When German filmmaker Werner Herzog, in a fit of rage, called for the bombing of television stations - because he believed the idiot box was poison to the rich playfield that is human consciousness - little did he know then that in a different place and in a different time the boob tube would have its revenge. By holding captive precisely that aspect of a land's culture which had perhaps been its greatest source of vitality.
The linguistically and artistically rich regions of India - the real repositories of its culture - are the latest target of the electronic medium, Murdoch style but with a desi twang. The sudden glut in regional channels and programming in the country indicates a strange coming together of the modern and the traditional. So, we have Rathikant Basu, the founder and promoter of Broadcasting Worldwide Pvt Limited, bandying around the concept, "back to the roots" television. TV's vendetta has been sweet indeed.
Basu, the former head honcho of Doordarshan and Star TV, is in his third innings swearing by regional channels and programming. Teaming up with him is Kishwar Ahluwalia, the ceo of the newly-launched tara Punjabi channel, whose mandate is to change the popular impression that Punjab is only about Bhangra and Giddha. She intends to showcase the rich heritage of her state on her channel.
But it's not merely Punjab that Basu has his eyes on. After having launched tara Bangla, Marathi and Gujarati channels, he is now toying with the idea of a Bengali movie channel called tara Talkies. And he intends to follow that up with either a channel in Bhojpuri or Marwari. So, if you thought that tara was just the Hindi equivalent of Star, you ought to correct yourself. It is the acronym for Television Aimed at Regional Audiences. The total investment in the four channels is pegged at Rs 130 crore and Basu aims to break even in three years. All this might sound ambitious but Basu is glowingly optimistic: "Regional channels are the future of Indian TV."
There are others who share the vision. In the plush, though strikingly incongruous, 20th floor suite of a Delhi five-star hotel the birth of two more 'earthy, rustic' channels is announced. Former hmv chief Pavan Malhotra, who is now the managing director of Beyond Images, is starting 24-hour, free-to-air Channel Rajasthani and Channel Bihari in October. Aimed at 15 crore Biharis and 10 crore Rajasthanis spread across the globe, Malhotra's two projects have already mopped up $7 million from international venture capitalists.
And if the north is just waking up to the changed realities of the entertainment business, south of the Vindhyas things are really moving rapidly. In Chennai, Kalanidhi Maran, the undisputed king of regional television, is firming up his expansion plans. Having recently launched a 24-hour Sun News channel; Teja, a new Telugu films and music channel; and Ushe, a Kannada movie and music channel, Maran is now working on an exclusive 24-hour news channel, again aimed at the Kannada market. His prophecy: "Given our presence in the south, I hope to harness the resources in such a way that there will be a comprehensive coverage of the region where none can rival us."
Well, well, just when you thought that the shakeout in the satellite TV industry was complete, the good old idiot box is a-singing again. Move over dotcoms, it's the second coming of TV that's hot and happening. The situation is reminiscent of the early 1990s when channels were being launched almost faster than you could surf. But the focus now is sharper. The buzzword that drives the current phase of the revolution is not mass appeal but captive niche markets, the regional segment the most fecund of the lot. Such is the regional pull that Sahara TV, just a couple of months old, is already planning a multilingual channel.
Nobody, it seems, is willing to be left behind in this era of second generation TV boom. Zee launched a separate brand for its language channels with Alpha Punjabi, Bengali, Gujarati and Marathi. The idea has been to provide 'infotainment' to people in their own mother tongue. Till mid-April there were only two Kannada channels: Udaya TV and DD's Chandana TV. On April 16, the Rs 50-crore Suprabhata, backed by Mumbai-based wireless networking company I2I Media Ltd, hit the sky. Having cornered a 51 per cent stake in Asianet, Zee too has launched a Kannada channel, Asianet Kaveri, and is all set to launch Tamil and Telugu channels as well. If you go by what
Asianet's chief operating officer Mohan Nair says, the new channel is likely to break even in the first 12 months of full operations itself. Says he: "We hope to cover all the 1,200 cable head-ends in Karnataka within the next two years."
There are all the signs of a gold rush here. Why else would companies with sundry, varied business interests flock to the language TV business in the hope of striking gold. The Pai group, which has interests in education, financial institutions and media, is planning yet another Kannada channel called Taranga. The Eenadu group, which had established its stronghold in Andhra Pradesh with its etv, has not merely crossed borders, but has travelled far to start a Bengali channel. It is also planning Kannada, Marathi and Urdu channels.
All this, perforce, is accompanied by a lot of spiel where new channels justify their existence and mark out audiences. Most of them are already in the process of defining their usp. Ramoji Rao sees his etv channels as primarily aimed at the family, "from three-year-old to college-going youth to 80-year-old grandmother". At another level, the job lies in content differentiation. To ward off competition from the film-dominated Udaya, Suprabhata is developing its own original software - programmes on tourism and even a show on pros and cons of inter-caste marriage.
