Sun—not a model for the media world

BY ramanujan| IN Media Practice | 03/05/2006
Nothing wrong in Kalanidhi Maran trying to emerge as India’s Rupert Murdoch provided he does not use unfair means to eliminate his competitors.
 

 

 

 

S R Ramanujan

 

 

It is a strange phenomenon in Dravidian politics that some unrelated issue always occupies centre-stage in the run-up to the polls.  In 1996, when Jayalalithaa lost, it was the ostentatious marriage that she performed for her foster son became a widely discussed poll issue.  2001 saw DMK chief Karunanidhi seeking support citing his age and it did not cut ice with the electorate. During the current polls, besides "freebies", SUN TV has become the focal point in the poll platforms of every party. MDMK boss Vaiko, who switched his loyalty to "Amma" overnight, is the most vocal critic of SUN TV during the campaign. He has been listing out many "inside" stories as to how the party (DMK) and its cadre were allegedly misused for promoting the channel. Since the SUN boss, Kalanidhi Maran, is not directly involved in politics, his younger brother and Union minister, Dayanidhi Maran is being targeted by every party on the other side of the poll battle.

 

The Chennai-based Sun network, with its 14 television channels, four FM stations, a cable network with 90% monopoly, two Tamil dailies and four Tamil magazines, is the second largest media house in the country. Further, the 600-crore network also secured a licence for DTH operations. Perhaps, it is the only influential network in the country to be closely associated with the number one political family of the state and seen as  functioning as its propaganda tool. The dividing line between the party, the family and the network is very thin. Wags have nicknamed the DMK "Dayanidhi Maran Kazhagam".

 

All this has been achieved in a short span of 13 years with the launch of a lone Tamil channel on the Tamil New Year’s day in 1993, with flaming Sun as its logo, incidentally the symbol of the rationalist Dravidian party - the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). The Sun network is the market leader in all the four southern states in terms of revenue as well as reach. The ambition of its prime mover, Kalanidhi Maran, son of late Murasoli Maran and grand nephew of DMK chief Karunanidhi, does not stop here. He has already made the ground work for the launch of a Bengali channel "Surjo". He has gone in for an IPO offering 68.89 lakh shares to fund his future projects. Even after this, he will be retaining 90% of the shares in the company.  

 

Forty-year-old Maran, with an MBA from an American university, is the sole architect of the enormous success of Sun network and is the CMD of the group. He started his media venture with the production of a video news magazine like "Newstrack" of the eighties. A marketing wizard himself and being the first entrant to the television world, it was a one-horse race for him till the media boom of the nineties.  His younger brother and Union Telecommunications Minister, Dayanidhi Maran, has hitherto been playing the role of a "side-kick" for his enterprising brother by looking after the Sumangali Cable Vision (SCV) until he was able to make it to the Union cabinet, courtesy his grand-uncle and his pressure tactics with 39 MPs in his kitty.

 

There is nothing wrong in Kalanidhi being ambitious and trying to emerge as Rupert Murdoch of India or Media Moghul of the country. He has every right, provided he follows the rules of the game and does not use unfair means to eliminate his competitors. However much he tries to distance himself and his network from the political family of his grand-uncle, the mud sticks. The  SUN network office is located in the central office of the DMK (Arivalayam) on Mount Road. Though Karunanidhi says that SUN TV is only a tenant in the party office, it does not wash because the channel defies all professional ethics and norms to be the mouthpiece of the party.

 

Yes, success in any field comes with a price. It gives rise to jealous competitors even if one goes about his business in a most ethical manner. But the case of SUN is different. It has earned the wrath of all its competitors, both print and television, not merely because of its successful business operations, but the manner in which it dealt with its competitors with its political clout and financial muscle. The election heat and the way the SUN tried to bulldoze the channels and newspapers in Tamil Nadu, which did not toe the line of the DMK-led alliance, completely isolated the network in the entire state. The fact that the proposed take over of the SCV by the Jayalalithaa government (Bill is yet to get its nod from the Governor) received wholehearted welcome from the people of Tamil Nadu reflects the public mood towards the network.

