In the last one month, two developments have become noteworthy in the television landscape in Tamil Nadu: the government-owned Arasu Cable Television struck a deal with the Sun TV network after year-long negotiations by which 37 channels of the Sun TV group will henceforth be available on its platform; and Puthiya Thalaimurai (PT), the strikingly different channel in television-saturated Tamil Nadu, went off air in places in Chennai on August 16, just as it was completing one year of operations.
Seemingly unrelated, the two events signify the complex ways in which politics and media are linked in the State. Television cable wars have been stuff of politics in Tamil Nadu for decades now, with both the DMK and the AIADMK having in their control popular satellite channels that propagate their agendas. Come State elections and free TV sets and subsidised cable connections figure prominently in the election manifestoes along with free rice and other subsidies. The current scenario where a new non-partisan television channel has been dislodged from a popular platform seems to add another twist to the tale.
PT which completed a year on August 24, 2012 treads a path very different to the majority of television channels in Tamil Nadu that function as voices, if not organs of political parties. Sun TV and Kalaignar TV are identified with the DMK, Jaya TV with the ruling AIADMK, Captain with DMDK, Makkal with PMK and Vasanth with the Congress. Owned by Chennai-based SRM group, not only did PT choose to be non-partisan, but came up with a programming package very different to the film and serial-based entertainment that Sun TV and all other channels in the State offer. The change was what the Tamil populace had been apparently been waiting for, for PT news quickly scaled to the top over Jaya and Sun News.
However, the dream run was too good to last and PT hit its first hurdle just ahead of its first anniversary. On August 24, 2012, PT’s agreement with Sun Direct-to-home (DTH), owned by Kalanidhi Maran who owns and operates both the Sun Network and Sumangali Cable Vision (SCV), came to an end. A year ago, PT had paid well over Rs 10 crore, reportedly the highest ever carriage fee paid by a television channel, to Sun DTH. Eight days after it had signed the deal with Sun DTH in 2011, Arasu Cable Television, ironically announced in 2008 by the DMK government when Karunanidhi’s relations with the Maran brothers had soured, was revived by AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalaithaa for much the same reason: to break the monopoly of private cable operators. In July this year, Arasu made a breakthrough when it signed an agreement with Sun network. Around the same time, PT’s negotiations with Sun DTH to renew the licence for another year, broke down as Sun DTH was reportedly asking for double the carriage fee it had been paid earlier. Both PT and Sun DTH have been silent on their differences.
An indication that all was not right with PT and the SCV-Sun DTH came when PT disappeared from Sumangali Cable Vision (SCV) on August 16, 2012. SCV is one of the major cable TV service providers. The players in the Direct-to-home sector are DD Direct Plus, Dish TV, Tata Sky, Sun Direct DTH, BIG TV, Airtel Digital TV and Videocon d2h. With SCV’s stronghold being Chennai, its face-off with PT meant that most of Chennai and pockets of northern Tamil Nadu went without PT.
Perhaps, buoyed by its reputation as a ‘fair’ and ‘objective’ news source, PT organised live shows where its reporters stationed in these areas went about asking the people of Chennai on what they thought was the reason for the black-out. Interestingly, most of the viewers made a connection to the falling viewership of Sun News, which had just moved to No 3, even behind Jaya Plus. Viewers by and large opined that a piqued Sun Network was trying to get back at PT for dethroning it from the No. 1 spot in ‘news’. PT meanwhile, made valiant attempts to explain that the channel was not available owing to SCV. Soon PT was off Sun DTH too, with the channel using tickers to advice viewers that it was not visible only on Sun DTH, but visible in all other platforms, indirectly implying that viewers keen on retaining PT may move to other platforms.
Some days later, PT returned to SCV and Sun DTH, but on a different frequency and on a different programme number with very poor quality. A band ran across PT in SCV and DTH that PT had not renewed its licence and will go off air if it failed to. However, it is now learnt that both parties are ironing out their differences and PT may be back on the Sun platforms soon.
While a hike in carriage fee is par for the course in the business, Sun DTH’s hike in carriage fee is significant in the context of two developments: first, the signing of an agreement by Maran’s Sun Network with Arasu Cable Television, now under the AIADMK government. The negotiations had taken about a year, but its success has surprised many industry observers, considering the relations between the Marans and the AIADMK. Secondly, ‘digitisation’ is well on the horizon in Tamil Nadu, with the government announcing a November 2012 deadline, when there will have to be more transparency in the dealings.
It must be noted that PT is not the first channel to be so unceremoniously dropped. For instance, in the weeks preceding, ‘My TV’ had been dropped from Airtel, and ‘7Sea’ from ‘Reliance’ over the issue of carriage fee. In 2012, Reliance TV had dropped nearly 12 channels following disagreements over carriage fee amounts. In fact, Kalaignar TV, Win TV and Makkal TV had been dropped from DD Direct at different times in the past. Sun DTH had itself taken Makkal TV off air and resumed telecast after it had sorted out the issue of payment of carriage fees. The PT-Sun DTH issue may thus be no more than a business deal gone awry, with SCV and Sun DTH trying to make the most of the situation ahead of the November digitisation.
The stand-off between PT and Sun is interesting purely in the context of PT’s success as a viable alternative to the partisan channels in the State. Even if PT has secured higher ratings for its news, Sun TV is far from being dethroned as the leading TV channel in the State. The role of television in the State becomes significant in times of elections and it is as yet too early to assess the sway of the respective channels over the Tamil electorate.
Dr Maya Ranganathan teaches in the disciplines of 'international communication' and 'media' in Macquarie University, Sydney, and researches in the area of 'media and identities' in South Asia. She is the co-author of 'Indian media in a globalised world', 2010, Sage, New Delhi.