Television

Assembly polls: Regional channels in overdrive

Elections are a matter of life and death for politicians and political organisations. Another section of society that approach elections with equal earnestness is the media.

With five states - Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry - engaged in assembly elections in April - May, the regional television market has entered an exciting phase.

While Assam has already completed the formalities, West Bengal had the first and second phases of polling on 17 April and 22 April. Three more phases are remaining - 27 April, 3 May and 8 May. Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry have it scheduled for a single date, on 8 May. In Kerala it is three phases: 22 April, 29 April and 3 May.

Thus we have three important regional television markets of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, which command 50 per cent of the total language television revenues, trying to make the most of this opportunity for market expansion. Understandably, all these three ‘news hungry‘ markets have been witnessing a lot of churn recently, be it with channel launches or expansion of existing operations.

Tamil Nadu is one market that has been attracting attention for all the wrong reasons. Kalanithi Maran-headed Sun TV is enjoying a superior position in the market and we are not again talking about that viewership dominance. The channel is in an envious position of having no competition at all in the news space; or to put it better, no competitor at all. While Sun TV and its news channel sibling Sun News are making the maximum out of the elections, rivals Jaya TV, Raj TV and Star Vijay don‘t have the necessary permission to telecast news and live programmes.

Ever since its inception in 1999, Jaya TV has been fighting for a teleport licence, which would enable it to beam live news. This year, as the elections approached, the channel had intensified its efforts with the purpose of launching a separate news channel and the matter had even reached the Madras High Court. But, as per the indications, Jaya‘s plans of launching the news channel to capitalise on the election may not just get materialised. The channel is now concentrating on the election coverage by telecasting delayed news bulletins and current affairs programmes.

"At this crucial time, we can‘t afford to indulge in court battles. We don‘t want our attention to get diverted. We are making our best efforts possible covering the elections," states Jaya TV VP News Sunil KP.

As already reported by indiantelevision.com, Raj TV‘s coverage of the elections is also restricted to delayed news bulletins and other non-live programmes. Star Vijay, meanwhile, sounds very pleased with what is has been doing as a general entertainment channel. "We are presently concentrating on bringing quality entertainment programmes to our viewers. Our audiences turn to us for entertainment and we are doing what we are supposed to do in the best possible manner," quips a Star Vijay executive.

Looking west to Kerala, God‘s own country deserves a mention more for broken promises. Keralaites were promised two more news channels ahead of the elections: MM News from print giant Malayala Manorama‘s TV arm MM TV and Jai Hind TV from the state‘s Congress party. While MM News is now targeting a May-June launch for the channel, Jai Hind will be unveiled only by mid-May. However, MM News has already started its dry run partially.

"It is for sure that the channel launch will happen only after the elections. We want to enter the market fully prepared and we didn‘t want to launch the channel just for the sake of covering the elections. We have now started sending our team of reporters to cover election-related events, but it is not a full-fledged dry run yet," says MM TV news director Johny Lukose.

However, unlike Tamil Nadu, Kerala is not short of news channels. The state already has three news channels in Asianet News, People TV and Indiavision. For the youngest of the three Malayalam Communications‘ People TV, the launch timing couldn‘t have got any better. The channel was launched in 2005, ahead of the state local body elections and now in 2006 follows the assembly elections.

To the up to West Bengal, both local as well as national players are showing equal aggresive intent in this market. Star India made its debut in Bangla last year by launching its news channel Star Ananda, in association with print major Ananda Bazar Patrika (ABP). Again in 2005, Rathikant Basu-promoted Broadcast Worldwide withdrew its GEC Tara Bangla from the market to launch news and music channels, Tara Newz and Tara Muzik. Both launches were timed to coincide with the local body elections.

Now, in April this year, Zee Telefilms found the time ripe to launch its Bangla news channel Chobbees Ghanta in association with Akash Bangla. Kolkata-based Xenitis Group of Companies also entered the market this year with its news channel Kolkata TV, keeping in mind the elections coming up. The latter has reportedly spent Rs 100 million on the pre-launch outdoor publicity campaign.

PROGRAMMING STRATEGIES

As soon as the government declared the polling dates, channels across these three markets had unveiled their special initiatives. The general strategy has been, covering the election in three phases: pre-elections, elections and post-elections.

In the West Bengal market, where the results are reportedly a foregone conclusion, issue-based programmes have stolen the limelight. "Here, there is no suspense attached to the election results. Hence, the effort has been to do more issue-based programmes. Apart from that, Tara Newz has been doing in-depth constituency analyses, live discussions and debates," says the channel head Amit Chakraborty.

