My channel, my news

BY T S Sudhir| IN Media Practice | 30/05/2010
And if the government is keen on a scroll from two hours before the CM's speech (`Watch CM live at 11:30 am today from Guntur'), that will cost more.
T S SUDHIR tells us what it takes for a chief minister to stay in the news. Pix: Andhra CM K Rosiah.

At least thrice a week, Andhra Pradesh chief minister K Rosaiah travels to the districts to be part of some government programme or the other. But how to ensure that the images of the CM-at-work reach every living room in the state?

 

Elementary, my dear Watson. There are 15 plus Telugu news channels, most of who have redefined what a `pay' channel really means. Live footage of the CM's event is provided, courtesy the Information and PR department of the government, which outsources this to a professional, independent, non-government agency.

 

The next challenge is to ensure there is at least 15 minutes of non-stop coverage, when the CM is speaking. A certain agreed and negotiated amount can be paid to a channel to ensure that. And if the government is keen on a scroll in the two hours preceding the CM's speech (`Watch CM live at 11:30 am today from Guntur'), that will cost an additional 2000 rupees.

 

Welcome to the world of paid news in Andhra Pradesh.

 

The state may be cash-strapped but not for the TV channels, it seems. After all that is the medium for manufacturing `reality'. So if a TV channel has decided to take up a `development' subject, all it needs to do is to contact the department concerned with proposals on projecting different programmes (and the minister) in a good light and the `sarkaari sponsor' gets arranged. 

 

"We now have a TV channel and we will soon have our own newspaper." E. Rajender, one of the non-KCR (K Chandrasekhara Rao) family leaders in the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), boasted on a Telugu news channel last week. Raj News is the latest weapon of mass information for the votaries of Telangana, apparently made necessary because most of the other Telugu news channels are owned by Andhra-Rayalaseema media barons and therefore were seen as quite blatantly anti-Telangana. In today’s politics, it is not enough that you start a political party. For the party to rock, you need to back it up with a TV channel and a newspaper as well.

 

If you look around south India, you would find `politician-cum-media baron’ a jewel in many a politician’s CV. The argument: News channels take a polarised view of events and issues. Things came to such a pass during the Telangana agitation in December-January, that even those journalists taking a neutral line were castigated by both sides, as betrayers to the Telangana or the Andhra cause, as the case may be.

 

In Andhra Pradesh, politicians cutting across party lines have invested in news channels. YSR’s son Jaganmohan Reddy owns Sakshi TV and Sakshi newspaper. The channel was launched very close to the 2009 election campaign, which meant it ended up becoming and more importantly, perceived as a mouthpiece of YSR and Son.

 

After the former chief minister’s tragic death in a chopper crash, his face adorns one end of the TV screen on the channel. After being castigated for speaking too soon after his father’s death, to make known his political ambitions, Jagan now maintains a stoic silence in the public sphere. But his channel and newspaper speak for him.

 

Whether it is to point out failings of the Rosaiah government, dilution of YSR’s pet schemes, ruing the end of the golden era (read YSR era) in Andhra Pradesh or going to town, bringing Jagan’s tours in Khammam, West Godavari and Kadapa districts into everyone’s living rooms 24×7, Sakshi TV is Jaganmohan Reddy talking. Having a politician-owner has not done the public perception of the channel’s neutrality any good. But perhaps that was not the intention anyway.

 

Ditto with Studio N which is now controlled by Chandrababu Naidu’s son Lokesh. The channel, for all its pretensions of being a professionally run outfit, dedicated most of 20th April to programming on Naidu on his 60th birthday. Clearly, if you own a channel, you can have the cake, eat it, and sing `Happy Birthday’ all day as well.

 

Even before Sakshi and Studio N occupied space on the airwaves, Eenadu TV had always been accused by the Congress and the late YSR in particular, of being pro-Naidu. In fact, Sakshi came into existence, with the precise intention of taking the bark out of ETV’s soundbites.

 

Owning a channel directly, clearly has its drawbacks. Not only does credibility go for a toss, motives are attributed to anything and everything that is said or shown. So the same politicians and other smaller players have also invested smaller amounts of money through front men in a host of other Telugu news channels. This guarantees both positive press for the netaji as also negative press for his rivals.

 

Today there are at least three more news channels that have been reportedly funded by money from people close to a powerful Congressman. The TDP too is looking to pump in money in channels other than Studio N. With almost every channel losing money, salaries are inevitably not paid on the 1st of the month and in some cases, even paid in cash. What colour that money is, is anyone's guess.

 

The politicisation of media ownership is not limited to Andhra Pradesh. H D Deve Gowda’s son Kumaraswamy’s family owns Kasturi channel in Karnataka and also controls part of the distribution business. Another player entering the fray soon will be the Bellary brothers.

 

It is through Malayalam Communications Limited, a CPM-backed venture, that the Leftists paint Kerala red. The group, with superstar Mammootty at the helm of affairs, though not in a very hands-on role, operates a bouquet of three channels : Kairali, We and People. The Congressmen have their Jaihind channel while India Vision was started by M K Muneer of the Muslim League.

 

Tamil Nadu of course, takes the cake with Sun TV owned by Karunanidhi’s grandnephews and Jaya TV owned by Jayalalithaa on the two ends of the spectrum. News on one channel is 180 degrees different from the other so much so that even election results on the two channels have presented a diametrically different picture, till the very end. In between are channels like Captain TV of actor-turned-politician Vijaykanth, Mega TV and Vasanth channel, owned by two Congressmen, and Makkal TV that espouses the PMK cause.

 

It is almost like blindfolded people touching different parts of the elephant’s body and using their imagination to guess what to make of it.

 

The Sun group is also into cable distribution, DTH and the print media, which gives them the power to decide who gets to read, hear and see what. In fact, when the Marans had a spat with the Karunanidhi family in 2007, among the first things the patriarch did was to `bless’ a new channel aptly titled Kalaignar TV, to ensure His Master had a voice. But no sooner than the Marans patched up, the Sun group rose again.

 

Some other enterprising players have learnt their lessons as well. The corporate colleges, all of who screamed success stories on the day of the IIT-JEE results, wanted all channels to air live half hour shows with interviews with their faculty and students. And they know how to ensure that. The rate this year was reportedly around 5 lakh rupees to every channel. At the end of the day, it is not just the toppers who are happy. The local channels were laughing all the way to the bank.

 

It is a media boom that is on in the south, in particular in the vernacular space. With politicians pumping in money, journalism as an institution that has being `unbiased’ as a cornerstone, is today anything but that. And that is the greatest disservice politicians have done to this institution.

 

 

T S Sudhir can be reached at tss99822@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

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