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Help New Tamil channel’s promise of balance finds takers
Chennai: In a state where television news broadcasters often tend to serve as the media extension of political parties and personalities, Puthiya Thalaimurai (Tamil for new generation) is a bit of an oddball. The Tamil channel went on air six months ago, promising its viewers impartial news coverage —and quickly found a receptive audience for its brand of journalism.

Promoter P. Satyaranarayana, 38, says he initially thought of launching an “infotainment” channel beaming a mix of information and entertainment programmes before deciding that what Tamil Nadu households needed, instead, was a nadunillai (independent) news broadcaster.

<img src="" style="float:left; padding: 0 10px 0 0;" />“As an individual, I felt the need for a neutral channel providing unbiased news,” says Satyanarayana, scion of the family that runs the Rs1,000 crore SRM business group with interests in education, realty, software and media.

A software engineer by training and with a Ph.D., Satyanarayana was previously vice-chancellor of SRM University, an institution with four campuses in the country, before becoming president of the broadcasting venture which was set up with an investment of Rs50 crore—both promoter equity and bank loans.

Politics and the media have always been intertwined in Tamil Nadu—as elsewhere in India—in a phenomenon that started with the movies and shifted to television. Late former chief minister M.G. Ramachandran and his protege and current chief minister J. Jayalalithaa parlayed their popularity as film stars into political power for themselves and their All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party.

In 2007, then chief minister M. Karunanidhi—who began his career as a Tamil film screenplay writer—launched Kalaignar TV to promote his government and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party amid a brief cooling of relations with Sun TV Network Ltd, owned by his grand nephew Kalanithi Maran. The two arms of the family have since made up. A third Tamil channel is Jaya TV and, as its name would suggest, it is run by the associates of Jayalalithaa.

Tamil news channels had essentially become the propaganda arms of political parties for the leadership to communicate with their cadre and influence the electorate, says Sashi Kumar , a journalist, TV anchor and film-maker who heads the Asian School of Journalism in Chennai. The absence of a news channel in Tamil Nadu independent of both political parties had become glaring, he says.

Tamil Nadu’s media has been characterized by an “appetiser effect” in which the more people watch news channels, the more they read newspapers. The news channels are like starters, with newspapers being the main course that people turn to for comprehensive coverage of news they may have watched on partisan TV channels, says Bhaskara Rao, founder chairman of the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies.

Puthiya Thalaimurai was launched in August by Satyanarayana’s New Generation Media Corp. as an alternative targeted at people who want to watch “unbiased coverage and not lopsided news”, says Satyanarayana.

Publishing venture

The decision to venture into television was inspired by the success of the group’s publishing initiative, also named Puthiya Thalaimurai, a weekly Tamil magazine launched in 2009. Although it’s not covered by either the Indian Readership Survey (IRS) or the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), the magazine claims a circulation of 150,000.

The response to the television venture has been encouraging, suggesting there’s indeed an audience out there for an independent, non-partisan broadcaster. Last month, the channel maintained an average market share of 29%, against 25.1% for Sun News.

In February, the channel’s share improved to 31.3% while Sun lost ground further to 24.5%.

Popular shows are Indarai Thinam, news at 8pm; Nerupada Pesu, a discussion forum; Puthu Puthu Arathangal, a morning news analysis show. On weekends, it airs Rowthiram Pazhagu, which translates as anger against society and is based on social and civic issues, and Vedai Thedum Vivathangal, a talk show featuring students.

“I find Puthiya Thalaimurai reporting more balanced compared with other news channels and the clarity of the channel is good,” says Sripriya Desikan, a regular viewer of its news at 8pm. A mother of two children, Desikan is a central government employee.

To be sure, factors other than its avowed independence or quality of journalism may have provided the channel a boost—for instance, the revival of Arasu Cable TV Corp. by Jayalalithaa to break the monopoly of Kalanithi Maran’s Sumangali Cable Vision. The state-run cable network has provided the new channel a placement that has helped it gain visibility in cable homes. The news channel is also available on some direct-to-home (DTH) platforms and is currently in talks with Tata Sky.

Among Indian states, Tamil Nadu has one of the highest cable TV penetration rates—about 50-60% of rural areas have cable TV, which is impressive, says Kumar.

Pre-launch advertisements for the channel focused on the broadcaster’s intent to provide independent news coverage without any political alignment—a promise it has kept, says S. Srinivasan, director of news. The focus is on issues close to the people.

“Whether it is the agitation about the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, power shortage impacting farmers or bad roads, we cover it all,” Srinivasan says. “The channel is run by an independent editorial team consisting of 12 people.”

The channel is governed by a strict code of conduct for journalists, who are forbidden from accepting gifts, says Srinivasan. The channel has 25 reporters and 32 stringers across bureaus in Chennai, Coimbatore, Madurai, Tiruchirapalli and Tirunelveli.

The race for revenue

The channel has tried to provide a balanced coverage, whether it was the raid on DMK politician and former federal minister Dayanidhi Maran’s house by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) or Jayalalithaa sacking her close aide Sasikala, Srinivasan says.

“However, we are not focused on news in the state alone. We also put the Uttar Pradesh elections in perspective,” he says.

The litmus test for unbiased reportage will, however, be the treatment of sensitive issues, says Kumar.

Sun Network’s position as market leader when it comes to earning advertising revenue remains unchallenged, yet Puthiya Thalaimurai is emerging on the radar of advertisers, says Hariharan Vishwanathan, national trading director of media buying agency MEC India. Its ad rates are half of what Sun commands. Although companies such as State Bank of India, Samsung, Tata group and Vodafone, among others, advertise on the channel, “the key for Puthiya Thalaimurai will be to get continuous retail advertising across Tamil Nadu”, says Vishwanathan.

Sun Network enjoys a 65% share of television advertising in Tamil Nadu, where the overall advertising market is estimated at Rs2,750 crore to Rs3,850 crore, with news channels making up a minuscule part of it. If gross rating points—a measure of television viewership—for Sun News decline, advertisers are likely to shift to other channels, says Vishwanathan.

Success is essential to recovering the investment. The promoters have told creditors that the channel would break-even in three years. Sanjay Salil, managing director of Media Guru, which offers consulting services to media companies, says that with a good viewership share, Puthiya Thalaimurai may be able to earn an operating profit as early as in 18 to 24 months.

Just six months into the venture, Satyanarayana isn’t being complacent. He has a challenge on his hands, says the man who, for a media person, can be quite reticent.

“It is still early days to rejoice. We are yet to establish the channel,” he says.


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Have watched this channel for sometime and found tobe different especially in its presentation and reporting. Hope it succeeds and competes with sun, kalaignar and jaya.
Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.. for tomorrow never comes.. live today!!!
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