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Vivian Fernandes
Friday , March 30, 2012 at 18 : 52

A Tamil news channel walks alone and wins


Tamil Nadu's latest offering, PuthiyaThalaimurai ('new generation') topped the charts within a few weeks of launch and has sustained the lead in a television news landscape nurtured with political funds and populated by channels tilting towards one political party or the other. News director S Srinivasan attributed viewer approval of the Chennai-based channel to a mix of professionalism and independent reportage which has enabled it to upstage Sun News, the dominant incumbent, in audience share despite lacking its advertising heft and distribution clout. Luck also played a role as the newly elected AIADMK government revived the state-owned Arasu cable TV network after the Assembly elections and provided the channel with a platform to reach rural households. Srinivasan, or Srini as he likes to be called, was speaking at an event, 'Where's the Party?' organized in New Delhi on Thursday, 22 March by the Foundation for Media Professionals, an organization devoted to upholding media freedom and promoting quality journalism. It was an inquiry into whether independent journalism could flourish in markets where television news is politically colored.    

The ownership of the existing media brands and their attitude to news suggested the slot that the new channel should slip into. KalanithiMaran is the controlling shareholder of Sun TV. He is the grandnephew of M Karunanidhi, chief minister during PuthiyaThailaimurai's launch and a Dravidian leader who had straddled the state's politics for half a century. Maran also owns Dinakaran, the most read Tamil newspaper. Its 2007 poll showing readers' preference for Karunanidhi's youngest son as successor stoked acrimony among siblings in the ruling family and led to a parting of ways. This resulted in the birth of Kalaignar (as Karunanidhi is popularly called) TV a bullhorn of the previous government, which lost its utility when the families patched up.

Other birds of similar plumage are Jaya TV, owned by associates of present Chief Minister JayaramJayalalithaa; Captain TV, the mouthpiece of film star Vijayakanth's DMDK or the Progressive National Democratic Party ; Makkal (People's) TV of S Ramadoss, leader of a party, which champions the cause of the backward caste Vanniyars; Vasanth TV of former Congress legislator H Vasanthakumar, who vowed to 'remain forever at your feet, Madamji', pledging eternal loyalty to Congress President Sonia Gandhi in a newspaper ad on New Year' day; and Mega TV which belongs to former state Congress party president K V Thangabalu. Even newspapers that do not have an overt political affiliation play safe. The 70-year old Dina Thanthi or Daily Telegraph is pro-establishment, while the venerable Hindu readily attacks the central government but hesitates over local scandals.    

So the gap was there. And P Satyanarayana of the SRM group became the financier to plug it. A software engineer and second generational entrepreneur of the SRM group his decision to get into media was to 'serve society,' says Srinivasan. The group has a variety of business interests including trucking, cement manufacture, professional education and media. The initial impulse was to set up a 'infotainment' channel, with four new bulletins to punctuate a daily fare of entertainment that would address the state's twin fascinations: politics and films, but this format was discarded for a 24-hour pure news play. It was named PuthiyaThailaimurai after a newsweekly of the group.

Right from start, the channel broke with convention. Tamil journalists are poorly paid. There is no method in their recruitment. Appointment letters are usually not given and statutory payments like contributions to employees provident fund are not made. Srinivasan says the inculcation of professionalism began with the recruitment process. Every journalist had to undergo a written test and an interview. Those facing the camera were put through an audition. Salary was linked not only to the last pay but also on the channel's assessment of a journalist's worth. Every recruit had to obey a code of ethics. To drive home the message, a few journalists were sacked for accepting 'covers' (that is envelopes with cash, usually given after a press conference). Any form of sexual harassment was also prohibited.

The channel's quest for objectivity was put to several tests. Long years of partisan practice had made the 'other point of view' an alien concept for local recruits. Mindsets had to be reset. That required a few months of training. The people who hosted news programs in Tamil channels were readers on contract selected for their looks and diction and not so much for the feel for news. Finding closer to the launch that only two persons had all the three attributes to be news anchors, the floor was thrown open to every reporter and editor who was keen to face the camera and would put in the effort to make the grade. Theatre professionals were engaged to work on their voices.

The promoter family may have realized that the channel was taking the dictum, 'only news fit for broadcast' rather too seriously when it did not show visuals of the patriarch lighting the lamp at the inauguration ceremony on launch day (24 August, 2011). When one of its buses caught fire accidentally and eleven passengers died, its news ticker said the bus belonged to the SRM group, when other channels said 'a private bus.' The family has political ambitions but its party, IndhiayaJananayakaKatchi (India Democratic Party), did not get play on the channel during the municipal election campaign. Such a policy would discriminate against small new parties but it was assured of coverage once it started registering with voters.

