Anchor Anarchy: How TRP-hungry news anchors turned the talk into voices

The TRP system may be broken but the stars of broadcast TV refuse to press pause on their prime-time melodrama as the tiny universe of news tries to fill the big shoes of entertainment channels.
Representational image
Representational image

The tyranny of large numbers is a clever construct. It's the argument used to silence those who dare to speak up - but the country voted for this government, how can you dissent? It's also the argument used to make you feel invisible - after all, the Television Rating Points (TRPs) show the loudest, most toxic, and most outraged channels are the most watched, so how can you deny the majority?  

We’ve always known the truth of the parliamentary first-past-the-post system. Not everyone who wins is the choice of everyone who votes. Well, folks, get ready for the reality of the television universe. Not every channel that is number one is watched by the most number of viewers.

It’s television’s worst kept secret since 1998, and despite a change in the administrator of TRPs in 2015, the reality is the 44,000 meters meant to measure viewership across the country’s 200 million TV households are open to manipulation.

In the hands of masters, TRPs can become weapons of mass distraction. The tyranny of TRPs of Hindi news channels meant at one point in 1995 that we were a nation that believed Ganesha statues drank milk.

Equally now, we are told that we are a nation that can be oblivious of the reality of a global pandemic, a migrant crisis and an economic catastrophe, and be entirely focused on the death of a rising young star, Sushant Singh Rajput. Don’t believe us? Look at the numbers.

At the height of COVID-19 when Republic TV and Republic Bharat were leading the charge against Bollywood on the back of Rajput’s death, consumption of news went up to 21 percent of the total TV viewership, from a pre-COVID high of 7 percent.

It was helped no doubt by the absence of new content on general entertainment channels because of the lockdown (see chart below), which burnishes another well-kept secret: news channels in India, dependent as they are on advertising revenue, behave more like entertainment rather than information networks.

As Roger Ailes’s character says in The Loudest Voice, Showtime’s dramatisation of the creation of Fox News, "We’re going to give them a vision of the world the way it really is. And the way they want it to be. People don’t want to be informed, they want to feel informed."

Nothing is out of bounds in making this happen: whether it is running conspiracy theories as news, putting targets on people’s backs by showing unverified video footage, or leaking private WhatsApp chats.

Arnab Goswami's real-life counter-tormentor, comedian Kunal Kamra, is more direct, calling it lying, which also explains, he says, why it has to be loud: "Only when you’re lying do you raise your voice, otherwise you don’t need to."

As in the core constituency of Fox News, those who felt excluded by the largely liberal news media of the noughties, with its cosy relationship with the establishment (an ugly truth exposed by the Niira Radia tapes leak in 2010), finally saw in the rise of Arnab a messianic force.

So during the pandemic, day in and day out, we were said to be one with anchors who told us in a choked voice of the murder of their "younger brother" by a callous system that has no time for outsiders. We were told that a young woman, clearly a gold digger, was the villain who ensured his end, even as sometime later, we were told there is a drug cartel that controls Bollywood.

We watched enraptured as gilded stars were brought down to earth and gilt-edged reputations were torn to shreds. The same methods that were used to bust open the Commonwealth Games scam in 2010, cover with breathless urgency India Against Corruption movement in 2011 and question repeatedly the credentials of those in power when a young woman was raped in 2012, were now being deployed indiscriminately. 

It could be students protesting inside the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2016, who could be instantly declared enemies of the people, or as they were evocatively and unfairly called the ‘tukde tukde’ gang. It could be a film industry that dared to work with actors from across the border at the time of the Uri attack in 2016.

It could be Kashmiris who disagreed with the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A in 2019. And equally, it could be youngsters and old women who sat out in the streets of Delhi to assert their dissatisfaction with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens.  

What explains the rise of the ugly anchors and their toxic worldview? A leading commentator believes these anchors are trolls in disguise. But political scientist Suhas Palshikar thinks there is something else at play here: it is a politicisation of our thought universe causing loss of nuance.

Even the opponents of the BJP operate in that same universe and therefore, any criticism of them is quickly seen as supporting the regime.

