Propaganda TV fails to make a mark in TN poll

IN Media Practice | 16/05/2011
Media reach has always represented power in TN politics and has been factored into predictions of poll outcomes.
MAYA RANGANATHAN takes a look at the politics of media control in the state and how the TN viewer has become discerning over the years
Media played a crucial role in the 2006 Tamil Nadu elections; and so it did in 2011. But this time round it did not merely become a part of the political discourse the way it did in 2006, but also functioned as a barometer by its very presence. The phenomenal expansion of the DMK-owned Kalaignar TV and the rapid rise of the grandsons of the DMK patriarch as movie moghuls spreading their tentacles over every activity in the Tamil film industry, seem to have sent the message across to the people as effectively as all the media reportage on the omissions and commissions of the government.
Media reach has always been taken as an indication of power and has been factored into predictions of poll outcomes. More importantly in Tamil Nadu where media and politics have historically been inextricably intertwined. It is thus not surprising that in Tamil Nadu much was laid in store by the formidable media empire controlled by the DMK. In fact, DMK which has always employed media for political party gains has provided the model for other political parties by successfully operating the Sun TV network, so much so that almost every television channel in TN since has faithfully followed its format.
Protestations by the DMK party president M Karunanidhi notwithstanding, the Sun TV headed by his grand nephew Kalanidhi Maran, occupied more than a physical space in the party headquarters ‘Anna Arivalayam.’ Sun TV which emerged in 1992 as a fully private channel debuted in the NSE and BSE in 2006. Under the Sun brand are six Tamil channels, including Sun TV, and two Malayalam channels, including Surya TV, besides channels in Telugu and Kannada. It has largely functioned as a mouthpiece of the party, and in the days when the DMK was in the Opposition, was known for some incisive political reportage.
Jaya TV operated by Sasikala’s nephew Baskaran began in 1999 has had a slow growth with some expansion when the party was in power from 2001-2006. With four channels, it is still no match for the Sun TV network.
In 2006, the DMK catapulted television to the centre-stage of political discourse when it promised free colour television sets along with free gas stoves and rice at Rs 2 per kg. For the first time ever in a poll manifesto ‘television’ rubbed shoulders with ‘essential commodities’ forcing the then ruling AIADMK to also include offer of subsidised cable TV connection in its manifesto. More interestingly, a number of political figures and film actors switched allegiances stating that they had been ‘insulted’ or ‘ignored’ by Sun TV. Just to name a couple, film actor Sarathkumar who was then in the DMK quit the party as he felt ignored by Sun TV which had then flown film actor Vijay to interview the then Union Communications Minister Dayanidhi Maran and MDMK leader Vaiko on moving from the DMK to the AIADMK camp stated that among other things, he was pained by the lack of coverage of his padayatra by Sun TV.[i]
However, things changed with the Maran brothers falling out with the DMK patriarch in May 2007 over the arson and death of three employees in the Madurai office of the newspaper Dinakaran from the Sun stable, which published an opinion poll placing M K Alagiri below M K Stalin in popularity. The Sun TV shifted out of the party headquarters quickly.
Used as it was to having its own media to propagate its views, the DMK quickly swung into action and Kalaignar TV was born three months later. Considering that it drew much of its programming staff from Sun, including the managing director Sharad Kumar (formerly with the Sun TV network)who is now embroiled in the 2G scam, it is not surprising that it is as spectacular and as well equipped. But what is surprising is that it has achieved in four years what the Sun TV network took a decade to achieve. No other TV channel owned privately by political party or non-partisan sources has been able to rise this quickly. Clearly this was not lost on the TN voters lapping up the fare on their free colour TV sets.
Meanwhile, Sun TV had slowly eased into the role of an opposition turning the heat on the government particularly its ministers, Arcot Veerasami and N Raja and was locked in a dispute with the government-launched multi-systems operator over cable network. It was apparent that the rapprochement between the Marans and Karunanidhi in December 2008 was a result of political exigency, of the need for the DMK to present a unified facade. Perhaps, it was the rift with the Marans that opened the eyes of the masses to the DMK’s family politics and corruption. After all, Sun TV enjoys 69 per cent in Tamil Nadu, according to Television Audience Measurement (TAM). The Marans have never been fans Alagiri or Kanimozhi both of who are largely persona non grata for Sun TV. When the 2G scam made it to the headlines, the implications could not be missed.
Add to this the very conspicuous emergence of DMK patriarchs’ grandsons as movers and shakers in the Tamil filmdom. Udayanidhi Stalin, son of deputy chief minister M K Stalin produced a flop Kuruvi under the banner of Red Giant moviesin 2008 and has produced 10 films so far with five of them in the year 2010. His cousin Dayanidhi Alagiri matches his record. Reports that the two exert a stranglehold on film production and distribution have been fairly frequent in the regional press. Ironically, it is actor Vijay (who in 2006 was a DMK favourite) who publicly voiced his discontent and carried it to the ears of AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa. Two other grandsons of Karunanidhi, Arulnidhi and Arivunidhi, are fledgling actors. The DMK chief has attempted to counter criticisms of his family’s dominance of the Tamil filmdom by citing the cases of Rajnikanth, Sivaji Ganesan and Prithviraj Kapoor whose progeny have followed them into films. But such ‘simple’ logic has obviously failed the TN audiences.
So, could it be said that the TN voters have reached a sophisticated level of ‘media literacy’? That they crowd to the meetings of film stars and comedians to enjoy a spectacle and let it not cloud their political judgment? Could it be that the plethora of propaganda television has not dulled their senses, but on the contrary led them to become more aware of the lies that are peddled? That they make a beeline for free TVs, watch all the mindless entertainment in the confusing mediascape but know how to steer the political landscape?

From an observer to becoming a part of the political discourse to emerging as a barometer of the ruling party and the government, television has come a long way in Tamil Nadu. One can only wonder how television and electoral politics will evolve in the next five years in the media-mad state.


[i] For a detailed account see Ranganathan, M., ‘Give me a vote and I will give you a TV set’: television in Tamil Nadu politics’, in ‘Television in India: Satellite, politics and cultural change’, edited by Nalin Mehta, Routledge, London, March 1, 2008, pp.106-122.