‘O Lord, wandering with thee, even hell itself would be to me a heaven of bliss.’ is a quote from Ramayana. We have an Indian author who has written the Ramayana in this age. It is none other than Ashok Banker. After the wonderful first part of his interview, it is time for the second part. Over here, he talks about Journalism, Media, Television, PR, Twitter, his books and so much more. we present Ashok Banker at his fiery best. Enjoy!
Q: You had this post published on your blog in 2005 – ‘Journalism in an age when everything is for sale’ – It seems even more relevant now. Why do you think has the situation arised where everything is up for sale including breaking news and what challenges you think ‘Journalism as a profession’ has in today’s age? Is there something called as ‘ethical journalism’ yet?
A: The problem with journalism is that it is functioning on a flawed model. It’s a profession that aspires to nobility and ‘truth’ but is supported financially by the most venial backers, selling any product that turns a profit. Without advertising and sponsors, even the most viewed TV channel or publication can’t survive today.
So it’s inevitable that those advertisers and sponsors will influence if not control the news we watch and read on a daily basis. So yes, journalism is for sale – you can buy 10 seconds of airtime and put your ad on or you can buy tens of thousands of minutes of airtime and control the whole channel. Who would dare to report something that would cost a channel or publication its main sponsors and advertisers?
The only ethical journalism can come from a new model, one that deals directly with readers or viewers without depending on advertising support. They say it’s not possible to do so. Perhaps it isn’t. Though I would point to the example of books and say that if an author can sell millions of copies and earn millions annually single-handedly by writing what he or she pleases without requiring the support or influence of advertisers or sponsors, then why the hell can’t a respected and popular journalism brand do the same? Perhaps they lack the same popularity?
Perhaps people don’t want to read or watch the truth, they only want it to sound and seem like the truth. I don’t know for sure. But unless and until a media group comes along that attempts to do this and succeeds at it, journalism remains for sale every minute, second, and square centimeter.
A: I don’t know. I’ve always been very outspoken, and very interactive. Once when I wrote columns for online publications I used to post a line at the end which read: “Ashok Banker accepts views and abuse at this email address”. But I mostly seem to get praise and appreciation, with the occasional rare grumble or flame-attack.
This is me. This is what I am. I’ve always been this way, always will be. There is no difference between me personally and professionally. I speak my mind honestly and responsibly and attempt to tell the truth at all times. Some people don’t like that, or get offended by it; but that’s mostly because they want me and everyone else to be speaking or acting in a certain way that they think is right, and who are they to tell anyone how to live? The vast majority know me as this person and I think it’s probably the reason why people read my work, whether it’s an online blog, a column, a script, or a book.
A: I don’t write for television anymore, I haven’t for a long time and I doubt I ever will again. I think television in India is pathetic, regressive and the worse example of a few dishonest producers and channel executives profiting while cheating the vast majority of viewers. They’re cheating because they’re only seeking TRPs, advertising and sponsor support – money, in short – while giving a damn about what viewers really want and what can be done with the medium. I say this even about people who are willing to pay me substantial sums to write TV shows even today, so I’m not speaking out of any bitterness, I’m just being blunt and direct!
The fact is, today’s television channel heads and decision-makers are people who are more interested in earning fat salaries, sleeping around with their staff, and living like modern-day zamindars in a feudal system. A friend of mine recently told me, ‘Why don’t you do what so-and-so does, she hires twenty writers to work for her, and she supervises them, and takes the cream of the payment, and she earns Rs 2 crores a year!’ Now, I don’t do badly for myself, and while it may not be Rs 2 crores every year, it’s not bad either most years.
But here’s the difference as I tried to explain it to my friend: That writer may think she’s smart. But she’s not a writer! She’s a slave-master. The second thing is once she’s earned and spent that ill-gotten 2 crores annually, she will never earn another rupee from those scripts. Whereas I’m still earning royalties and will always keep earning them even 20 years later! Because I put my name on my work and I own it and I am the only person who wrote that work. You may say what difference does that make?
The difference is that when you buy a book by me you know that it is written by me, and that I didn’t get a rupee to write it – authors only get paid if they get published, remember – and therefore I had to have put something true and honest into it. It had to have something special in order for publishers to buy it and publish it and for readers to keep buying and reading it over 20 years. A TV serial that ran two years ago and was the most watched in the country – like Ekta Kapoor’s trashy saans bahu stuff – wouldn’t even be looked at sideways today! That’s the difference. There is writing and there is prostitution. Television writing in India today is only about prostituting a professional service, it has nothing to do with writing, creativity, talent, or even connecting with the viewer.
