On the face of it the following two tweets from members of CNN-IBN looks innocuous and routine programme information. One from Ruchira Singh, who handles the Social Media accounts for them and one from Rajdeep Sardesai:
A closer re-look based on other information that is now coming out of the TV18 group tells a deeper story. Why on I-Day would a news channel just leave a good part of the day with recorded programmes of Bollywood songs? That too some of it in the prime-time category! There seems to be a deep churning of sorts within the group. Their CEO, Dilip Venkatraman, has reportedly quit last week and internal sources have been leaking stories of massive retrenchment at the group, fashionably styled as “restructuring”. Here’s what The Hindu reported on August 16 (excerpts):
“Highly-placed channel sources, all of whom insisted on being anonymous, have told The Hindu that the network will ‘cut costs and human-resources by around 30 percent in each department’. There was no confirmation of the figure till late on Thursday evening, with authorized officials refusing to comment. Insiders said it was ‘almost certain’ that contracts of over 150 employees in IBN 7, and over 200 employees in CNN-IBN, would be terminated. A knowledgeable source said, “For a story, a reporter, cameraperson, equipment, a vehicle, a driver has to be deployed. Costs in each of these categories – staffing, production, and infrastructure – will be cut.” It is learnt that senior editorial staffers in key divisions like sports, entertainment and research may face the axe”.
A business sustains itself on a proper revenue model and survives on earning some profits for its stake-holders. In financial terms a 1000-day test is applied for loans and funds for a company to break-even and earn profits. Considering the IBN group was launched in 2005 (although their CNBC channel was launched earlier) it has been 8 years as the group kept absorbing poor financial returns backed by more and more investments in times of trouble. More inflow of funds may keep a business from folding up but not necessarily ensure profits. In such scenarios it is usually the frontline and smaller earners who pay the price.
Remember when Jet Airways sacked some 1900 of its employees overnight? They had to take them back due to protests by the employees and major coverage to the protests. In contrast the retrenchment at IBN is neither going to be covered by their peers in media and will be reported frugally in the print media. It has always been the case that when companies run into trouble the ones to be sacked most easily are the lower level or frontline employees. In the case of Big Bazar when they faced financial problems the first ones to be sacked were the check-out counter employees and even the bagging-boys at the counter. Actually, these employees are the least expensive in the organisation. The top guys who collectively draw a package almost equivalent to hundreds of the lower level employees usually get to stay.
The problem is not unique to the IBN7 group. Other channels too are facing the music. NDTV, which has been in the red for many years, retrenched many employees sometime back. The first problem is lack of programming itself and the second is lack of a proper revenue model. While claiming to be national channels the IBN or NDTV are nothing more than local Delhi channels. Their programming is centred merely around Delhi and about politics. When the season is on they throw in Cricket and a regular dose of Bollywood. The rest of the country hardly exists. For a national channel low viewership is a serious problem. When the Assam riots were on, Rajdeep Sardesai famously said “tyranny of distance” as the reason for not covering the story on time.
If one adds up all the “news” content of any TV channel the actual content would not amount to more than one hour of news. The same news gets recycled for the rest of the 23 hours since they like to believe a 24X7 channel is the only competitive route. For an international channel like CNN, which was the first as a 24-hour cable channel, the reporting starts from around the globe. For Indian viewers, it usually starts from Hong Kong or Singapore, then to London, to New York and then to their main studios. Thus there is a world-coverage of news and important events. Even so, CNN itself has been sliding in ratings in the US too. In contrast the Indian news channels which call themselves “national” don’t even get viewership from all across India. English channels like CNN-IBN, NDTV or Times Now are not aired in many B-category cities. Most of these cities have local language channels or in the North they have the Hindi channels providing service. And where the business channels are concerned they really don’t have much news to offer. Whatever share prices or business information they scroll at the bottom of the screen is what most viewers watch them for. That scrolling part is now being done on all news channels so specialised business channels also make little sense.
The biggest crime of all is a lot of inaccurate news and fake news that is frequently aired by these channels. That and the propaganda-based programmes and debates which have taken a beating at the hands of Social Media. Some of these channels have built themselves around “personalities” alone and when these personalities get tainted by bogus programmes and comments the channel takes a beating too. It would be more honourable for a channel to sack editors and anchors tainted by such deeds than to sack lower level employees. Some of the people tainted by Radiagate still continue in their jobs as if nothing happened. It now appears that a channel will find it hard to survive merely on English news content as it definitely seems to reduce the reach. Some might decide to go bilingual which may be a better option. What is happening to the news channels is quite similar to the airline industry. Hundreds of air-hostess and cabin-crew training companies had come up all over the cities when the airline boom started. Except a few, almost all of them have now shut shops.
Rajdeep Sardesai may appear in promos with grand lines like “credibility over chaos” or “news over noise”. But advertisements don’t sell. I am not sure most viewers accept the credibility part. I am not sure most viewers accept even the news over noise part, considering CNN-IBN has one of the shrillest anchors in TV history. As for credibility, the group may have to first wonder what got them into “chaos” themselves and how to get out of it. They may sack hundreds of lower level employees but the chaos and noise doesn’t come from them. The bottle-neck is always at the top of the bottle, not the bottom.