This is an excerpt from Vikram Chandra's chapter in a new book about NDTV and 25 years of television journalism, called More News is Good News. Pre-order your copy on Amazon now.
During the Kargil war, I flew in an army helicopter over Tiger Hill, Jubar and Batalik while the battle raged below. I fed the footage via satellite, and then, the next day did live phone reports from the ground in Mushkoh Valley. Our production team back in Delhi had the genuinely bright idea of airing the footage I had taken earlier over my 'live' voice-over. Before I knew it, the army had gone ballistic - thinking that I was somehow beaming live pictures from a helicopter. It took lots of persuasion before they accepted that this could simply not be done.
Before long, we had mastered the drill of a live breaking news situation. Get the anchor on air, get pictures, get phonos, get some OBs, get some guests into the studio, where are those pictures ... please get on with it. Get another phono. The anchor desperately scanning wire copy, and any papers that the floor managers can thrust at him or her. Ad-libbing, which is shorthand for endlessly repeating the small dribblets of confirmed information until something else emerges.
By now, it had become a brutally competitive business. Perhaps too competitive. Within a few years, the ill effects of competition began to be felt. The desire to beat the others sometimes meant that TV channels took short cuts - rushing to air with breaking news that simply weren't true. Allegations were made, on live TV, that weren't substantiated.
Over the last few years, many TV news channels have become hostage to a peculiar business model. Unlike countries like the US, TV channels don't get the subscription money that they should. Instead, cable operators keep the lion's share of subscription, and also demand carriage fees from TV channels. That leaves channels entirely dependent on advertising revenues, and hence on TRPs, which have been notoriously flawed, based on a ridiculously small sample size and subject to tampering.
Also, it has become clear that the best way to get TRPs is either to be tabloid or to be loud. This means hysteria where calm would be better, high and loud voices as a substitute for rational thought and analysis. This means noisy TV debates, where everyone shouts and keeps shouting instead of the well-crafted video stories that were once the norm.
The slide of TV news has been distressing to see. But maybe this is part of evolution, and perhaps the decade that follows will see a perfect balance emerging.
And that balance won't come a minute too soon - because the audience is already moving to a new medium which is far more immediate, and comes with far more choices than TV can offer. And that's the Internet, where consumers have an unprecedented ability to choose to click on precisely the story that they want. Competition to break stories is now down to nanoseconds, your rival is just 140 characters away.