A Murder Mystery Yields Great Benefits for Television Channels

A screengrab showing Times Now's coverage of the Indrani Mukerjea affair.

A screengrab showing Times Now’s coverage of the Indrani Mukerjea affair.

Ever since the Sheena Bora case became staple fodder for the news media, there has been a raging debate over whether television news channels have gone overboard by obsessing over it. But while the debate continues, the TV networks are hitting the right notes with their audiences — the much coveted Television Rating Points (TRPs) have been scaling new peaks, reviving their sagging news viewership curves, though with important regional variations.

Through the week when the murder was the top story, the Mumbai-based Times Now was far ahead of all the other channels in the fray, cornering about 46% of the market share as per BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council) and 38% as per TAM (Television Audience Measurement) data, both of which are keenly observed and studied by advertisers.

India Today got 12% and 19% of the market share respectively. India Today had initially overtaken Times Now as the most watched channel on the latter’s home turf during two big news breaks – the Patel agitation for reservation in Gujarat and the Sheena Bora case, before Times Now reversed the trend.

Paparazzi style coverage

Times Now, the only Mumbai-based channel where the case is being investigated, had drawn considerable flak on social media for its relentless paparazzi kind of pursuit of any scrap of information to report. But it’s a strategy that seems to have paid rich dividends in ratings.

There is little doubt that ratings are the wind under every news channel’s sails. TV editors across the board are under daily pressure to ensure more spikes per week. Often it’s a hit and miss, but apparently a murder mystery, even one with more speculation and intrigue than proven facts, is what audiences want to see on news channels. But is that always the case?

The trends need to be looked at in closer detail.

Over the past month, between August 12 and September 8, BARC’s data shows that across India, Times Now and India Today had big spikes during the August 12 debate in the Lok Sabha when Sushma Swaraj mounted a fiery defence of her role in the Lalit Modi case.

A bigger spike occurred on August 15, when there was widespread speculation over PM Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech, in the wake of the mounting One Rank One Pension agitation. In fact, in the initial days of the Sheena murder probe between 25-27 August, data suggests interest across India was pretty tepid. But over the next few days, Times Now rode on a surge of interest, to become the channel people watched for developments on this case (some of which proved later to be merely wild speculation). The OROP discussions appear to have been swallowed by the juicier story nationally, though it is plausible that it could have contributed to the steady rise in overall news viewership. Since the periods overlap, it is difficult to be more conclusive.

What is more interesting is to look at the city-wise data. Mumbai emerges as the only city curious about the Sheena Bora case. This is understandable, since the dramatis personae are high-profile Mumbai-based people. However, even in Mumbai, more viewers tuned in to the Sushma-Rahul debate on August 12 than on any day dominated by the Sheena case.

The audience in the national capital Delhi doesn’t seem to have been impressed much by the disappearance and alleged murder of a young girl. The ratings for Times Now from this city are blips compared to audience interest in Mumbai. Politics seem to be Delhi’s clear preference over a sensational murder case. NDTV has largely stayed out of continuous breathless reporting of the Sheena Bora case, focusing on political reportage like the OROP, RSS-BJP meetings etc. Delhi is also the only market where channels like CNN-IBN, News X and NDTV appear to have evident spikes that differentiate them from each other on viewership graphs.

Perhaps the most interesting data mined by BARC are the viewing trends across Bengaluru, which marches to a tune vastly different from Delhi and Mumbai.

A regional English news channel, News9, hardly known to anyone outside the city, is proving to be the local favourite – beating all the national players hands down, across weeks. Around the time that the national channels were focusing on the breakdown of NSA level talks between India and Pakistan and building up to polls in Bihar, Bangaloreans tuned in into News9 to follow the local municipal level elections and the developments following the murder of writer M M Kalburgi, clearly indicating that more often than not, local news is preferred to far away events. Both were stories covered by all national channels, but News9 had monopoly of viewership across Bengaluru. Bengaluru’s news preferences and Delhi’s lack of interest in the Sheena Bora murder case are in stark contrast to what appears to be ‘national’ preferences shown by the same ratings.

Several editors say, off the record, that the ratings game is influenced by an eye on advertising revenue that pours in based on ratings. While in print, regional editions of national newspapers allow local news to get preference over national news, television in India goes in for the one-bulletin fits all model. Thus, the Sheena Bora case plays big, irrespective of whether audiences elsewhere are interested in it at all.

Sensationalising stories, even broadcasting speculation or unconfirmed reports are the quick fix formula to grab and sustain eyeballs in the 24-hour news cycle. But viewer interest is largely regional and this is borne out by the breakdown of ratings.