Sucheta Dalal :Is Star TV looking to replace NDTVR30;?
Sucheta Dalal

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Is Star TV looking to replace NDTV…?  

March 20, 2002

The event was Frames 2002, a glittering and high-powered convention of the entertainment industry - but the most interesting action there was probably happening outside the conference framework.

The biggest buzz at the event - at least among media circles - was Star TV's break-up with Prannoy's New Delhi Television Ltd. However, as the Pepsi advertisement says, there is nothing official about it. As yet.

The 'break-up' has thrown up for grabs the most powerful news and current affairs channel in the country and Frames 2002 provided the perfect cover for a series of secret meetings between India's most powerful editors and Star TV's bosses James Murdoch and country chief Peter Mukherjea.

Replacing NDTV is just one of the items of Star TV's agenda; but its business plans were significant enough to have warranted a three-day visit by big daddy Rupert Murdoch - a visit that was kept so secret that the media did not get a whiff of his meetings with Information & Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj and advertisers until well after he had zoomed out of the country.

Let us look at why the media is obsessed with NDTV's exit from Star.

First, NDTV has worked hard to create an aura of power and project itself as the most to-be-seen on channel in the country. Its influence is disproportionate to its television rating points. Politicians, businessmen, academics and NGOs all vie to be seen on its shows. The fact that its top journalists and anchors are often sons and daughters of Delhi's power elite and bureaucrats (Mrinal Pande's book gives an inside view) does not hurt.

Then there is Roy's sweetheart deal with Star, signed when his buddy Ratikant Basu headed its Indian operations. Insiders say that the one-sided contract gives Roy a whopping $20 million a year (current), with total control over editorial content and copyright over the programming even though Star pays a big chunk of the cost (Star has recently wrangled the right to use NDTV's content on its Internet site).

The deal allows Roy to pay better salaries, hire better journalists (read better-connected), use superior equipment and to create a huge gap between classy NDTV and the tacky others.

In 1998, it was this aura and influence that enabled Roy to pressure Star TV to hurriedly start Star News as a 24-hour news channel just before the elections, by threatening to switch to another platform.

However, NDTV has fewer alternatives today - and certainly none at terms it had bargained with Star. Post-2000, after the infotech and entertainment boom, nobody is in the market to sign sweetheart deals anymore - a news channel has to make business for the platform provider and content producer.

Coming back to Star's replacement, every editor worth his salt wants to replace India's best-known television face, but for of all the lobbying and manoeuvring nobody is quite sure what Star wants.

Peter Mukherjea, says sources, may well be encouraging this confusion by being enigmatic and tight-lipped because it allows him to control the bargaining.

What is certain is that Star TV no longer wants a single entity to replace NDTV. It will run the channel by itself, and outsource specific time slots such as interviews, talk shows, big fights etc, to various powerful editors.

Given the instant fame, street recognition and big money that television offers, this too is a coveted opportunity - but the money will be significantly lower than what Roy took home.

Informed insiders say that Star's internal business plan aims to cut the cost of running the news channel to almost half what it paid Roy. Yet, several claimants for his job suggest otherwise - some even claim to have received offers that would make the NDTV deal seem inexpensive.

If this expectation seems strange, it still hinges on seemingly persuasive logic. The argument is that NDTV's viewership may pale before a Kaun Banega Crorepati, and Pranoy Roy's charisma - although considerable - is badly eclipsed by superstar Amitabh Bachchan. Yet NTDV's influence over the political establishment is greater.

Star TV wants this political power by controlling the medium and replacing Prannoy Roy with an array of big media stars and money, say the hopefuls, and insist that money is not the consideration. Star TV sources are openly amused at the argument, but offer no comment.

There is another dimension to the exit of NDTV, which is very important. That Star seems headed for a smooth takeover of editorial control over its news channels underlines the hypocrisy of government policy.

Television is indeed the most powerful communication medium today and this fact that was underlined during the recent Gujarat riots.

On the one hand, we saw Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi accusing the media (read television, especially NDTV) of inciting people and fomenting trouble in the state; on the other, the media (print and audio-visual) believes that television helped control the situation within 72 hours by continually beaming the gory images into our living rooms.

The fact that these were India's first riots on live television forced government to act swiftly and also galvanised right minded people to work harder at restoring sanity.

This only reinforces the print media's complaint about hypocritical government policy, which disallows direct foreign investment in print but not in television.

The argument is that print should be protected from foreign investment because the politics of foreign owners will influence editorial coverage of our newspapers and encourage anti-national viewpoints. Yet, television has at least two foreign-owned channels in the business with no FDI restrictions. Murdoch's Star TV will go on to become the first foreign company to control news and current affairs programmes as well.

The hypocrisy about FDI in print is not restricted to the ruling alliance. Only a few weeks ago, a multi-party group of politicians were set to permit a 26 per cent foreign investment in print, but they did a sudden about turn and rejected the idea. It was Italian-born Sonia Gandhi's party, which ignored facts, equity and ground realities to do an about turn and pitch for a status quo on the ban in FDI.

The print medium comprises tens of thousand of newspapers across the country that are either making losses or showing profits by merely by selling newsprint quotas and keeping newsgathering costs and salaries to the minimum. They desperately need deep-pocket investment to provide training, expand their reach and improve reporting standards.

On the other hand, three large English language-publishing houses that have carved out regions of dominance, run virtual monopolies and hog a disproportionate portion of the advertising.

This troika is powerful enough to have kept FDI out of the print business for over a decade since liberalisation began, even while their publications disingenuously argue for liberalisation in all other industries.

How long will print be discriminated against? Why do thousands of newspapers fail to counter three powerful media houses? Could it be because their most powerful editors are busy trying to make a transition to television rather than fight for their industry? The lobbying for Star's news channel would make it seem so.

-- Sucheta Dalal