Sunday was spent surviving the Prince coverage on TV. Surely, there were other news — Israel’s Lebanon-bashing, the bomb-blast investigation — that merited more than the scrolled treatment they got. Television networks mesmerised Sunday audiences with an overdose of the five-year-old and managed to work up massive hysteria — first in the form of prayers, then as delirious celebrations once he was extracted.
But in the battle for TRPs, Zee News should emerge the winner. The drama could not have been staged better. The moment the image flashed on the screen showing Prince being hauled out of the mouth of the well, the camera cut to an anchor quivering in excitement. He announced that Zee News’ 48-hour non-stop coverage had saved Prince and made him a household name. The anchor went further: Prince and his struggle for survival had become one single cord binding the nation’s fabric together. He added: The national sentiment generated by Prince was a slap on the face of terrorism from across the border!
Zee News’ non-stop, five-camera coverage forced other news channels to suspend their normal coverage and join battle at Kurukshetra. For the Hindi news networks, nothing else existed. Aaj Tak’s coverage was entirely about the rescue, while NDTV and Star News flitted back and forth from other stories.
Some of the highest TRPs for news channels were notched up when channels continued telecasting ‘add-ons’ to disaster events like the Akshardham attack in September 2002 and the Kutch earthquake. But where there is little continuous action, as in the Prince case, coverage fatigue was evident. In the drama that was fuelled more by rhetoric than any concrete movement on the ground, images were repeated ad nauseam.
It was, perhaps, in this repetition of images of the drum being lowered into the borewell, Prince munching a chocolate and so on, that innovation could have played a role. Alas, all channels failed. If there was no forward movement, there was no rewind of the events that had led up to this frenzy. The crowds grew, and the anchors became one with the frenetic masses.
There was also no attempt to answer the question that plagued most watchers: Why could Prince not be pulled back up the same route that he had slithered down? Instead, when Zee News and others had nothing fresh to offer, they beamed temples and gurudwaras where large groups were seen offering prayers for Prince’s rescue.
The anchor informed the audience, off-camera, that Sonia Gandhi had given her blessings and that Prince’s mother had prayed in a temple, even as the camera focused on the general melée around the two wells.
All the above does not take away from the fact that the rescue story is a great television story. Full of sensation and packed with emotion, it is the kind of story that only TV can do justice to. So, there’s some introspection required about how none of the channels could swing a story that fell into their laps. Emotionally charged, channels could not be faulted for going overboard. But did the coverage have to focus only on the supernatural, as it were? On and on, the littany of prayers and blessings were showered on a hapless, albeit, praying, audience. The Prince coverage by Zee News and others was designed not so much to inform as to please and titillate.
At the end, Prince’s rescue may have offered weekend viewing of a rare kind, but news channels failed to take the story ahead.