Apolitical fake news

For the last 4-5 years, the ills of “political fake news” have been well documented – documented well enough that I don’t even need to link to them (I think). However, there is another kind of fake news that doesn’t get the sort of (negative) attention it deserves – unbiased or apolitical fake news.

Before we describe such news, a couple of frameworks. Firstly, there are two kinds of media publications – periodicals and perennial. Periodicals deliver news at a certain periodicity – daily or weekly or monthly or whatever. Their job is to tell the reader what happened in the world (or the subset of the world that the publication focuses on) since the previous edition. Examples of periodicals include newspapers and magazines and the 9 o’clock (or whenever) news on Doordarshan.

The other side is perennials, which are “always on”. When some news breaks, their mandate is to break it to their audience as quickly as possible. When there is no breaking news, they need to make up something, or analyse, or have talk shows and shouting matches, or whatever. Examples of perennial publications include 24×7 TV channels and twitter.

The second framework is something I’ve written about a fair bit – on finite and infinite games. This was introduced by the late NYU philosopher James Carse. The basic concept is that the objective of a finite game is to win. There is a particular end point. In an infinite game, there is no concept of “winning”. The objective is to just continue playing. I think it’s a rather profound theory, and has consequences in lots of facets of life.

Including media. My argument is that periodicals play a finite game and perennials play an infinite game.

The objective of a periodical is to make each issue good enough that the reader/viewer continues the subscription until the next issue. This might, at face value, appear like an infinite game, but from the point of view of a single edition, it is a finite game. If the reader/viewer continues subscription (however you define it) till the next issue, you have “won”.

It is different with perennials because there is no discrete “next edition”. The next edition of a next edition is the next minute. And that makes the “game” mentioned in the earlier paragraph hard to play. Instead, running a perennial media house is like playing an infinite game, where your objective is to make sure that the viewer/reader “continues to play the game”, or continues to watch without switching channels or diverting attention.

In other words, the objective of a perennial media house (like a 24×7 media channel, or twitter) is to make sure users stay on the platform. Which is good.

Except that, over a period of time, some of these media houses have figured out that one surefire way of retaining viewership and viewer interest is by stoking viewer anxiety. When a viewer is anxious about something, they want to get as much information as possible about the thing they are anxious about, and continue to hunt for information. This means that they are going to continue to hang around the channel (or social media platform) in the hope of resolving their anxieties. Which means that these channels or platforms “win” the infinite game of retaining audience attention.

And how do these channels create anxiety? By creating outrage. By creating sensationalism. By resorting to fake news, of the kind that is certain to cause anxiety among viewers, in the hope that they will continue to watch (and consume the intervening ads).

I clearly remember the Kaveri riots in Bangalore in 2016 (the week my daughter was born), when Kannada 24×7 news channels took to showing the riots and arson live on TV. And giving reports in a rather sensational voice on how the riots were only going to increase and things are going to get worse. This wasn’t “fake” per se, but sensational and anxiety causing (we kept the TV on one whole afternoon wondering if it was safe to go to the obstetrician’s clinic (300m away from home) ).

And the Kannada 24×7 channels were at it again in 2020 during the covid-19 induced lockdown. One day (in May) suddenly one of them claimed that “all of Bangalore would get sealed down because of increasing cases”. It turned out that two small neighbourhoods were “sealed down” because of a high density of cases there. The rumours of “seal down” were clearly fake news, that clearly created anxiety among the viewers.

I’m only quoting one such instance from this period, but news channels kept at this business of fostering anxiety by saying things that weren’t true (I don’t normally watch these channels, but kept getting informed about these fake “news” by elderly relatives who as a rule keep watching news all the time).

What I’m disappointed by is that this kind of fake news gets no attention at all, compared to the more political sort of fake news which is easy to see through for someone with an iota of brain cells. Then again, the platforms that give footage to the ills of political fake news (twitter, some whatsapp groups, etc) are also perennial news sources themselves and so it doesn’t make sense to call out people of their own ilk.

TV Bundling

This is yet another blogpost to expand on a tweet I wrote yesterday.

Just to remind you, Suprio Guha Thakurta (former Chief Strategy Officer at The Economist) and I have started The Paper, a 4-days a week newsletter that goes in (some) depth into one business story from India each day. We rely purely on “secondary reporting” (collating from news items), to which we add our own commentary.

Subscribe here.

Last week we wrote about a new TRAI order about bundling of TV channels. Essentially the telecom (and broadcast) regulator in India has gone to great lengths to ensure that TV channels don’t get bundled in a way that makes it difficult for the customer to choose.

While the effect of this bundling order might be uncertain, one question needs to be asked to TRAI – why are they only concerned about bundling at one level (across channels) and not at the television channel level itself?

After all, television channels are also bundles.

