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'Southside sees action'

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"Mind it!"

A phrase immortalized by Channel [V]'s south Indian cowboy character Quick Gun Murugun in the nineties. And one that is most relevant to the regional language market in 2007. The year saw a flurry of launches or announcements of launches, a change in long-running political equations, continued growth, and an increasing intensity of competition in almost every language segment - whether Tamil or Malayalam or Kannada or Telugu - of the regional market.

The big news of the year in this space was the public parting of ways between Kalanidhi Maran's Sun Network and his grand uncle Karunanidhi, the chieftain of the DMK party. The breakup was bitter, and it was almost as if the floodgates were let open and a flurry of launches followed.

Kalanithi Maran holds the Contribution to Television Award trophy he was presented with at the Indian Telly Awards 2006.

The DMK launched its own channel Kalaignar TV with a little bit of help from former Maran friend Sharad Kumar, a few Sun TV employees and Sun arch rival Raj TV. The latter offered it uplinking facilities for Kalaignar TV which has a menu consisting of film and entertainment programs and news. The DMK appeared to be in in a hurry to make up for time it lost - over the past decade during which it supported the Sun Network - and announced plans to build a channel bouquet with a 24-hour news channel and music or a movie channel. This apart, it initiated steps to set up its own cable network in the state to counter any moves by the Maran-owned MSO Sumangali Cable Vision as well as to gain control of the last mile.

DMK ally, Raj TV announced plans to introduce its DTH service, again as if to darken the Sun Network's DTH prospects. In May 2007, the Raj TV management said that it would roll out 11 channels, and would take the acquistion trail to expand nationally in other languages, without disclosing any time frame. In August, 2007, it unveiled a FTA music channel Raj Musix.

Besides Musix, Raj TV telecasts two channels - Raj TV and Raj Digital Plus'.

On the Raj TV horizon are Tamil and Telugu news channels.

Jaya TV, backed by the AIADMK party, and a comparatively smaller player, recently started testing two new Tamil channels - music and news, which are expected to start full time transmissions sometime this month. As the year drew to a close, Tamil Nadu Congress member of parliament, KV Thangabalu's flagged off Mega TV, a 24 hour FTA Tamil news, current affairs, and entertainment channel, while Tamil Nadu Congress MLA Vasanth Kumar said he intends to start Vasanth TV.

For the Sun Network, 2007 was business as usual, the political setbacks notwhithstanding. The network, which has the highest number of channels in south India, dominates the region, with the exception of Kerala where it trails Asianet as a close No 2. It drew the curtains on its DTH service using transponders on Insat 2B, offering subscription packages that looked extremely competitive and attractive. Industry watchers expect Sun's dominance to get eroded over time, but 2008 is unlikely to be the year when we will see that happen.

"Sun's biggest strength has been content, be it GEC or movie. Just because Sun may be not be gaining numbers and Kalaingar is showing unprecedented growth, it doesn't mean that advertisers are going to run away from Sun to its next biggest rival. At present, Sun has retained a firm grasp on its slowly reducing share in percentage terms, its share has not reduced in numbers," says an ad executive.

So far, Sun has been able to maintain a lead over all the others in most of the space it operates in. In a few places, even its second channel has performed better and attracted far more viewers than its nearest competition's main channel has. In a very dynamic space, how the new equations will work out only time can tell.

For Telugu print and TV baron Ramoji Rao, however, 2007 would be a year he would prefer to write off as a bad dream. For Rao, who owns TV network ETV and leading Telugu newspaper Eenadu, it was reportedly his close alignment for the past quarter century with the Telugu Desam and his run-ins with the Congress chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Y Rajshekhar Reddy that cost him dear. It is pertinent to note that a deal signed between US-based Blackstone Group and Rao's holding company Ushodaya in January 2007 for the sale of a 26 per cent stake is yet to see closure. If Blackstone's proposal to invest $275 million in Ushodaya had gone through, it would have been the biggest ever media investment in an Indian firm.

2007 will also go down in the annals of regional television history as the year of TV9. Promoted by Associated Broadcasting Corporation's (ABCL), it appears to have ambitions to get its foothold into almost every language segment. In Andhra Pradesh, TV9 News got the better of Gemini News and ETV2 News, with its Telugu religious channel Sanskruti beginning to get noticed.

In Karnataka TV9 Kannada surpassed the biggest player Sun's Kannada news offering Udaya Varthegalu. It has also been itching to get control of Kerala's fledgling news channel IndiaVision, but has only managed to start selling air time for it.

Karnataka witnessed the launch of two GEC channels Asianet's Suvarna and Kasthuri (the latter headed by then chief minister HD Kumaraswamy's wife) during the year. Another channel 'Real Estate TV' for national consumption by a construction group made a lot of noise, but failed to get its signals carried.

"Kasthuri could be eating into DD Bangalore's ad shares, especially ads by the state government and public sector undertakings based in Karnataka," said an executive from an advertising agency. "Having been the chief minister, Kumaraswamy could leverage his contacts in these companies. Even if these pickings are small, they are very good for a new entrant," he avers.

Observers expect the action in the southern space to continue. Balaji Telefilms is expected to launch TV channels in partnership with Star TV either in 2008 or 2009. And there is no doubt that others will also make a try for the southern pie.

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