He ascribes two reasons: one is the sustained campaigns on victimhood, anti-intellectualism, populist anti-elitism and majoritarian assertions that are articulated in a universe entirely unconnected with fact - almost as if an autonomous world is produced. Second is the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

It is not what he says, but leaves others to say (and do). As a very popular politician with deep ability to generate emotive excitement among followers, he has proved to be a public figure who brings out the worst amongst us—both followers and critics. "Just as Mahatma Gandhi tended to bring out the best among followers, the present leader tends to bring out the worst among his followers," points out Palshikar. 

So many anchors have become self-appointed members of Outrage Inc, commercial peddlers of hate. Some in particular have become Corroders in Chief. We as a society appear to be enjoying that in a voyeuristic manner.

So, at one level, what anchors do has a direct appeal to their middle-class audience and at another level, they strengthen the alternative universe we seem to be inhabiting, bolstered by TRPs. 2006 was when Indian news television last had a choice.

It could go the way of stellar investigation and reopen the Jessica Lal case, which it did. It could also focus national energies on the boy named Prince who fell into a well, which was infinitely more newsworthy than what followed.

Sea water miraculously turning potable, people claiming to be reincarnated snakes, aliens landing in the dead of the night, and astrologers predicting their exact moment of death. Hindi news fell into a rabbit hole from which it has yet to emerge, its most vicious recent avatar being Sudarshan News, launched in 2005, whose chief editor Suresh Chavhanke has no qualms passing off fake news in the interests of stirring the communal pot.

Its most recent example, the series UPSC Jihad, meant to show how Muslims are entering the civil services for ulterior motives. The role of an anchor, according to communications expert Arvind Singhal, is first and foremost to anchor - that is to create the conditions to "hold it together" - allowing for the evocation of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis to emerge. This requires skill, affability, deep respect, and tons of behind-the-scenes preparation.

We’ve had variations of it, from the sedate and some would say sedated news readers of Doordarshan, to Ashok Kumar aka Dada Moni’s avuncular explanations of middle-class morality in Hum Log, to the folksy charm of SP Singh and the sophisticated elegance of Prannoy Roy when Aaj Tak and NDTV first began as hour-long broadcasts on Doordarshan.

Singhal believes a strident, vocal, screaming, and time-hogging anchor is a show by itself (like an Arnab Goswami or a Rush Limbaugh) where the focus is on the "star", not the anchoring of a conversation.

He says Arnab resonates with some and the key is - "with those who watch him". "For those who tune in - at an appointed hour on an appointed day much like an evening date - they want to be witness to the spectacle he creates in one's living room," he adds.

A spectacle that is conflictual, melodramatic, loud, and breaks norms. And, there is the persona - of course - carefully cultivated: well-read, articulate (when he wishes to be), neatly combed hair, dark scholarly glasses, piercing eyes, and that to some is a seeming rebel with a cause. He has learned, adds Singhal, that his viewers like him far more for his disruptions than a judicious conversation.

At his best, he has deployed these disruptions to expose the cant and hypocrisy of politicians, hitherto regarded as above interrogation on national TV except in faux courtrooms such as India TV’s popular Aap Ki Adalat.

At his worst, he has been a mere bully, creating fake villains like Rhea Chakraborty and propping up false heroes like Anna Hazare, when it suited him. India has a whole new cast of villains thanks to this particular style of journalism: from JNU students, to Urban Naxals aka individuals who speak their truth, to Kashmiri Muslims, to Hathras "rape conspirators".

In her research on the representation of Muslims and Islam on prime time news in India in 2018, independent scholar Onaiza Drabu found the hashtags associated with Muslims are replete with hostile verbs - such as "ban", "nailed", and "fight" - and they also cite global Islamophobia speech registers, such as the "caliphate", to invoke a sense of urgency and wrongdoing towards the Hindu.

"The reason why lynch mobs find it so easy to believe and kill at the behest of an unverified message forwarded via WhatsApp is a product of this systemic racism against Muslims that is slowly being normalised by the mass media," adds Drabu. 

