Network behemoths on way out?

The domination of big channels with bigger money looks like a temporary phenomenon

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr Delhi

Television channels – news and entertainment – in India will remain corporate ventures for quite some time to come. The capital investments needed to run a channel are too huge, which is beyond the capacity of individual entrepreneurs.  The neighbourhood or community TV channel is still a dream, but it cannot be ruled out. Until then, the few big players will dominate the scene.

The TV news channel developed along peculiar lines in the country. Both NDTV and Aaj Tak had humble beginnings as newsmagazine slots in the national channel, the Doordarshan. NDTV found another incubus with Rupert Murdoch's STAR TV for three years before it could find its own feet. Aaj Tak had to wait till 2000 to take off on its own. Even TV 18, the business content provider, was huddled with BBC and then with CNBC, and it continues to do so with the Dow Jones' CNBC.

The emergence of CNN-IBN shows a new pattern. It's tie-up with Warner Brothers, which in turn owns the CNN, is a crucial linkage with the American network. It is to be seen how the tie-up will colour corporate culture and editorial content and worldviews.

Then we have the phenomenon of print news barons who entered the TV fray. This was first seen in south India with Ramoji Rao, the owner of the successful Telugu daily, Eenadu, who started his channel. It's only now that the Malayalam Manorama Group, with its flagship newspaper Manorama, had launched a TV channel of its own. AsiaNet is the lone example of a channel that existed on its own. 

The regional language channels are yet to make their mark in a big way at the national level. Tamil Nadu, with its heady mix of politics and entertainment, charted its own path. Sun TV, whatever its other claims, remains the voice of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), as does JJ TV of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

There is a complex web of inter-linked interests, including instances of cross-media holdings, which mark the TV news channel scene in the country. Though the big corporation is the glaring feature of the TV networks, it is to be seen how it works out as a business proposition and as a credible purveyor of news and views.

Anti-globalisation critics will find all the requisite alarming signals that trample underfoot precious democratic freedoms. It may seem that Tamil Nadu political parties which monopolise news channels may pose as much danger to the principle of diversity of opinion as the big corporations. Similarly, newspapers which own channels will be a problem as well, as do channels which are monopolies in an area.

Are these issues to be tackled through legislation, or through the self-regulating mechanism of the ombudsman? Appropriate laws have their uses, and an ombudsman can be an answer to some of the issues. The major question that should remain open is the question of choice. It may not be too right to lay down strait-jacketed guidelines. The viewer must have the choice of alternative channels to choose from. There is a need to ensure that there are enough channels, big and small. Convergence technologies which have given rise to something like YouTube on Google may become the TV version of a blog, and open up new spaces.

Though the TV news channel mantra might be 'Big is beautiful', it is not going to remain that way for too long. The behemoths may melt, and the feisty independent channel which does not have to depend on advertisement revenue to survive, may still be a reality. Something like the independent filmmakers. The man on the street with his own video-camera will record his version of a news event. And there will be enough channels to bid for them. Technology is the great leveller.

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