Media and Expectations - Part 1 - TV v. Internet

This is part 1 of a two part series

Part 1 · Part 2

I am fresh off the Factfulness dose. The authors articulate one thing about the news media:

I cannot even see the highest-quality news outlets conveying a neutral and
non-dramatic representative picture of the world, as statistics agencies do. It
would be correct but just too boring. We shouldn't expect the media to move very
far in that direction. Instead it is up to us as consumers to learn how to
consume the news more factfully, and to realize that the news is not very useful
for understanding the world

This got me to thinking about how much I have complained about the Indian news media in the past: the unnecessary sensationalization of stories, the shouting, the talking head shows that run throughout the day with a macho news anchor who is shouting the populist opinion (whatever that might be), generalizations. I realized that they were pandering to every single instinct mentioned in Factfulness. A quick summary:


  1. The gap enables the powerful people to hide information and fool the majority of people who are not powerful
  2. Negative news stories only: deaths, harassment, lynchings, bans
  3. 3 bad things happened last month? Expect 6 more this month, 9 the next month and so on! Things will only go downhill from here!
  4. Be afraid of the powerful people and the authority figures because you might be the next victim. Don’t let them tell you how to live.
  5. Blow things wayyyy out of proportion
  6. Generalize everything across state identities, religions, nationalities, communities
  7. Bad things happen in this state or the other and have for years, it’s stupid to expect change from the people in power because they want to maintain the status quo
  8. There’s only one view of every single story: the news anchor’s view
  9. Blame the first person who is accussed and conduct a media trial immediately and declare that the person is guilty
  10. You MUST ACT NOW! Tweet us, use this hashtag, sms us, call in and express your opinions, do it RIGHT NOW!, where else will you be heard! Time is flying by as is obvious from the 10 moving elements on your TV screen.

Next time you watch a nightly news show on Indian TV, look out for these instincts. You will find them.

This is not a rant. I am not blaming anyone here. I have done what’s in my power: I have stopped watching these news shows. I have told every single person who says they watch these programs about how they are run, about why they should stop watching these programs and instead read or watch videos on YouTube. If they are still interested in news, videos by channels like Vox and Vice News. If not, there are enough cat videos to fill your heart to the brim.

Truth: There are always enough cat videos.

The news business runs on advertisements. Shows that get eyeballs, get ads and make money. Every segment should keep the viewer glued to the screen, it should make them want more, it should ensure that they don’t reach for that remote. So, the first thing we need to do is to stop blaming news channels for the things they choose to run. It’s what the consumers watch, it’s what they get ads for. It’s not their fault, it’s the business model.

It’s like that Zach Holman talk[FN1] about the HR department in every company. The HR department works keeping the company’s interests in mind. Similarly, the news media works keeping the advertisers interests in mind, not the consumers. As soon as you understand that, you can start correcting for it. You can understand why a particular story is being run. You can understand the other side of the story, what the news producer was thinking when they approved the script for the opening lines by the news anchor.

Now, the YouTube channels. I can vouch for only two: Vox and Vice News. They put out videos that help you understand the world. The content that Vox puts out is amazing! It’s backed by facts and is solid to the core. There is no sensationalism. There are no unnecessary graphics, in fact, the graphics are kept to the absolute minimum. The graphics help you understand the video and don’t distract you. Vox doesn’t ask you to tweet to them, to use a hashtag. They don’t ask you to do something, they simply explain the things that are. What’s the advantages that YouTube has over TV?

  1. People don’t have to watch: They have a lot of content to choose from. TV on the other hand is limited. During prime time, 9 pm to 10 pm, all Tamil TV channels run bad reality shows. If you are not into sports and don’t want to watch a movie along with your dinner, your only option are news channels.
  2. There is no primetime: Your content is out there, forever. It can be watched all over the world. It can be reviewed, people can call you out if you made a mistake. The bad part is that the people who watch your videos will also see your mistake. But TV doesn’t support criticism. You would have to criticise a TV show on the Internet and how many people who watch a show will see your YouTube video or blog post especially if you are just a normal guy?
  3. Ad revenue is directly tied to the number of people who watch your content: On TV, it’s not the number of people who watch but the rating of your TV show. As the TV regulatory agency put it very well in a report I read and analyzed on this blog a few weeks ago, ratings decide the content that gets made and ratings are collected from a sample of the population. No one can measure exactly how many people really watched a show. They can only measure how many people in the sample watched that particular show. These are the numbers that big companies who want to run ads on these shows get. On YouTube, you get the exact number of people who watched every single video. The demographics of each video’s viewers, the country that the video is popular in, and so on! All of this extra information is a boon for advertisers who can target exactly the people they want. So, channels like Vox must make a huge variety of high quality content. That’s the reason there are so many types of Vox videos: Almanac, Atlas, the series about Pop culture, the series about things that are hyped up, the amazing Emmy nominated Vox Borders!
  4. Diverse and prolonged viewership: TV shows are available for one hour a day to 1 billion people. There are no re-runs of talking head shows, there is no value in re-running them because the information that they were trying to dissipate is old the minute after the show aired for the first time. Producers don’t have to make the show re-watchable, they just have to make the show sensational enough to make people watch it once. And not “people”, just the people who are part of the sample which contributes to the ratings. I don’t think there’s any way to actually influence the sample but not everyone else, still, it’s one less thing to worry about. Vox video producers on the other hand have to worry about making the video watchable, shareable. There is nothing better than a personal, trusted recommendation. They have to make the video good enough to stick around forever and be re-watchable by a ton of people around the world. That’s why most Vox videos have closed captions in a few languages, that’s why the voice over is never messy or unclear, that’s why the graphics are never distracting. (That is my assumption)

Said in a sentence: Businesses do what they have to do to excel at their business model. Both TV shows and YouTube content creators need to get as many eyeballs as they can. But the set of constraints is different. TV shows need to be appealing for a short period of time, they needn’t have re-watch value, and they need to attract the people in the TRP sample. YouTube content creators need to make content that’s worth watching atleast once and preferably several times, the content should be shareable and should reflect the type of all content on that channel, it should be true because people can call you out on your mistakes and your viewers are right there watching out for such call outs. They each work to excel at their business model.

This was part 1 of a 2 part series on Media and Expectations - TV v. Internet

Part 2 will cover a particular case of Factfulness. A short synopsis:

Most Indians will remember the stories about train derailments during the months of May 2017 to August 2017, there were nearly 9 accidents. There was a huge uproar on the over-use of Indian Railways infrastructure and several thousands of column inches and TV show hours were spent debating and discussing this. The problem with each show was the same, they presented one number: the number of accidens, deaths and injuries that had happened in the past 3 months. There was no number to compare it to. In part 2, I will try to figure out what the numbers really are and then compare them to older numbers. I picked this problem at random because it affected the way I think about the safety of trains. I don’t know what the outcome will be yet, I am still collating data. Either way, I think it will be a worthwhile experience.

FN1: The talk is called Getting Fired and it’s a great way to spend 45 minutes of your time.