It was not a scene one is used to seeing: the journalist Rajdeep Sardesai loudly gushing “fantastico!” each time a school student correctly answered a question. The exclamation “fantastico,” one realised during the course of the one-hour quiz show, was the advertising tag line of a car being launched by its sponsor, the Tata group. Sardesai is the quizmaster of News Wiz, which started on 24 July 2016, and is aired on India Today TV.
At the peak of his career, this avatar of the renowned anchor would have been unthinkable.
Is brand Sardesai on the cusp of change, I asked him. Sardesai did not deny it, but did not seem unduly worried either. “I am only re-inventing myself,” he said. “My core competence remains news. Even this quiz show that I am doing is based on news. It will create a culture of news sorely lacking today.” But his answer did not quite explain the timing for his decision—why now?
I have known Sardesai for more than 15 years now—half of it as my editorial supervisor at NDTV. It is fair to say that he looks a pale shadow of his earlier self. Sardesai’s is the face that launched two TV channels—NDTV and CNN-IBN—and now provides prime-time heft to a third—India Today Television. It may even be the best-known face of satellite television news of the last 20 years, never mind the TRP numbers. In the days that he powered NDTV to the top, he was the quintessential reporter’s editor: a hands-on boss, with a politically sharp, quicksilver mind, and the energy levels of a marathon runner. He occasionally even shared his scoops with reporters—a quality almost unthinkable today.
Back then, Sardesai was a complete news-room leader. That is no longer the case. His role has been truncated—he is merely an “Editorial Consultant” at India Today. Unlike his earlier profiles, he does not head news operations any more.
Sardesai’s reportage from Bihar before assembly elections in the state last year was lacklustre. That he had spent too much time in the studio showed—his interviewees were cut short repeatedly, able to give only short, incomplete bites. Sardesai himself spoke with a characteristic anchor-like breathlessness, as if in a studio discussion. Even his prime-time fare is often, if not always, devoid of energy. And although he does still become animated on issues closest to his heart—cricket, caste and communalism—the cast of characters in his nightly prime-time show are studio regulars, and the debating format is woven around predictable binaries. The anchor has, relatively speaking, democratised his one-hour bulletin with more ground reports, more reporter presence and even a sprinkling of feel-good stories. He has also recently taken to broadcasting editorial meetings via Facebook Live—though it is unclear whether that has improved the news quality of his daily show.
Maybe it is the format. Maybe it is viewer fatigue. Maybe Arnab Goswami’s brand of perpetual outrage has some sort of audience connect that is leaving his competitors defeated. Either which way, ever since Sardesai was prised out of CNN-IBN—the network he painstakingly built from scratch—following a takeover by the Ambanis in mid 2014, things have never quite been the same.
Sardesai’s exit from CNN-IBN came not long after Narendra Modi’s rise to prime ministership. The sour relationship the two share is no secret. In the past, Modi has been disapproving of Sardesai’s reporting—during the 2002 riots in Gujarat, when Modi was chief minister, he banned NDTV because he believed Sardesai and Barkha Dutt’s reporting would spur the violence. The term “news traders”—once used by the prime minister to describe journalists—is now commonly used by his supporters as a way of criticising Sardesai. The message seems to have trickled down, and causing his access to ministers and bureaucrats to be revoked—a body blow to editors and reporters. In a 24-hour news cycle, choking the flow of information is the surest way to cut a journalist’s career short. After all, editors are the newsroom leaders, the faces of the network—and have to be seen as such by their colleagues. In such a demanding cycle, how do journalists break stories—more a marketing exercise for the channel than an editorial one—and stand out among the clutter of news networks if their sources are no longer a phone call away?
“Would you have done a similar quiz show 15 years ago?” I asked Sardesai. “No way,” he replied, quite candidly. “Today I am stuck with a medium that I am no longer enjoying. The entire media ecosystem has changed. There is so much noise. Every day you are expected to shout and compete with other networks.” The “noise” that Sardesai alludes to is likely a combination of the Goswami-style anchoring that is grabbing eyeballs, and the abusive and unforgiving onslaught of social-media trolls. Like most, Sardesai is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
But there could be another aspect to this, one that has perhaps escaped Sardesai. The careers of the first generation of English-language news anchors in India—all of whom were from the NDTV stable and who defined much of post-liberalisation TV news—seem to have run their course. The endgame, if it has not already begun, is around the corner. Barkha Dutt never quite recovered from Radia tape allegations, and it is unclear which way her new digital media project, ThePrint, is headed. Goswami’s editorial preference for the BJP is now practically public knowledge, but what will happen to his career and credibility when a non-BJP government comes to power?
Sardesai was satellite television’s first anchor-reporter-editor. Will he be the first to change course as well? Just sometime ago there were unconfirmed reports that he would be the Aam Aadmi Party’s chief ministerial candidate in Goa, but he flatly denied the rumour. He did tell me though, that he was “open to quiz shows even on networks like Sony and Star, provided it is news based.”
As television news plumbs newer depths, its most credible practitioners are plotting their escape. “Credibility” is, of course, relative, and the larger context of television news as owner-driven has to be factored in. But with Sardesai re-adjusting his professional focus, India’s fatigued news landscape looks set to change.
Sandeep Bhushan was a television journalist for twenty years. He is currently an independent media researcher.