Five‘s not a crowd for Telugu news channels

Andhra Pradesh is getting big on news. And not just for hitting the headlines thanks to the drubbing the southern state‘s "CEO" and media darling Chandrababu Naidu received at the hustings from a disgruntled electorate.

In the Telugu regional language broadcast space, 2004‘s big media story is likely to be that by year-end Andhra will have the distinction of being the state with the highest number of dedicated news channels - five of them in all.

While at first reading, this might appear a perfect recipe for collective disaster, that‘s not the way the players who have set forth plans for entering the arena see it. According to their reasoning, the advertising potential that news offers in Telugu hasn‘t been fully exploited as yet and there is enough room to grow. Another thing is that with the new digital technologies that have come in, operational costs of running a news channel have significantly reduced. Last but not least, there is the Telugu speaking diaspora across the globe that is thirsting for news from their home state, is the perceived wisdom behind the flurry of Telugu news channel activity.

TV9 studio in Hyderabad

But before examining the subject in detail, some history. On 28 December 2003, Eenadu Television (ETV) launched Andhra‘s first 24-hour Telugu infotainment channel ETV2 with a thrust on news. Just over a month later (1 February 2004 to be precise), 24-hour "pure" news channel TV9 started beaming.

Reports suggest that TV9 has received Rs 150 million as funds from venture capitalist Srini Raju‘s i-Labs Associated Fund and the Chennai-based Unify Wealth Management.Now there are three other players getting set to move in on this turf. There is of course the big daddy --- Chennai-based Sun TV network --- that is making moves to beat the competition from archrival ETV and TV9. Sun TV will be launching its Telugu news channel Teja News (tentative title) and a local cable television channel Gemini Cable Vision, which, while not being strictly a news channel, will have a high emphasis on news via regular bulletins. While Teja News will be ready by September 2004, Gemini Cable Vision will take another four months after that to launch. Right now, Sun enjoys visibility in Telugu with Gemini (Andhra‘s top rated channel which is devoted to soaps) and Teja TV (an infotainment channel).

Sun‘s Tamil competitor Raj TV, which has its Telugu presence in Vissa TV, will be launching its Telugu news channel Vissa News by December 2004. Come September and two-year-old Maa TV network also will unleash its news channel.

With news channels galore, TV9 CEO V Ravi Prakash explains what prompted them to enter the race. "Telugu television had been clogged with soaps of the saas-bahu kind. Then the serial factory graduated to topics like extra marital affairs. Our market study revealed that women wanted a change. So we launched TV9 as a news channel targeting the youth and women."

Now TV9 is eyeing the Telugu TV‘s entertainment market and also has plans to launch a Kannada language sibling to TV9 in neighboring Karnataka. TV9 Kannada would be ready for test run by September, while the entertainment channel would be launched by December.

The trend triggers the question: Why this mad rush for channels? What makes networks believe that a channel devoted to news has enormous potential? Obviously, all assumptions would lead to one explanation - money. But is there such a great potential in the Andhra television market? And why this sudden spurt?

As per details provided by Starcom (Mumbai) broadcast investment manager Varghese Thomas, the total ad revenue generated by the Andhra television market for the last fiscal amounts to Rs 2.2 billion.

Ad revenue share (in percentages) of Telugu channels in the last fiscal.

Gemini TV leads the tally with an impressive 44 per cent closely followed by Eenadu TV (ETV), which recorded 37 per cent market share. Maa TV had eight per cent while Teja TV had six per cent of the ad revenues. The state, which also has high cable penetration, saw cable TV advertising garnering four per cent of the revenues. News-specific channels TV9 and ETV2 scored one per cent each.

The ad revenue generated by TV9 and ETV2 together comes to around Rs 30 million. What is significant about these figures is that it highlights the growth of these news channels just within three to four months of their launch. And it also gives an idea about the enormous untapped potential of the news market in Telugu.

One can‘t overlook the fact that both TV9 and ETV2 leveraged the recent elections to their advantage. But looking at the Rs 2.2 billion Andhra Pradesh television market (only Tamil Nadu is ahead of AP in the south), and the ad revenue these news channels have generated in a short period, the potential for news channels to encroach into other‘s market is very evident.

News is primarily watched by the A and A+ segments. That justifies high-volume ad-spenders including Yamaha, Metlife Insurance, Bajaj Auto, Siyaram and Emami gunning for news spots in Telugu channels.

ETV has earned about Rs 100 million from advertisements in the last fiscal from its five news bulletins a day. Teja also earns about Rs 5 million per month.