That’s why whereas DD serials once got viewers in tens of crores, today’s glossy overproduced trash on satellite channels barely get a fraction of that viewership and are still considered hit shows – because that’s the trash that suits the sponsors and advertisers to sell their products, and so viewers have no choice but to watch it and
That’s why the stories being shown on television today are at least 20 years out of date and if you look at the difference between what hit films and hit serials, it’s like two different worlds! How come? Aren’t those hit films also being watched by the same audiences? Aren’t they getting crores of viewers? Then why isn’t there a Lagaan on Indian TV? Or a Ghajini, or a Dev D, or anything other than fat women in sarees with fake jewellery standing around bitching on blindingly bright studio sets? This is niche viewing at its worst! If the system wasn’t so corrupt and channel executives weren’t dishonest and interested only in filling their pockets, I bet you that such shows would only run on OOH channel in waiting rooms and lifts!
I say this as a former marketing & advertising professional as well as the writer of over 460 aired episodes of television because I know the business inside out and I know the kind of people who run it.
A: I don’t seek to create variety – and I don’t ‘churn out’ anything. Some of my books have taken 20 years to complete. It’s just that I’m going through a phase in my career where finally my books are being published, so you’re seeing a lot coming out one after another. Even so, my last published book was King of Ayodhya in 2006, and now
there’s Gods of War in 2009. That’s not ‘churning out’ by any standard! :~)
As for variety, well, I don’t give a hang for commercial success, I write what I believe in, and as I said it takes me a very long time to complete a book, so I simply hope and pray that a publisher will see fit to publish it when I submit it and that readers will like it enough to buy it and keep buying it. Apparently, they do, so my books keep getting published. There’s no other secret to it.
A: I’ve said before, and I’ll quote myself: “PR doesn’t do bullshit to sell books.” That’s the wonderful thing about this profession. Sure, you can do interviews 24/7 and you can go dancing in bookstores with celebrities and put on a fake accent and say “I’m so proud”. La-di-dah. Good for you, bugger. But the truth is, readers aren’t idiots. Book buyers are probably the most intelligent consumers of all. There are thousands of books being published, lakhs in fact, and India has one of the most flourishing book industries in the world – it’s coming up on the 3rd position worldwide and it’s only a matter of time before it takes the No. 1 position at the rate it’s going.
But book readers will finally buy the book they want to buy, and they’ll do it because they want to read that book. It’s only the elite South Mumbai, South Delhi types who buy books that are in the news, because the author is banging a film star or got a fat advance, or is now a Minister of Parliament and is tweeting all the time.
In the long run, all those people buying tens of millions of copies of Harry Potter novels didn’t buy it because J K Rowling did more PR than other authors – on the contrary, she hardly did any compared to thousands of other authors – but because they wanted to read those books. I don’t use promotional ‘techniques’ because they don’t work. What I do is make myself available across all online media and if there’s someone out there who’s a fan of my books, or interested and curious enough to want to read something by me, I’m there for that person, one on one, direct, everyday. If I really wanted to sell, I’d go on a world tour and have celebrities releasing my books and create photo-ops for Page 3 tabloids to feature me!
Communicating one on one with each potential reader is probably the least efficient way to get a readership of millions, don’t you think?
It only works as a means of online socialization, not as a sales tool. And any PR person who tries to tell you otherwise is just looking to sign you to a fat contract, that’s all. In the end, the vast majority of my readers aren’t even online and aren’t even connecting with me – yet they’re still going to bookstores and buying my books. Why? Because they want to read them and they enjoy reading them!
A: The general quality is great. But I can’t name five because I never read the same blog more than two days running. I read posts and stories and articles, not specific blogs. I’m really not interested in who’s writing it or why or where, just what’s written. And I like to go online and look for the most interesting things to read.
I don’t bookmark or bother about who the blogger is. I think this whole cult of celebrity bloggers is just more bullshit. Just PR. In the end, the beauty of the internet is that you don’t have to give a damn about the ‘brand’ whether it’s the New York Times or BlogAdda. You find something interesting, that’s what matters.
Q: What do you find to be the most gratifying aspect of blogging?
A: It’s writing without the tedium of going through a publisher, editor, waiting, etc. Instant publication.
Q: What is your advice to someone who wants to start a blog?
A: None. I’m not qualified to give advice. I’m a writer myself.
Book: Too many to list. I read over 500 a year! And have been reading for 40 years out of 45.
Color: Green. Blue. Black. Brown. Grey.
Movie: Ditto like books. No one favourite.
TV Show: In recent years: Medium. Entourage. Dexter. And now FlashForward promises to be great.
Time of Day: Morning.
Your Star Sign: Aquarius. 7th Feb.
We know that you want the interview to go on and on. But Ashok is a busy man. 🙂 Thanks a lot for taking the time off (from twitter too 😛 ) and giving us this wonderful interview. Our readers would have got a lot of spice about how television, media and journalism works. Friends, Enjoyed? Write in your comments for Ashok to reply and Do let us know your feedback as it is very important for us to serve you better.