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BY Padmaja Shaw| IN Media Business | 11/09/2012
In Andhra Pradesh the ownership of TV news space is essentially a part of one's political agenda.
Most news channels in the State are struggling for survival even as new ones are entering the market, says PADMAJA SHAW.
Is it better for a media establishment to be owned by a business house, a politician, or neither of the two? Market forces appear to be pointing in a certain direction, based on prevailing conditions.
Speculation has been rife in recent weeks in the Hyderabad media about the financial woes of Deccan Chronicle Holdings Ltd and the future of the flagship paper “Deccan Chronicle”. Instead, what came to pass without much ado was the announcement of closure of “Zee 24 Gantalu”, the Telugu news channel of the Zee group. The channel is believed to be on offer to anyone who will pay Rs 25-lakh royalty for the use of its logo. No suitor has appeared so far though, according to the grapevine, a senior Congressman is trying to acquire it.
People inside and outside the organisation have declared the closure a wise move considering the fact that the channel never mustered more than an average of 0.7 ratings in its existence since 2008. Some say its strategy to closely identify itself with the Telangana cause, especially when there is already an all-Telangana channel, TNews, partly worked against it. This narrowed down its local advertising base, which it had to share with the more focused TNews.
The channel entered the market when the Telugu TV news market was still considered a good bet. It was one of 14 channels in operation but never really took off. Now that the warrant of death is out, insiders say that the channel could have been more frugal by hiring fewer people and cutting costs in general as advertising is drying up rapidly even for the big players.
A senior executive of one of the more successful channels says that a news channel costs anything between Rs 1.5 crore and Rs 2 crore a month and unless it generates that kind of advertisement revenue, it will not survive. Industry observers say that Zee 24 Gantalu was incurring an expenditure of around Rs 1.5 crore a month and was unable to earn even half of that in revenue.
One of the complaints of the channel executives was the lack of visibility of the channel and their inability to ensure that the cable operators and MSOs provided the channel in all regions of the State. For channels that are already struggling to break even, the problem of carriage fee appears to be serious. The channel would need to spend an additional Rs 3.5 crore a year to buy that visibility. Wisely, the management decided to shut down operations. Zee has also closed unviable channels in other markets such as Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
Issue of survival
Only the channels with some serious ratings (or deep pockets) have been able to survive. TV9, ETV (which has its own loyal viewership), Sakshi (again some loyal viewership), NTV, and TV5 are said to be the ones with above-subsistence revenue. In a slow market, and without any novelty value, most channels are struggling for viability.
Interestingly, there are four news channels slated to enter the market by the end of the year, one each is from the spheres of influence of the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Both are proposing to try out a new business model of “crowd sourcing” funding in addition to advertising, much like the successful Reporter channel of Kerala. The ownership of the other two entrants is unclear.
With 14 news channels on air and another four expected to enter the fray, the closure of Zee 24 Gantalu and the sale of iNews to NTV raise the usual questions of viability of news channels.
The Andhra Pradesh market seems to suggest that one enters TV news space with a political agenda and not as a business. There may be long-term business reasons for it, but the bottom line is political influence. In the short-term, there may not be any worry if the channel is not viable. Channels that are slugging it out are mostly in this mode. The problem, perhaps, begins when the channel guzzles money and does not produce any political dividends either.
Sakshi channel is a good example. Unlike Zee 24 Gantalu, which is said to have slightly outdated equipment and production facilities, Sakshi invested heavily in state-of-the-art production facilities and also tied up with NDTV to improve the quality of its programming. The channel appears to have built a loyal viewership and seems to be generating positive political vibes in response to the incessant bleeding-heart coverage given to Jaganmohan Reddy on it.
ABN-Andhra Jyothi and ETV are channels closely identified with the Telugu Desam Party and TNews with Telangana Rashtra Samithi. Some of the other channels too have close links with political personalities and industrialists. Is there a formula for survival for an apolitical channel other than a fast-track connection to some political lobby?
The answer to this may well lie with the new funding experiments that are being tried out. A channel with broad-based public support/subscription can cater to what the public really wants, and retain the audience. If this works, we may see a great change in the content of news and entertainment television. Skewed ratings need not be the only measure for audience support when television channels depend on viewers who can put their money where their mouths are, and control is not concentrated in the hands of a few big investors.

Before the 2009 elections several political players entered the TV news market. Now, with the 2014 elections looming, greater politicisation of TV news space in Andhra Pradesh appears inevitable. The new modes of expansion and their impact on how news television works are what one can look forward to.

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