TV News is Turning Toxic By the Day, What Are the Brands Doing?

Should brands sponsoring or associated with news channels be held accountable for the toxic content they dabble in?

Updated
India
6 min read
Image used for representational purposes.
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(This story was first published on 6 October 2020 and was republished in light of the Mumbai Police busting a ‘TRP racket’, whereby TRPs were allegedly being manipulated. The police had named Republic TV and two other channels as having been indulged in “malpractices”. Meanwhile, certain companies such as Parle Products and Bajaj Auto have sent out messages against toxicity on TV news channels in recent days.)

Should brands sponsoring TV news channels of today be held accountable for the toxic content that they dabble in?

TV News is Turning Toxic By the Day, What Are the Brands Doing?
(Photo: The Quint)

The question has gained traction of late as the standards of TV news – what with the coverage of the Sushant Singh Rajput death case and the so-called expose of ‘UPSC Jihad’ on Sudarshan News – continue to keep touching new lows.

The presence of advertisers or brands in the matrix of TV broadcasting – and by extension news broadcasting – cannot be overstated.

After all, in 2020, the television medium is expected to account for 43 percent of the net spend on advertisements, amounting to Rs 38,081 crore – the highest among different media.

Which is the reason why the big brands have been called out in recent days, for sponsoring or being associated with TV news shows that are putting out content that can be – most mildly put – deemed objectionable.

TV News is Turning Toxic By the Day, What Are the Brands Doing?
(Photo: Aroop Mishra/The Quint)

But, recently, a report on Best Media Info pointed out how representatives of various brands/advertisers – from Amul to Parle Products to Future Group – have expressed concerns over the rising toxicity on news channels, and called for reconsidering their ad spends if the situation continues to be the same.

In a follow-up report, published earlier this week, representatives of more brands – Naukri.com, Jeevansathi.com, 99Acres.com and Duroflex – joined in to raise their voice.

A question that arises here is whether advertiser pressure is justified to draw a line for our news broadcasts and whether it can end up having the desired effect.

TV News, TRPs & Toxicity

On this recent move by certain brands, to voice their concerns over the toxicity of TV news, Santosh Desai, a leading brand consultant and columnist, said it’s a welcome move.

TV News is Turning Toxic By the Day, What Are the Brands Doing?
(Photo: The Quint)

“From a viewership perspective, the kind of coverage we are seeing seems to be working fine, commercially, for the channels... And the only way one can anticipate change is if the advertisers get into the act. So, on the face of it, if this is indeed something where advertisers mean what they say, then this is likely to (lead to) change,” Desai tells The Quint.

For example, news channels ‘Republic Bharat’ and ‘Republic TV’ lead in the BARC ratings by a massive margin in August 2020, even as they were drawing flak for their “frenzied” coverage of Rajput’s death on social media.

According to the August BARC ratings, the viewers of Hindi news channel 'Republic Bharat' increased to 24.6 crore from 7.9 crore six weeks ago. English news channel 'Republic TV' again recorded more than 7 lakh viewers, while 'Times Now', which occupied the second spot, had around 3 lakh viewers.

Both these channels have been criticised for their approach in covering the actor’s death.

TV News is Turning Toxic By the Day, What Are the Brands Doing?
(Photo: Aroop Mishra/The Quint)

In the context of the representatives of these brands calling for toning down such toxic content, one may also ask whether this would impinge on the editorial prerogatives of these TV channels.

To this, Desai indicated that it is important to look at whether a brand is calling for changing the content in an overall sense, or if it is dictating news items in specific situations.

“If brands were dictating specific content of news, then that’ll be cause for worry... For brands to say in an overall sense – without specifically pointing out what kind of news item they would want or not want covered – that there should not be toxicity, that’s hardly saying anything.”
Santosh Desai

Meanwhile, Bijoor is of the view that brands must not pressurise media organisations and vice-versa. He says it is important for brands to be responsible enough not to position themselves with polarised channels.

“Brands must show a certain degree of responsibility where they say, ‘Yes, I want to be with a polarised channel, or I don’t want to be’. Now, that decision is basis their (sets) of consumers. And they will take a call basis that,” he told The Quint.

Would it Have the Desired Effect?

News Broadcasting Authority President Rajat Sharma, in an interview to BestMediaInfo.com, urged advertisers to “boycott channels spreading hate.”

“Advertisers should make a distinction between channels that are unnecessarily aggressive, allow abuses and fights as part of their content. They should differentiate between the news channels that are invading privacy and creating high-voltage drama to draw attention.”
Rajat Sharma

While it is one thing for brands to raise concerns about the toxicity of news channels, it is quite another for such concerns to materialise and effect a change in the kind of content broadcasted.

And Desai is not too optimistic about their stated intent translating into action.

TV News is Turning Toxic By the Day, What Are the Brands Doing?
(Photo: The Quint)

"... It’s a good posture to take. But in the current political climate, if they were to really push for this, whether they would run afoul of the government, is something brands have to be careful about. So, I am not entirely convinced whether the stated intent will translate into action. But if it does, I find it difficult to argue with,” he asserted.

Reacting to the Best Media Report when it came out, media and industry specialist Vanita Kohli Khandekar has also questioned whether the brands would actually take action.

TV News is Turning Toxic By the Day, What Are the Brands Doing?
(Photo: The Quint)

Meanwhile, columnist and writer Amrita Shah points to the role of the advertiser as a “hidden editor”, that has helped bring TV news to where it is now.

“The framing of this, as the journalist out of control, who needs to be tamed by good advertisers, is totally misleading, I applaud this move by companies to not fund hate TV, but it is the advertiser over the years who has become the hidden editor and shaped this new ecosystem, by insisting on ratings and consumption as the primary goal. This needs to be acknowledged and the advertiser (not just the journalist) needs to abide by ethical standards, if anything is to change,” she was quoted as saying by The Wire.

Postscript – India and the West: What’s Different?

So, while a call to action by brands to tone down the TV news content might be encouraging, whether it translates into something meaningful seems like a far-flung prospect right now.

Till then, let’s take a moment to draw attention towards how brands in the West differ from the ones in India, when it comes to taking a stand on issues of contemporary importance.

As this report points out, in the wake of the reinvigoration of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in the US recently, several American behemoths – Nike, Apple, Disney, among others – had taken a public stance against racial discrimination and inequality.

This is in stark contrast to the Indian landscape, where brand positioning and campaigns are limited, and skirt issues that might be perceived as controversial.

And then there are also certain brands that are associated with those TV news channels and shows whose content is becoming more and more toxic by the day. One case in point being Amul, India’s leading dairy brand, which appeared as a sponsor for a channel that puts out blatantly communal content and entertains conspiracy theories such as of a ‘UPSC Jihad’. (Though later, the brand seemed to have disassociated itself).

Clearly, there’s much for Indian brands to learn and follow from their western counterparts.

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