Satyamev Jayate: why the news really is not very good

Star India’s CEO Uday Shankar gives Governance Now a deep dive into the difficult world of news media and what ails it

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BV Rao | September 7, 2012




With Aamir Khan it is always all or nothing. All for Aamir and nothing for you.

So, it is not surprising that Aamir walked away with all the attention and kudos for Satyamev Jayate, the big programming gamble of Star India, the country’s largest network of general entertainment and non-news niche channels. Consequently, Uday Shankar, Star India’s CEO, got little or no attention for sticking his neck out, personally and organisationally.

Uday was taking a big risk in trying to change the game by launching a news talk show on entertainment TV on a scale and cost preordained for failure if you went purely by the accounting yardstick of money spent and money made. There are few in the media who have the appetite for risk-taking that Uday demonstrates.

But this is not about giving Uday Shankar or Star India their due. It’s not Governance Now’s place or position to be able to do that. This is about the larger questions that Satyamev Jayate has thrown up in its reincarnation, questions about the state and governance of the news media in the country.

I say reincarnation because Satyamev Jayate was first born six years ago (2006) on Star News (now ABP News), not three months ago on Star Plus. Uday was the CEO and editor-in-chief of Star News (this writer was part of Uday’s senior editorial team) and it was the peak of the silly season on television news. Satyamev Jayate, or SMJ as it was called internally, was launched as a prime time news show, a very bold thing to do given the reality of the news universe then.

From the concept (of socially relevant journalism) to the name and right down to the soft-white embossed logo of the show, SMJ was, as Uday says (see interview that follows) an attempt to step back and see the big picture. But it could also have been our collective atonement for the sins of omission and commission that drove news television to explore new lows every minute and achieve it with vengeful success. News channels became parasites of entertainment channels, a trend that continues even today. For example, ABP News (earlier Star News) put up a weekly show called “Asar” (impact) to capture the reflected glory of Aamir’s SMJ at little or no news gathering cost to the channel (zero-cost journalism, as Uday says).

The inevitable happened. SMJ 1 sank without a trace and that too in double quick time. Though the show retained its nomenclature for a long time after that, it became the favourite resting place for the Rakhi Sawant and Ash-Abhi wedding kind of stories… everything it was supposed to stand against.

Uday didn’t last long either. In 2007 he crossed over to Star India as CEO. In his journey from CEO Star News to CEO Star India is the story of the sorry state of the news channels, their obsession with ratings, their lack of vision and direction, the spurning of their social mandate and their complete disregard for quality. Of course, we are not talking about exceptions and exceptional circumstances, of which there are many good examples.

Governance Now has been itching to interview Uday since the launch of SMJ 2 in early May to find out what it is that makes a socially relevant news show a resounding flop on a news channel and makes it the most talked about show on an entertainment channel (SMJ 2 generated more than one billion digital impressions, that is, it figured in a billion discussions on Twitter, Facebook, SMS and internet). What is it that makes the CEO of a news channel “run away” (his words, see interview) after launching SMJ 1 on a news channel and walk with a new spring in his step after launching SMJ 2 on an entertainment channel?

The power of the Aamir brand and Star India’s money muscle are the obvious explanations, but not a complete answer. Uday is the only one who has straddled news and entertainment genres at the highest levels and hence uniquely positioned to fill in the gaps in our understanding. Sharp, incisive, intellectual, self-incriminating and brazenly bold, Uday gave us a deep dive into the difficult world of news media and what ails it. And why it will continue to ail.

Read the transcript of the interview: “It is very bleak for news... there is appalling crisis of vision and alarming poverty of talent”
 

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