For a fixed fee a month (and a willingness to see a certain proportion of paid content), subscription to a television channel gives you the opportunity to watch any of the programming that the channel offers. Let’s take a sports channel, for example (IMHO, live sports is the only reason you need cable TV. Everything else can be streamed).

Let’s say there is one Sony channel that offers live coverage of UEFA Champions League, NBA and cricket played in England (I know all these are part of the Sony bouquet, though I don’t know if they are regularly broadcast on the same or different channels here. Let’s assume there is one channel that shows all three).

Assume that I’m only interested in the football, but not in either NBA or cricket played in England. In order to watch my football, I’m forced to buy subscription to the entire TV channel (and thus pay for the cricket and basketball as well). Why am I being forced to do this?

Take any channel, and the outcome is going to be similar. You will subscribe to the channel only because you want to watch a few programs, but you are forced to pay for everything. Is this fair?

Let’s move beyond televisions. Consider the Times of India. I’m mainly interested in the local news and the bridge column (OK, my daughter has taken a liking for the cartoon page as well). Still I need to pay for the whole paper. Is that fair?

Essentially, bundling exists everywhere. And it is going to be incredibly hard to regulate it away. TRAI wants to reduce one kind of bundling (across channels), but its regulation seems  blind to in-channel bundling. Essentially it is impossible to regulate against in-channel bundling as well.

And in any case, there are clear benefits to customers from bundling, the most important of which is the elimination of “mental cost”. If some day I suddenly want to watch NBA, it’s already there on the Sony channel I’ve paid for, and I don’t need to rush that moment to try and buy subscription.

Yes, pay per view exists in certain markets, and it can be profitably offered for certain kinds of premium events whose viewership is so uncorrelated with viewership of other events that bundling is nigh impossible.

Also, isn’t your spouse or partner also a bundle? To quote Esther Perel:

Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?

I leave you with her TED TAlk.

 

Amazon and Sony Liv

Amazon is pretty bad at design of products they’re not pioneers in. They’ve built a great shopping engine (25 years ago) and a great cloud service (15 years ago), but these were both things they were pioneers in.

Amazon being Amazon, however, they have a compulsive need to be in pretty much every industry, and so they’ve launched clones of lots of other businesses. However, their product design in these is far from optimal, and the user experience is generally very underwhelming.

Prime Video has a worse user experience than Netflix. The search function is much worse. The machine learning (for recommendations) isn’t great. The X-ray is good, but overall I don’t have as pleasant a time watching Prime as I do with Netflix.

However, the degree to which Prime Video is worse than Netflix is far far smaller than the degree to which Amazon Music is worse than Spotify. The only thing going for Amazon Music (which I only use because it comes free with my prime delivery membership in India) is that they have inventory.

Spotify in India has been unable to secure rights to a lot of classic rock and metal bands, such as Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and Dream Theater. And these form a heavy part of my routine listening. And so I’m forced to use Amazon Music (Apple Music has these bands as well, but I have to pay extra for that).

The product (Amazon Music) is atrocious. The learning is next to nothing. After five months of using the service to exclusively listen to Classic Rock and Heavy Metal, and zero Indian music, the home page still recommends to me Bollywood, Punjabi and Tamil stuff! History is not properly maintained. Getting to the album or playlist (the less said about playlists on Amazon, the better) I want takes way too much more effort than it does on Spotify.

In other words, the only thing that keeps Amazon going in businesses they’re not pioneers in is inventory – Prime Video works because it has movies and shows other streaming services don’t have. Amazon Music is used because it has music that Spotify doesn’t.

I figured it is a similar case with Sony Liv, Sony’s streaming service in India. They sit on a bunch of lucrative monopolies, such as rights to broadcasting Test cricket in a lot of countries (all three Test series being played right now are on Sony, for example), Champions League football and so on. Beyond that it’s an atrocity to watch them.

I remember missing a goal in the Liverpool-Porto Champions League quarterfinal because of a temporary power cut. There was no way in the broadcast to go back and see the goal. If I by mistake pause for a couple of seconds, I’m forever behind “live” (unless I refresh). Yesterday during the classic Ashes Test, the app simply gave up when I tried to load the game.

The product is atrocious (actually more atrocious than Amazon Music), but people are forced to use it only because they have a monopoly on content. And in that way, it is similar to Amazon, which can get away with atrocious products only because they have the inventory!

I’m glad the Premier League is on Hotstar, which is mostly a pleasure to watch! (actually back in the day when I had cable TV, the star sports bouquet had significantly superior production values to the sony-zee-ten bouquet)

Television and interior design

One of the most under-rated developments in the world of architecture and interior design has been the rise of the flat-screen television. Its earlier avatar, the Cathode Ray Tube version, was big and bulky, and needed special arrangements to keep. One solution was to keep it in corners. Another was to have purpose-built deep “TV cabinets” into which these big screens would go.

