When Indra Lohani passed away in January last year, the movers and shakers of the Kathmandu Valley gathered in full force at the Nepal Bar Association premises to pay their respects. The glitterati grieved and the masses mourned, such was the force of his television presence.
A graduate of the National Law School in India and a practising Supreme Court attorney, Lohani had little time for the niceties of journalism. He ran his show Bahas with the combativeness of a public prosecutor. He didn't interview his guests; rather, they were grilled in penetrating sessions of public interrogation. He made the high and mighty quiver
Journalists abhorred his style, but the audience loved it. Millions would switch channels mid-program to hear his trademark greeting Jai Hos. It's a tribute to his memory that all talkshow hosts try to imitate his style, even if they don't possess his perspicacity.
Context and insight are the main strengths of the print media. Radio encourages conversation and helps create a common ground for a diversity of opinions. Television, however, thrives by focusing on action. It offers video footage of breaking news, erupting conflicts and emerging personalities. In truth, TV is better at creating controversy than clearing confusion. The camera doesn't lie, but it can never quite capture the multi-hued truth.
Innovative television producers try to overcome the inherent weaknesses of the medium through a judicious mix of vox pop, expert analyses, archival materials and journalistic commentary. But Nepal lacks well-grounded television anchors and newsreaders still run most current affairs programs.
TV stations rely upon politicos, NGO-tsars, lawyers, activists and the gatekeepers of the print media to round up the daily panorama. Since the talking heads often lack the skills to engage their audiences, most TV talkshows are banal affairs. It's no wonder market surveys show that comedy serials are more popular than current affair programs. Infotainment is a useful tool to keep viewers tied to the idiot box, but it hardly adds to the credibility of television stations.
Nepal boasts 10 television channels, and at least five more are said to be in the pipeline. But everyone wants to be a better copy of whichever Indian satellite they consider to be the model: India TV, Aaj Tak or Zee News. A serious shortage of trained journalists is the main reason me-too entrants fail to break new ground and have to rely on footage from the daily drama at the Reporters' Club. It has become a vicious circle: salaries are too low to attract talent, which then justifies the decision of owners to pay even less, with obviously detrimental effects on program quality.
Pioneering Nepal Television was created in the mid-eighties to meet the cravings of the Kathmandu middle class for entertainment of some sort under the autocratic Panchayat regime. Unlike the national broadcaster in India, which began by enlisting the services of leading litterateurs and intellectuals, NTV was conceptualised and established by cine artistes. Thus it failed to groom professionals for the future boom in the field.
Private television channels began by buying time for entertainment programs with little inkling of the strengths and weaknesses of the medium. The tradition of innovation failed to take root as every channel wanted to play safe. They invested heavily in hardware, expecting that the software would take care of itself. Their prayers were answered by the likes of Indra Lohani. But wishful thinking isn't always self-fulfilling.
In the competition for eyeballs, TV channels will have to work to secure their niches. News channels need to nurture in-house analysts; those specialising in travel, business or lifestyle have to hire the services of professionals with a proven track record. And everyone will have to invest in the enhancement of the journalistic capabilities of their editorial teams. With some degree of market saturation imminent, the period of complacency in the television industry is now over.