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Politicisation of TV news content in South India - TV9 Karnataka and NEWS9 director Mahendra Mishra

Though all the channels of these netas have a designated professional ‘editor‘, it is anybody‘s guess as to who calls the shots in selecting and playing the news items. There really are too many such characters to talk about! And they are mushrooming like Congress grass everywhere.


If the news media is the fourth pillar of democracy, then there is no doubting the fact that in the four southern states, if not nationally across most of the regional television space, this pillar has gone into the hands of politicians or their proxies.


There are two issues here; One, how are these channels going to sustain themselves financially as they generally have very low viewership and hence command extremely low advertising rates? 
 
Secondly, even if they manage to last long, are they not going to cause a serious dent to the credibility of all news channels? Doesn‘t this dent the sanctity of news business? Doesn‘t it lead to serious credibility crisis among common viewers? Maybe 2011 will provide some answers.


When we look at South India‘s television news business in 2010, the most important word that creeps in our minds is ‘politicisation of content and cable‘.


Cable and content are inseparable in the TV news business. And this is something that netas in South India understand better than the most astute of businessmen today. Politicos‘ control content and cable both. Some of them own the news channels as well as the cable networks.


While ‘paid news‘ and ‘TRPised news content‘ on TV news channels continue to be the major areas of debate for the entire news industry in general, 2010 in South India will be remembered as a year when netas tightened their grips on news content and cable networks.


Andhra Pradesh


Take a look at the numbers - there are currently 14 TV news channels in Andhra Pradesh. Except for two or three channels, all the rest are directly or indirectly controlled by politicians or their proxies. It‘s an open secret that most of them have officially become the tools of political agendas. One wonders why should they be called news channels at all?


For example, when the TDP supremo went on a ‘fast‘ (hunger strike) demanding better compensation for Andhra farmers, four news channels supported by TDP or its party cadre- ABN Andhra Jyothi, ETV2, Studio N and Maha TV beamed every bit of ‘the action‘ live till the end, while at the same time, the Jagan Mohan Reddy-supported channels like Sakshi TV, NTV and TV5 made sure there was simply no coverage of the TDP Supremo‘s fast. And when Jagan Mohan Reddy went on fast on the same issue in Vijaywada, all the TDP-backed channels conveniently ignored him while Sakshi, NTV and TV5 telecast every moment ‘live‘.


2010 saw the launch of another news channel, Raj TV in Andhra Pradesh by TRS leader K Chandrasekhar Rao. The channel has a very simple agenda: propagate the cause of a separate Telangana state and criticise all those who are opposed to it. The channel makes sure there are enough OBs in Rao‘s rallies, but when someone else holds a political rally in Telanaga, Raj TV coverage of the event is conspicuous by its absence.


These issues raise serious concerns as to how ‘objectivity and fairness,‘ which are so critical to credible news, are becoming the biggest casualties of the politician-sponsored news media.


Karnataka


Karnataka is all set to take the ‘Andhra‘ route this year. Welcome to the land of the Reddys, the Kumaraswamys and the Jarkiholis…!


The year-long political tamasha now finds a 3-D reflection in the news business this year as the Reddy brothers‘ gear up to launch their news channel ‘Janasri‘. Their jaunt in news television will be followed by JD (S)‘ state president H D Kumaraswamy‘s much awaited news channel.
The Reddys and the Kumaraswamys have another important muscle to flex; while Bellary‘s complete cable business is in the hands of the Reddys, Hassan‘s cable networks are held by the Kumaraswamys‘. This naturally gives the Reddys‘ and the Kumaraswamys‘ the advantage of influencing news content on different channels. Their message is clear: You can‘t show what we don‘t like, at least not in Bellary and Hassan!


Karnataka already has Congress leader Sathish Jarkiholi‘s ‘Samaya‘ in the state. Looks like these netas‘ own news channels to guarantee them a better audience than the sprawling Vidhan Soudha does!


TV9 Kannada continued to be South India‘s No1 news channel followed by TV9 Telugu in 2010 in terms of total viewership (Source: TAM). The fact that TV9 Kannada‘s viewership has grown by 15-20 per cent after channels like Samaya launched shows that politician-backed channels have contributed to our growth positively.


Karnataka remained the highest English news consuming market in the country, ahead of Kerala this year, largely because of NEWS9.The channel extended its services to the rest of Karnataka markets where it became an instant leader. NEWS9 has remained a leader in the Bangalore market where its viewership is more than the combined viewership of NDTV, Times Now, CNN-IBN, Headlines Today and NewsX. We are planning to expand NEWS9 operations in other southern markets gradually.


Tamil Nadu


The Tamil Nadu market remains largely untouched by new news channels largely due to the complete control over cable networks by politicians (the Marans). Though the state‘s vibrant retail advertising offers a great opportunity for the independent media organisations, the Marans‘ cable monopoly continues to be a big deterrent. This is the state where politicisation of content and cable has already happened. One can expect no major changes in the year 2011, except for a few fireworks on Jaya and Sun News as in the state assembly!


Kerala


The real action in the news television space is going to take place in Kerala this year as the state gears up for the assembly elections in May 2011.


Kerala is going to witness a flood of new news channels before these elections. While the Indian Union Muslim League plans to launch its own news channel, K. Muraleedharan, former Member of Parliament and son of senior Congress leader K. Karunakaran, also plans to come up with his own news channel.
 
Mathrubhumi, Kerala Kaumudi, Madhyamam and Mangalam are also expected to venture into 24-hour TV news business this year. There are at least half a dozen news channels already on air in the state, mostly backed by political parties either directly or indirectly.
The message seems to be quite clear: if you want to grow in politics, own a news channel and be the editor-in-chief!
 

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