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TV channels have a lot at stake on 16 May

LiveMint logoLiveMint 14-05-2014 Vidhi Choudhary

New Delhi: From mounting majestic sets with multiple cameras and giant touch screens for interactive graphics to hosting celebrity panellists and beaming holograms of their reporters from distant locations, news broadcasters are pulling out all the stops for the finale to the 16th general elections on Friday.

That’s the day vote-counting takes place after a gruelling nine-phase election spread over a little more than a month, and the nation will know which political formation will govern it for the next five years.

Also at stake on Friday is the reputation of the broadcasters, almost all of which predicted a return to power for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) after the final round of voting on 12 May, based on exit polls of voters.

Who came closest to correctly predicting the final tally, after one of the hardest-fought general elections in recent memory, will have the bragging rights to that achievement, particularly after most exit and opinion polls got the results horribly wrong in the 2004 and 2009 elections.

For now though, the broadcasters are concentrating on attracting viewers on a day they expect their audience to double. An estimated `150 crore of advertising revenue across news channels is riding on counting day, according to a media buyer.

Times NOW, operated by Times Television Network, has created holograms of reporters in New Delhi who will be stationed outside the Congress party headquarters at 24, Akbar Road and the BJP office at 11, Ashoka Road.

The holograms, created by Norway-based graphics company Vizrt (short for VisualiZation Real Time), will be beamed to the broadcaster’s studio to provide updates and reactions from the reporters’ locations. Holograms of reporters are likely to be beamed from as many as eight other locations, including Ahmedabad and Lucknow.

Both Times NOW and CNN-IBN renovated their studios just before the elections. On the big day, Times NOW will use a 16-camera setup in its studio, double of the eight on a regular day.

The channel will use different permutations and combinations through 3D-augmented reality for graphics to be displayed on a 12 feet by 40 feet screen in the studio.

In partnership with the microblogging site Twitter, it will also have a social media plate that will track sentiment analysis and real-time tweets of people discussing government formation.

“These technology initiatives were undertaken to stay ahead of market trends not just for the elections but in the news business industry. The entire team was focused and motivated to ensure that we stay number one,” said M.K. Anand, managing director and chief executive, Times Television Network.

Anand said the total cost of covering the Lok Sabha elections would be 25% over and above the annual cost of programming. He declined to specify numbers.

The additional money was used on news coverage in the last two months. Several Hindi channels, such as ABP News, Aaj Tak and India TV, also spent generously on extensive news-gathering and reporting from different constituencies.

Zee News has mounted a lavish set on the rooftop of the car parking lot in Palika Bazaar in Connaught Place, the capital’s business and shopping district. A drone camera hovering above will provide the broadcaster’s audience an aerial view of the set.

Zee’s lead show, titled Singhasan ka final , to be hosted by Sudhir Chaudhary, editor and business head, caps 100 hours of post-election coverage that started on 12 May.

Headlines Today, a part of the India Today group, also used a drone camera during the election campaign to beam aerial views of election rallies and political road shows.

“A series of new programming initiatives, pioneering technology and over 50 live reporting sources have been kept ready for the counting day itself,” said group CEO Ashish Bagga.

Network18, which operates the news channels CNN-IBN and IBN7, has, in partnership with Microsoft Corp., put up an 88-inch touch screen in the studio to display voting numbers and cross-match them in real time with data from any election earlier, beginning from the country’s first election in 1951.

“This will help our viewers understand where did the story change. Data in itself can be intimidating and we are trying to make it as relevant as possible,” said Vinay Tewari, managing editor, IBN Network.

The channel has lined up a panel of experts including historian Ramachandra Guha, sociologist Dipankar Gupta, and Mohandas Pai, chairman of Manipal Global Education and a former Infosys Ltd executive, among others, to analyse the electorate’s voting pattern.

“It’s easy to have 100 people and hold a rally in the studio. We wanted to focus on the quality and variety of people who can explain why the voting patterns have turned out the way they have,” said Tewari.

At any given time, the channels will have six experts on its lead show A Billion Votes—the verdict, hosted by Rajdeep Sardesai.

With all eyes trained on the final verdict, news channels are attempting to differentiate themselves via technology.

New Delhi Television Ltd (NDTV) is keeping its plans under wraps for now. It will use a “new technology to guarantee the first and most credible look at who India has voted for”, said Vikram Chandra, chief executive, NDTV Group.

NDTV’s show-stopper, India Decides—The Final Countdown, anchored by Prannoy Roy on Friday, will offer a national projection of the Lok Sabha seat tally based on early numbers.

All news channels are focusing on their online operations as well, with over 200 million Internet users in the country.

“We can only put out 25% of the data on television; far more volumes of data will be put on our websites and applications. Digital will be a focus,” said Tewari of IBN.

“This election will see massive interest online, and so that will be a key priority for NDTV,” said Chandra of NDTV. “We have devoted a lot of time and attention to bringing the results as fast and clearly as possible on and our app.”

The Lok Sabha elections have been money-spinners for news channels that are otherwise under financial pressure because of the economic downturn. According to estimates by media buyers, advertising on news channels could spike by `250 crore between April and May; the annual advertising revenue of news channels is currently around `2,000 crore per year.

Media experts are divided on the lengths to which news channels are going to attract viewers.

“This is more to do with the showmanship of channels. It’s like the exit polls, it created more confusion rather than making people aware,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of Centre for Media Studies, a media research house. “Involving more technology and more people by itself is not going to enlighten the voter.”

Shailaja Bajpai, a media critic and columnist for TheIndian Express, said any technology upgrade that make news visually exciting and informative is good. “I would want to know the bigger picture in the early hours—what are the figures and who is leading, if you can improve that, great,” said Bajpai.

Ultimately, the channel that keeps it simple will have the advantage, said Bajpai.

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