But it's Basu who has once again come out trumps. The programming of his channels tout their "personality and message" and their orientation is the result of meticulous surveys which have indicated that 50 per cent of their audience is going to be below 35 years of age. Therefore, the programmes, though reflecting the penchant of a particular region, will have a contemporary feel. Basu has already hired marketing agency imrb to test out the programming so that suitable changes can be made in keeping with the viewers' responses.
So, it's not only numbers, the future of television would also be a game of choices. Avers Basu: "The TV audience has evolved, it's getting more discerning." The standard entertainment fare may no longer be acceptable and the thrust would be on market-oriented programming which caters to specific tastes of individuals and communities.
Says Akhila Sivdas of the New Delhi-based Centre for Advocacy and Research: "It's not like the first flush when the players were just skimming the surface, now they know what they want and also what they can expect of the market." So, after the first phase of the boom, which was closely followed by a filtering out process, the industry has begun maturing. Says Raghav Behl, managing director of TV 18: "The winners of the first phase have been chosen, the uncertainties have lessened. Now is the second phase of consolidation. It's not just a gold rush." The dreams of the newcomers seem to be guided by two factors - the growth in the number of viewers and the hope of a pay TV market getting concretised in the country.
Clearly, the growth in TV channels is being fuelled by the increasing cable penetration. As the cities exhaust their potential, and statistics stabilise, the next frontier for the cable boom is clearly the small towns and villages. Those are exactly the places the new regional channels have a covetous eye on. According to Basu, within a year of Eenadu's launch in Andhra, TV penetration doubled, while cable penetration went up by 138 per cent; all because there was a channel in the state's own language.
Besides, the regional channels are also targeting the great Indian diaspora. TV software exports estimated to be worth Rs 350 crore are set to rise to Rs 5,830 crore by 2005, as per a ficci survey. tara is already tying up to be beamed on dth platforms in the US, Europe and Australia.
The concerted bid at narrow-casting, be it in the regional or the niche segment, has another reason. The ficci survey indicates that currently television accounts for 36 per cent (Rs 2,160 crore) of the Rs 6,000 crore Indian advertising business. It is estimated to rise to Rs 8,000 crore by 2005, constituting almost 50 per cent of advertising in the country. The past couple of years had seen a drop in the adspends of the cash-strapped corporates. The boom witnessed in the mid-1990s - when TV ad revenue jumped 40-45 per cent from Rs 1,400 crore in 1994-95 to almost Rs 2,000 crore in 1995-96 - had given way to a growth rate of 15-17 per cent. Now the tight-fisted corporates, earlier caught in the recessionary spiral, are spending again. But there's obviously no money to waste in the market and the advertisers feel that they can get a bigger bang for their bucks by advertising on regional and niche channels that can play conduits for companies zeroing in on a specific segment of audience.
Commentator Sudheesh Pachauri also sees a cultural change in this regional TV boom. Says he: "The monopoly of English and Hindi is over. The local language is ruling the roost." In Pachauri's opinion, area-specific cable channels at the village or district level that cover local news and events and offer advertising opportunities to small retailers, local manufacturers will come to the forefront in the next phase of TV expansion. Says he: "It will be the Brazilian model which will work in India, not the one from the US." In fact, tara has already signed an MoU for a city-specific channel with rpg Netcom, which reaches 80 per cent of Calcutta's cable subscribers.
So what does it all mean for the viewer? Does it mean more choices in terms of programming and better programming or will it be more of the same? Most channels, clearly, need to drastically overhaul their content. Alpha has already woken up and has begun phasing out the dubbed Hindi serials. Media critic Sevanti Ninan recently described the serials on etv Bangla as "shot on locations with no local ethos". The Bangla channel's programmes, with a made-in-Hyderabad's Filmcity feel, has little for the Bengalis to identify with. Moreover, the genres are those of the mainstream TV. On tara Bangla for instance, Nikhil Alva hosts a travel show called Prasanga Parjatan and Banglar Batash on environment much along the lines of his Living on the Edge. And this where executive vice-president of Star TV India Jagdish Kumar's question acquires relevance: "Will there be enough content to sustain the channels?"
BUT at the end of it all, the bottomline clearly is: the profitable channels are still those with mass appeal - Doordarshan, Zee and Sony. Sun TV is the only regional channel making money. Says Joydeep Gupta of Stracon: "The boom makes no sense. The ad market hasn't boomed enough. Besides, nowhere in the world does the ad market support so many channels. "
A shakeout is inevitable. In fact, it might come sooner than later. The me-too channels will fall by the wayside. Some might be like the dotcom start-ups - short-term ventures for a quick buck.
The biggest problem yet, however, is the economic limitation of the average Indian household. Most Indian homes have a single TV set, which gives an obvious advantage to the family channels over those targeted at individuals. So, will the mainstream TV channels continue to set the trend or will their more homegrown counterparts take over? The second round of the battle in the skies has only just begun. And the question that is yet to be settled is, who will bag the pot of gold?