Talking about the audience segment, the vast Telugu-speaking diaspora in the US, South East Asia and the Middle East are what the channels are eyeing. So that defines the scope for new channels with a stress on the news in Telugu.

Maa Television Network assistant marketing manager Praveen Viswanathan justifies his channel‘s decision to enter the fray saying that news has an ever-expanding viewership.

"The trend is like a gold rush. When there is a gold rush, everyone would seek a share."

Industry sources point out that the rapid rise in the number of Telugu channels has also been triggered by the advent of digital broadcasting which is a comparatively cheaper technology. The bandwidth occupied by digital transmissions is less compared to that of analogue. While an analogue channel occupies more than half the bandwidth of a 16 MB transponder, a digital broadcast absorbs less than 4.5 MB.

If they have to woo the advertisers or satisfy audiences, what all channels need is good content. When it is solely news, the challenge is tougher. Teja TV news bureau chief, Madhu P identifies two audience segments, which are crucial to the success of any new television channel or programme in Telugu.

"Telugu people are very much interested in politics. They like to be informed about the latest happenings. Then there is the film-crazy public who make it a point to keep themselves updated of all the latest happenings in the industry," he says.

Madhu also points out that channels have started showing greater interest in covering the problems faced by the ignored rural people whose unhappiness triggered the ouster of the Telugu Desam Party government in the recent election.

TV9, which has a round-the-clock news schedule, packs each hour with a 30-minute news bulletin and a half hour news show. The channel boasts of a manpower network of 125-strong reporters in the country.

TV9 CEO Ravi Prakash anchors the show 9 pm with Ravi Prakash

TV9 CEO Ravi Prakash, who was with Zee and Teja TV earlier, anchors the daily show 9 pm with Ravi Prakash. The show covers current affairs and politics. Prakash says that the channel strives to fulfill its motto: TV9 for a better society.

"Apart from the coverage of current affairs and politics, TV9 works hard to strive for a corruption-free tomorrow. We use hidden cameras for our spy show Nigha to expose corrupt officials and politicians," says Prakash.

ETV2 has hourly news updates. According to ETV2 public relations head AV Rao, the channel aims to provide comprehensive and in depth news with a regional focus.

"We have educational programmes to assist students, we support social causes with our programmes that bring civic problems to light and also there are programmes that focus on women and their issues. We aim to reach out to all segments of the society," he says.

The advent of news specific channels saw an increase in the number of news bulletins on the existing general entertainment channels like Teja TV and DD Saptagiri (Doordarsan‘s Telugu channel). While Teja now airs six per day (with an additional four on Sundays), DD Saptagiri added three five-minute headlines to their regular daily schedule of two 30-minute news bulletins.

Vissa TV, which was launched on 23 June 2003, airs three 30-minute news bulletins plus one 5-minute headline bulletin every day.

Teja TV‘‘s film news: tapping the Telugu viewer‘s craze for films

Vissa TV chief news editor Jayaseelan says the channel enjoys a technically perfect infrastructure. He feels that it won‘t be difficult for the upcoming Vissa News to pose a challenge to TV9 and ETV2 as the channel‘s ultimate aim would be to bring original and exclusive news which is what audiences are craving for.

"We are not afraid of competition. Just by having a handful of channels, you can‘t survive. To fight competition, you need to come up with quality content and that is what we are striving for," says Jayaseelan.

Praveen Viswanathan of Maa TV hopes to beat competition using the same practice. "It is content that matters not the size of a network," he declares.

DD Saptagiri deputy director, audience research unit, BRC Reddy adds a cautionary note here. Reddy believes that competition among channels has taken a toll on journalistic ethics.

"The private channels have just one agenda and that is to make money at any cost. Their commercialised interests have triggered a deterioration of values. In their madness to break news, they often come up with half-baked stuff," Reddy says, lashing out against private channels.

Then how does DD Telugu plan to fight the increasing competition? Reddy feels, being a responsible organisation, DD has some obligations.

"DD is a service broadcasting organisation under the government of India and our ultimate aim is to inform and educate the public. This could be through entertainment or serious programmes. So being a responsible organisation, we won‘t be able to follow the commercial techniques adopted by private organisations," he says.

Be that as it may, the rest of the channels have already taken their plunge. Big money is involved and they need to fight for survival. As the people of Andhra sit back and adjust the settings on their TVs to receive a new news channel every other day, the race is on for networks to better their figures.

Will these channels prove good or bad news for all the brave new entrants in a broadcast area that everyone and his uncle seem to be looking at today? That is the million-rupee question.

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