Driven to Extremes. Part 1: News Television

News television in India is toxic. Incentives have a role to play

This is Part 1 of a three-part essay, about why we are driven to extremes. The next two parts, releasing tomorrow and day after, will focus on society and politics.

I have been told that some listeners of The Seen and the Unseen play an interesting drinking game: every time I say the word ‘incentives’, they take a shot. Livers have been ruined by this.

Now, I must clarify that when I say that humans respond to incentives, I don’t mean that we respond to all incentives, or that we can define and identify those incentives, or that all incentives push a person in the same direction. Sometimes people appear to be acting against their own self-interest, but as Walt Whitman once said:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes of incentives.)

See? You are five tequilas down already.

News television might have already driven you to drink. I thought I was jaded and nothing could startle me any more — and then I came across this masterpiece of investigative journalism. In it, the anchor announces that she has uncovered something sensational about Narendra Modi’s past life.

It turns out that in his last birth, Modi was the 19th century Islamic reformer, Syed Ahmad Khan. According to the anchor, Modi may himself not be aware of this.

Those of you who have followed me over the years can guess how I reacted to this news. Like a bloodhound with a lockdown beard, I looked up some  dates and found that Khan died in 1898 and Modi was born in 1950. What happened in between? Join me in the search for the missing link.

This is benign, though, the clownface of the murderous sociopath. Our news channels are not just toxic, but competing in their toxicity, as the hounding of Rhea Chakraborty shows. How did we get here?

The Race to the Bottom

Back in June 2017, the columnist Ashok Malik wrote an excellent piece for the Hindustan Times titled ‘Why are Indian news channels so disappointing?’ Ashok wrote:

Why are Indian news channels so astonishingly disappointing? They oscillate between over-the-top studio debates and relatively sober studio debates. There is rarely deep reportage. Documentaries are practically unheard of. Spending on editorial and news gathering scares managements. Preference is given to paying some talking head a few thousand rupees to scream for 30 minutes.

What is at the root of this? Is it the fault of a few anchors? Is there something wrong with us as a society? Are we incapable of producing and appreciating sensible news programming? Actually, the phenomenon has much to do with the business model of television in India.

What happened to news television is a fascinating illustration of the Seen and the Unseen, and Ashok appeared on an episode to discuss it at length with me. Let me summarise the gyan.

In the 1990s, as cable television took off, local thugs became cable operators in all our cities. Many of them had a monopoly on thuggery in their neighbourhood, so they established a monopoly on the supply of cable TV. The state, whose one job is to maintain law and order, should have clamped down on all thuggery, but wasn’t interested in doing so. Instead, it took the stand that since consumers were getting shafted by the cable monopolists anyway, they should at least save them from getting shafted by TV channels.

So starting a couple of decades ago, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) put price caps on what channels could charge consumers. The price ceiling thus imposed was too low for news channels, who therefore found that they could not count on subscriber revenue to keep going. They would have to depend on advertising.

This matters. In the US, for example, channels make up to 70% of their revenues from subscriptions. For Indian news channels, it’s 10% of less. The rest is advertising.

This means that a channel cannot chase or build niches. Maybe there are discerning customers who would pay Rs 30 a month instead of Rs 5 for quality reportage and documentaries. But the government does not allow channels to explore such options. It all comes down to advertising. News channels, thus, have no choice but to chase the eyeballs, and to go for the lowest common denominator.

This is a zero-sum game, as advertising money is a limited pie, perhaps even a shrinking pie, with the economy being what it is. So the news channels try to outdo each other in terms of extreme content to get eyeballs. That is why they are, to borrow the title of the Econ Central episode where Vivek Kaul and I discussed this, out-Arnabing Arnab.

This is not to say that without these price controls, there would have been no toxicity. If there is a supply of poison, it is only because there is a demand for it. What you see on our news channels tells us something important about Indian society. (More on this in Part 2 of this essay.)

At the same time, had Indian TV channels had subscriber revenues as a serious option, their incentives would have been different. Maybe there would have been channels trying to cater to different audiences. Maybe the toxicity would have been less as there would have been a possibility of other approaches succeeding.

And hey, maybe news channels would have found that it is a misconception that you need to race to the bottom to get to the top. Maybe most of us want a different kind of television, but we don’t know that and channels don’t know that because there is no space to experiment. The channels’ perception of what we want shapes what we get, and therefore that’s what we want.

We are stuck in a vicious cycle. We can neither discover taste nor shape it.

It all began with good intentions and bad incentives.

Parts 2 and 3 of this essay will come at you tomorrow and day after. To get them in your inbox, please subscribe to The India Uncut Newsletter. It’s free!