They must be shooting darts at an Amitabh Bachchan mug in New Delhi Television (NDTV). AB’s game show has not only pushed NDTV’s English bulletin from Star Plus’ highly-coveted 9 pm slot to the fledgling Star World, it has also fuelled speculation about a souring of ties between Rupert Murdoch’s flagship channel in India and Prannoy Roy’s production house.
To be sure, when Star Plus went 100 per cent Hindi last week there were other English casualties as well: Vir Sanghvi’s Star Talk and TV 18’s Amul India Show. But it is Star Plus’ decision to dunk NDTV’s English and Hindi bulletins that has set media wires abuzz. The big question is whether the NDTV-Star marriage is on the rocks.
Star believes the agreement with NDTV is loaded in the latter’s favour. Now, Mukherjea might just be correcting that.
Adding fuel to the fire were Star TV ceo Peter Mukherjea’s comments in an Indian Express interview. He said that he wouldn’t have granted the news contract lock, stock and barrel to NDTV and that Star was contemplating its own news channel and exercising more authority on the Star News channel that has been Roy’s fiefdom. "I’m currently working with Prannoy to figure out the situation so that we have access to our own news channel and put content into it," Mukherjea was quoted as saying. He also added that he intended to reduce the dependence on just one supplier: "That’s simply not going to work in the long run." But there’re other clues that both Star and NDTV are doing a rethink on their five-year agreement that expires in March 2003:
- Two top NDTV anchors-English and Hindi-were approached by Star to come over and develop its own news and current affairs programming. Star, however, denies this.
- Mukherjea is reported to have asked many production houses, including Asian News International, United Television, InTV, Business Standard Television to demonstrate their news-gathering abilities.
- Star has developed its own Star Morning Show to compete with NDTV’s Good Morning India.
- NDTV is reportedly planning an Initial Public Offering (IPO) for a 24-hour hybrid channel of its own with 40 per cent news content, and is talking to Enron for webcasting news-based events in the US and Europe.
- Roy has been forced to accommodate Rendezvous with Simi Garewal and Vir Sanghvi’s Star Talk on the Star News channel, which has been an NDTV show all along.
- And, although Mukherjea says that NDTV’s bulletins were dropped because Star Plus was now a 100 per cent entertainment channel, Star TV was flying in its creative director, Bill Browning, to give a more classy look to Rajat Sharma’s current affairs programme Aaj ki Baat.
- Rajiv Shukla’s interview programme Ru-ba-Ru was also being wooed over from Zee TV.
Both Star and NDTV are unwilling to divulge any details. While Roy maintains a stiff silence, Mukherjea was quick to whitewash it all. He told Outlook that "the (Indian Express) quote may have been taken out of context. Our relationship with NDTV is on secure ground and the agreement we have is long-lasting." Industry observers, however, believe the alliance is poised for a shift in power. Mukherjea also says that yanking out the news bulletin was a strategic move. "It’s related to the fact that Star Plus is now a 100 per cent Hindi entertainment channel," he said. But that doesn’t explain why Sharma’s Aaj Ki Baat is still on air, or why Shukla’s Ru-ba-Ru is soon coming on air. Star argues that the move isn’t a comedown for NDTV as Star World reaches 53 countries while Star Plus is aimed at the Indian subcontinent alone. But it’s a fact that while the subcontinent is Star News’ real constituency, Star World is yet to consolidate itself in the country.
Star’s decision to ease out the bulletins has elicited its share of scepticism. "They’d be idiots to take the NDTV news off. It’s a winning horse," says media columnist Ashok Banker. "Why should anyone remove the country’s most respected anchor," questions media analyst Joydeep Gupta. Why indeed? "It’s possible that now that news is making money they want to take the cash cow away from NDTV," adds Banker. According to a source, Star News accounted for 40 per cent of the Star Plus total revenues of $25 million (Rs 100 crore) for 1998-99. Mukherjea may not admit this but media watchers say that he doesn’t want to follow his predecessor R. Basu’s legacy. "Instead he wants to create an impression of his own," says media commentator Sudheesh Pachauri.
The real issue, therefore, is of control. Rathikant Basu’s aim in floating the Star News channel was to be able to exercise political clout. So much so that the channel was actually launched from the then PM I.K. Gujral’s residence. The feeling in the Mukherjea camp, says a top source at Star, is that the objective has suffered lately. Insiders claim that Star TV told Roy and his team to brush up its news-gathering and avoid what it called "unnecessarily analysing almost each and every event". Says a Star TV source, "They have this peculiar tendency to turn news like Kargil into correspondents’ shows. We often told them about it, even the PMO complained but such antics continued."
Moreover, the feeling is gaining ground in Star that the five-year agreement with NDTV, which brought Star News channel to life in April 1998, is loaded in NDTV’s favour. What with the production house exercising editorial control, retaining the copyright on programming, besides holding the web and broadband rights for all software. NDTV gets paid for the programming and even gets a share of the revenues. While the broadcaster is responsible for what’s aired, there’s no indemnity clause built in the contract either. What’s more, NDTV doesn’t need to scour for advertising or do its own marketing. If all this weren’t enough, Star even revised the contract to remove the exit (terminating the agreement) clause.
"Why a broadcaster should sign such a dumb deal beats me. Star is like the owner of a motor car giving a free ride to NDTV," says Iqbal Malhotra, chairman of Delhi-based aim Television. So is Mukherjea aiming to set the balance (or imbalance) right? "This was a contract Peter received as a legacy. There are clauses he does not like. It’s all a question of hindsight. But contractually we are committed," says Jagdish Kumar, executive VP, Star TV India.
Kumar brushes it all aside as just another managerial-editorial conflict. "Prannoy is very protective about his independence-which is important for news programming-but from the channel’s point of view, a broadcaster can bring something to the table to add to the value. It’s been uphill going with Prannoy, but he’s more open now," he says. So, even as millions of Indians search for their pot of gold on TV, another game is going on in the boardroom. And the stakes here are definitely higher than a crore.