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In The Battle For TRPs, Democracy Is The Biggest Loser

Posted by Shashwat in Media
June 18, 2017

“There are three types of lies – lies, damn lies and statistics

—Benjamin Disraeli.

The third kind that Disraeli mentions often comes into play after TV networks, particularly the English news channels, are done slicing and dicing the BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council; a real time TRP measurement system) ratings. Once the ratings are released, all the networks claim to be on top. This leaves many perplexed. How could multiple channels simultaneously hold the top spot? The answer lies in the dressing up of data to make it look prettier. Demographic segmentation of the audience based on geography, gender, socioeconomic class etc. is done until they are No.1 in one of the segments. Similar thing happened when the BARC ratings, week 23, were released three days ago. Tall claims of being the viewers choice channel were made by all networks with meretricious graphics covering 3/4th of the screen space.

The TRPs must be important to the networks; after all, greater TRPs lead to more advertisements, slots are sold at a higher price which ultimately leads to higher revenues. What about the viewers perspective though, do the viewers make their choice to watch a channel on the basis of statistics or content? Would they mindlessly watch whatever nuisance is dished out at them by the current alpha? If no, then these ranks and ratings are of little or no significance to the viewers.

Let’s take a look at the things that made it to the news recently. This June, with the news channels facing a shortage of people they can run their exposes on, we are back to talking about the usual suspects Mallya, Gandhis, et alia. And because this isn’t enough, the tried and tested formula to hold our attention, nationalism, is also being regurgitated. Here are a few gems that adorned the ‘prime-time’ crown recently:

Boycott cricket with Pakistan:

This campaign was carried out by ultra-nationalist media houses. In this, they asked the people to boycott the India vs Pakistan cricket match that was held on June 04, 2017, as it didn’t conform to their idea of nationalism. A similar call has been made to boycott the Champions Trophy final match that will be played today between the same two countries. The irony is that though they don’t want India to play cricket with Pakistan in an ICC event,  they are more than fine with inviting uncouth Pakistani panelists on their shows, giving them an opportunity to speak ill of India, live on Indian television.

The doublespeak doesn’t end here, the moment India won the game, breaking news flashed on all these channels and some even went live interviewing the celebrating fans. If they were truly boycotting the game how did they find out about the victory and cover it? One also might wonder how successful the campaign turned out to be. The answer to that question also lies in the BARC ratings. The match turned out to be the highest rated O.D.I. (One Day International) in BARC history, attracting a whopping 201 million viewers! Do these networks have the integrity to show this piece of data with half the pomp and show that goes into displaying their ratings?

Instead of asking questions on the smart fence, the one-sided ‘Most Favored Nation’ status, the Indus water treaty etc. media chooses to run lousy boycott campaigns. Even a campaign for an embargo on Pakistan would have made more sense and got better traction. If they are not willing to do so then these flag bearers of patriotism should at least give up such shenanigans and stop claiming to be the people’s voice, they are so far from becoming.

Hand over Mallya:

“Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.” This quote by Socrates aptly explains Indian media’s obsession with Vijay Mallya. In one such manic moment, Arnab Goswami of the Republic TV called for breaking ties with the United Kingdom to teach Mallya a lesson. Mallya should be brought back and prosecuted. No arguments there. But how helpful can such preposterous threats be in bringing him back?

Mallya is a small fish in a pool of corporate defaulters. I say this because Mallya owes around ₹ 9,000 crore to the banks and as of March 31, 2016, the total non-performing assets (NPAs) of the banks stood at ₹ 7,23,323 crore, out of which the NPAs of Public Sector Banks were ₹ 3,36,124 crore which was 11.95% of the total loans given out to the corporate sector. A comparison of these figures shows that Mallya’s share in the corporate defaults is relatively small. Another grave piece of statistic is the rate of recovery of the NPAs and bad loans which have been consistently falling over the years. From the following table, we can calculate the rate of recovery. In the year 2013-14 the rate of recovery was 18.8%, in 2014-15 it dropped to 12.3% and in 2015-16 it further plummeted to 10.3%. No one seems to be raising these points.

The demand to bring back Mallya is totally justified but what about the big fish defaulters sitting here in India itself? Why is no question being asked about them? Why were such large loans granted to nonviable businesses? And what is this obsession with Mallya alone? I wonder if it has anything to do with his flamboyant lifestyle and would the media have expended the same amount of airtime if he lived differently.

With their focus on the race for TRPs, the media doesn’t appear to be doing its duty of shaping the public opinion justly. There are four pillars of a democracy: the executive (government), the legislative (lawmakers), the judiciary (interprets laws) and the media(expresses people’s aspirations). Recently the former Calcutta High Court judge, Justice CS Karnan, who was sentenced to six months imprisonment for contempt of court by the Supreme Court, shook the judicial pillar.

Next is the legislative, consisting of elected representatives of the government as well as the opposition parties. The opposition instead of questioning the government on policies and their implementation indulged in ad hominem against the Prime Minister and in the process managed to thoroughly discredit and alienate themselves from the people. This has the left legislative pillar weak, thereby making the role of the media as the fourth pillar more vital for the stability of the democracy. They have an important duty to raise the right questions so that the executive is not left unchecked. However, when the media chooses rhetoric and rant over substance, the fourth pillar becomes the last nail in the coffin of democracy.

My humble advice to the media is to mellow down a bit with the blatant display of rankings. The duties that are entrusted upon them are far more significant than the race to be the number one network.