 In the US, Fox News would blame the Mexicans and Crooked Hillary and the Foreigner Obama. In India, it is the Muslims and Rahul Gandhi. That is the role Arnab enacts every night on TV, gesticulating, berating, grandstanding. "Arnab functions on the level of emotion. People can be bored of knowledge, of intelligence, but never of emotion," says filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma, and you can't argue with that in India.

And at a time when the real heroes keep silent in the face of his nightly taunting, he even looks like a hero, adds Varma, who is contemplating a movie on the issue.  It is easy to forget that Arnab, as he is now known across India, given the first name status of the Bollywood stars he most despises, has also functioned as a journalist in the past.

Ask Rajeev Chandrasekhar, whose Asianet News was a founding investor and partner in Republic TV. "I’ve known Arnab from 2010, as one of a few journalists who took on the many corruption scams, including 2G scam which I had raised in Parliament, when the media was conspicuously silent."

A director in Republic TV, he quit when he joined the BJP in 2018, and since then has sold Asianet News' investment back to Arnab; a purely financial decision, he hastens to add. 

Added to Arnab’s rise is the well-documented rivalry with his former colleagues at NDTV, his one-time boss Rajdeep Sardesai, now consulting editor at India Today TV, and former colleague Barkha Dutt, who has since successfully launched a digital news platform, Mojo.

As journalist Simon Denyer writes in Rogue Elephant (2014), despite having read Social Anthropology at Oxford and been a visiting fellow at Cambridge, Arnab has successfully cultivated the image of the Lutyens’ outsider, choosing Mumbai as his headquarters, rather than the political capital.

It makes Republic TV the first choice of anyone wanting to throw stones at the system. It could be Kangana Ranaut one day, and Ishkaran Singh Bhandari the next day. It could even be a little-known lawyer or a politician, but if they agree with Arnab, they can cross the line, following the format of several Hindi channels, where guests have even come to blows. Not only does it dignify the journalism of outrage but also makes the unsayable possible. 

Chandrasekhar believes it is easy to mistake what Arnab does as angry anchoring. But there’s a certain gutsiness in taking on "untouchables" that is core to his appeal. It was the politicians earlier. Now it is the film industry.

"As an observer, there are many things to legitimately critique about the film industry - just like the media does in politics and industry. Cronyism, financing sources, transparency of their businesses. This kind of push for openness is good for long-term sustainability of the movie industry. The winds of change are inevitable," he says

The other option is to dismiss it all as a show, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, in which both the anchor and the viewer know they are being sold unreality, where it is not Arnab in real life, no more than Amitabh Bachchan as a coolie with armband No.786 in reel life.

"This is a role Arnab plays on TV every night," notes veteran marketer Mahesh Murthy. It’s a proxy war, a cultural war which those in power cannot fight anymore. Whether it is Arnab in India or Sean Hannity in the US, it might reflect a thwarted desire for aggressive behaviour that is vicariously indulged—the outsiders thumbing their noses at the insiders.

This is something US President Donald Trump plays up a lot, and that clarifies some of his appeal, notes media scholar Arvind Rajagopal. But the very idea of a public sphere does require drawing a line between one’s intimate life, which by definition is not to be shared with others, and life in the public domain, which affirms what we do share. Otherwise we plunge into brute savagery.

As Hannah Arendt has said, without such restraints and restrictions, politics as an activity where we make a better world becomes impossible. None of this is possible without fixing the rating system, which makes it all too easy for advertisers to spend on the known devil.

Unlike in the US, where this year, spending on digital has outstripped that on television, in India, TRPs determine corporate spending on ad spots, which is guided by ad agencies that are led by TRPs.

In 2012, NDTV went to court in New York to dispute the then ratings system run by the Television Audience Measurement, for allegedly manipulating ratings data in favour of broadcasters who 'paid' money.

After a suitable pause, the ratings system returned, with just a slightly greater spread, this time governed by the broadcasters themselves. The Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) started the TRP system, which was in effect government by the broadcasters themselves—60 percent of the council is owned by the Indian Broadcasting Federation, the Advertising Agencies Association of India and the India Society of Advertisers.

Last week, BARC admitted even this system needed review after Mumbai Police Commissioner declared at a dramatic press conference that his officers had unearthed a TRP scam involving Republic TV, and two Marathi channels.

