The once-regular column now missing from our newspapers

Last week, on Deepavali day, I wanted to check if Sun TV was indeed airing the new Tamil movie ‘Doctor’ as a special movie (a long-held festive tradition by many Tamil TV channels that air a brand new movie in the evening).

I checked the 5 Tamil newspapers I skim daily, in vain. I checked the Chennai editions of The Times of India, New Indian Express, and The Hindu – again, no luck!

I then realized that many of the mainstream newspapers do not have a section for TV program listings anymore!

To validate this, I sought the help of my friends from PR agencies (it helps that I have spent a decade in PR agencies earlier) and went through 52 newspapers across languages. The ones in italics had a fairly small/limited TV listings section. The rest did not. That’s 8 out of 52 (if I ignore the paid ad by a single TV channel in Vijayavani).

Caveat: I had access mostly to the main issues of these newspapers in e-paper format, with some newspapers also adding the city supplement in e-paper version. It’s possible that I may have missed some of the supplements because they are not available in e-paper version and that they may include the TV programs listing.

The Hindu
The Times of India
New Indian Express
Indian Express
Hindustan Times
Deccan Chronicle
Asian Age
The Statesman
Free Press Journal
Millennium Post
The Avenue Mail
Western Mail
Sikh Times
The Telegraph (in the T2 supplement – yes)
The Hans India
The Pioneer
The Tribune
The Goan
The Daily Guardian
The Assam Tribune
Daily Excelsior
Orissa Times
Orissa Post

Hindu Tamil Thisai

Kannada Prabha
Vijay Karnataka
Samyuktha Karnataka
Vijayavani (only a paid ad by Dighvijay 24X7 News)

Andhra Jyothi

Dainik Bhaskar
Hindustan – yes
Navbharat Times
Amar Ujala
Dainik Jagran

Ei Samay – yes
Anandabazaar Patrika – yes

Maharashtra Times
Punya Nagari

Malayalam Manorama – yes
Janmabhumi – yes
Deepika – yes

I also checked The Times of India, the leading (sales-wise) English newspaper in India, in terms of finding out when they stopped this section. It looks like the dropping of this section coincides with the start of the COVID pandemic last year, when The Times of India became seriously thin owing to lack of advertisers, around March-end. Now, the paper seems to have gotten its weight back, but the TV programs listing section continues to be missing.

Imagine – this used to be a steady, daily fixture in almost every newspaper just a few years ago – this used to be almost a half-page column at one point! I don’t know when newspapers stopped this section, but it looks like most of them have completely abandoned this section altogether!

New Indian Express is perhaps the only newspaper that has a daily section called ‘Now Streaming’, and even this is about shows and movies on OTT platforms, not satellite/conventional/terrestrial TV channels (along with separate sections for recommended podcasts, YouTube videos, among others)!

The TV listings section has produced hilarious memes like this one đŸ™‚

TV program listings have an incredible history. There were dedicated magazines like TV Guide, in the 60s and 70s, in the US. Many countries have had such categories of magazines.

So why do we not have TV listings in any of the leading newspapers? Is there a dearth of TV channels or programs? Hardly – in fact, we have about 900 satellite TV channels in India as per February 2021 data. Plus, we have many, many OTT/streaming channels that could be watched via TV or any other digital device (mobile phone, laptops, or tablets). And yet, no listings anymore in most mainstream daily newspapers! Why?

I believe that the larger reason for this evolution is to do with the nature of television itself. TV, by nature, is appointment-based content consumption – meaning, you need to plan your life around the programs you need to watch because they play at specific times.

Years ago, we used to finish our work in the evening so that we could catch up with the 9 pm news bulletins. Many homemakers used to complete cooking and housework to ensure that they are ready for their prime time soap operas at 8+ pm. I recall waiting for The World This Week on Friday nights on Doordarshan when that used to be my window to the world back in the 90s.

Satellite TV is still appointment-based – that hasn’t changed. But what has changed is our behavior – we have tasted how anytime-viewing works with OTT/streaming channels. OTT channels do not tie you to a specific time of a day to consume content – you can watch them any time of the day, on any kind of internet-connected device, pause, and continue from where you stopped any number of times. No appointment is needed!

Ironically, newspapers too are appointment-based consumption media – the life of a newspaper is the morning (barring evening newspapers – there are still a few!). The whole point of a newspaper is to inform you about what happened in the world in the previous 24 hours so that when you start your day, you are a bit more aware of the surroundings – both the immediate, and extended. Even this habit is evolving fast because of the internet’s always-on nature – now, you can get news when you want it. So, many people get their news by opening apps like Dailyhunt or InShorts multiple times every day.

That is perhaps the underlying reason – we now imagine TV not as an appointment-based media outlet but as an always-on media outlet, even though satellite TV channels are still very much appointment-based… yet! Streaming has changed our perspective completely, even though satellite TV channels still have considerably more viewers than streaming channels (that remain niche in India, and the world over). The notion that you need to plan your time around a TV program (of all things) is going out of fashion. And given the largely repetitive nature of TV listings, I assume most newspapers have lost the interest to allocate valuable print space over something that has morphed in the minds of people. That one appointment-based media has dumped another appointment-based media’s program listing says a lot about the changing nature of the latter (satellite TV, as a medium).

Now, if you want to find out the timing of your favorite program on a satellite channel, your only bet is to scroll through the program guide via the set-top box interface itself! That platform is always-on – you don’t need to wait for a morning newspaper.

Other avenues to find out TV listings are also always-on – the internet. You can simply search basic keywords (like ‘Set max India TV programs’) and land on any of the multiple online websites that showcase TV listings!

Everything’s moving to always-on, away from the constraints of time. So, even if satellite TV is kicking and screaming its way into the future by still holding on to appointment-based programming, satellite TV programs listings have understood that there is no turning back!

Having said all this, I still think there’s a huge dearth of options to answer the question, ‘What do I watch?’.

Right now, this is being addressed in many disparate ways. There are weekly columns in newspapers that recommend specific TV shows/movies, along with reviews.

There are mobile apps, like OTTplay from the Hindustan Times group, that make a solid pitch as the present-day TV Guide equivalent in digital format.

And yet, most of us keep wondering ‘What do I watch next?’ and generally depend on serendipity for answers – random social media posts from friends, a newspaper interview with a star of a TV show, or hopelessly browse each OTT channel to depend on those platform’s selection customized to our viewing (Netflix is an expert in this department) and so on. But there’s perhaps a fantastic opportunity in India for a trusted ‘What to watch?’ guide, in any format that is predictable (in terms of availability), and becomes the go-to place, mainly because there is just so much to watch in the OTT ecosystem and it’s a monumental task to answer the simple question, ‘what should I watch next?’.



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