Prannoy Roy
Virtually every city in India has a ‘ratings consultant’ who, for a relatively small fee, will ensure higher ratings for any channel.

There is undoubtedly an element of truth in what James Murdoch said in a 2009 speech at Edinburgh, that “the only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit”. But it is probably not entirely true. Similarly, perhaps Elizabeth Murdoch’s contrary view may have exaggerated her case.

In her speech, also at Edinburgh, a few years ago, Elizabeth Murdoch criticised the making of profits without purpose as “one of the most dangerous…goals for capitalism and for freedom”. Before I go on to give you some examples of how this debate is unfolding in India, let me explain that we at NDTV operate by what we call, rather pompously, the “Heisenberg principle of journalism”.

The Heisenberg principle, crudely interpreted, suggests that as you get closer to one target or object, the very nature and essence of the target changes. Similarly, we hold that a “revamped Heisenberg principle” suggests that given its duality, the closer you move towards the objective of profits, the very nature of journalism tends to change.

While it seems to us that there is nothing wrong with James Murdoch’s goal of trying to make a news channel generate profits, profits, the problem lies in the path to profitability.

Almost by definition, the path to making profits for a news organisation is littered with compromises that change the nature of journalism, often so that it can no longer be recognized as a news channel.

In the quest for profits in the overcrowded market of news channels in India, several choices are possible and different channels have chosen different routes, but the greater the success with any one of these routes, the more the nature of news journalism changes. The first and most popular option is to go tabloid and gain eyeballs. Virtually every single Hindi news channel in India today is grotesquely tabloid.

It all began after Murdoch’s Star News split with NDTV. For a few years, Star did not do well. It was a serious news channel but was making losses as a result of low viewership. Star News decided to go tabloid. Seeing the success of tabloid news, virtually every Hindi news channel turned tabloid. I recall what I think is the lowest point so far when one Hindi channel anchor (not Star News) twirled her hair with her forefinger, looked into the camera and said, “Break ke baad aapko ek rape dikhayenge” (After the break we will show you a rape).

But why blame Hindi channels? With competition and the rush for eyeballs, tabloidisation is a global trend, but more than that, it should be seen as the death of good journalism. Forget the usual suspects, it is disturbing to see even the wonderful National Geographic and Discovery channels going down a slippery slope with many programmes designed to titillate by using titles containing sex and violence.

India has an added problem with tabloid Hindi news channels. The advertisers, the agencies, the CEOs and marketing heads do not watch Hindi news. They almost universally watch English news channels, so all decisions on advertising rates and expenditure are based solely on the number of eyeballs, not on the quality of the channel, because nobody has watched any Hindi channel.

So, unlike in the UK, where a serious newspaper gets a much higher advertising rate per eyeball than a tabloid, no such stratification exists in India. I don’t need to state the obvious that going tabloid in the quest for profits changes the nature of the beast, destroying journalism. I can honestly report that it is widely accepted that the only Hindi news channel in India that is not tabloid is NDTV India and I must also report that the channel is making a loss!

The other option to going tabloid, and it’s not mutually exclusive, is to fiddle the ratings. Virtually every city in India has a “ratings consultant” who, for a relatively small fee, will ensure higher ratings for any channel.

The method is simple: the consultant gets to know the homes where the people-meters that measure viewership are located. These are meant to be anonymous homes, but the consultant manages to find out addresses. He visits the people-meter homes, gives them a brand-new 60-inch plasma TV and says, “Watch whatever you like on this lovely big TV, but on the TV attached to the people-meter, you must watch this list of channels.”

The family also gets an additional reward at the end of the year if they’ve done what they were asked to do efficiently. In fact, Nielsen sent out their global head of security to India and, after a four-month elaborate investigation, he said, “I have never seen as much corruption of the Nielsen system anywhere else in the world.”

Courtesy Scroll.in