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Interview: Rajdeep Sardesai, Editor-in-Chief, CNN-IBN, IBN7 & IBN Lokmat

“In Hindi, the main problem has been trivialisation and in English it is noise. Both have contributed in the decline and dumbing down of news. Also, the concept of Breaking News has broken down. The noise that we hear on TV where the same 4-5 people shout on every channel, how can that be the basis of decent journalism?”

BestMediaInfo Bureau | Delhi | February 12, 2014

Rajdeep Sardesai Rajdeep Sardesai

As CNN-IBN turns 8, tell us how difficult has been the path – of sustainability, responsibility, credibility, integrity in the present scenario?

Let’s be honest. It has been nine years since we set up CNN-IBN. When we started off, people asked why we need another English news channel. The general sense was that there was no space in the market for another English news channel. So, the first challenge was to break the myth in people’s mind. The second challenge was to look for talent who could take the channel to a level where we could actually expand the market. From a personal point of view, I was also stepping out of my comfort zone that was NDTV where I had spent 11 years. The challenge was also to create a quality channel which had aggression and also credibility.

It has been very tough on all fronts because talent was critical for maintaining credibility and quality. Sustainability is also a challenge as advertising hasn’t expanded as we thought. There is a pressure to pay cable operators, carriage fees. To build a quality channel you have to spend on news gathering. It’s a big challenge of our times. If you start cutting on news gathering, then you can’t build a quality news channel. To invest in news gathering I need a business model that allows me to be comfortable. The fact is that the Indian news business model has not worked in that direction. You end up paying far too much on external sources rather than spending on news sources.

Maintaining credibility and integrity is easier than sustainability, because sustainability is not in your hands. That’s the problem because it is a function of the external environment. If the ad pie is not expanding, salary and carriage fee are going up exponentially, the subscription revenue is not growing to the extent they should, you are constantly under pressure.

We never succumbed to TRP pressure. It is easier to replace news with noise, to replace credibility with chaos, and sense with sensationalism. You have to look at us over eight years – the awards we have won; the journalism that we have done. I think it’s a tribute to the fact that we have stayed honest to certain principles. Even while sustainability remains a big challenge which is not in our control, I think we have been able to keep our credibility and integrity intact.

What went into the making of brand CNN-IBN?

I think what we have done is that we have created a distinctive space for ourselves as a quality news channel. That’s our brand value. If you ask me what the biggest challenge was, I would say it was putting journalism first. It was making sure that the journalism of the channel was always given a sacred space. We tried insulating it from all external pressures. Every now and then we tried to expand journalistic enquiry. We come up with ideas and concepts like Citizen Journalism, India Positive, which are unique in themselves. We have done things which have pushed the boundaries of journalism without succumbing to market pressure.

The dilemma is that content is king but good content is expensive. There have been pressures to cut down the cost of news gathering, so the content often becomes more of studio chats. In our first four years we have put a lot of pressure on going to the ground, getting ground stories. But in the last couple of years we have been restricted to studios because it is cheaper. Therefore, providing good content to viewers while remaining conscious of the bottom-line is a big challenge. Studio chats is the easiest thing to do. It’s very easy to put together those same four-five faces. It doesn’t lend itself often to great journalism and that’s my worry. Despite all odds, we still have good documentaries week after week, the Citizen Journalist show, we still break stories. But if you ask me to compare the first five years of CNN-IBN with the last couple of years, I accept that we had a lot to do in the first five years, we were able to do much more because we had more financial bandwidth. The last couple of years we have been constrained by the fact that our financial bandwidth has come down. To do good news you need feet on the ground, financial bandwidth on the ground. The BBCs of the world are able to get away with it because they have the financial bandwidth. As I said, content is king, good content is expensive.

Do you think you are understaffed?

We are not understaffed but we certainly are not overstaffed. Now, we have to pick and choose our battles. For example, we have always believed that election is in our DNA. So in election years, we put our money and people there. But can we put our people in 10 different things? That’s not possible any more. It was possible in the first few years because we wanted to create an impact.

CNN-IBN will see India’s second General Elections this year since its launch. How well prepared are you to leave a mark and set an example for the TV news industry?

Our first election coverage in 2009 won us an Asian Television Award for best programming. We are gearing up with new ideas, new thoughts, along with certain things that are already there. We just finished a major Election Tracker. The information you get from our Election Tracker is far more than you get from an opinion poll. We keep politicians out of our Election Tracker and focus on analyses with experts. For example, we did 12 hours of Election Tracker programming with only half an hour given to politicians. No channel would do that. Our aim is to make sure that elections are a celebration of democracy. Hence, our programming will be tailored to that big idea with a big message that involves people.

There have been several question marks on surveys like recent Election Tracker opinion polls and exit polls as some have been accurate, some have failed. Some channels refrain from such exercises. Are you sure of the utility and veracity of such surveys or are they aimed at TRPs?

A good opinion poll costs a lot. Talking about our agency, I must say that CSDS does a very serious job; it gives a lot of material. If you see our opinion polls, they are never about who is winning or who is losing. Our opinion polls tell why they are winning, which groups are voting which political party or candidate and why. An opinion poll will never probably get the number exactly right. It is not maths. You can do a bad opinion poll to sensationalise for TRP or you can do a good opinion poll to empower your viewer. You see the feedback we get on Election Tracker. Indians are now becoming more discerning and they realise which opinion poll is for TRPs and which one is honestly done. Opinion polls are done across the world including by CNN and BBC. The question is do you do it in a transparent manner with full disclosure or do you do it in non-transparent manner for TRPs.

