BARC Suspended Ratings of Lowbrow Entertainment Channels, Not News

BARC did a huge disservice to the job function of news this year – which was primarily and only to entertain.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
The Broadcast Audience Research Council has suspended ratings for all news channels for a period of three months.
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I worked for a couple of years with a movie studio. Part of my job was digital marketing of the films the studio produced and financed.

Two things were crucial in the successful digital marketing campaign of any film – Twitter trends and YouTube views for the film’s assets. ‘Assets’ was the term used to describe the songs and the trailer of the film – essentially pre-release promotional assets. Initially, if your hashtag trended and your trailer got a million views – it was a job well done.

But then, the instant gratification made you want more – the goal post of digital validation kept shifting – it was no longer important that you trended or you got a million views, other burning factors came into play.

....It Didn’t Matter If You Didn’t Break the Internet in Record Time

Like how long did you trend for and how long did your ‘asset’ take to reach a million views. You couldn’t just reach a million views – you had to reach them in a few hours flat so that producers could claim both speed, reach and unprecedented popularity. The legend of five million views in 12 hours was all of that and more.

If you weren’t breaking the internet in record time, one film trailer at a time, your views didn’t count.

Every week, a film trailer then routinely broke the internet, the cast of the film called it historic and the first time ever, but in a few hours, groundbreaking history was quickly forgotten.

Till the next song came along. And then history repeated itself. It was a bit like breaking news – a lot of sound and fury in the moment and then eventual nothingness.

You must wonder what this anecdote from my former work life has to do with television news. I will get to that in a bit.

Suspending Ratings of News? Not Really!

Let’s first get into significant developments that have happened in this week itself. First, BARC or Broadcast Audience Research Council (the industry television rating body) has suspended ratings for all news channels for a period of three months.

This comes after the Mumbai Police’s investigation into English news channel, The Kingdom of Arnab’s, sorry, Republic TV’s alleged manipulation of TRP data. BARC says this suspension has been done to ‘review and augment the data of niche genres…and to hamper the potential attempts of infiltrating panel homes’.

Here is where I have a quibble. BARC got it wrong when it said it was suspending the ratings of news channels. It did a huge disservice to the job function of news this year – which was primarily and only to entertain.

This would have been a more accurate statement – BARC has suspended the ratings of low cost, lowbrow entertainment channels which had stepped in gamely when Bollywood was on a pandemic break. Look at the yeoman service these channels did at a time when there were no entertainment options for a locked-down country.

For four months flat, they kept the country riveted with plots, subplots, twists and twists within twists as they ‘investigated’ the tragic death of a young actor. Face it, not everyone can get a Netflix connection and there were no fresh episodes of soaps. Enter our superheroes – here to take a country’s mind off mundane issues of survival.

What news channels did was exactly what Bollywood has often been unfairly accused of. They gave the country escapist entertainment which had no material bearing on their actual lives. Or any kind of reality for that matter.

In a bit of a meta move though, they entertained you by turning on the entertainers. They even co-opted Bollywood's most iconic trope – the Angry Young Man to do that. Except he was middle-aged and incredibly hammy. But then this was low brow and low-cost entertainment and you know the legend of itne paise mein itna hi…..

Therefore, it is said that Bollywood has been a tad ungrateful to a sector that filled in for it in a time of crisis.

This week, 34 film producers including Karan Johar, Aamir, Shah Rukh, Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar moved the Delhi High Court to restrain a bunch of the really entertaining ones from describing it in rather lurid terms.

Resolving the News Crisis with Bollywood

The entertainers were baffled – Bollywood could have been kinder to another set of entertainers. So what if they were tacky, lowbrow, cringe and took creative licence. It was never personal. It was just entertainment.

And then this was followed by the low blow – the suspension of ratings and now they can't even fight among themselves over 700 households. But all is not lost. I have a way out for them and this brings me back to the story I started with. The solution comes from Bollywood only.

It is but fitting that if news channels appropriated the function of entertainment in 2020, they should also appropriate the popularity measurement indices of Bollywood.

In the three months, when they have no ratings to fight over, here is an alternative that might actually work better than weekly ratings. Here are some of the things they could crow over daily. And not just on Thursday when ratings come in. This could be the new normal borrowed from Bollywood marketing

  • ‘Our 8 PM show raced to 1000 Youtube views in one minute flat. Fastest 1000 views under 59 seconds. Fast & Furious’
  • ‘Who needs a barometer. We now have a decibel meter and we have conclusive proof our news editors shout the loudest'
  • ‘Our hashtag #GDPISABORE trended twice as much as your hashtag, #GDPCRISIS. Stop wasting the time of the nation’
  • ‘Breaking News: We are now viral on WhatsApp. Yes, we know it is encrypted but our news editor knows a thing or two about WhatsApp'

This could be a thing where these channels fight over Insta Reels and Twitter trends. Don't put away the popcorn yet.

Yet, there are still some who believe that television news will take this three-month break to introspect and to do what journalists in the movies do. Report on the news. Well, that is like you saying you would take the lockdown months and learn Spanish, coding and the guitar. Seven months down the line – you know how that worked out for you.

News will continue to be what it is with or without ratings, with the defamation suits because it is precisely what you want it to be. A lowbrow distraction.

In a seminal book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote way back in 1985 that people are often taken with George Orwell’s dystopia when it comes to predicting the future.

But the book we should look at instead is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Huxley predicted a time when the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture and we have not taken into account, “man's almost infinite appetite for distraction”.

Both Postman and Huxley were right. Welcome to 2020. Welcome to a world where it is only about entertainment.

(Naomi Datta was a television journalist and is happy with the was part. She tweets at nowme_datta and is the author of How To Be A Likeable Bigot published by Penguin Random House. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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