How is the media covering the forthcoming elections ... in the U.S. and in Maharashtra?
VIEWED from India where election coverage on TV has been rapidly transformed into an exercise in competitive excess, you had to marvel at the stripped-down basics of this year's first United States Presidential debate. Two men at lecterns, sticking to issues, and to their allotted time. One seasoned journalist asking straight questions. No frills of any kind. No outdoor setting with a lit up Statue of Liberty in the backdrop. Yet there was little chance that any of the millions watching around the world would want to switch channels. And they called it the U.S. presidential debate, not "Bush aur Kerry ka Mahayudh", or "America ka Superhit Muquabla", or "And the Winner Is". (NDTV, 24x7, October 4 ) in the manner of a lottery sweepstake.
At the end of those 90 minutes of Bush vs. Kerry, you actually got something on the basis of which you could try to make up your mind.
In the course of our own "Maharastra Ka Mahasangram", "Vote Ka Akhara", "Kaun Banega Mukhya Mantri", "Chunavi Chai", "Kante Ka Takkar" and such like, we have already got more airtime on the Maharashtra assembly elections than any reasonable Indian, not about to vote in that State, has any need for. At the end of a prolonged multi-channel overkill I really haven't the foggiest idea of exactly what Sushil Kumar Shinde or Gopinath Munde, or Vilasrao Deshmukh or Mayawati's chief ministerial candidate, or, for that matter, the reluctant Pramod Mahajan would actually do about a) employment, b) the condition of Dalits, c) the problems of Vidarbha d) Maharashtra's Rs. 94,000 crore debt or e) Mumbai's civic needs. (In fairness to the above gentlemen, I also do not know, despite his calibrated performance, exactly what John Kerry's plan is for winning the war in Iraq.)
But I have sort of gathered that Tiger Balasaheb's fangs are getting somewhat blunted with age and infirmity, that he is promoting Udhav Thackaray over nephew Raj, that the Pawar clan bahus are chipping in to woo the electorate, that Dalits in Jalna still get killed if they assert themselves during water disputes, that fishermen have problems in Ratnagiri, that Gopinath Munde thinks Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin is still an issue, that rebel candidates are creating huge problems for both alliances, and that candidates are using folk artistes to get their message across. A mish mash of stories that do not always enlighten the voter but keep the viewer reasonably entertained so that the advertising moolah keeps coming in.
Elections sell ...
We have a rather serious problem over here. Our satellite TV channels have discovered that election programming sells and consequently begun to latch on to the election bandwagon very early. When Star News presented its first forecast programme for Maharashtra, titled "Pehli Tasveer", the candidates had not been selected as yet and the anchor repeated several times in the course of the programme that this was a very, very early picture and would doubtless change a lot in weeks to come. So what was the point of giving it? Ah, the advertising.
Contrast the overkill on TV with the way magazines have covered this election. Not a single cover story (to date) in India Today, Outlook, The Week, or Frontline. Not a single article in the Economic and Political Weekly, which will doubtless carry a post-election analysis. Not more than six to eight pages overall, in each of these magazines, over six weeks on the elections in Maharashtra.
... only on TV
The new craze is strictly a television phenomenon. Over nine weeks of news bulletin coverage during the general elections earlier this year, the elections consumed between 53 and 69 per cent of airtime except for one week in March when the cricket excitement in Pakistan was at its height. Twenty six per cent of this time was devoted to the campaign trail. Of this 26 per cent, 36 per cent of air time was given to L.K. Advani and A.B. Vajpayee alone, compared to five per cent for Sonia Gandhi. And issues? Three categories human development, national issues, and religion/communalism/secularism together occupied 5.4 per cent of the total air time over nine weeks. (Figures from the Centre for Advocacy and Research in New Delhi which monitored four major bulletins on six satellite news channels over nine weeks.)
May I then uncharitably suggest that the excessive coverage on TV has less to do with civic-mindedness and more to do with the advertiser's belief that election programming is watched. During the 2004 general elections, a single company, Electrolux Kelvinator, reportedly spent around Rs 2.5 crores during the poll-related programmes, primarily on NDTV and Aaj Tak. All the channels booked advertising at premium rates for May 13, when the results would be out. And for the election period in general, commercial breaks averaged between 12 to 18 minutes an hour on other channels, and 20 minutes an hour on Aaj Tak. That's the average. At prime time you could not find the news, election-related or otherwise, for the ads, particularly on Aaj Tak.
Last May NDTV admitted to jacking up its spot buy rates at election time to Rs. 40,000 to Rs. 50,000 per 10 seconds, compared to Rs. 10,000 at other times. A media buying agency told us that elections would contribute around half of the news channels' revenue this year. May 13 was set to be the single biggest revenue earning day of the year for all of them. Now they are evidently hoping that October 13 will be a cash cow too.
But what about usefulness? For clarity on positions and issues, TV is the best medium only if the anchor is very experienced, firm and clear headed, and sets rules which the participants respect. After watching endless special shows on Sahara Samay, Star News, NDTV 24x7, Zee News, DD News and Aaj Tak, whom did I get the most comprehensive, cogent picture from? On the state of the Shiv Sena, on the issues in Vidarbha, and on poverty, backwardness and farmer's suicides? From six pages in a single issue of Tehelka.
What about Arunachal Pradesh?
And oh yes, there also is a contest in Arunachal Pradesh. With an amazing chief ministerial candidate who switched parties while in office. But for the advertiser, Itanagar is not Mumbai, so the State remains firmly out of mind. I saw a channel proudly present a story on an Arunachal village which preserves human skulls. That's as close as the North East gets to occupying TV space, when there are no bomb blasts.
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