Our exercise is very rigorous. There are academics involved. And CSDS is not a market research agency; it is a political research agency. We have done 42 opinion polls so far and 38-39 of them have been right. Our aim is to use the material of opinion poll to tell the viewer of what is happening in an analytical way not in a noisy, political fight.

From being a performer of public service to becoming a highly deplorable tabloid sort of news provider, commercial interests have certainly been the main reason behind the dumbing down of news television. Do you see a time when news will be again seen as a credible public service, free from any measurement and advertiser support?

I do not think you can blind yourself to the market. Advertising is a critical part. I am not against measurement but you cannot make a monopoly over measurement. Can such a small sample size do justice to such a big country? We should have more measurement agencies. As a newsman I don’t want TRPs but advertisers want it. What do I do? Advertiser is important. I will say content is king; he will say advertising is king. I accept that an ecosystem has been created by advertisers and TAM where the broadcaster is hostage to the ratings system. The ecosystem is such that you can’t ignore it.

Social media seems to be having a huge impact on television media and it occasionally drives content on TV channels depending on the real-time response on specific issues. Do you see this as a dangerous trend?

I don’t believe in conflict. TV shouldn’t be in conflict with social media. In social media anything can be put out. There are no rules there. TV has some rules. Social media is also a valuable source of information but it can also aid in the dumbing down of television. It’s a double-edged sword. It can trivialise TV news. Yesterday, someone called Kejriwal an item girl and the next thing I heard was TV interviewing Rakhi Sawant. If Rakhi Sawant is trending on it and TV puts it on air, then it is dumbing down of TV. The trivialisation of TV is partly responsibility of TV and partly social media has influenced it. So social media can be a valuable tool but it can also cause Rakhi Sawantization of TV. I don’t look at social media for deciding my programming line-up. If you do that then you end up dumbing down news.

What have been the best and worst in TV journalism in the past 8 years according to you?

The manner in which TV has been able to cover disasters like Uttarakhand earthquake and Sikkim is the best part of television. I remember covering Latoor earthquake 20 years ago. Covering it was a nightmare. There was one PCO 100 km away. So, the real devastation wasn’t covered. The era of satellite has made relaying news easy. It’s a positive role that TV plays.

The negative side is trivialisation. The concept of Breaking News has broken down. The noise that we hear on TV where the same 4-5 people shout on every channel, how can that be the basis of decent journalism? So, the dumbing down of news TV is the worst that has happened in the last few years.

At one point, English news was free from trivialisation but couldn’t keep up to its virtues over time and growing competition. Do you feel the need for a clean-up exercise where everything is not ‘Breaking’ or ‘Exclusive’?

I can’t tell someone else how to do news. When you see the same interview running on five channels, then there is a question mark over the whole notion of exclusive. In Hindi, the main problem has been trivialisation and in English it is noise. So both have contributed in the decline and dumbing down of news. The question is can we change it? I believe it is for the individuals to decide. Obviously Rakhi Sawant sells, noise sells. So, television news has been converted into entertainment. Breaking News has broken down to the extent that ‘Arvind Kejriwal leaving his Kausahmbi house and coming back’ are Breaking News these days! Look at what has happened in recent weeks – it seems as if there’s nothing beyond Arvind Kejriwal in India! There is breathlessness to it. You cannot run governments like this. A government cannot run on 24x7 minute to minute coverage. I also partially blame politicians for such situations. They also are acting with and for TV. Both of us are using each other. Breaking News has worsened over 5-6 years because of competition. I can promise you that we won’t allow Breaking News to break down. We’ll change it.

Considering the overlapping viewership for English and Hindi news, what strategies do you have in place to attract more viewers to the channel?

The Arvind Kejriwal interview which I did recently was in Hindi, we ran it on both our channels. Language today doesn’t matter. We did a Salman Khan interview which was better than the English one. We have this false sense of elitism that it will be worthy only if it is only in English. News is news. Why should you look at the viewer as Hindi or English? Viewers want good content. And news should be relevant and touch their day to day life.

You began the ‘Big Fight’ debate format when you were in NDTV. The format has now been adopted by all English news channels, including CNN-IBN. Don’t you think that today it has become the ugliest format in news television – anywhere from 6 to 8 persons screaming simultaneously and the viewer not able to comprehend a single line?

I have given up on it. I think this format has now run its course. At the time we started it, we used to get top leaders because there were one or two channels then. Today, top leaders don’t come for a debate, they prefer one-on-one. Then what’s the point doing these debates with the second-rung leaders.

CNN-IBN has always been at the forefront when it comes to awards – both receiving and honouring others. When you give awards, you make sure it is credible. Do you ensure the same credibility while accepting the awards?

Good question. I have never tried to influence an award process. So that is all one can say. Many of them are worthy and some may be less worthy. Honestly speaking, who doesn’t like recognition? Forget about me, my team likes it. If a cameraman gets an award, his spirits are lifted. Why should I deny him saying that this award is not worthy? I think television is about building a team, building morals and building leadership for that team. And one of the ways is awarding them for their efforts. If somebody is awarding them, it’s good. As long as you have not unduly influenced the process, I have no problems in accepting awards. We have won all kind of awards, more than all channels put together, including awards as credible as Ramnath Goenka and Asian awards. We get our award by appearing on TV. What about the guys behind the scenes? So, if they get an award why shouldn’t we let them enjoy their moment?


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