2 Sahara news channels on course for Feb launch

NEW DELHI: D-day, finally, seems to be just around the corner.

The Subroto Roy-promoted diversified Sahara group has targeted the launch of the first two of its proposed 30-odd region-specific news channels - a national and one for Uttar Pradesh - for February 2003.

Subsequently, between February and June 2003, some of the other proposed news channels too are slated to be launched in a phased manner . This is Sahara's bid to tap the "vast non-urban advertising market."

The news channels will be launched under the brand name Sahara Samay and each channel will carry the tag of the region it is targeting.

"The work on the first two channels is progressing very well and is at an advanced stage. So much so that dry runs and other trials started recently," Sumit Roy, deputy director in Sahara and head of the group's media & entertainment business told in an exclusive interview.

While steadfastly refusing to divulge any financial details or the investments made in the news channels project, Roy also brushed aside accusations that this project has got mired in delays and controversies. 

"The delays are all perceived delays. We made a definitive announcement only earlier this year and are launching the news channels in 2003. If you say a few months is a big delay for a project of this big scale, then we don't have much to say. Because not everything was in our hands and despite the best efforts from our side, other factors contributed to what the media is perceiving as delays," Roy explained.

Still, it is true that Sahara's earlier plan to launch just one news channel underwent several changes since 2000 when Subroto Roy first held a press conference in Delhi to announce the group's big plans in the broadcasting sector.

Points out Sumit Roy, "This is a dynamic market and our plans did undergo some change, thanks to the vision of our managing worker (Subroto Roy). I'd say, it is better to be slightly late rather than put up a bad show in a hurry." 

According to him, after the first two launches, the other region-specific channels which have been lined up for debut include Sahara Samay Mumbai (which will also include part of Gujarat), Sahara Samay meant for the National Capital Region (NCR-comprising Delhi and surrounding areas) and the ones meant for Rajasthan, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. 

Roy also points out that the process of seeding the market with set-top boxes, which would be needed by cable operators to access the digital news channels that would be beamed from Asiasat 3S satellite, has started.

"For the news channel meant for Uttar Pradesh we'll be having some 1000-odd STBs, while for the national news channel about 5,000 boxes will be distributed in the first phase," Roy said, adding, " We are not giving the boxes free, but various schemes are being worked out so that the STBs don't add to the existing financial burden of the cable operators." 

Dwelling on the positioning and branding of the news channels, Roy said that the USP of the news channels would be content and high-speed newsgathering, courtesy the vast V-SATS network, probably the "biggest network of news bureaus in the country", coupled with state-of-the-art technology.

"Our aim is very clear that we will give news of local flavour (depending on the various regions of the country) at international standards, standards which will compare with the likes of CNN and BBC," Roy said.

On the tech front, the group plans to utilise six Silicon Graphics (SGI) Onyx2 high-performance visualisation systems with SGI InfiniteReality3 graphics engines and Graphics-to-Video-Output and SGI XT-DIVO digital video options. Translated, this implies that the combined Onyx2 and Vizrt solutions will enable Sahara to deliver visually exciting broadcast graphics and virtual set technology for news, weather and sports.

According to Roy, all the proposed news channels, as also the existing general entertainment channel Sahara TV, will be digital, but free-to-air so as to remain part of the basic tier of service in a post-conditional access regime. 

Speaking on the media speculation that the arrival of Vinod Dua has curtailed the powers of the other channel heads, Roy, who has worked with the Sahara group for 16 years now, said, "I don't think that there is any conflict of interest with Vinod Dua's arrival or association with the news project. Dua has had a long association with the group and he is acting as an advisor to the news channel project. I would say there is great team spirit amongst all." 

Arup Ghosh, former anchor at Prannoy Roy's NDTV, who left in September 2000 to start Network One, will head Sahara Samay, the national news channel. Rajiv Bajaj (president of the Hinduja Group's IN TV till February 2002) will be in charge of Sahara Samay Mumbai, veteran Doordarshan journalist Prabhat Dabral is going to head the news channels meant for the Hindi heartland, while Shireen, another star anchor at NDTV till 2000 will be heading the NCR channel. 

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