The one-horse race is over. Doordarshan has competition. As the principal political entities slug it out for votes in the weeks ahead, the battle for mindspace among television networks is expected to be just as fierce. In what is only the second Lok Sabha elections in the age of satellite TV, the national broadcaster, now mercifully free from government control, will have to contend with the exertions of a host of private channels that are out to grab meaty pieces of the election cake.
With the polls less than a month away, the key players—DD, Zee and Star—have unveiled ambitious election coverage plans: they're going full steam ahead to bring the thrills of the electoral war into millions of homes. DD will mount a 72-hour live coverage of the election results. Star Plus has introduced an election special band on prime-time. And Zee TV, to wrest "the first mover advantage", has converted Channel El into a 24-hour current affairs service, Zee India TV. "El had a connectivity of over 80 per cent," asserts Zee's P.C. Lahiri. "During the elections, it can only increase."
Other channels may not be as upbeat as Zee, but that hasn't stopped them from jumping into the ring. TVi, India's first private news channel, has beefed up its current affairs operations and shed most of its non-news shows, which were proving to be a drain on its meagre resources. The two-year-old Sony Entertainment Television has realised the importance of current affairs: its election coverage will be helmed by Vinod Dua, with BBC's Hindi news team providing the back-up.
Viewers couldn't have asked for more. The once-dowdy DD has decided to play an interventionist role. "The objective is not merely to report. We will arouse public opinion against candidates with criminal backgrounds as well as exhort the youth and affluent sections of our society to exercise their franchise," elaborates S.S. Gill, Prasar Bharati Board's executive-member.
Also, Prannoy Roy will, after a long spell, not provide election updates to DD viewers. "He wasn't considered," says Gill, "as he's too closely identified with Star TV." Roy's shift to Star has catapulted TV Today, producers of DD Metro's Aaj Tak, into a pre-eminent position. The company has bagged the 72-hour live telecast on DD on a minimum guarantee of Rs 3 crore. And Prasar Bharati hopes to mop up Rs 12 crore from the exercise.
DD will telecast an exit poll, produced and marketed by a consortium of Nalini Singh,Ramesh Sharma, Pritish Nandy and the Times of India Group, 30 minutes after the last phase of voting ends on March 7. The consortium will also deliver 10 half-hour programmes dealing with various election issues. For each show, DD will be paid a telecast fee of Rs 3.5 lakh.
Though Lahiri isn't sure what kind of revenue Zee India TV's coverage of the polls will generate, he doesn't see that as an irritant. "That would have been a problem had we been a stand-alone channel. We are part of a thriving basket of channels," he points out. "There can't be a better opportunity than elections to establish the credentials of a new news channel." The shows that will spearhead Zee India TV's foray into election news are a political talk show hosted by The Asian Age editor M.J. Akbar and Disha Samvad, an unusual show presented by veteran politician Chandra Shekhar.
Billed as "an honest assessment of issues and policies concerning the nation", each episode of Disha Samvad will have Chandra Shekhar single out a specific issue—the more contentious, the better—and engage in a dialogue with an eminent political or media personality. Among those to be featured—V.P. Singh, Sharad Pawar, A.B. Bardhan. Sitaram Yechury and Nanaji Deshmukh. Another significant move is that the ever-popular Aap Ki Adalat presented by Manoj Raghuvanshi has been turned into a weekly debate show featuring two politicians from opposing camps. "The idea is to acquire a position of relevance in the current affairs segment," says Lahiri.
And Star TV is trying to do precisely that. The success of Star News, produced by Prannoy Roy's New Delhi Television (NDTV), has given it a headstart over other private channels, but the elections will be an all-new battle. According to industry sources, Star is keen on launching a 24-hour news channel right away. But the unforeseen failure of the motors of Asiasat-3, a satellite on which the network's future plans had hinged, has stymied its plans. Star Plus has, meanwhile, introduced an election special band, on which all current affairs shows—Newstrack, A Question of Answers, Aawaz, Special Session and Ek Din Chunao Ke—will be devoted entirely to the elections.
But what about live coverage? "Star has acquired a transponder on the rather weak Russian satellite, Gorizont, which may be put to use if the private channels are allowed to cover the election results live," says a source. The chances of uplink facilities being granted to private channels are bright. Says deputy election commissioner Subhas Pani: "We've requested the information and broadcasting ministry to allow live telecast by private channels." But live or not, private channels will be hard-pressed to match DD. Media observers point out the obvious advantages that the national broadcaster enjoys: its vast network, its tremendous reach, its hardware, its manpower. Says an independent television producer: "Without DD's OB vans, without the live feeds, Prannoy Roy may not make quite the same impact as he did in 1996."