Prime Time Diverts and Distracts to Shield Government From Negative Sentiment

The massive fuel price rise was missing from TV prime time headlines and debates in the days following the elections.

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Indian television media stays away from issues that show the Union government in a bad light. This is not an assumption, but a fact. Never more than 10% of TV prime time is spent on price rise and inflation, an issue proven to create negative sentiment against governments across the world.

Over 2 lakh seconds of television debates were analysed for a study, Prime Time Trackers, conducted by Rate The Debate (RTD), a media watch initiative of the Institute of Perception Studies, New Delhi. Set up in 2020, RTD has been measuring coverage of fuel price rise of petrol, diesel and LPG.

In 2022, fuel prices were kept in check for Assembly elections in five states from January to March, in which the ruling BJP at the Centre sought a crucial mandate. Aware citizens across the country, including voters in these states, expected prices to rise after voting. This reveals a trend of ‘habitual populism’, which is a matter for qualitative voter behaviour analysis. This article will discuss how the massive price rise was missing from TV prime time headlines and debates in the days following the elections.

Also read: An SOS for India’s Democracy and Media

On March 7, 2022, the multi-phase elections came to an end and the results were announced on March 10. Petrol and diesel prices started to rise from March 22 and did so 14 times. On April 6, the cumulative fuel price hikes had peaked at Rs 10 per litre.

In a democracy with free media, the following five points were expected from TV debates: One, publicise hardships of citizens. Two, demand answers from the government on countermeasures to offset the impact of inflation. Three, not dedicate headline space to international events not of immediate concern to the lives of Indian citizens. Four, gather across-the-aisle bipartisan advice and opinion on handling inflation. Five, focus on the worst-affected and the ‘silent distress’ of the poor and the vulnerable.

April 6, 2022. Figure 1: It is a pity that the television audience did not get to see any such coverage of the price rise. Instead, prime time was occupied with diversion and distraction.

Figure 1: RTD Prime Time Tracker for April 6, 2022.

The RTD Prime Time Tracker for April 6, 2022, analysed 25,786 seconds from 10 channels, five English and five Hindi. The findings are as follows:

  • The most-discussed issue with over 40% of time was the Ukraine war, which accounted for 10,216 seconds of the total time analysed. It also included an interview of Ukraine’s president, among other things.
  • The second-most talked about issue was the Hindu-Muslim feuds in some states. This took up 24% of the time, 6,191 seconds of the total. This included the hijab ban issue, The Kashmir Files, etc.
  • News about the PM took up another 21% of the total time. This included issues concerning the PM’s comments on the Opposition and meetings with Opposition leaders.
  • Finally, a mere 7% of the total airtime was spent discussing the price rise. It was not even a marginal issue on most television channels.

Figure 2: RTD Prime Time Tracker for March 19-24, 2022

March 19-24. Figure 2: For days just after the elections, the RTD Prime Time Tracker for March 19-24 for four channels analysed 57,429 seconds of footage to ascertain coverage on price rise. The findings are as follows:

  • Out of the total time, 8% was spent on fuel price discussion, a mere 4,764 seconds of the 57,429 seconds analysed.
  • The Ukraine war remained the top favourite across channels, occupying 19.63% of time on debates.
  • Topics with lowest coverage were unemployment schemes and their progress; issues of agriculture, rural economy and crops; protests against misgovernance by Opposition parties.

Figure 3: RTD Prime Time Tracker for September 1, 2021

August-September 2021, Figure 3: The trend of eclipsing price rise with other news is not specific to the year 2022. In August/September, 2021, domestic LPG cylinder or cooking gas rates were hiked by Rs 25 to Rs 884.50 in Delhi. However, RTD findings showed that the main issue on most TV debates during these months was the Taliban and Afghanistan, over and above domestic issues that affected citizens ― inflation, opening of schools after Covid, waterlogging, protests due to unemployment, etc.

The methodology of the research was the analyses of prime time debates on channels with the highest TRP, as per the BARC. Data available on channel websites was quantitatively analysed minute by minute. A few examples of RTD’s other Prime Time Trackers are:

  • 29,693 seconds: How the Prime Minister’s US visit overshadowed deaths in Assam police action (11 channels on September 23, 2021);
  • 25,470 seconds: How the Afghanistan crisis got more time than the third wave of Covid-19 in India (11 channels, August 23, 2021).

Lakhs of seconds of footage of television debates reveal that Indian channels deliberately shield the government from difficult issues. When the media has a stake in power, it is no longer free and no longer meaningful. Media must have no masters. That is a battle TV journalists must fight every day on prime time, and win.

Kota Neelima is an author, researcher and Director of the Institute of Perception Studies, New Delhi. She writes on social journalism, rural-urban distress and citizen visibility. She tweets @KotaNeelima.