Star News: Comme ci, comme a.

After the initial few bumps on the runway, the take off seems to have been smooth, give or take a few continuing glitches.

The seamless transition of a NDTV steered Star News into a Murdoch controlled Star News Hindi was met by a few sneers and brickbats in the first few days when presenters fumbled with tele prompters, the new graphics and logo refused to gel with old Star News loyalists and the changed format seemed a trifle déclassé from the one viewers were used to thus far.

Just over two weeks old now, Star News has brushed up its act and to its credit, now looks and acts more or less like any of its rivals. The first week did seem a tad tabloidesque, with Page 3 kind of stories doing the rounds, those in the second week turned to more serious issues. The slant is still definitely urban, and the Hindi a bit forced. The well turned out presenters still stumble a bit on the tele prompter, but comfort levels with the camera are definitely rising.

As a brand, Star News seems positioned for the well-off city dwellers. Blocks like City 60 (the 10 pm band with a metro focus) and Star Savera (the breakfast edition) engage with their variety of topics. Stories on politics, barring the major stories of the day, are conspicuous by their rare appearances - it‘s issues like school children burdened with school bags in Bhopal and the dwindling population of the white tiger in Bengal zoos that find pride of place in coverage.

Hindi is classical, and presenters as well as correspondents obviously take pains to ensure that English words don‘t slip into their talk. This evidently, is not always successful. Star News‘ various correspondents spread into the interiors of the country and abroad are in fact more at ease with the lingua franca and quite camera friendly. A slightly jittery Gaurav Sawant, currently in the interiors of Iraq, too is lens friendly in his continuing reportage from the war torn territory. But a whole hour of prime time dedicated daily to Iraq Report (9 pm) - live coverage and snippets interspersed with local experts expounding on their view of the war - does drag, now that action, essentially, is over.

City 60 that follows, and the Rajat Sharma anchored Aaj Ki Baat, on the other hand, are racy, pacy and gripping. Star News has managed to touch a chord with local masses with coverage of events like ‘Gudi Padva‘ last week and Bihu, the north-eastern New Year festival. But while the north, west and north eastern parts of the country are covered amply, coverage from the south is a mite scanty. With its self professed Hindi overtone, the south of the Vindhyas may not exactly be Star News‘ targeted territory, anyway.

Background colours, graphics and channel ID are some aspects that however do not stand out. With an all out battle between news channels, offering more or less similar fare, it is the packaging that will be the differentiating factor. While Sahara Samay, with its non metro image thus far, has managed to cook up a slick look for itself, Star News, despite the strength of the Murdoch empire, an experienced hand like Ravina Raj Kohli and ready footage from Fox, Sky News and CCTV, has fallen short of the massive expectations that preceded the launch of its new avatar. The logo confounds the most for viewers used to the earlier one. News, spelt out in Hindi, takes a while to ingest. The scrolls, one in Hindi and one in English, are just enough for a continuous supply of news - the channel is not adding to the clutter with stock indices, metro temperatures and time, unlike some of its rivals.

The six remote controlled robotic cameras, news desks, a 21 monitor video news wall purportedly, the first of its kind in India, may have helped put into place a technically superior product, but ultimately, it is content that counts. While a smug Sumit Roy claims that it is editorial that has placed the Sahara clutch of channels above the rest in the first few days of competition, Star News still has time (and some quite experienced journalistic staff) to spruce up its working. A Salman-Vivek spat and a Bandra bomb blast can elicit similar coverage from all channels, but it is the breaking news and indepth coverage that will set the winner apart, when it is time to separate the grain from the chaff.

NDTV has managed just that within 24 hours of operation. A revamped, smarter Zee News is expanding coverage area and Sahara Samay with its vast network of local reporters, is penetrating the nooks and crannies of the country for stories. Star News will need to wrangle more exclusives and beat the others with unusual angles to the same trite story, to keep itself afloat.

On the advertising front, it has, as yet, the best of the brand lot - lifestyle, FMCG and insurance are all present, thanks probably to the support of the Star Network. Jeeva soap, Polar fans are some of the brands that have also stepped in, but the overwhelming presence remains that of Amul and MRF. Needless to say, much ad space is occupied by cross promotions of shows on Star Plus, Star Movies and even the Mission Everest show on National Geographic.

Highlights of first fortnight - the channel view:

"Our core premise is we need to give news which is relevant to people‘s lives. We do not believe in covering boring press conferences." That, according to Star India corporate communications head Yash Khanna, is where Star News is coming from.

Says Khanna: "Our report on the plight of a young boy from Bihar awaiting a brain operation in a Delhi hospital for over four months due to lack of beds resulted in action being taken by the health minister. Star News followed the story to its conclusive end.

"Our reporters in Baghdad traced an Indian in an Iraqi prison who had been held there for the past nine years. We were the only channel to get him and his family living in Mumbai. We will be getting the two to talk to each other live."

Referring to Star News‘ coverage of the US-led invasion of Iraq, Khanna said, "Our reporter Prabhat was the first Indian reporter to reach Basra, Iraq. We are the only Indian channel to send a team of three reporters i.e. Prabhat Shunglu, Pervez Bukhari and Gaurav Sawant."

Star News has been on the ball as far as news breaks are concerned, asserts Khanna. "We broke the news of two successive MIG crashes in Punjab & Haryana in this month. We were also the first to show the visuals of these two incidences in which the planes fell on residential areas." And making the point that political coverage gets its due, Khanna said," We broke the story of the Rajasthan government prohibiting the sale, distribution and carrying Trishuls. We were also the first to break the arrest of VHP leader Pravin Togadia in Ajmer after the ban was imposed.

"We were first of the blocks when Union cabinet minister Shanta Kumar resigned," said Khanna.

"We carried a series of special reports on the need, status, benefits, the malpractices associated with body donation and the related superstition that people have regarding body donation. The peg used for this series was the body donation offer by former Chief Minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu. We are also on a regular basis carrying stories on the water crisis and power shortage," he adds.

The channel has some aces up its sleeve in the form of known faces hosting special shows - like MJ Akbar‘s Akbar Ka Darbar, Vir Sanghvi‘s Vir Ke Teer and film journalist Rajeev Masand‘s Masand Ki Pasand, but some of these will materialise gradually by June.

If it is to survive the summer of reckoning, Star News‘ time is now.

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