Television. The bane of all our woes. Conservatives accuse it of spreading vulgarity and obscenity, challenging our family values. Moderates and liberals complain about growing sensationalism, voyeurism and a cacophony of political shallowness. Courts find it a vehicle of contempt, political parties of persecution. Armed forces find the intentions of people associated with it highly doubtful. Bureaucrats keep plotting course to gag it and be done with it for good.
But despite all that, television content mutates only in a mind-numbing fashion. And there is a pattern to it which keeps repeating ad nauseam. And before we try to dissect it, it is imperative to grasp the fact. The above-mentioned complaints — and many more — cannot, under any circumstances, all be true for they are in negation of one another. But those which are true present a big challenge to the future of TV journalism and entertainment alike. Now to the business and let us only focus on the news channels.
Perceptions, they say, are often more important than reality. And television business in our country, like any other, is built on reality. Internally, the perception is driven by a list of numbers called ratings. There are target rating points (TRPs) and gross rating points (GRPs). Together, they tell us which channel and which programme is most popular. Please also remember that the man usually in charge of making sense of these numbers is not a professional journalist or entertainer but an MBA in marketing or sales. This gentleman sees today’s trends and advises the owners and the content managers to tailor the output in accordance with today’s success stories. With very little innovation this is done, which ensures that like a stuck gramophone, television keeps repeating itself.
As I have mentioned in an earlier piece, the rise of television news coincided with the collapse of the Pakistani entertainment industry. This ensured that all viewer traffic meant for entertainment channels would end up on news stations. In view of the demand pressure, these channels were asked to overcompensate. When shouting matches on talk shows were not found enough, comedians and, in one distinct case, a dancing girl were introduced. The ‘boring’ senior journalists discussing newspapers in morning shows were replaced by showbiz actors and hot models conducting wedding-like ceremonies and dance parties. Smaller channels resorted to providing carte blanche to the advertisers who would cut an important transmission short to show an astrologer, a cooking recipe or then a long song. Hence, the good that could come out of a boisterous news media was lost in transmission.
Now that the entertainment and sports industry are reviving, the ratings spikes are becoming a rarity as they were actually supposed to be. But a station owner’s fixation with the news channels is also understandable. News-related content and talk shows are the cheapest content that you can produce in an ordinary day. While sports broadcasts need expensive equipment, the expenditure on entertainment programming is usually mind-numbingly phenomenal.
If you want to understand the true share of news viewership in the country, just undertake an experiment. Just find ratings of the three most successful channels for three ordinary days and locate their most successful news (not talk show or breaking news) transmission. Usually it is the 9:00 pm slot. Take an average. That, as a rule of thumb, is the actual share of the news channels.
It is important that the rest of traffic is lured back to the channels where they were meant to be. Most of the news channel owners have entertainment channels, too. They can help bringing back the focus on them. Those who do not have more than one should be requested to consider converting their news channels to a news and entertainment combo. As equilibrium is reached, most of the complaints with the news networks will fade away where a tad more professionalism and less salesmanship will not be out of place.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 10th, 2012.