Arnab Goswami and Television of the Absurd

People

Arnab Goswami and Television of the Absurd

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I

met Arnab Goswami for the first time in the November of 2004. As meetings go, it was an innocuous one, conducted in a small cabin tucked away on the editorial floor of the Times of India building at Victoria Terminus. The Times group was due to launch a business news channel – a long-cherished ambition – and Arnab was the man in-charge. After six years with CNBC TV 18, I was a potential hire. I knew of Arnab vaguely as the “slightly pompous man” who often appeared along with Rajdeep Sardesai on NDTV. He wasn’t in the same league as either Sardesai or Barkha Dutt, the channel’s best-known faces after the revered Dr Prannoy Roy, and he was not a business news journalist either. I wondered fleetingly about the rationale behind his hire.

The first meeting turned out to be pleasant: Arnab was affable, articulate, and charming. There was no trace of his on-air pomposity. I was offered an exciting role almost immediately, a free hand to conceptualise, produce, and anchor a band of weekend shows for the new business channel. The deal was sealed within a week and a second lunch meeting, where Arnab told me firmly not to think about the job while having dessert: Decisions could wait, desserts couldn’t. At the risk of sounding both flaky and flippant, I decided right then that this was a boss worth having.

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Two weeks before I was to join the yet unnamed channel, I was called in for another “extremely confidential” meeting. As a handful of us sat in a tiny cubicle, Arnab asked me, “So, who is our competition?” When I guessed CNBC, he smiled triumphantly and turned to the whiteboard. He scribbled furiously in capital letters, “N-D-T-V”, India’s leading English news channel at the time. “We are not going to be a business channel,” Arnab trilled, “we are a general news channel and nobody can know that until we launch.”

To cut a long story short, the strategy was to use the impending business news channel launch as a smoke screen and catch NDTV unprepared by actually launching a general news channel. It was a master strategy, a guerrilla strike complete with surprise, intrigue, and subterfuge. I could see he was quite taken with his cleverness. (As were the rest of us, although in my defence, I was rather young.) This is Arnab Goswami: The man who always has a plan.

No amount of planning though, could have prepared us for what happened in February 2005. A month after I joined the Times, Rajdeep Sardesai did the unthinkable. He quit NDTV to join hands with Raghav Bahl’s TV 18 to set up CNN IBN. NDTV’s competition was here and it wasn’t us. It was a channel fronted by a man with formidable equity and Arnab’s former boss.

If Arnab was thrown by this, he showed very little trace of it. Our days passed in a flurry of meetings and rousing rhetoric: “We will be the number one news channel” and “We will change the way news is perceived in this country.” (Prophetic? You bet.) Those were heady days and the team was held together by Arnab’s fiery oratory and ability to add drama to the most routine of activities. I still remember the collective adrenaline rush of three hundred people cheering wildly as he unveiled the channel logo in one of the studios. A former colleague later told me ruefully, “It was like we were going to war!” Even when the launch was severely delayed, and the industry joke was that the channel should be called Times When, not Times Now.

Just a month or so before our launch, we all woke up to another minor calamity. CNN IBN had quietly launched without any fanfare, leaving us all shell-shocked.

The channel was all set to launch on January 31, 2006, and this date – like everything else associated with Arnab – had to be guarded like a state secret. He also came up with the tagline, which, in retrospect, clearly defined his governing philosophy. It would be Times Now – Feel the News. It wasn’t about thinking anymore – it was about feeling. News could not be a clinical and objective rendition of the facts; it had to be laced with opinion and throb with emotion. In test runs of The Newshour, I would sit in as a dummy guest. (I played Mahesh Bhatt once.) Arnab was a transformed man in the studio as he exhorted his dummy guests to, “Hold your heart. Look into camera four and tell the country what you feel.” I remember being bemused but riveted in spite of myself – even though I didn’t hold my heart.

Just a month or so before our launch, we all woke up to another minor calamity. CNN IBN had quietly launched without any fanfare, leaving us all shell-shocked. But we took comfort in the fact that it looked like an NDTV clone and Arnab’s confident texts through the day cheered us up a little.

And then finally January 31 dawned, the day our channel would change the world of news. Times Now launched at 5 am after a puja. It took only a week for the verdict to come in, and it was unanimous. The new channel was a disaster. The news bulletins were rough around the edges, the morning business band had no takers, and the only thing that seemed to be working were the weekend feature sections, hardly the shows that could sell a channel. Arnab’s insistence on not following the news of the day and leading the bulletins with his own “big stories” was not paying off. He was no longer the suave, smooth anchor that people remembered from his NDTV days. He seemed far too excitable in the maiden broadcast of The Newshour. CNN IBN was turning out to be NDTV’s only credible competitor.

The initial failure rattled Arnab. It was also the last we saw of the communicative, encouraging boss. He no longer had the time or patience to charm people into his vision for the channel; this was now a man who would steamroll his way through. Business programming was axed. Weekend shows which were making “his channel look soft” were the next to be phased out. The only thing which Arnab remained unrelenting on was the angry vigilante tone that the channel would take to everything, from politics, to sport, to entertainment. The loud imagery that we have come to associate with Times Now was all part of his plan. There was no place for subtlety or understatement. Everything from the channel’s graphics to the headlines to its biggest primetime face would holler.

It was a strategy that had more misses than hits to begin with, but the channel persisted with it. In the meanwhile, CNN IBN had comfortably displaced NDTV as the default choice for the English news viewer. Ironically, they managed this by doing news exactly the way the older channel did. Arnab and Times Now appeared to have missed a trick. A year into launch though, Times Now’s sustained stridency started bringing in numbers. It was still inconsistent in its performance, but Arnab was getting noticed as the belligerent, emotional news anchor, who refused to be objective about a story.

In the three intervening years, my editorial views on entertainment coverage clashed with Arnab’s, so it made sense for me to leave. My resignation came in 10 months before Times Now found its defining moment – 26/11. Arnab’s angry emotionalism had finally found its big story. What he had set in motion with those dummy runs years back, had found the perfect stage and a perfect audience; an increasingly entitled middle class had found its activist anchor. The nation had found its voice.

A decade after the launch of Times Now, I can see that Arnab achieved precisely what he set out to. The initial failure didn’t get him to change his strategy. Instead, it consolidated what he had always told us all along: “The English news viewer pretends to watch BBC, but finally all they want is the aggression and drama of a Hindi news channel.” He legitimised that guilty pleasure. It may not have won him too many friends or fans, his path may be strewn with disgruntled employee exit interviews, but it was this singularity of vision that ensured his resignation became the stuff of national headlines.

Around the time of his resignation, Arnab was famously quoted as saying, “The game has just begun.” Nobody is quite sure what this game is, but if the initial days of Republic TV are any indication, we can be assured that he will play only by his rules.

This is an updated version of an older piece.

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