Here is the excerpts of what he said to
and shared with exchange4media.
You are the original election man
on Indian television. How has election coverage evolved in India? How
does coverage of the ongoing Lok Sabha elections compare to that of
previous elections? What are the marked changes you see?
Perhaps the biggest difference is that this is India’s first real
“media-election”. The role of television has increased exponentially and
its impact has been the greatest so far – from the hundreds of regional
channels, to the high profile national channels – the penetration and
the impact has been considerable. When we visit villages deep in the
rural areas, everyone seems to have a TV set and is much more aware of
what’s happening than ever before. In fact, it has led to, perhaps sadly
(I don’t know), a greater homogeneity in views across each state of the
country. People in both villages and cities, who used to get their
information from a variety of sources are now being bombarded with
similar messages from a single source: television.
This election is about the beginning of the greater homogenisation of
the Indian voter – we are of course nowhere near as homogeneous as the
electorate in the US – we are just beginning on that path and one of the
underlying causes is the media. From now on, no politician can win an
election without winning the battle for airtime.
Observers suggest that election coverage on TV this time has
been Modi-centric. Is the current election coverage personality-driven
as against issue-based? Is it also about noise versus content?
It is true that in genuine democracies all over the world in the battle
for airwaves, politicians tend to hit the lowest common denominator (if
that’s what you mean by noise versus content). It may be an
exaggeration, but there’s an essential truth to the view that you can’t
win elections in India any more unless you are an ‘acceptable face of
television’. And there is little doubt that Narendra Modi and the BJP
have handled all forms of media much more skillfully and strategically
than any other party.
Would you call NDTV’s poll coverage performance cutting edge? Do
you think competitors have managed to be more seen and heard?
A recent nationwide survey of 90,000+ voters – that is a huge, huge
sample – shows that 50 per cent watch NDTV 24x7 while the viewership of
both CNN-IBN and Times Now add up to 50 per cent. That is conclusive and
as someone pointed out it is also ‘untampered’ evidence!
Social media has emerged as perhaps the strongest and quickest
source of information and debate in poll-bound India. How do you think
this has impacted viewership of television news channels?
I honestly believe, not this one but the next elections are going to be
centered around social media as much as television. With the imminent
launch of 4G, and with the rapid spread of cheaper and better smart
phones, social media users will quadruple by the time the next election
campaign begins. Once social media users hit the 600+ million mark
(which should happen well before the next elections) it will be a
serious contender for the top spot in voter mind-space. It has already
had an important role in these elections – and the future belongs to
interactive, personalized, instant, real time, online media.
How much has NDTV exploited the synergies between television,
Internet and mobile during election coverage? Are you satisfied with the
performance of your websites and app?
Wherever I go, everyone says to me that NDTV’s app and website are the
best there is and a great value-add in their day. Our number of unique
users, times spent and page views also indicate that our Internet team –
an amazing group who I learn something new from every day – is the
finest there is. NDTV’s Internet strategy is the next big thing for us –
it is the future of NDTV and, honestly, of journalism.
There has been a lot of controversy around opinion polls. What
is your take on them?
Unfortunately, the truth about polls is currently distorted by so much
innuendo and misinformation. First, there has been tomes of research
done into the impact of polls on voting behaviour – on the possibility
of a ‘bandwagon’ effect versus an ‘underdog’ effect – and the conclusion
of all this global research is that ‘opinion polls have zero impact on
voting behaviour’. Now, banning anything is a major decision in any
democracy (and I am deeply proud and, like all of us, jealously guard
our democracy in India). Therefore, before banning any process, any
scientific procedure, there must be incontrovertible evidence to suggest
that it is an activity with significant negative consequences. No such
evidence exists. It is all based on conjecture, bias and fear.
Those who fear that opinion polls have a bandwagon effect need to answer
one question: when all the opinion polls were showing a victory for the
BJP in the 2004 election, the bandwagon impact should have been an even
bigger victory for the BJP – yet the BJP lost. Whither the ‘bandwagon’?
There are so many issues about polls that I’d like to discuss but that’s
for another time. One final point: polls can be wrong – after all, the
BBC recently got its exit polls wrong twice in a row and nearly gave up
exit polling; and in the latest US elections the great Gallup forecast
that Obama would lose (in fact they had Obama trailing by a huge 5 per
cent margin until a week before the election) – these are caused by
normal statistical errors, and that is no reason, no reason at all for
banning anything in a democracy. From my experience, voters treat
opinion polls with the scepticism they deserve. Banning polls is the
thin end of the wedge. We must all fight against any kind of ban that is
based on such flimsy evidence.
All news channels look similar today in the matter of election
programming. Why don’t we see innovative or clutter-breaking
While I agree that tabloidization is the trend these days – in the
desperate desire for eyeballs – I see an informed backlash happening at
last. The backlash is coming from both viewers and from advertisers and
ad-agencies. Advertisers are beginning to distinguish between high
quality content – which they would like their product to be associated
with – and not to be associated with low-grade tabloid news. I remember
seeing a news channel lady anchor saying “break ke baad aap ko ek rape
dikhayengey” – would any advertiser like to see their product follow
those words? All across the world ad rates are not dependent solely on
the number of eye-balls: serious journalism, like the Economist or The
New York Times quite rightly get much higher ad-rates than their
‘eyeballs’ would command. This is now happening in India too.