While much has been said about the stagnation of conventional media (both news and otherwise), television and print are still dominant at least in terms of ad revenue. Digital media’s share of the pie, though, is growing fast, and increased internet penetration in India is changing consumption trends big time.
So, where then does TV go?
“We’re now in the tenth year, in a way, of this model [of news debates]—I think it’s exhausted itself. I think, even if people are watching, they are not really excited by it anymore,” says Sardesai. “And I think people now are saying, ‘yaar, bahut ho Gaya’ (it is enough). I think 10 years after this format of cockfights on a daily basis as the prime-time staple was introduced, it has no impact.”
Does TV have the capacity to retain its original exuberance? Unlikely, he says. “But there is an opportunity. Because I think people are exhausted, and for the first time they are asking, what new can you do? My worry, of course, is they say that, and then when they go home, like a drug they switch on the debate.”
But what then of the anchor’s own future?
In the middle of 2014, the Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries announced it was acquiring Network18, the media company run by Raghav Bahl, which owned a slew of websites, magazines and TV channels, including CNN-IBN. Bahl, Sardesai and a number of other top executives and journalists at the company left.
In the years since, Sardesai shifted to India Today TV, anchoring a prime-time news show, a weekend feature, and, oddly enough, a quiz show for school children. Though he’s never too far from the news, it’s a far cry from his early days as a reporter-cum-editor on the ground—his coverage of the Godhra riots in 2002 in Gujarat is still remembered widely—and his peak as the head of his own channel.
Is he worried at all about fading into irrelevance?
“No, and that’s why I write. I write in those columns in about half a dozen languages, so I engage with people. I do other things. You know, if I made my self-image simply my 9 o’clock show, I’d be gone. But I think it’s important therefore to find other ways of expressing yourself. And that’s what I’ve tried to do, otherwise, I’d already been irrelevant.”
In the current atmosphere, Sardesai says, he feels that he’s pigeonholed as an anti-Modi, anti-national “presstitute”. “These are all new terms that have come into the discourse of journalism. I didn’t set out to do this, this is just what has happened and this is how the profession has evolved, and I’ve accepted it,” he says.
“I haven’t changed, I don’t believe I have changed… maybe the ecosystem, the newsroom has changed around me. I don’t think I’ve changed—I guess I get less angry now than I used to, but I still get angry often enough.”
Where to now?
“People like Rajdeep have a chance of becoming digital platform owners. If they were smart, they would try to unlearn what they’ve learned and relearned the business side of it,” says Abhinandan Sekhri, co-founder and CEO of the media critique website Newslaundry. “Rajdeep has built a brand through tremendous work. What will he do with that brand? Will he make that brand into something bigger, or stick to his 8-to-10 slot and host shouting matches?”
A fair question. Has Sardesai, with his nearly three decades in journalism, ever thought of starting something new like he once did with CNN-IBN?
“I was approaching my fortieth birthday when I did that. You know, when you’re 39-40 you must do something. I’m 53, so I think it’s more difficult now, but I’d love to. I’d love to believe that in the next couple of years, maybe [I’ll take] one last shot at doing something really new. I don’t know what it is. And if I knew, I would do it. But I don’t know. Maybe a good-news channel,” he says with a grin.