Maintaining an independent stance has not been easy. When there was a raid on the Marans (now in the opposition) caution suggested that the channel blank the news out or downplay it, as there was a risk of it being cut off their cable network (Sumangali, which is strongly present in Chennai city). But the channel went live with the news. It did likewise when the chief minister sacked SasikalaNatarajan, her aide and confidante. The channel got a backhanded compliment when a former DMK minister's family appreciated its live coverage of a raid on their house for (unintentionally) alerting party cadres to rush to their support. It is then that they reportedly realized 'even truth has value.'

But there have been times when the channel has had to resist the audience's clamor for it to take sides. One such occasion was when the three assassins of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi moved the Madras High court in August 2011 to convert their death sentence to life imprisonment after the President rejected their mercy petition. People said the eleven years taken by the President to deny clemency to the prisoners on death row was itself cruel and reason enough not to hang them. The event created such a mood in the state that a 20-year-old social activist burned herself to death at Kancheepuram. Views favoring the hanging were met with anger and derision. But the channel strove to give all points of view including those of the investigators into the assassination and the Congress Party (whose leader Rajiv Gandhi was). It also broadcast a daughter's appeal for her assassin father's life to be saved. 'We hosted a live debate between Subramanian Swamy (Janata Party president who supported the death sentence) and a member of the Periyar Party (who opposed) which turned out to be explosive', Srinivasan says.

The coverage of the Mullaperiyar dam controversy and the commissioning of the nuclear plant at Kudankulam also tested the channel's commitment to fairness. The dam is situated in Kerala but irrigates fields in Tamil Nadu. The Kerala government said the 160-year old structure had developed cracks and was vulnerable to earthquakes. It advocated urgent repairs creating panic all around. But the Tamil Nadu government saw this as panic mongering and a pretext to deny water to the state. Once again the channel had to tiptoe. The Kerala Chief Minister offered to present his point of view in a TV interview. The channel did not broadcast the interview in full, but aired the excerpts. "The challenge was not to be carried away by public sentiments,' says Srinivasan.

On the nuclear issue, the channel had to decide whether to be swayed by public emotions fanned by anti-nuclear activists or accept scientific opinion - and lose audience share. Fisher folk living in the vicinity of the nuclear plant were driven to panic and worse by doomsday scenarios painted by the environmentalists. If the Fukushima nuclear accident could happen in as advanced a country as Japan, what chances did India have? Opinion within the group was sharply divided. The editor of the group's weekly was pro-nuclear while the programming head of the channel was a green. Srinivasan says the channel shot footage of the plant to show people the safeguards in place and also conducted debates that gave equal opportunity to opposing views. Nuclear scientists from Bhabha Atomic Research Center were invited to talk science and explain the working of the plant and the safety measures.

The airing of (UK's) Channel 4 documentary, 'Killling Fields' on atrocities against Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan army towards the close of the civil war was another emotionally-charged event. In a departure from policy and under pressure from its Tamil allies, the central government supported a United Nations resolution sponsored by the US to censure Sri Lanka for not acting on its peace and reconciliation committee report and sparing the guilty. The channel had to walk carefully lest it trip. Any suggestion that this was an internal matter of Sri Lanka, and censuring it at an international forum, would not only offend a friendly country but also expose India to similar criticism over its handling of militants in Kashmir, was met with abusive phone calls, says Srinivasan.

Srinivasan says the channel gave a good account of itself in the coverage of clashes between policemen and Dalits at Parmakudi in the southern district of Ramanathapuram last September. A group of Dalits had gathered to pay homage to their pastor. They turned violent when prevented. Five of them died in police firing. Several policemen, including a deputy inspector general, were injured. Abjuring sensationalism the channel broadcast the footage with a few minutes of delay to filter out visuals that could incite. The sense of responsibility that it displayed enabled it to station the outdoor broadcasting van in the premises of a local police station and provide continuous coverage for six days. The channel aided a judicial inquiry into the incident by giving it the uncensored footage.

Can ethical journalism get good revenue and make profit? Can a regional channel take a non-parochial approach and yet survive? For Srinivasan these are existential questions. He will get the answers if the channel continues to sustain its lead and converts viewer acceptance into advertising revenue.


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More about Vivian Fernandes

Vivian Fernandes is a senior journalist with nearly 30 years of practice, 19 of them in television, all of which he spent at TV18. Vivian’s last assignment was as executive editor of a book on India and China written by the founder of the Network 18 group, Mr Raghav Bahl. He has been an observer of Indian business and politics, and had reported on economic policy making as reporter, chief of Delhi bureau of correspondents and economic policy editor. Vivian has traveled abroad with Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. He was also reported on the World Trade Organization’s trade talks from Cancun, Hong Kong and Geneva. He continues his association with the Network18 group, but not as an employee.


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