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Mini War Over The Megahertz

A slew of news channels is set to come up in poll-year Karnataka. Mad jostle or better use of media space?

Mini War Over The Megahertz
Inaugural function of Dighvijay on April 5
Mini War Over The Megahertz

It’s an election year in Karnataka and you cannot miss the rhetoric as it gets louder on the ground. But there’s the promise of plenty of action in the airwaves too, with a gaggle of new TV channels looking to edge their way into a crowded Kannada news segment this year.

Businessman and former Lok Sabha member Vijay Sankeshwar, who runs leading Kannada daily Vijayavani, set the ball rolling this April with Dighvijay 24/7, entering a market that already had 13 news channels, small and big. A couple more, TV1 and Focus TV, are waiting in the wings, eyeing a launch soon. Then there’s Hyderabad-based TV5 coming up with a Kannada channel. And, as the grapevine has it, at least two other separate initiatives are in the works.

News channels launching closer to elections—Karnataka goes to polls in 2018—isn’t anything new, however.

A decade ago, Kannada news was a largely untapped space but it has grown fast since 2006 when TV9 Kannada, currently the market leader, started out as the first news-only channel. “They won’t be able to make much of a dent,” Mahendra Mishra, director, TV9 Kannada, says of the growing competition. He doesn’t appear to be unduly perturbed. “We’ve had 50-60 per cent marketshare in Karnataka from day one. We are just building on what we have done so far and staying consistent,” says Mishra. TV9 is owned by Hyderabad-­based Associated Broadcasting Comp­any. “We are not too concerned about the competition. Most media organisations have been backed by people who come from a political background, directly or indirectly,” he says.

Currently, the Janata Dal (Secular)’s H.D. Kumaraswamy owns Kasthuri News, the Reddys of Bellary-run Jana­sri—both launched in 2011—while Udaya is part of Kalanithi Maran’s Sun Group. Samaya was started by Congressman Satish Jarkiholi in 2008, but went into a downward slide and subsequent ownership changes. Suvarna News belongs to Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s Asianet News Network. And, it’s possible to hear speculation of how at least a couple of other channels have prominent politicians backing them indirectly.

Vijay Sankeshwar, H.D. Kumaraswamy and Rajeev Chandrasekhar

Among the new entrants, the bosses of two channels have dabbled in a political career. But, of course, Sankeshwar, a three-time BJP Lok Sabha MP from Karnataka, who owns VRL, one of India’s largest transportation companies, is no stranger to the media space, having built the daily Vijaya Karnataka into the state’s number one newspaper before selling it to Bennett, Coleman & Co in 2006 and then, in 2011, launching Vijayavani. The other, K.P. Nanjundi, chairman of the upcoming TV1, is fairly new to the media business but has been a tele serial producer and popular actor, besides running a jewellery chain. He joined the BJP last month as a state vice-president after a long stint with the Congress party.

The recent growth in the Kannada news space comes at a time when the state’s legislators are keen to earn more control over the media, especially audio-visual.

“I wanted to do this (news channel) much earlier but it’s only now that things have fallen into place,” Nanjundi tells Outlook, adding that he had applied for a licence in 2013. “Look, I’m a person who came from a slum. I see this as an opportunity to inspire people that such things are possible even for those coming from a background such as myself. For me, politics has happened only recently,” says Nanjundi who runs Lakshmi Golds Palace, a chain of 11 jewellery and five silk saree stores. Yet, as many point out, aren’t most news channels bleeding? Nanjundi doesn’t think the news business is particularly difficult. “You need to handle it carefully. I’m looking at this as my 17th outlet,” he quips. “You can’t expect to make a profit overnight in any business,” says Nanjundi. “This is a long-term business and you should break even gradually. You have to invest, bear losses, nurture it and run it well if you want to build a big organisation.” The venture has plans to launch news servi­ces in nine languages besides magazines and e-newspapers over the next 3-5 years, says Shiva Prasad T.R., editor-in-chief of the channel. “TV1 is just one starting step from where we will be taking our media business to a different level. Also, in the next one year, we may come up with a music and movie channel and later expand into other languages,” he says. Meanwhile, Jyothi Irvathur, chief editor of Focus TV, which expects to go on air this month, says there “is enough space for something fresh beca­use viewers are fed up with the current copycat formats”. She hopes to pursue development issues and veer away from some staples like astrology.

The growth in the Kannada news space, incidentally, comes at a time when legislators are mulling ways to have more control over the media, especially the TV channels. In March, several Karnataka legislators ranted against the media during a discussion in the assembly, noting that news channels have gone overboard with fast-paced, shrill-pit­ched coverage. Following this, a committee of MLAs was set up to go into the issue. “It’s true that media in India is still in its infancy, especially the electronic media. But at the same time, it should be given some breathing space,” says Shiva Prasad. “I won’t say it has to be controlled, but some amount of self-regulation has to be brought in. Or else somebody else will do the job,” says Mishra.

Shankar Bala, CEO of the media outsourcing firm Fourth Dimension, says there are about 25 Telugu news channels serving Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and about 12 channels in Tamil Nadu. “So Karnataka can’t be any different,” he says, even though it is smaller than these states in terms of advertising revenue. “I don’t think people (in Karnataka) are making money, except the top two,” Bala says. Currently, Public TV takes the second spot after TV9 Kann­ada, market watchers say.

Bala reckons the number of channels is only set to grow. “Today, everybody is wanting to get audiences in the South,” he says. Mishra of TV9 Kann­ada disagr­ees. “There won’t be space for more than four-five channels in Karnataka or any of these markets. No market can accommodate more channels which can be operationally profitable,” he says. “And, I think, rather than consolidation, a lot of them will disappear.” Mishra feels the market is already getting saturated. “There’s no great headroom available for news channels to grow now.”

By some estimates, the expenses of running a news channel could range anywhere from Rs 20 crore a year up to Rs 55-60 crore.

A good number of news channels that are proliferating do not have a track record of profit or a sound revenue model, points out a veteran journalist.

The proliferation of news channels is in some ways bewildering, says veteran journalist Sashi Kumar who heads the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. For, a good section of them doesn’t have any track record of profit or a sound revenue model. News, typically, is more of a level playing field compared to general entertainment where the costs for excl­usive content are much higher.

“There is a chance of doing better than the other. And, news is probably easier to produce,” says Sashi Kumar. “Production costs are now almost nil because the new model of news is that you are hardly going and shooting anything. You’re just sitting in a studio and talking away. Earlier you had to do so many news packages in the course of a bulletin. Now, that whole format has changed,” he says.

But Sashi Kumar, who founded India’s first regional satellite channel Asianet in 1993, also says it’s ridiculous that licence fees are higher for news than for general entertainment channels when it’s pro­ven that news channels don’t make money. “It is an entry barrier for professionals who may want to get into it and who are not moneybags. This is favouring the rich,” he notes. “One of the problems with the entire media ownership story in India is that there is no mapping of the media. We really don’t know who owns what piece of the cake.”

By Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore

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