Sunday, December 14, 2008

Light and Sound Show on TV


For me personally, 26/11 was in some ways a replay of the Kandahar Hijack of the Indian Airlines plane IC 814 and the Royal Family Killings that followed. I was based in Kathmandu then - so I happened to see them from very close quarters. Though both those incidents were of a very different order of magnitude, there were similarities in the manner of their unfolding. Particularly after the Palace Massacre, I remember the kind of public outrage there was in Nepal about the ‘insensitive’ coverage of the Indian electronic media, who had landed up within hours of the incident (some of them were accused of “stage-managing” public protests against King Gyanendra). One very respected Nepali voice pleaded while being interviewed on a channel – “why don’t you realize, for us it’s a national tragedy – please let us mourn in peace.” (Read “A Kingdom Mourns”)

This time round – I just happened to be in front of the television when the story broke. But, thereafter, by a certain quirk of circumstances (a visiting overseas colleague was holed up in The Trident), I was glued to the flat screen for nearly 36 hours without a break. So, I saw the coverage ‘grenade by grenade’ and one gun-shot at a time, as it were, right from the start.

It began with TIMES NOW carrying a footer of the PTI Flash about firing inside a Colaba restaurant (CafĂ© Leopold), followed in quick succession by another ticker on the shoot out at the VT Station. The first was billed as a fight between Nigerian students and latter as possibly a ‘gang-war’. In a few minutes, CNN-IBN had picked up the news. Their reporters were screaming about firings at “The Taj-Oberoi” – without making a distinction between the two hotels. Soon they had Suhel Seth on the phone from Bombay. He had come to attend a wedding and was staying at The Taj. The hotel had pro-actively called guests who were out - asking them not to come back immediately. Suhel was venting his spleen at the nincompoop politicians who can’t offer basic security to the citizens. Like many of us, I don’t think he had realized till then the seriousness of the situation. There was another young lady, a fashion journalist, who was partying at the Indigo, calling in to say – they were stuck inside the restaurant, which had pulled down its shutters and turned-off the lights – because of firing going on in the vicinity. In a little while, Vikram Singh Mehta (Chairman of Shell India – who, when in Mumbai, stays at the NCPA Towers right behind the Oberoi) was on the line giving an eyewitness account of fire belching out from The Oberoi lobby, which he could see from his apartment.

During this time – NDTV, or at least those watching the channel, were blissfully unaware of what was happening in Mumbai and they continued with their show “Cricketing Matters” where Sonali Chander was listlessly chatting away with Ajay Jadeja about the amiable nature of Sachin Tendulkar on and off the pitch. At 11 – they brought on the eyelash fluttering Sunetra Chaudhury “breaking news”.

By then, TIMES NOW was already airing live footages of the encounter at VT Station borrowed from the STAR NEWS OB Vans. At CNN-IBN Anubha Bhonsle held post till Bhupendra Chaubey came on air and their cameras reached the scene of action at The Taj. But when Srinivasan Jain took charge of the NDTV telecast, between him at the studio and the Shivnath Thukral-Shaili Chopra duo on the front-line at the Gateway of India - they were easily ahead of the rest (that I am partial towards Chopra women – in this case not Priyanka but Shaili – is well known!!).

Paratroopers
However, things changed once Ms Dutt parachuted into Nariman Point the next morning. Around the same time Rajdeep appeared in front of The Taj. Much before that, since the night infact, Arnab was firmly ensconced at the TIMES NOW desk. But, from then on it became a battle for the “eye-balls”.

TIMES NOW – stuck to a no frills coverage for practically 72 hours non-stop. One must hand it out to not only their tenacious Editor-Anchor but also their team of feisty young reporters.

Once their ‘star’ arrived on the scene, NDTV all but pulled out their previous night’s team of Vasu-Shivnath-Shaily. After trying her signature high-pitched ‘ball-by-ball’ commentary for a while – she quickly shifted gear, taking a ‘softer’ line - talking to family members of hostages waiting anxiously outside the hotel. Soon she was interviewing Shobhaa De. By the evening she was hosting a chat show with the so-called Mumbai “intellectuals” (if the city had any in the first place) in a program emotively titled “Enough is Enough”.
s-O-tainment

CNN-IBN struck a middle ground between the fact-based, non-hysterical reporting of TIMES NOW and the high emotion-packed coverage on NDTV. Overall they were much more balanced (barring some shrill anchoring by the lady who shares her last name with me - spelt exactly the same way with an ‘e’ at the end). Well, I suppose, you do need product differentiation even in TV News coverage.

In my view, TIMES NOW carried the day with Arnab playing a marathon Test Match style innings (much like the double century of - Rajdeep’s Dad, the redoubtable Dilip Sardesai, at Kingston in ‘71 – the same series in which Gavaskar had scored his first double ton in Port of Spain). He never left the studio and was, therefore, able to control what was being aired - unlike, I suspect, some of the other channels whose editors were busy on the field.

Of course, I didn’t watch the Hindi Channels – which I am told were dramatised to the point of being pure paranoia arousing “news-o-tainment”.