 

Star Vijay, a Tamil channel, originally launched by Vijay Mallya and subsequently taken over by Star, is believed to be the victim of the SCV. Another Tamil channel Raj TV and its Telugu counterpart, Vissa, were not spared either for not giving "favourable" coverage to the DMK in 2004 Parliamentary elections. As soon as the elections were over, a technical flaw on the part of these channels was seized by the Telecommunictions minister to revoke their licences. Both the channels were off screen for a long time.  Now, both these channels are uplinking their programmes from a Thai satellite.

 

 Jaya TV is yet to get its licence for its 24-hour news channel, whereas SUN has exclusive news channels in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada languages. Tamizhan TV is yet another satellite channel that is at the receiving end because it is never shown in the prime band. Win TV chairman Devanathan has directly charged the SCV, in a press conference, for blacking out his channel in the distribution network in Tiruchy, Tiruppur, Madurai and Coimbatore. Devanathan says that he has already enlisted the support of 15 "like-minded" broadcasters to represent to the President about the monopolistic trade practices of SCV. Whatever be the merit behind these charges against SUN network, one thing is clear. The network has been successful in ensuring that there are no competitors in the state, especially for news bulletins.

 

During the thick of election campaign for the state Assembly, the New Indian Express did its bit. It came out with an investigative report as to how Dayanidhi had been pressurizing Ratan Tata to give away 33% stakes in the Tata-Star DTH project, known as "Tata Sky" project. The Tatas and Murdoch hold 80% and 20% shares respectively in the project. According to the Express report, Kalanidhi met Ratan Tata and when this did not yield results, Dayanidhi spoke to Murdoch for a deal. Even when this did not click, the Telecommunications minister is alleged to have threatened Tata with dire consequences. This has become a major issue in the election campaign to highlight the highhanded behaviour of SUN and misuse of office by Dayanidhi. All the Opposition leaders are demanding that Dayanidhi should be divested of the portfolio of Telecommunications.

 

The minister, on his part, has denied all the charges and said that "the allegations are part of a larger conspiracy to remove me". His conspiracy theory is that since he was the brain behind BSNL’s "One-India" concept, some of the telecom operators have ganged up against him.

 

What gives a sort of legitimacy to the charge is the absence of any denial from the Tatas. The cryptic remark of Tata spokesperson was "We do not wish to make any comment". Additionally, the manner in which Dayanidhi handled the issue does not give the minister the benefit of doubt. Besides suing a channel and newspapers for carrying the report, Dayanidhi also appealed to the court to restrain publications from carrying any report on this issue. When Jaya TV planned a story on this with the comments of political analysts and announced the timing of the telecast, SCV pulled out the plug for those fifteen minutes or so. Dayanidhi is aware of the damage potential of this charge during the run up to the polls. Since Karunanidhi, a shrewed politician with 60 years in public life, could smell that the people do not tend to believe the flat denials of the minister and the charge is more damaging to the interests of the party at this crucial hour, he resorted to damage control exercise. Karunanidhi said that he would not spare Maran. "If the charges against him are proved, I myself will initiate action against him. I will not look at him as my grand nephew, but will see him only as a member of the DMK". It is difficult to say whether this will satisfy the voter at large. Moreover, how can the charge be proved unless the Centre intervenes in the matter and orders an enquiry? Will the Prime Minister make such a move? So, Karunanidhi can safely take to such a posturing.

 

Whatever the legal ramifications, the perception is that SUN network would like to have a stranglehold over the entire media world and thus control the thought process of the people. Is the trend compatible with a democratic society? Among the literate sections, the SUN network is seen as a bully not content with finishing its rivals in the field, but to take on major industrial houses as well to reinforce its monopoly in the media world.  Is this not the time for the powers-that-be to have a fresh look at the "cross-media ownership" and monopolistic trends?  The SUN model is a real threat to free society that should promote and encourage diverse viewpoints.

 

Jaya TV of course, is no better. But being a minor player, it is a lesser evil.

 

 

 

 

 

Contact: s_ramanujan9@yahoo.co.in

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