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the-caravan

By Krishn Kaushik, The Caravan

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You have to be a very important person to celebrate a business milestone at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. But considering that Radhika and Prannoy Roy launched their 24-hour news channel, more than 15 years ago, at the prime minister’s official residence, it seemed apt that, in 2013, the programme to mark the twenty-fifth year of its parent company, New Delhi Television Private Limited, was held at the president’s.

The Roys organised a glittering event on a December evening that year, attended by some of India’s most famous and powerful people, many of whom the network was felicitating as the country’s “greatest global living legends.” In attendance were titans of industry (Mukesh Ambani, Ratan Tata, Indra Nooyi, NR Narayana Murthy), sporting legends (Sachin Tendulkar, Kapil Dev, Leander Paes) and film stars (Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikanth, Waheeda Rahman, Shah Rukh Khan). Once this galaxy of guests was seated, Prannoy Roy, dressed in a sleek black bandhgala, stepped up to a lectern.

“Couple of days ago, I asked Radhika, the founder of NDTV, what’s kept NDTV going for 25 years,” Prannoy began in his relaxed drawl, a slight smile flickering across his face. Though he is probably the channel’s most recognisable personality, he regularly makes it a point to remind people that the company was founded by his wife, and that he joined her after. “She just said one word: trust,” Prannoy continued. “Your trust. And I am here tonight on behalf of everybody at NDTV to thank every single one of you for your trust in us.”

Two years later, on the evening of 8 November this year, Prannoy called on the audience’s trust again, seated behind his anchor’s desk at NDTV’s studio in south Delhi. This time, he was distinctly less at ease. “Let me start with an explanation and an apology,” he said.

His channel had made two mistakes. First, its exit poll had forecast a victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition in the Bihar legislative elections, which went on to be won by the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Janata Dal (United)-Congress combine. “There are statistical errors that shouldn’t make them be taken too seriously,” Prannoy said, jabbing the air awkwardly as he spoke, his words tripping over each other. “You get it right, you get it wrong sometimes. That’s the life of a pollster.” This was true. Though exit polls are ostensibly more accurate than pre-election surveys, they can, nevertheless, be skewed for a number of reasons, including sampling errors and dishonest responses from voters.

The second error was far more grave. At around half past nine that morning, as the counting of votes had just begun, Prannoy declared that the BJP-led coalition had already won, with a majority tally of more than 140 seats. He then proceeded to moderate a discussion with his panellists, analysing the reasons for this supposedly decisive victory. An hour later, it became clear that he was utterly wrong. The misstep was particularly embarrassing given that Prannoy’s first forays into journalism, in the 1980s, had been as an election analyst; Dorab Sopariwala, a colleague from those days, was one of his guests on the show. Prannoy and his panellists had the unenviable task of reversing all the explanations they had conjured up.

On air that evening, Prannoy attempted to explain why things had gone so wrong. “On every counting day, all news channels get data from one agency,” he said. “Again, a very globally respected agency. This morning, the first data that came in to all the news channels was completely wrong.”

Although this sounded reasonable, it was, in fact, misleading. The agency in question, Nielsen, subsequently disputed Prannoy’s claim. Numbers may have initially shown a lead for the BJP, but, as an elections expert, Prannoy had to know well that a trend can shift, especially early in the counting process. Other channels, such as CNN-IBN, and even the usually overzealous Times Now, had been more cautious before declaring a winner. Prannoy later won plaudits on social media for his apology, but he had not even acknowledged his blunder.

“For NDTV, and for me,” Prannoy said, rounding off his remarks, “our aim is to try to bring you the most objective and accurate news as quickly as possible. So thank you for trusting us, and staying with us.”

Prannoy wasn’t exaggerating NDTV’s reputation as a reliable broadcaster. Launched in the 1980s, it was India’s first independent news network, entering the field at a time when the government-run Doordarshan had a monopoly over television content. Beginning with one show on that channel, NDTV expanded the range of Indian television news, introducing international standards in reportage and presentation. In the process, it gained an early lead in viewership ratings, and dominated the advertising market. NDTV passed on its success to shareholders after the company went public in 2004.

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Read the entire piece at The Caravan. This excerpt was crossposted with permission.

Image Credit: Vinu Thomas via Wikipedia