Kishore Chakraborti | McCann Erickson India
News has an inbuilt problem of being perishable. Having been born out of the past, news also suffers from a second-hand syndrome. The construct of news defies completeness. ‘Kya latest chal raha hai?’ ‘Kya nayi khabar laye ho?’ ‘Sunne mein aaya…’ These are the dialogues that are associated with the world of news. And more often than not, news and rumor, like Siamese twins, get inseparably joined in the same structure. Efforts have been made for ages to tackle these built-in problems of news.
In the past, eyewitnesses got special importance in the eyes of law and people in power employed special agents to give first hand feedback. Messengers ran the marathon to report the news of battles. Epics portrayed the need of running commentary from the point of action in the battlefield. Sanjay represented the dual role of a broadcasting channel and a news reporter in the Mahabharata.
Sage Vyas would have been really surprised to see how his brilliant idea has cloned itself into scores of news channels that are moving heaven and earth to look for their action field of Kurukshetra. The demands of a new generation consumer, market forces, and evolving technology -- all have put their own bits to make news change colours fast.
In those days, news was meant for kings and their men; common people had nothing to do with it. They were busy leading their own lives. In fact, being in the news was not even good or safe for them. Only in fairy tales would the son of a farmer hit the headlines, winning the double jackpot of half the crown and a full princess.
Today, one look at the papers will tell a totally new story. Men in power are conspicuous by their absence, unless they are part of some drama and story. Newspapers have changed colours literally, mastheads giving way to pictures of mega stars. Almost every news item is illustrated with scantily dressed models. News today needs to be dressed up and garnished with glamour to appear attractive. And the readers are none other than common mortals.
Who would believe that there was a time, not very long ago, when newspapers used to look at advertising with suspicion? Leading dailies would reject ads if they were not happy with the content. The front page of the newspaper had its own sanctity.
As competition heated up, however, the situation took a dramatic turn. Newspapers today carry a huge payload of brands, along with their regular consignments of news. In order to accommodate this additional load of valuable brand baggage, they have gone into a bloating binge. Every morning, your favourite newspaper cannons on your door, along with the bulk of a thick rim of classified advertisement pages. Magazine covers open up with a flourish into an eight-page gatefold.
With the entry of 24x7 news channels, we have entered into a hitherto unknown supermarket of news. The TV screen is the new show window of these proliferating news channel malls. Like the retail revolution, news retail itself is still in the infancy of merchandising. In most cases, they appear in potpourri platter, where ‘kurkure’ news is served next to staple news.
Similar anomalies are visible in the ways news is being treated by different channels. Some show value in the speed of delivery. Some believe in recreating, enacting, and dramatizing news. Some believe in threadbare presentation of facts to the so-called invited experts, urging them to chew and convert it into easily digestible pulp for common consumption. In a product parity market of multiple news channels, the value addition is done through expert interpretation.
Amidst all these changes and treatments, there is almost a conscious effort by the news channels to be upfront and assure the viewers that the essence of news has not changed. ‘Khabar wohi jo such dikhaye.’
It’s a different story that for some channels, the truth of the news is not in the topic, but in the process. They take a potent nugget of information and start beating it on the anvil of truth. A piece of breaking news shouts ‘eureka’ about some silver screen idol’s illegitimate child. The subject is then taken through a mock process of information distillation – special correspondence, latest info, visual aid, expert comment, opinion poll, charts, diagrams… Stretch the truth to its last point of elasticity; wring out the last drop of juicy interpretation à la reality shows, which take hours to announce a couple of winners.
The exercise has become more elaborate with news becoming a 24x7 affair, 365 days a year. They create the construct of a day (24 hours) through their channels, where each and every item is important, interesting, valuable, and therefore, eminently consumable. Before you realize it, you have spent the whole day -- through the camera’s eye -- with poor Prince inside the ditch.
From this perspective, news challenges the existing concept of a brand. Any brand sets itself in a localized frame of consumption with the consumer: Coke with the mood of togetherness and refreshment, AXE when we are in the mode of glorifying male libido, etc. All brand stories have duration, consumption time and setting.
Being 24x7, however, news channel brands do away with this boundary and demand nonstop interaction with consumers. These channels will churn out news and value even when you are asleep; and you will be poorer in your experience for the amount of time you have closed your eyes.
Where, finally, are we landing? In the domain of news or in the domain of another 24x7 TV channel, where all programmes are carried under the tagline of news bazaar? Why should we value such news, if it emulates the entertainment value of any family channel under the garb of news? At least other channels are far more honest in their intention of providing nonstop entertainment.
There is a bigger truth in acknowledging the need of fiction in our life. It is interesting to note that a work of fiction tries to draw its value by coming closer to fact and the fact tries to add value by being fictional.
The fundamental change, I feel, has taken place not in the area of fact or fiction, news or entertainment, but in the changing status of the audience for whom these programmes are made and presented. We have ceased to be passive recipients of information, but have become active consumers of value. And value does not lie with the service provider or manufacturer anymore. Today, as Prof C K Prahalad has said, value needs to be co-created with consumers.
The news channels can provide the platform around which consumers can co-create their own experiences. For example, the reality of a road accident is surrounded by a bigger reality of potential risks that parents, children, pedestrians and the common man on the street are exposed to. They would probably value portrayal of that reality of life with more force, urgency and drama, so that it impacts people who matter, in order to end the problem, rather than a vivid portrayal of the family of the bereaved.
There is more opportunity for the channel to build credibility and consumer loyalty by creating a community of citizens and getting their feedback; rope in Kodak or some other similar companies/brands to sponsor such programmes; dedicate a page and publish the most telling collection of such feedback in terms of pictures, reports, taped conversations with other news partners and channels; send copies to law enforcing authorities; reward and honor the contributors of such feedback; and give generous exposure to the sponsor brands as investigation partners. The success of any news channel brand lies in blending and synthesizing the daily reality of pedestrians, with the business reality of experiencing the camera/recorder efficiency of Kodak/Sony and networking with other news media.
More and more people are acknowledging the bigger and more intimate role of media in their lives. Offenders are surrendering to news channels and not to police stations; people don’t call the police, but a reporter, to report dowry cases. The signals are loud and clear -- those who can read them and make the best use of them will win. ‘Khabar wohi hai jo competitor dikhaye’ will not take them or their news very far.
(The writer is vice-president, consumer insight & HFD, McCann Erickson India)