If you have recently tuned into NDTV 24X7, the English news channel of NDTV, you would have seen constant ticker alerts that NDTV has revolutionised how broadcast journalism is done by shooting their stories on a Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphone. They even have an ad showing their correspondents using the phone to record their stories, and in one instance a correspondent using a selfie stick to do the same. At first glance, this does seem like a revolutionary way to do broadcast journalism where the correspondents are in complete control from shooting and recording the story to editing it, everything on a smart phone, ready to be distributed at the click of a button. But is it really revolutionary? What is the logic behind the revolution?
One question that automatically comes to mind is why did NDTV choose only Samsung? The answer might be in the way our news media companies are organised.
Post independence, the Indian government decided to maintain control over broadcast media and let newspaper be in the hand of private players. When television broadcast started in the mid sixties the government decided that it would be in the format of BBC and levied a license fee on every television in the country. However, by the late seventies, the newly formed Doordarshan began to accept advertising. Being the sole telecaster in the country, revenue from advertising increased to such an extent that it decided to end the licensee fee on televisions. In this way, advertising became the accepted way of funding television channels. Post 1991 when private channels started (both news and entertainment) advertising was what fuelled their growth and survival.
The problem, however, is when advertising runs the media, it compromises the public responsibilities held by the media. In entertainment media diversity and creativity are lost, while the news media’s role to objectively present information, represent diverse viewpoints and strive to ensure democratic participation is hindered. It is highly likely that being funded by advertising will influence the content and practice of media in such a way that it benefits the advertisers. Let me take the example of product placements. In an attempt to find new ways of monetising and reaching their consumers, product placements in media content gained popularity in the 1980s. Steven Spielberg’s E.T. had Reese’s Pieces, while Bollywood’s own Aap Mujhe Achche Lagne Lage had a deal with Coca-cola. By the early 2000s product placement had become so rampant that one movie would have numerous brands being advertised in them by just being present on the screen. Man of Steel had over a 100 corporate sponsors making it the movie with the most number of product placements. Advertisers have even gone a step further by funding episodes of television series completely written around a product (Pottery Barn placement in season 6, episode 11 of hit TV show Friends called “The One With the Apothecary Table”). These examples are in the entertainment section of the media but how would this play out in the news media?
Commercial breaks in between news bulletins have become common especially after the introduction of 24/7 news channels. And like entertainment media, even in this realm, advertisers are constantly looking to plug-in more ads, while the news companies are constantly trying to innovate in order to make sure more advertising is included, ensuring a constant flow of money. Product placements can also be an option in which products are placed in a news bulletin. In the United States, a Fox affiliate in Las Vegas had coffee from McDonalds in front of the morning news anchors. This is seen to be extremely distasteful and has not been followed by other news networks. However, new forms of placements are constantly being innovated. Let us take for example, NDTV 24X7, that has a Ford Endeavour car travel over the map of India as they show the temperature in different cities. The next step would certainly be to use an advertised product in the production of news itself and constantly remind the viewers, in the case of NDTV 24X7 , that Galaxy 8 smartphone news is a revolution in journalism. Instead of a revolution in broadcast journalism, this seems more to be an evolution in product placement, where a product is completely integrated into the production of media content.
To return to the original question of motives and logic, this move by NDTV to use smartphones is revolutionary in the sense that other broadcasts have not integrated products into their news production, but certainly not revolutionising broadcast journalism. This is because the logic driving this revolution is purely driven by the market logic, and not values of democracy or objectives of journalism.
In a neoliberal society all institutions and organizations are structured based on the market logic and the State ensures this logic is sustained. In India, especially in the television news media sector, most of the broadcast news channels are owned by corporations that are oriented towards profit, and NDTV is no different. NDTV is a listed company and ensuring profits is the only way it can please its shareholders. Inclusion of Samsung phones into its news production provides NDTV with two advantages. First, it ensures advertising revenue from Samsung, as every mention of the product is an advertisement. Second will be reduction of costs. In July 2017, NDTV laid off 35 camera person’s stating that it wanted to make the organisation “leaner” and focus on the transition to mobile journalism, what it termed MoJo. In December 2017, it announced that it would be laying off another 25% of its staff to bring down costs and improve profitability. Thus, instead of sending a correspondent and a camera man to cover a story, now the job of two people can be done by one. However, it is not clear if NDTV would increase the wages/salaries paid to these correspondents accordingly as they are doing the work of two people. The implications of what it is to be a broadcast journalist might completely change, not because it is revolutionary journalism but because it ensures NDTV profits (The implications of this on the journalist as a knowledge worker would require another article). This move would also reduce equipment costs as the phones are being provided by the advertiser, and there is no requirement of a satellite truck as the video from the movie could be sent via the internet. This ‘revolutionary’ approach may be soon adopted by other broadcasters, who might try to make deals with other phone manufactures, drone companies or any other such technology that would reduce the number of journalists but still keep the content flowing. Does this mean it is the end of the cameraman as a vital figure in broadcast journalism? If this is so, a broadcast journalist would not only need to do all the ground work for a story, but also take up the responsibility of a cameraman. Taken further, she will be expected to edit the video on the phone itself and send it to the news centre. This possible overworking of a journalist, due to structural changes in the practice of journalism, with the aim of profits, amounts to exploitation. It also raises questions of the quality of journalism. Is it possible for one lone individual to consistently produce good journalism if she is overburdened with other responsibilities?
What about Journalism?
The aim of journalism is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. It is the watchdog of democracy, ensuring social justice and equality, and making sure power is not misused. With regard to NDTV, the inclusion of a smartphone in the production of news does not assist in any of the above objectives. Structurally, the news is still produced with the same paradigm, advertising is still funding it. The use of these phones is not ensuring the news reaches more people. It does not ensure the coverage of news from perspectives of minorities and marginalised classes. It does not ensure the participation of the diverse voices in India. It certainly is not comforting the afflicted; on the contrary, due to the profits ensured by reducing the costs by laying-off people and increasing ad revenue by Samsung, this “revolutionary” move in journalism is comforting the already comfortable.
The only revolution, therefore, is not in broadcast journalism but in monetising a public service vital to democracy to ensure profits. Although the example taken here is of NDTV, this is not the problem of just one channel but of the whole structure of media.
In a neoliberal India, where market logic is hidden behind phrases like “revolutionary journalism”, conversations about alternative models of journalism, requirement of independent public broadcasters (Prasar Bharati is still not independent as it still is under the I&B ministry), and innovative funding models of media, are essential for the democracy of India. New ways of structuring media need to be discussed. Some online news website are trying out different models and the same should be done in sectors of print and broadcast as they reach far more people than the internet. Revolutions in journalism should be motivated and influenced by the objectives of journalism and the ideals of democracy. If this hyper commercialisation of news continues, citizens will be mere products sold by one corporation (NDTV) to another (Samsung) for the monetary benefit of each other, while democracy will remain just a word in the constitution.
The author is a Phd candidate from Florida State University’s School of Communication currently conducting field work for his research on working conditions of newspaper journalists in India.