Jaya Network, a Tamil Nadu-based broadcast company closely associated with former chief minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa, is all set to launch Jaya Plus, a 24x7 news channel, in June.
Jaya is one of at least a dozen channels waiting to be launched in the next few months across India where more than 350 channels are currently being aired, including 53 news channels.
“There were 20 fresh proposals for news channels pending with the information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry till recently,” says P.N. Vasanti, director, Centre for Media Studies (CMS). “Most of these are by people with political connections. News channels have become a low-cost tool for politicians eager to be heard.”
While the perils of managing a channel perceived to be a mouthpiece of a particular political party are well chronicled in India, especially when that party falls out of favour or the government, it hasn’t stopped politicians and their associates from getting into the space.
Even before its news channel is operational, Jaya TV, for instance, alleges it faced a lot of political hurdles prior to getting the go-ahead for Jaya Plus.
The news channel, according to a senior Jaya executive, was scheduled to be launched three years ago. “The proposal for the news channel had been cleared by the I&B ministry in 2005. Then, it went to the information technology and communications ministry,” says K.P. Sunil, vice-president, news, Jaya Network, adding that “there it got stuck for a long time. They will not clear our application on some ground or the other.”
India’s IT and communications ministry is headed by Dayanidhi Maran, who is the brother of Kalanithi Maran, the chairman and managing director of Sun TV, the dominant player in the broadcast space in Tamil Nadu.
Sun TV also has a presence across the rest of the three southern states—Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The Maran brothers, whose father Murasoli Maran was an influential politician both in the central and state politics, are also nephews of Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi, who came to power after defeating Jayalalithaa.
Without naming names, Jaya TV alleges that the launch of their channel was thwarted by Sun TV. “We know that Kairali TV (in Kerala) was given clearance in a week and Makkal TV (it belongs to Chennai-based Makkal Tholai Thodarpu Kuzhumam Ltd) was cleared in 15 days whereas our proposal was kept in limbo for more than two years,” notes Sunil. The matter was eventually decided in a court.
Attempts to reach Sun TV Network officials by email and phone were unsuccessful.
Politics and media have clashed often in Tamil Nadu, sometimes violently. On 23 April, Jaya TV officials received a letter threatening to bomb Jayalalithaa, and asking the channel to halt its criticism of Karunanidhi. The network is now operating under police protection. This is only the latest in a number of channel-specific threats involving the two prominent networks.
In 2001, Sun TV officials were threatened with arrest for broadcasting footage of Karunanidhi being detained by the police. In another incident that year, a Jaya TV cameraman was assaulted by a mob of DMK activists.
Media-savvy politicians, however, remain undeterred. A top executive of a leading broadcast company as well as a member of Tamil Nadu’s legislative assembly, both of whom didn’t want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that two more channels are likely to be launched by this August, both with connections to the state Congress party. If these channels do launch, all three prominent parties in the state will have their own news channels.
Tamil Nadu is not the only state witnessing this phenomenon. In Karnataka, Anitha Kumaraswamy, wife of chiefminister, Kumaraswamy Deve Gowda, will launch a channel, Kannada Kasturi, in mid-July. Kumaraswamy belongs to the Janata Dal (S) party, and his father H.D. Deve Gowda was briefly the prime minister of India from June 1996 to April 1997.
Ajay Kumar, principal consultant, Kasturi Medias Pvt. Ltd, asserts that the channel will be independent of politics. But Mark Balaajee, head, executive operations, is more forthcoming. He says that “the coverage of the chief minister by other channels has been inadequate and their own channel will try to compensate for it. We will provide Kumaraswamy more coverage.”
Similar examples abound especially in the north. BAG Films Ltd, run by Anurradha Prasad, the wife of Congress member of Parliament, Rajiv Shukla, and sister of former I&B minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, recently announced plans to begin two entertainment and two news channels. BAG has been producing news and entertainment programmes for television. Prasad said that the new development was part of the company’s strategy, and denied that her political links had anything to do with the channels’ business.
Sahara India Pariwar, promoted by Subroto Roy, also runs a clutch of news channels across Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and his strong political connection with the Samajwadi Party, the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh, are well known. While there have been questions about Sahara’s bias in its news reporting, a channel spokesperson says they are an “objectively-run” company.
Some media observers also note that with advertising on television being quite expensive, launching a channel is sometimes an easy way out for politicians eager to be heard.
Meanwhile, news viewership has been rising consistently in India. According to TAM Peoplemeter System, a television audience measurement tool, news accounted for 5.3% of the total viewership in 2004 and had risen to 7.3% last year. But, despite rising viewership, only few news channels are currently profitable. “None of the news channels, except a few at the top, actually make money,” says CMS’ Vasanti. “So why do you think these guys are entering the news arena?”