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After The Eclipse

The Sun TV empire's writ ran even in Delhi. Too big, too soon?

After The Eclipse
After The Eclipse
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
The Heat Is On

Here's why the Sun network needs the DMK:

  • It has grown into a mega empire with 20 channels, seven FM stations, two dailies etc because of proximity to DMK
  • DMK cadre supported Sun, helped browbeat competitors, buy out cable operators
  • Free CTV scheme benefited Sun since it controls cable operations in Tamil Nadu
  • DMK made Dayanidhi the communications & IT ministry, it helped network grow
  • Sun's diversification plans may be grounded without the support of the DMK

***

With 20 television channels panning South India, seven FM radio stations, two Tamil newspapers and four magazines, an English-language tabloid based out of Chennai in the pipeline (a tie-up with media mogul Rupert Murdoch), the sky seems to be the limit for Kalanidhi Maran's media empire. After being listed in the stock exchange, Sun TV Ltd's shares have done well, but for the drop of about 8 per cent (worth Rs 900 crore) since brother Dayanidhi's resignation. He later claimed at a press meet that he had nothing to do with Sun TV though Sun's offer document filed with SEBI in April '06 introduced him as a promoter.

Dayanidhi, before becoming Union minister, used to head Sumangali Cable Vision, a multi-system operator of the Sun group that had near-monopoly control over the cable network and distribution of set-top boxes. Much of the success that has come Sun's way owes not just to Kalanidhi's skills acquired as an MBA graduate at University of Scranton, us, but also to the close association with the DMK.

Kalanidhi Maran got into the cable business at the age of 27, launching Sun TV on the Tamil New Year day in 1993. Being the son of Murasoli Maran, nephew and confidant of DMK chief M. Karunanidhi, certainly facilitated Sun's exponential growth. In fact, Sun TV's corporate office has all along been located at Anna Arivalayam, the DMK HQ in Chennai. If Karunanidhi's son Azhagiri comes across as someone who crudely deploys muscle power and intimidation, the Marans are no better, having used similar methods, courtesy DMK muscle, to browbeat competitors and buy out cable operators in the state.

Tamil Nadu has the highest TV penetration in the country at 76.2 per cent. And of every 100 TV sets, 60 have cable connections. At any given point, 47 per cent of Tamil TV viewers would be watching a Sun channel; indeed Sun TV's closest rival is sister channel KTV. And it helped that they got grand-uncle Karunanidhi to promise 90 lakh free colour TV sets as an election promise in 2006. The CTV came free, the cable the Marans provided was not.

The monopoly has made television synonymous with Sun TV in the state. Kalanidhi has also made sure that distribution is king, not content. For instance, despite running the sole 24-hour Tamil news channel, Sun still does not offer live news. That said, Sun's emphasis has been on entertainment films, film-based programmes, Tamil soaps eventually dubbed into Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada. Such has been Sun's supremacy that producers of most new Tamil films are forced to sell TV rights to it. Says a film industry veteran: "Sun benefits immensely from film-based programmes...still they intimidate us into believing we've more to lose by not tying up with them."

Kalanidhi has also done whatever it takes to boost sales. To that end, when he acquired Tamil eveninger Tamil Murasu, his media house ran a press campaign against actress Khushboo's statements on pre-marital sex (November '05) and even indulged in cultural policing by publishing sensational pictures of couples drinking and kissing in star hotels. The anti-Khushboo campaign, which appeared to be led by the PMK and Dalit Panthers, was in fact orchestrated by the Marans. Ironically, Dayanidhi used to run the discotheque HFO (Hell Freezes Over) in Chennai till the then Jayalalitha government clamped down on it in 2001.

Once Dayanidhi got entrenched in the crucial IT and communications ministry (since May '04), Sun set its eyes on bigger targets. In April '06, there were reports about how Kalanidhi had demanded of industrialist Ratan Tata that he be made a promoter of the Tatas' DTH project, in which they and Star TV were 80:20 co-promoters. Kalanidhi apparently wanted one-third of the shares at par, irrespective of real or fair value. BJP leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, L.K. Advani, had then written to the PM drawing attention (belatedly though) to the conflict of interests between Dayanidhi's ministry and his brother's business.

For non-compliance, the Marans even allegedly threatened Tata with dire consequences in Tata Telecom. Advani had pointed out that Dayanidhi "controls the grant of spectrum for all wireless businesses including DTH and FM radio, in which Sun TV, of which he is a promoter, has been a beneficiary of licences granted by his ministry". It didn't come to anything, Dayanidhi continued to hold the portfolio.

Meanwhile, several central and state government departments were also obliged to direct ad spend in TN towards the Sun's visual and print arms. Besides, many telecom MNCs and automobiles companies—hustled into investing in Tamil Nadu by an over-enthusiastic Dayanidhi Maran—also had to release advertisements to the network.

While proximity to the DMK helped Sun, the party too benefited immensely by using it for propaganda. During the 1998 parliamentary elections, Sun TV telecast throughout election day Rajnikanth's appeal to vote out Jayalalitha and vote for the DMK-Tamil Maanila Congress alliance. And it paid rich political dividends for the DMK. The same happened in 2001, when Jayalalitha staged the midnight arrest of Karunanidhi. Sun TV's cameras were the first to get access to the visuals. Says Kanimozhi, Karunanidhi's daughter, "It's true that Sun played a significant role in raising awareness over my father's arrest, but they too derived a lot of mileage from those visuals."

The Sun-DMK relations have indeed been incestuous. A senior DMK leader concluded recently: "A political family having a stake in TV, newspapers, radio and every kind of media can certainly lead to unhealthy consequences. What we need is a law that can exercise controls over such a nexus."

Sun TV Ltd had of late been looking beyond the media business. A month ago, it put out a release to the bse saying it was planning to start aviation services for commercial and non-commercial purposes in the country and outside. On May 5, Jayalalitha cried foul saying Sun had in a record 23 days managed clearance from the Centre for purchasing two Bombardier aircraft (cost: Rs 236.94 crore). The application, submitted on December 12, '06, was cleared on January 5, '07 by the Directorate General of Foreign trade. Now, without DMK support, some of these plans could be grounded.

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