Film world and TV in turmoil: it’s a rat race but heartening to see some of them stand up

Scandals swirling around Bollywood and TV channels, police and central agencies investigating the ‘druggies’ and the TRP scam are a heady cocktail and not easy to make sense

Film world and TV in turmoil: it’s a rat race but heartening to see some of them stand up

Jawhar Sircar

Enough is enough — says Bollywood and many others who are sick and tired of toxic trial by media and daily abuses hurled on tabloid television. Terms like “dirt”, “filth”, “scum”, “druggies”, “cocaine and LSD drenched” and “the dirtiest industry in the country” have been freely used by some obviously-interested channels in the past few weeks, that went on lynching the reputation of film personalities with just wisps of their ‘evidence’.

They either took upon themselves or were assigned the task of diverting public attention from the unprecedented devastation of the economy; the complete failure in stemming the deadly COVID virus and the most serious threat that the country has faced on its China border in nearly six decades.

To understand the immediate context in which international film celebrities took Republic TV and Times Now to the court, we need a bit of a flashback to the 14th of June this year when Sushant Singh Rajput died, apparently by strangulating himself.

His entire life with several unfortunate details was dug up in public, quite insensitively, by three of the highest central investigating agencies that had swooped in to fish in troubled waters. Strangely, their tentative ‘findings’ were instantly flashed on the screen by ‘anchors’ of some select TV channels, hell bent on playing the role of executioners, without any hoods.

This drama created a new nadir in the history of the Indian media and hooked viewers were constantly titillated and incensed by TV anchors with mischievous but deadly speculations. They were sustained on feverish excitement by spectacles like the late actor’s lady friend being dragged over coals and then sent to jail. This is when those despicable epithets were frothed freely on these obviously pro-re gime television channels.

In the bargain, the governments of Bihar and Maharashtra were roped in — as the star hailed from the first and worked and died in the second. The game was designed to extract as much angst and votes as possible in the first state, which is headed to its polls, while the second which happens to be run by opposition parties was strung up and quartered with wild hints of negligence and collusion.

The police commissioner of Mumbai on the 8th of this month announced that Republic TV and two other channels were fudging their TRP by spiking the ‘meters’ installed in selected TV households by BARC (Broadcasting Audience Research Council), thereby artificially inflating their viewership and earnings.

All these terms may need a little explaining, so let us take a quick look at how television programmes are rated for their popularity. Obviously, the more popular they are in terms of viewers the more advertising revenues they garner. Since every channel claims that it gets the maximum eyeballs, there has to be some neutral and agreed measurement system in the industry.

Film world and TV in turmoil: it’s a rat race but heartening to see some of them stand up

Till 2015, a private company called TAM (Television Audience Measurement) enjoyed a virtual monopoly in informing the world and advertisers which channel was being viewed, when, and by how many. It was owned 50:50 by two international media giants, AC Nielsen and Kantar. TAM set up ‘people meters’ to measure audience tastes in some 8000 households with television sets, mainly in urban areas. Its sample size was criticised for being too small in a universe of 12 crore television households about six years ago and for not gauging rural audiences. But the major attack on TAM was that it was unable to maintain the required secrecy and anonymity while installing its meters.

As a result, unscrupulous TV companies could vitiate the process by locating and influencing those households where meters were installed, to favour them with abnormally higher viewership. There were other allegations against TAM and India’s most reputed English news channel took it to court in the United States.

While some channels may have gained illicit advantages, others surely lost and, for several years, the Information and Broadcasting ministry tried to get the top TV channels to come together and set up their own industry-led ratings agency. This is how the present BARC was finally established, with the encouragement of the ministry. BARC started placing its own bar-o-meters by the middle of 2015 and it carried out regular mini-censuses and specific households for installing its ‘secret’ meters were selected through computerised stratified yet randomised processes. It has certainly claimed to be more equitable and transparent as rival television companies and sharp-eyed advertisers (who demanded their best money’s worth) run it. Though its coverage is much wider than TAM’s, its present sampling size of 44 thousand metered TV households for almost 20 crore TV households appears quite inadequate. The interests represented on its board must come up with solutions to increase the number of meters, or else this crisis may damage or destroy its credibility.

But if BARC procedures are so neutral and strict, how on earth did the alleged scam happen? Its ‘last mile’ is the weakest as the finally-selected households have to be approached by humans in the form of those appointed by its outsourced agency.

Mumbai police says that some such persons misused their power and acted on behalf of three private TV channels and bribed some households to show that they had viewers higher than what was real. Then, as mentioned, state governments are involved, and the long shadow of the Centre also looms dark and ominous.

Big games spur desperate men and decency took a nosedive when an actor’s unfortunate death was mercilessly sensationalised by anchors notorious for their histrionics. Since murder appears too far-fetched, abetment to suicide was tried out. But when that became tough to establish, narcotics were brought. Many remarked that hyperactive sleuths, who may never have the guts to visit mammoth religious congregations suddenly pounced upon and tore apart a single woman, to the murderous roars from mobs in the Colosseum.

But, when almost the entire film industry has been defamed by proxies, acting on behalf of their real master, a bold section of Bollywood has challenged the minions. Income tax and other raids may now rain since vindictiveness now appears to be a component of state policy.

Equally interesting is the fact that a very large section of the TV news industry has come together as never before, by sinking their interse differences. For the past few years, the Indian media has surely been charmed or subjugated (the latter is more likely) to unprecedented levels, with just a handful of courageous mainstream houses and a battery of online news initiatives resisting an ominous omnipotent force. With its back to the wall, news television is finally hitting back at garrulous henchmen masquerading as news broadcasters, who have been pumping noxious fumes all over. One really cannot say what will happen next as the regime’s mouthpiece has jumped in to savage Bollywood and defend the accused anchors — removing thereby all doubts of nexus.

The very fact that two pulsating sectors that reflect the ‘mood of the nation’ have stirred and stood up, at long last, however, shows that the spirit of India is still alive and (hopefully) kicking.

(The author is a former IAS officer and former CEO of Prasar Bharti)

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