Star Ananda has branded its election coverage special as Lalbarir Lorai. "The series empowers the viewer with a ringside view of all the twists, turns, sub-plots and issues on hand with continuous updates, news, views, live on-ground debates, travelogues, interviews with the big names, scorecard of performances, opinion polls, exit polls," claims an official communiqué from the channel.

Speaking on the channel‘s election coverage strategy, one Star News executive offers," Star Ananda‘s election programmes are meant to empower the viewer to make informed choices. As a news channel, we give primary importance to this responsibility."

According to Zee News director Laxmi Goel, the new kid on the block Chobbees Ghanta will try to lure viewers by offering unbiased coverage and fast delivery of news. Market leader ETV, meanwhile, has increased the duration of its hourly five minutes news updates to ten minutes. However, there are not many special programmes from the channel. "Being a GEC, we are addressing a larger audience. We will put efforts to cover what matters most, the results," says ETV chief producer Manvi.

Speaking about the programming strategy being followed by Malayalam channels, the sub-genres followed are more or less the same as those of Bangla channels.

According to Malayalam Communications MD and editor John Brittas, the competition has helped the channels to raise the bar in election coverage. "Malayalam Channels are more matured now. The election-related programmes have turned more in-depth and issue-based. The reports are now more objective and the quality has really gone up. Technology upgradation has also improved the quality of delivery. With so many channels out there, channels have been making their best efforts possible," says Brittas.

"We are trying our best bring in the quality and effectiveness of reputed national news channels to the regional language. We don‘t want to be here as just another Malayalam channel. Our aim is to deliver Keralites a channel that holds the national standards and we have been making the best use of elections to do that," says Amrita TV director & CEO Sudhakar Jayaram.

Asianet managing editor KP Mohanan takes pride in coming out with a series of exclusive interviews when it mattered the most. "We have been doing a lot of exclusive stuff these days. We did a half an hour live interview with the prime minister Manmohan Singh recently and that was the first of its kind in Malayalam television," says Mohannan.

INVESTMENTS

Election is also an occasion that television channels choose to make fresh investments in infrastructure and human resources. According to Zee‘s Goel, the company has earmarked Rs 90 million for the first three months operations of Chobbees Ghanta.



"Since the channel was launched just ahead of the elections, we have gone for the best of the broadcast technology and infrastructure. And of course, this is a long term investment," says Goel.

Tara Newz has made investments to the tune of Rs 10 million to provide best services during the elections. The company recently installed the graphics set up offered by the Beehive Systems for about Rs 2.8 million. However, Chakraborty feels that the investments have been made with long term goals in mind. "We have upgraded our systems keeping in mind the upcoming Bangladesh elections also. Tara Newz is popular in Bangladesh also, and we will be covering the elections extensively," he says.

According to Jayaram, Amrita TV has invested about Rs 7.5 million on its election-related initiatives. "The channel was given a facelift recently, as we completed one year of operations. We are now preparing software that will help the anchor to analyse each constituency to the minute details during the results. We are also associating with top election analysts of the country," says Jayaram.

Malayalam Communications is spending about Rs 4 million on its election programmes. "This is something like a mega Onam (the most popular regional festival) and we are trying our best to make the most out of it. We have made fresh investments in technology and graphics," states Brittas.

Meanwhile, Asianet News, the news channel from Asianet Communications, is gearing up for a major face lift. "We have spent quite a sizable amount on infrastructure. Investments have been made in various segments including graphics and server based production systems. On 11 May, when the assembly elections results will be announced, Asianet News will come out with various noticeable changes. The channel will be given a new look and feel, says Mohannan.

Rival Indiavision has used the opportunity to acquire new equipments. "We have been renting our equipments but now we have bought our own. We have also increased our live connectivity to 10 districts this time round. Originally we had only one OB van in Delhi, and now we have one for Kerala as well," says Indiavision executive editor M V Nikesh Kumar.

However, for Surya TV Thiruvananthapuram bureau chief Anil Nambiar, the trick of the trade lies in using the limited resources and space to its utmost value. "Surya‘s news content duration is limited as we bank on sponsored programmes and other fiction initiatives. Hence, we are a team of 30 reporters, trying our best to come with quality coverage," says Nambiar.

Post results, as politicians get busy deciding their future actions and doing the performance analyses, these television channel executives will also be spending a considerable time in the board rooms, analysing their performance.

After all, for regional channels, there is no business like the news business.

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