The industry has seen this before, in May 2017, when the newly launched Republic TV went straight to number one in the English news channel ratings. Other channels cried themselves hoarse about TRP manipulation, and even cited the possible techniques. Some even took Republic TV to court.

With the Uttar Pradesh government fashioning itself as the new saviour of the media and entertainment industry (Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has promised to build a film city as a “symbol of India’s identity”), an FIR has been registered against "unknown" channels and persons for fudging of TRPs.

The case has been transferred by the Centre to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which has also registered an FIR, indicating the more-than-tacit support Arnab has in the current establishment.

"Is the UP government trying to protect the accused news channels by trying to take away any effective investigation by the Mumbai Police? The UP FIR, by referring to 'unknown persons', attempts to widen the investigation into a deep-rooted conspiracy giving the government leverage to bring in CBI," says a prominent Senior Counsel of the Supreme Court.

He also adds that by mentioning "unknown persons", the offence is not limited to TV companies with headquarters in Mumbai alone, therefore justifying the Uttar Pradesh Police's FIR rather than directing it to Mumbai Police. Such political alacrity is new. There have been other cases before this of TRP manipulation coming to light, but everyone has looked the other way. Just like our nightly news bulletin. 

The Loudest Voices

  • Navika Kumar Former print journalist, an admirer of late Union minister Arun Jaitley, sings bhajans on Times Now, where she is managing editor, with as much felicity as she can break down WhatsApp chats.

  • Rahul Shivshankar: Been around the TV news block, plays catch-up to former colleague Arnab, is editor-in-chief of Times Now, anchors shows with hashtags such as #ChinaMustBeTamed and #UmarLobbySecretTapes

  • Anjana Om Kashyap: Unstoppable anchor of Aaj Tak, referees a show called Dangal, which is self-explanatory. Is a star product of Outrage Inc, which is forever loaded against those not in power. Has many clones across Hindi channels.

  • Suresh Chavhanke: Former member of RSS, tilak-wearing founder of Sudarshan News, whose single-point agenda is to spread hatred for Muslims and scare Hindus

  • Arnab Goswami: Largely ignored at NDTV, ousted from Times Now which he built from scratch, founder of Republic TV, mansplainer-in-chief, is tough on all holy cows except those in the government. 

What makes an anchor angry: A Psychographic Profile by psychologist Dr Upasana Chaddha

  • Someone who is impulsive, highly sensitive and intolerant of others’ perspectives. 

  • They feel they are right and tend to think in black and white. 

  • They love to use exaggerated gestures and a loud voice to instill fear in others to validate their point and minimise any counterargument. 

  • They enjoy attention even if negative.

  • They lack emotional regulation, have a filtered listening and a sense of entitlement. 

  • They are defensive and often misinterpret others. 

  • Passionate and driven, they often see themselves as superior.

A Brief History Of News In India

News on Doordarshan

This was news as sedative, sanitised and stripped of all authenticity, so much so that even as late as in 1984 when Indira Gandhi was assassinated, it was BBC which beat Doordarshan to that historic announcement.

The Gulf War

The 1991 Gulf War and the satellite broadcast of global news channels made news a living room reality and names like Peter Arnett part of the country's firmament.

DD Metro News

The privatisation of an hour each of news in Hindi and English in 1995 saw the arrival of folksy SP Singh and the posh dulcet tones of Prannoy Roy.

Times Now

Launched in 2006, a year when journalism seemed to be at its peak, having finally restored justice in the 1999 Jessica Lal murder, it cemented its place at the top with its relentless coverage of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008.

Its signature line Nation Wants to Know became Arnab Goswami’s go-to defence for all questions. He was only doing what the Constitution allowed him to do, exercising his freedom of expression.

In his excellent chapter on Arnab in Rogue Elephant, Simon Denyer said he played the outsider to perfection, making full use of the RTI Act, the rise of citizen activism and a vaccum of political leadership. It was a heady mix of social justice and personal revenge.

Republic TV

Tossed out of Times Now, Arnab created his own channel, first in English, then in Hindi, and went after what was left of the old elite.

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