Kochi: India’s most literate state just can’t get enough of the news. In the next few months, at least a dozen mostly news channels are going on air in a state that already boasts 18 free-to-air Malayalam-language services.
Most of the new ventures are being launched by political parties and newspaper publishers. Mathrubhumi Printing and Publishing Co. Ltd, which publishes the Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi and magazines such as Chitrabhumi and Grihalakshmi, has already applied for a news channel licence. So have three other newspapers—Kerala Kaumudi, Madhyamam and Mangalam.
According to M.V. Shreyamskumar, director, marketing and electronic media, at Mathrubhumi, the proposed news channel is a step towards building a full-fledged media house.
“We are well accepted as a brand. Using the strength and credibility of our media network, we are planning a news and current affairs channel,” he said. According to Shreyamskumar, the publishing house expects the current 7% viewership for news to more than double in the state.
Kerala Kaumudi, a newspaper with nine editions, intends to launch its channel in April 2011 to coincide with the paper’s centenary celebrations, said an official who did not want to be identified. Officials at Madhyamam and Mangalam were unavailable for comment.
Though there was no official confirmation from Tamil Nadu-based Sun TV Network, it plans to launch a third channel in Kerala devoted solely to news, according to media industry experts.
Newspaper publishers entering the business view television as another media platform to spread their reach and maximize revenue. According to Sashi Kumar, founder of the news network Asianet, newspapers opting for news channels illustrates the push towards vertical integration in the business, as well as publishers’ attempt to tap the revenue shift taking place from print to television.
For political parties, broadcast media is a propaganda vehicle and a tool to extend their influence over their constituencies. Taking a cue from both the state ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress party, the Indian Union Muslim League, a partner in the Congress-led United Democratic Front, is starting a news channel. P.K. Kunhalikutty, party secretary and former Kerala industries minister, said though it would be a party-promoted news channel, it will pursue an “independent” editorial policy.
By November, the party will launch a cable TV network under the Channel IBC brand. The studio and the marketing team for the cable channel will act as a precursor to a full-fledged satellite channel, which will be a joint venture. However, Kunhalikutty refused to share details of the partner in the venture. The channel will go live during the assembly election in May.
K. Muralee-dharan, former member of Parliament and son of senior Congress leader K. Karunakaran, has also started work on his news-cum-entertainment channel under the banner of Janapriya Communications Pvt. Ltd.
“It will not have any political connections,” said Muraleedharan, who quit the National Congress Party and is said to be keen to join the Congress. His news network will cater to Malayalees outside the state by being the first to offer English and Hindi news bulletins.
Experts estimate that a total of around Rs 400-425 crore will be invested in launching the new channels in the state. While Janapriya expects to invest Rs 50 crore in the venture, Nikesh Kumar, who quit as executive editor at Kerala’s first 24-hour news channel Indiavision, to work on a new channel, said he will invest not more than Rs 25 crore in his project. He plans to use the Internet and mobile phones to create an interactive news channel. “We will use footage from citizen journalists to run the channel,” he said.
The new channels will vie for a slice of the Rs 300 crore broadcast advertising market in Kerala. Broadcasters claim that new players are keen to enter the market as many of the existing channels have broken even in the third year itself and posted a modest profit.
Though Sashi Kumar is critical of the “so wall-to-wall, so in-your-face, and so full of sound and fury” news channels in the state, he rules out a shakeout, expecting the advertising market to expand.
However, Manas Mishra, executive vice-president at Mudra Connext, is not so sure. Kerala is a print-centric rather than TV news market, he said, adding that among news channels, Asianet News, Manorama News and Indiavision are more or less evenly matched in ratings and fare. “News consumption on television is low, leading to low channel shares. The space is crowded to begin with and their revenues are nowhere close to Hindi news channels. I have my reservations on new players coming in unless there is a drastic change in their business model and offering.”
Sejal Shah, vice-president, India Media Exchange, the media buying unit of Publicis Groupe in India, agreed: “A channel such as Asianet News barely sees 50 gross rating points a week. I find the entry of any new player difficult to imagine.”
As per industry estimates, news channels in Kerala barely generate Rs 15-20 crore yearly among all the players.
Anushree Chandran contributed to this story.