Elections and the news media

What the Indian Premier League or IPL is to sports channels, elections are to news channels. They bring a happy spike in viewership. For news channels, spikes usually come from an attack, a bomb scare et al. And they can’t always be monetised for two reasons. One, you can’t predict them. Two, increasing ad time or doing anything to maximise revenues could put the audiences off. But pushing for better rates and more money during elections can be planned and is kosher. 

By tomorrow, we will know the results of the general elections that were just held in India. And the total viewership counting day got. 

Meanwhile, to get a sense of what elections does to news viewership Business Standard asked the Broadcast Audience Research Council or BARC for help. It looked at viewership on counting days for the assembly elections in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh (2017) and in Mizoram, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Telangana (2018). On counting day for the Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh et al assembly elections, viewership on Hindi channels went from an average of 103 million impressions on the previous four Tuesdays to 403 million on the Tuesday that was counting day. English news channels on the other hand saw it go from 0.4 million impressions to 1.4 million. Overall the rise in viewership was as high as two to six times on Hindi and English news channels, and five to 10 times on regional ones. 

In 2012, TAM Media Research, the erstwhile ratings body, had crunched numbers on the viewership spikes from elections versus other events from 1999-2009. The Lok Sabha Elections in 2004 and 2009 pushed the news genre to over 10 per cent and over eight per cent of viewership. But natural calamities and the Mumbai terror attacks brought far bigger spikes. The latter actually led to news channels getting 18 per cent of the overall TV viewership. 

But these are just that — spikes. Over the 10 years ending 2018, news viewership has hardly moved. Its share in total television viewership hovers between six and eight per cent. It ended 2018 with 7.2 per cent of all TV watched in India. Advertising and pay revenues are usually indexed to share in viewership. Little wonder then that news broadcasting remains an unprofitable, Rs 3,000 odd crore part of a booming Rs 74,000 crore Indian broadcasting industry. 

And that brings me to the point of all this analysis. 

Sure elections bring a nice little spike in viewership but to sustain it requires much more. It requires solid on the ground reporting, fantastic coverage and loads of investment in journalism. No news channel in India has made that in the last decade. If anything they have cut back on reporters, reporting and on hard, on the ground journalism. News channels today depend more on star anchors and window-paned shouting matches. This cheap format comes with hidden costs — that of sliding quality and rising polarisation. Screeching or peddling fake facts to support a point of view brings an immediate high in audiences and therefore, revenues. Imagine a film full of item numbers, the stuff that gets audiences in. That is what most of India’s 400 news channels have become. 

A good chat with their counterparts at entertainment or film channels could help. While the peaks are good, you need the bread-butter programming to keep a steady level of audiences and therefore predictability in revenues. In entertainment programming, the steady viewership comes from soap operas, the peaks come from reality shows or events. On film channels, they come from old films, such as Sooryavansham, a perennial hit on Hindi movie channels. They bring the steady revenues while latest blockbusters such as Dangal or a Sultan bring the spikes. 

If the only way you can get your audience every night is by simply confirming their worst fears and prejudices, then you are investing in a model with diminishing returns. Because there are dozens of excellent quality newspapers and now at least half a dozen great news sites that do what news channels forgot long back — report the news, all of it.
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