The awesome unreadiness of WION

BY SHUMA RAHA| IN Media Practice | 31/08/2016
Its reportage is rudimentary, programming sketchy and analysis of news and current affairs next to non-existent.
Did Zee launch the channel too early, asks SHUMA RAHA

Wion: Southasian perspective or just Southasian content?

 

Zee Media’s global English news channel, WION, went on air on August 15 this year. It was India’s Independence Day — a day when patriotism and nationalism runs high, a day when we take stock of how far we have come and what heights we may scale.  As far as symbolism goes, it was the perfect occasion to launch India’s first global English news channel with a south Asian slant. A channel, as editor-in-chief Rohit Gandhi declared grandly in March this year, that would “meet the aspirations of 2 billion south Asians by delivering a global news network reflecting a south Asian world perspective.”

Alas, sentiment and symbolism alone do not make for effective news television. A fortnight after it was launched, it’s clear that WION, or World Is One News, went on air weeks, probably months, before it should have. Its reportage is rudimentary, programming sketchy and analysis of news and current affairs next to non-existent. If you scroll down the menu of news channels on your television screen and stay with WION for a while, you will find bland, back-to-back summaries of the day’s top stories coming out of India, south Asia and the world.

This is a far cry from what Zee Media had announced regarding its plans for the channel in March this year. WION (pronounced we-on), which is the 11th news channel in Zee supremo Subhash Chandra’s stable, was to have bureaux across the globe. Moreover, it was to offer “South Asian reporting from front lines, war zones and prominent global capitals”. In short, it was not going to be another India-centric NDTV or a Times Now, even though they are broadcast in several countries around the world. Rather, it would be more on the lines of the Doha-based Al Jazeera English or the Singapore-based Channel NewsAsia, both of which offer global news with an Asia focus.

That may happen yet. But why did WION get off the ground before it had got its act together?

No answers are forthcoming on that. Asked if the channel’s launch had been premature and by when it was likely to offer more substantial reportage and programming, editor-in-chief Gandhi declined to comment.

Here’s a sampler of the world of WION as of now. On August 28, in the 7.30-8 pm segment, the channel was leading with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s radio address to the nation. The other stories were J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti’s diatribe against Pakistan, finance minister Arun Jaitley skipping the SAARC meet, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appointing 22 MPs to highlight the Kashmir problem on the global stage, 41 cases of Zika virus in Singapore, French politician Nicolas Sarkozy’s support of the Burkini ban and so on.

Remarkably, the same bulletin was repeated every half hour with minor variations in sequence and absolutely no other programming in between.

Again, while the 7.30 to 8pm segment was showing up as “WION Sports” on the channel’s programme band, the only sports news here was about India’s loss to West Indies in a T-20 cricket match in Florida. The next segment was called “WION for Change”, and the one after that, “Gravitas”. Fine names all, but each had exactly the same news bulletin as the one before.  Evidently, the names of the programmes had been drawn up and put out long before the programmes themselves had materialised. One almost felt sorry for anchor Archith Seshadri, soldiering on in his startling Yankee accent, half hour by half hour, dispensing news capsules punctuated with bureau reports and the odd despatch from the ground.

Apart from the bare-bones programming, WION’s so-called global thrust also appears sub par. Yes, there are bits and pieces of world news — burkini controversy updates, the upcoming elections for the post of UN secretary general, Beyonce sweeping the MTV awards and so on. But on the whole, the channel seems fixated on news from south Asia (read: India and Pakistan) rather than global news from a south Asian perspective. For example, on the evening of August 29, while WION led with the re-imposition of curfew in the Kashmir Valley and a story on the alleged maltreatment of Indian women hockey players, an Asia-centric global channel such as Al Jazeera featured extensive coverage of the suicide attack in Yemen that killed at least 60, and of Turkish forces pounding the Kurds in northern Syria.

It could be argued that a curfew in Kashmir is more important to south Asians than IS strikes in Yemen or hostilities between the Turks and the Kurds. But the point is that right now WION seems too rooted to Zee’s mother ship that is India. Its bouquet of global news feels more cosmetic than organic.  

WION does attempt the occasional studio discussion to break the monotony of its ho-hum news narrations. On the afternoon of August 27, for example, Seshadri was in conversation with author and historian Rana Safvi and an Islamic cleric to discuss Bombay High Court’s judgement allowing women entry into the inner sanctum of Haji Ali Dargah. Seshadri also brought the issues of India’s Supreme Court hearing appeals against the practice of triple talaq and France’s burkini ban into the ambit of the discussion. One has to admit that it was refreshing to listen to opinions being expressed sans interruptions from multiple talking heads on the screen — which has become the norm on Indian prime time television.

However, such news analyses are rare on the channel, as are on-the-spot reports. You can overlook a two-week-old channel’s occasional bloomers on the ticker tape or gaffes in the bulletins. (Seshadri referred to Mahatma Gandhi as an “iconic fighter” at one point.) But what stands out is WION’s sheer lack of readiness when it comes to providing engaging news television. Indeed, unless you’re fired with pure academic interest, it’s hard to stay tuned to its dull, repetitive fare for any length of time.

And it doesn’t help that every news segment is followed by a promo  where people look bemused and wonder what on earth WION is. “Laptop?” “App?”,  they hazard. Someone even says, “Weird name”. Another says, “News channel? Seriously?” Then they proceed to enlighten themselves — and any viewer who might have wandered in — by explaining what it stands for, which is, World Is One News. (Apparently, the name is in keeping with Zee Group’s motto “vasudhaiva kutumbakam” or “the world is my family”.) The thing is, if you’re going with a name like WION, why make it worse by being so spectacularly defensive about it?

Incidentally, the WION logo — a sort of human face meets yin-yang binary — has a slightly perplexed air about it too. Though, what do I know, it’s probably vastu and feng shui tested and guaranteed to fetch staggering returns on investment.

Zee Media’s global English news channel had been on the cards for more than a year. In August 2015 Gandhi, an award winning television journalist who has worked with South Asian International News, CBC and CNN,  came on board as its editor-in-chief. As of April this year, he has also been doubling as the chief editor of DNA, Zee Media’s Mumbai-based English language broadsheet.

Like most other media start-ups around the world today, WION has pitched itself as a mobile/digital-first multimedia platform with its news and views available across television, its website WION.com and its social media sites. As Gandhi said in his press note last March, “While a TV channel is the face of this mobile-first start-up, our newsgathering, reporting, production and publishing processes are an ambitious leap into a multiscreen future. We aim to disrupt conventional ways of thinking about news and set a new template for storytelling across platforms.”

Cut the rhetoric and it’s clear that WION, the TV channel, is meant to be the crowning glory of this “multiscreen” effort. In yet another promo for the channel that pops up between news segments, the visuals show the progress of communications technology down the ages. You go from pre-historic rock paintings, to jungle drums, to pigeon post, to print, to radio, television, internet, mobile phones, and then, hey presto, it’s WION!

Sadly, WION’s projection of itself as cutting-edge and life-changing is looking too much like wishful thinking right now.

 

Shuma Raha is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

Twitter: @ShumaRaha

 

 

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