A swing away from TV?, Marketing & Advertising News, ET BrandEquity

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<p>(Representative Image)</p>
(Representative Image)

The cathode ray tube may still be a prized possession and a centerpiece of most homes but it has lost centrality in everyday lives in terms of that most precious thing in the world of media – ‘owning the narrative’. This was brought into the spotlight once again with the reduced viewership for the elections from commencement to conclusion.

In the past five years, news has been a burgeoning genre. Naturally from election announcement through polling and then especially on counting day, it was expected that the crores of voters would be riveted to their screens. The data for the recent general elections to the Lok Sabha suggests otherwise.

There is a definitive drop amongst top 3 leading Hindi news channels to the tune of 85 per cent at an India Urban market. At HSM level there is a drop of 16 per cent, with major drop in AajTak and India TV, whereas Network 18 and TV9 Bharatvarsh have shown a growth in ratings.

Numbers are not comparable for other channels as some of them were not adequately reported in 2019.

But one significant point has emerged, that is, it’s no longer the monopoly of a few leading channels like Aajtak and Zee News… the emergence of alternate options like News18 or TV9 gives both the viewer and the advertiser more options to reach out to a larger base.

It would be insightful to explore the factors behind these shifts in viewership patterns.

But before I get to the analysis, let me expand on the development of TV and digital media per se.

Media is entertainment with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s the staple that grew TV viewership. Then there is news and sports. Many argue that storytelling is a diversion and an escape but that news is a necessity much hungered for. At a societal level, fed on a controlled diet by Doordarshan, the growth of private media was seen as good for greater exposure to the truth and supporting a public good.

Then, the news narrative bent its knees to commercialism and it totally transformed news craft. From a hard nosed reporting culture, literalist by temperament and investigative by persuasion — it became just a view expressed with noisy supporting commentary.

Political news became the core mainstream. A usual assortment of ‘spokespersons’ taking part in a shouting match and often the anchors being part of the play. Only confusion rose above the din.

Meanwhile, as news exploded in volume, many hundreds of channels came on air. It became the cheaper way into the game. Not being dependent on a unique talent—everyone had the same access to the hits. This mushrooming of news platforms on TV wasn’t only unique to India. The CNN and Fox moment had arrived in the United States and so did Sky and kindred versions whether in Berlusconi’s Italy or elsewhere in Europe – oscillating between conservatives and liberals.

A fundamental drift happened from news to narrative, between the moral compulsion of telling the truth and asking questions to the pressing need for storytelling and holding the public’s attention.

Digital media defaulted to the belief that information was the currency and the algorithm was the arbiter of choice. The new medium could provide information faster, cheaper, and with greater individual specificity.

Digital media was eminently well suited for news not only because of its speed, but because digital media was all betting on the revenues to come; it had no revenues when it began. Cheaper the better.

Digital news is a kind of information arbitrage: how cheaply can one acquire it, and what fraction of a premium will advertisers pay for it? Count the number of digital access live phones and you will begin to get the answer.

The news genre is naturally fit for digital consumption. News is reality in the instant. It is time-sensitive information, a complicated and fragile value proposition. For one thing, its value quickly degrades in seconds. The next day, last man standing reportage is no longer valuable. Everyone wants a prompt in the instant.
Where is original content, not to mention actually good content, or crafted content? As this was happening, the demographics also changed. Nearly 400 million Indians are less than 20 years of age and this is the only reality they have encountered. An abundance of options is par for the course.

Also TV is compelled to provide a wider selection in its program buffet. But, general information is not news. Its value depends on scarcity. What everybody knows isn’t news; if the news is available everywhere, then you hardly do a useful or valuable job by repeating it. Hence YouTube influencers, experts, advocates—call them as you like— bring scoops and gossip, whereas TV reporters are becoming more and more more monochromatic.

TV squandered its distinction. A long history of dependability, unique authority, defined character and refinement and exclusivity that are hard to establish overnight were deemed to be unreliable profit drivers. Noisy drama and deliberate crisis creation were relied upon. To make a mountain of a molehill became top qualification.

A sensible evaluation would have said this approach was dicey as a business proposition, because the said news didn’t create its own value, but depended on the circumstance that surrounded it.

However, it came to be this way. Naturally, this led to the impulse is to resist it, to skim over it, or to be distracted.

Is that what happened in the 2024 election rating result?

Did digital steal the thunder?

Were folks existing in their respective echo chambers with a finite population?

Did TV fail to add incremental audiences to the political news bandwagon?

I will perhaps write about it on another occasion but a distinction has to be made for TV as content and TV as medium, channel or modality of distribution. The problem lies in both parts.

Some key factors as I see them :

Fragmentation

Compared to the 2019 general election, the COVID pandemic has altered content consumption patterns drastically. Digital platforms have become prominent, leading to increased fragmentation. Television is no longer the primary medium for obtaining information, as audiences are now more mobile, resulting in lower consumption and ratings. People peruse on the go. The digital or youtube windows on the very same TV platforms has grown.

Longer Period

From polling to oath taking was a long time. The entire election process from April 19th, the first polling day, to June 4th, the counting day, lasted 50 days, with multiple states voting across one or more or all of the seven phases. This extended duration contributed to audience fatigue with election news. The cumulative viewing that typically builds momentum was lacking this time. There has been a growth of regional content on both TV and digital and in language isolatable markets, the traction was impervious to what was happening in other states or nationally.

Multiple Platforms

The significant change observed is the preference for consuming content across multiple screens. With the rise of connected TVs, even large screens now display digital content. Political debates, traditionally a personal experience, found a new audience on personal screens, contributing to reduced television ratings. It also opens up a question on the national, regional, sub regional and micro news demand. Digital can furnish across the board in a cheaper and more instantaneous way than television.

Electoral Results

The counting day traditionally garners the highest ratings, yet this election saw results that did not favor a single party, prompting audiences to seek explanations elsewhere. Uncertainty around the final outcome also reduced viewership.

An advertiser’s perspective

Advertisers had high expectations based on the previous election’s benchmarks. While this election remained among the most-watched news events, the overall decline in viewership highlighted that advertisers who heavily invested in sponsorships and other forms of promotion may not have achieved great returns. It appears that maintaining a consistent presence on channels would have been a more effective strategy for advertisers.

To conclude, did TV lose its status once and for all or is this more proof that algorithms can create not just an orderly information world, but one so personally compelling that information becomes a highly curated, contextualized, even dramatic experience?

We shall know in the times to come.

Keep track of the news!

  • Published On Jun 27, 2024 at 08:20 AM IST

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