In the house that I grew up in, there was a purpose-built corner to keep our televisions. Later on in life, we got a television cabinet to put in that place, that housed the television, music system, VCR and a host of other things.

For the last decade, which has largely coincided with the time when flat-screen LCD/LED TVs have replaced their CRT variations, I’ve seen various tenants struggle to find a good spot for the TVs. For the corner is too inelegant for the flat screen television – it needs to be placed flat against the middle of a large wall.

When the flat screen TV replaced the CRT TV, out went the bulky “TV cabinets” and in came the “console” – a short table on which you kept the TV, and below which you kept the accompanying accessories such as the “set top box” and DVD player. We had even got a purpose-built TV console with a drawer to store DVDs in.

Four years later, we’d dispensed with our DVD player (at a time when my wife’s job involved selling DVDs and CDs, we had no device at home that could play any of these storage devices!). And now we have “cut the cord”. After we returned to India earlier this year, we decided to not get cable TV, relying on streaming through our Fire stick instead.

And this heralds the next phase in which television drives interior design.

In the early days of flat screen TVs, it became common for people to “wall mount” them. This was usually a space-saving device, though people still needed a sort of console to store input devices such as set top boxes and DVD players.

Now, with the cable having been cut and DVD player not that common, wall mounting doesn’t make sense at all. For with WiFi-based streaming devices, the TV is now truly mobile.

In the last couple of months, the TV has nominally resided in our living room, but we’ve frequently taken it to whichever room we wanted to watch it in. All that we need to move the TV is a table to keep it on, and a pair of plug points to plug in the TV and the fire stick.

In our latest home reorganisation we’ve even dispensed with a permanent home for the TV in the living room, thus radically altering its design and creating more space (the default location of the TV now is in the study). The TV console doesn’t make any sense, and has been temporarily converted into a shoe rack. And the TV moves from room to room (it’s not that heavy, either), depending on where we want to watch it.

When the CRT TV gave way to the flat screen, architects responded by creating spaces where TVs could be put in the middle of a long wall, either mounted on the wall or kept on a console. That the TV’s position in the house changed meant that the overall architecture of houses changed as well.

Now it will be interesting to see what large-scale architectural changes get driven by cord-cutting and the realisation that the TV is essentially a mobile device.

TV Punditry

Those of you who might be following me on social media (Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIN) might know that I’ve started a career in TV Punditry over the last week. Well, it’s not that much of a career – I still need to figure out how to get paid for it.

Anyway, so I was on News9 once on Saturday (analysing exit polls) and again on Tuesday (analysing the election results). It happened pretty much at random, from a random twitter conversation:

And so Mathang (who I’d first met in 2004 when he had interviewed me for Education Times) set me up with Anil Kumar from News9, who presently asked me for my number. A couple of twitter DMs, a couple of emails and a couple of phone calls later, I had been asked to come to the News9 studio at 5pm on Saturday.

Saturday’s session was really enjoyable, and I spoke a fair bit on the process of conducting an exit poll, the importance of sample sizes and representative samples, the process of converting votes to seats, etc. A 5 minute monologue on sampling process got the anchors interested in me, and they kept coming back to me. As is my wont, I summarised the import of my arguments for Mint.

And so I got invited again for Tuesday’s post-counting session, and I’m not sure I enjoyed it that much. As the elections threw up a hung assembly, the politicians on the panel spent their time shouting at each other. I was seated in an inappropriate place – right between a loud JDS spokesperson and a loud BJP spokesperson. I recused myself from much of the discussion and was only brought in because the anchors probably thought I should be “given some lines” – an opportunity I used to comment on the parties’ election strategies.

So two TV appearances later, I must say I quite like the format – it’s good footage (literally) if not anything else, but it can be a bit painful. Writing is easy in the sense that you just collect your thoughts and deliver them at a time.

Video means that you are virtually participating in a group discussion, and need to butt in to make your point. You might have something insightful to say, but need to wait for an opportune time to interject. You might be in the middle of a long point but get interrupted by another panellist. You might wait for ages to say something but the opportunity never comes. At other times, you might get a question that you’re not prepared for.

The worst thing as an analytical guy on TV is that you need to keep referring to your data, and your analysis. So there was one occasion on each session when the anchors asked me a question to answer which I’d to write some code to answer. So each time I mumbled something and bent down to my laptop, and got bailed out by the anchor who got someone else’s view in the time I took to get the requisite data.

In any case, I want to do more of this. I also hope that like with my writing, I can some day hope to get paid for TV appearances – this is a hard job since panellists representing political parties don’t charge anything – it’s in their parties’ interests to be represented on the show.

But, some day..