New Delhi/ Mumbai: Millions of Indians are hooked on the drama surrounding the dimunitive 74-year-old man at the centre of the latest crisis that’s hit the government.

Large swathes of the television-viewing public are switching on to the saturation coverage of Anna Hazare and his anti-corruption campaign by the news channels, especially those in Hindi. For once, real life is more riveting.

While viewership has increased for most of the news channels, the time spent on them has doubled in just one week, with audiences eager for every little twist and turn.

It’s possible that news has eaten into the sports market, which dropped 33%, and Hindi movies, which showed a 12% fall from 16.37% genre share to 14.44% last week. The Bollywood genre typically thrives on reruns, according to an independent study by media servicing agency ZenithOptimedia Pvt. Ltd.

The genre share of Hindi news channels has increased from 5.9% in week 33 (ended 13 August) to 11.02% in week 34 (ended 20 August), according to data provided by weekly television viewership measurement company TAM Media Research. The genre share of English news channels also went up—to 0.54% from 0.31%. Viewers have been hooked since 16 August, when Hazare began his fast.

The average daily time spent on Hindi news channels has risen to 16.9 minutes from 8.5.

Viewership of Star News rose 15% in the past week, said Neeraj Sanan, vice-president and head (marketing and distribution) at Media Content and Communications Services India Pvt. Ltd, which runs the channel.

“From 26 million viewers, we (Star News) are reaching out to 31 million," he said. “We have noticed a strong surge in viewership across tier IIand tier III towns in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan in the past week."

Piyush Jain, chief operating officer of IBN7, Network18 Group’s Hindi news channel, agreed: “The Hindi news genre has grown 80-90% in barely a week."

News channels gain viewers when big stories break, said Sunil Lulla, chief executive of Times Global Broadcasting Co Ltd. Times Now’s viewership rose last week with the “biggest story this year", he said. While the news genre viewership had more than doubled, Times Now reached 12 million viewers.

Times Now continued as the No. 1 English news channel with a share of 37.8%, followed by NDTV 24x7 (22.2%) and CNN IBN (20.7%).

Aaj Tak continued to lead among Hindi news channels with a share of 17.9% share, up from 15.2%, while India TV’s share declined to 11.6% from 14.2% to bring it down to the fourth place. Star News took over as No. 2 with a share of 14.7%.

The more news-oriented outlets such as Aaj Tak will show a 40% growth in channel share while those like India TV, which have a strong entertainment component, may decline, said Satyajit Sen, chief executive of ZenithOptimedia. Overall, the Hindi news genre, he said, had added 5% viewers in the past week.

“The consumer will be discerning, given the importance of this news coverage," said Sen. He added that regional news channels wouldn’t show a very strong gain in viewers.

“Most news channels have decreased the entertainment-related content to make way for Anna Hazare coverage," Sanan said. “India TV is heavy on entertainment content and at this time people are preoccupied with political developments."

Some executives say increased viewership doesn’t always translate into higher advertising revenue for news channels.

During events of national significance, news channels often drop ad inventory, said Rajat Sharma, chief executive of Independent News Service Pvt. Ltd, which runs India TV.

“We are dropping advertising of nearly 5-7 lakh every day," said Sharma.

News channels saw spikes in viewership during India’s cricket World Cup win, the Mumbai blasts and earlier hunger strikes by Hazare and Ramdev.

“During such events, one observes a clear shift of audiences from even general entertainment genre into news," he added.

Another editor of a 24x7 Hindi news channel said: “Our channel covered the Mumbai blasts without any break for nearly two days. We lost advertising revenue worth crores then. When news has a premium attached to it, channels lose ad revenue share." He didn’t want to be cited since he wasn’t authorized to speak on ad revenue.

Media buyers think otherwise. There’s little inventory available on most news channels, according to Sujata Dwibedy, associate vice-president of VivaKi Exchange, the centralized media- buying unit under Publicis Groupe.

“Many of our clients are asking us to put money on news channels. There is a marked shift towards news. A lot of channels are sold out on inventory. A couple of them are running scrollers and panels with various advertising messages during the coverage," she said.

A marginal increase in advertising during such events is inevitable, said Sen of Zenith.

As a genre, news attracts 1,000 crore of advertising yearly and is growing at 10-11%.

Samsonite has been highly visible on Times Now with its “Step Out" tag line.

Lulla agrees that many savvy advertisers leverage the opportunity of a big story. “But in this case, no one specifically has been associated, to the best of my knowledge, across the category," he said. Samsonite is presenting sponsor of The Newshour with Arnab Goswami, Times Now’s flagship show.

Increased competition and the pressure of providing news round the clock has also meant a rise in news gathering costs. Those in the business say coverage of Hazare and the campaign has meant a 20% increase. “Ancillary costs obviously go up; there are more number of reporters on location, more vehicles, more fuel required, more food and more travelling expenses," said Jain of IBN7.

Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of CNN IBN, the 24x7 English news channel from Network18, said the Hazare movement had captured the imagination of all Indians. Since it was a major news story, it was bound to translate into higher viewership, he added.