far?" The summit was organised by to coincide with the presentation of India's first news television awards.

Rajdeep Sardesai, editor in chief, CNN IBN, said that channels had to "move away from the tyranny of the market that makes us cater to the lowest common denominator".

He wanted the broadcasters to draw a distinction between "what is in public interest and what is of public interest" and to concentrate on the first.

Managing Editor of NDTV India Dibang said his channel had made a conscious decision not to air crime shows and other shows of prurient interest.

But Chintamani Rao, CEO, India TV and Q.W. Naqvi, editorial director, TV Today Network, pointed out that crime shows, sex shows and similar shows had many more viewers than other shows on news channels.

All held that one could not argue that advertisers went by the number of viewers when advertising on channels. Naqvi said: "If I have to choose between the market and my conscience, I shall choose the market."

Prabhat Dabral, head of news, Sahara News, hoped that the broadcasters would themselves regulate the content shown because otherwise the government would appoint a regulator and "that would be most unfortunate. Such a regulator is bound to become autocratic at some point in time".

But Sardesai and Naqvi felt self-regulation would work "only if we segregate channels" into news and current affairs channels on the one hand, and reality show channels on the other.

In the absence of such a segregation, Sardesai was in favour of a regulator on the lines of Ofcom of the US, which is an autonomous body regulating all communications, including broadcasting and telecommunications.

Moderating the discussion, Sanjeev Srivastava, India editor, BBC World Service, wondered if it was too late for the Indian broadcasting industry to come up with a self-regulatory mechanism.

Prawin Kumar, director, broadcasting content in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, sought to allay the fear of the channel heads by hoping that the government would be able to "stay away" from the process of appointing members to the broadcasting regulatory authority of India.

He, however, pointed out that it was the government that had proposed the setting up of such an authority despite protests from the industry.