Have you been Arnabbed? Like google or xerox, 'arnab' is a verb now
Arnab Goswami has redefined the news category on TV, and the others are rebranding themselves as 'not Times Now' to check if the old safe news categories are still relevant.
Some English news channels have begun rebranding themselves in an effort to claim journalistic virtue. While NDTV is trying to position itself as “India’s only Non-Tabloid News Network”, Headlines Today, now renamed India Today after the magazine that was started by Aroon Purie, would like to think of itself as a channel that does not turn news into a “circus”. Its ad line asks: “Has your news channel turned into a circus?”
It is quite obvious who these rebranding exercises are targeting: Arnab Goswami's Times Now. NDTV obviously would like to believe that Goswami is running an unmentionable tabloid, with only the semi-nudes missing, and India Today would like reposition its main rival as a circus.
In essence, both channels are defining themselves as "not Times Now." I am not sure not being something or someone is a great way to build a great brand identity, but we will know if this has worked in a few months’ times. It's not as if TV viewers don't know what NDTV or India Today are about.
But the underlying message one detects is one of partial defeat at the hands of Arnab Goswami where his rivals think not being him will endear themselves to viewers. So combating the scrappy, aggressive, dishum-dishum style of Times Now will be two channels styled as the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of rational debate. (Disclosure: Firstpost is published by Network 18 which runs TV channels like CNN-IBN which compete directly with Times Now, India Today and NDTV. These views are personal and do not represent those of Network18 or its shareholders).
The reality is that Arnab Goswami has redefined news TV that has left the rest in a heap, trying to stay relevant. Some have tried to do an Arnab (News X comes to mind), and others have are now defining themselves in opposition, but it is Goswami who is setting the agenda. He has created a new category, where news is theatre - and mesmerizing, even morbid, entertainment.
You can gnash your teeth as Goswami uses verbal third degree methods on his chosen victim for prime time, but you tend to watch as the hapless individual is fed to the lions. Guests on the show serve three purposes: as on-stage partisans who occasionally get to agree with Arnab, friends of the enemy who also need to be clobbered, or neutrals invited to watch the fun by filling the other windows on the show. Getting a word in edgeways is optional for anyone except Arnab.
Arnab is thus close to becoming a verb where, if you are asked, "Have you been arnabbed?" it could mean have you been eviscerated, humiliated and harangued in front of an audience baying for your blood.
It should be clear that Arnab is no longer competing with the other channels, but more with Bollywood or IPL. You could think of him as the Amitabh Bachchan of News TV (the angry young anti-hero who takes on the world), or a Viv Richards in his heyday who sends every ball from a hapless bowler out of the stadium. There is now nobody else on Times Now who is watchable, and it takes two teeth-baring mini-Arnabs to stand in for the Real One when he occasionally heads for the hills or wherever for rest or recuperation.
I have often wondered how he manages to get guests to his show since they know his intention is to disembowel them in full public view, but I guess it is a perverse form of masochism or the Stockholm Syndrome at work.
Since Goswami defines and owns the category, the others have to fight hard for what's left of the news space. But here not only do they have lots of company, but there are others who can claim to do even better than NDTV or India Today or CNN-IBN in not being a tabloid or a circus.
The point is, like it or not, the Arnab impact is visible on rival channels even when they claim they are not him. Many anchors are now louder and more aggressive with their guests. They have started asking tendentious and loaded questions of their guests and making judgmental statements masquerading as questioning.
In a show yesterday (27 May), where India Today aired the story of a sting where doctors were caught offering cures for homosexuality, the anchor had already made up his mind that this was abominable (which it certainly is), and the questions were based on this presumption. The issue is not whether trying to offer a cure for homosexuality is wrong and perverse (it is, in my view), but whether all nuance should be lost in the way an anchor questions his presumed guilty subject. One can't escape the impression that anchors want to be prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. This is the Goswami impact at work, despite the denials. Consider also how News X is trying hard to be a poor man’s Times Now, and how the tone and tenor of a Rahul Kanwal has changed on India Today.
The rival news channels are caught between a rock and a hard place - between Times Now and Doordarshan or even Rajya Sabha TV.
All TV channels, even if they are not tabloid or circuses, have some Arnab-like elements in their shows. The truly non-tabloid shows - boring, informative and mature – exist even in state-run TV. Watch Rajya Sabha TV on some of their shows on farm distress or other serious subjects and I can guarantee you will come out more enlightened and informed – assuming you are interested in the subject. This is not something I will accuse any other news channel of. They are in danger of falling between two stools, between Arnab and DD. Not a profitable position to be in from a brand positioning perspective. They are in danger of being "arnabbed."
And last night on the show, Trinamool Congress leader Mahua Moitra showed her middle finger to Goswami on air.
While the rest of the Times Now anchors don't always manage to ratchet up the kind of vitriol Goswami does, the over-all tone of the channel is provocative, loud and meant to disturb.
On 18 November, Times Now's firebrand editor-in-chief and news anchor Arnab Goswami hosted his final episode of The Newshour