Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The 'new generation' and political mouthpieces among Tamil Nadu TV channels


Logos of the leading Tamil TV
news channels Puthiya Thalaimurai (top)
and Sun News




Of late, TV news channels, and not sitcoms, seem to have become a source of comic relief. Not that this is a new phenomenon, but it has been rather pronounced of late. The other day I decided to tune in to a Tamil TV news channel and boy, I wasn’t disappointed.

The channel was running a talk show, receiving grievance calls from public who had yarns of woe to relate, especially those relating to governance (in particular its deficiencies). One such caller said how sewage percolating into water supply lines in the suburbs of Chennai was proving to be a health hazard. It was the charade that followed that would prove to be a bounty of mirth.

The caller then nearly choked on his tears, as the talk-show host listened on intently, asserting that this would not have happened if Kalaignar (DMK chief M Karunanidhi, to the uninitiated) was the chief minister. The host perked up when the caller identified himself, recognised him as someone having called before to report similar issues, while mollifying him. Once the call ended, she solicited the views of a representative from the DMK, who was present in the studio. The conversation ended with the two agreeing that only a return of the DMK in Tamil Nadu would help bring back it long-lost glory.

Mind you, this was neither a satire nor a spoof, but a show running at noon in Kalaignar TV (remember Kanimozhi, 2G scandal, Shahid Balwa, kickbacks?) Another story that was doing the rounds was a crime report on the alleged involvement of an AIADMK functionary in a bank robbery backed by the accounts of a few persons (who seemed elated at facing the cameras). A news item on Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa claiming that the report on war crimes against his government was fabricated got relegated to the background. Of utmost importance to the channel’s agenda is the ‘Kalaignar Kaditham’, or the Kalaignar’s letters – daily press releases from the party, in which its patriarch offers commentary on anything under the sun. Reading out the letters verbatim is usually the primary news item in its bulletins.

It wasn’t that Kalaignar TV’s counterparts were exactly covering themselves with glory. Jaya Plus of the Jaya Network – the very organization that the CM had once claimed that had nothing to do with her – was incessantly bombarding viewers with footage and visuals of her electoral campaign in south Tamil Nadu. The choicest quotes from her campaign speeches were aired with uncanny regularity. Sample this: “The Congress party has betrayed the nation and its teeming masses for the last ten years; by being in cahoots with them, the DMK too, has been party to this heinous act. Every vote for the party of MGR would be reparation for such a grave crime,” she thundered, as the camera cut to a massive gathering breaking out in raptures. Other vital details such as the number of bouquets presented to her on the occasion and the composition of flowers in them were integral to the bulletin. This was interspersed with advertorials on how Amma’s progressive schemes had resulted in the upliftment of the masses.
Kalaignar News -- for, by and of the DMK

Unsurprisingly, Sun News, from Sun Network owned by Kalanidhi Maran, often dubbed the desi Rupert Murdoch, toed a line similar to that of Kalaignar’s, except that references to the AIADMK received minimal coverage.

It was as if the mouthpieces of either party – Murasoli of the DMK and Namathu MGR of the AIADMK – made an on-screen transformation. In short, if you were following Jaya Plus, you were presented with the impression that utopia must have taken birth in Tamil Nadu; channels owing allegiance to the DMK would have painted the picture that an incident in Greek mythology, opening of Pandora’s box – and thereby letting out of all misery – actually took place in Tamil Nadu under an AIADMK regime. Behold Janus, your reincarnation could not have been ever impressive.

Although these are the among the Big Tamil news channels, there are a horde of other minor channels that are equally partisan – from Captain TV run by A Vijaykanth’s DMDK; Vasanth TV that serves as the propaganda channel of the Indian National Congress; and Lotus TV, with unquestioned allegiance to NaMo and BJP.

When you sense that the bulletins in good-old DD’s Podhigai seem sedate, palatable and non-partisan in contrast, you know that you are:
a) inebriated
b) high on methamphetamine,
c) sloshed and on a high
d) or plainly out of options.

The biggest casualty is, of course, objectivity, depriving viewers of unbiased news coverage. A solution could be watching the bulletins with contrasting versions before arriving at equilibrium, but who really has the time for this complex dissection?

The defibrillator to these aspirations among the public may lie in the emergence of a news channel in the recent past. A news channel that has the backing of a prominent industrialist group, Puthiya Thalaimurai (literally “new generation”) has been scripting a new chapter in the journalism scene here, or so feels this writer. Bucking the trend of backing any of the state’s political outifts, PT’s reportage, which has by far been like the Swiss, comes across like a whiff of fresh air in the surcharged political atmosphere of the state.
The melange of channels that swear allegiance to 'Amma'

The channel dishes out programmes that have been conceived with a dash of innovation: from hard-hitting documentaries on contemporary social issues to personality development programmes for youngsters and shows that trace the history of traditional dishes/ food-grains in addition to the regular news bulletins, the channel led to more than mere twitching of eyebrows.
Perhaps the public were yearning for something like this. For how else can one explain the channel's meteoric rise to the top of TRP ratings, inside a year, as ET reported it.

Incumbent leader Sun News had a crashlanding of sorts for it was the undisputed leader for a good 11 years, since its launch. Sun News had another bitter pill to swallow: It slid to the third position in television ratings, with even Jaya Plus, once always the distant second, edging past it.

While the PT’s coverage may have been relatively spotless, the same cannot be said of its backers – the SRM Group, which has its presence in various sectors – from transport to education and industry. The SRM Group of Institutions, TN’s Wal-mart of educational courses, is known for charging steep fees. The group was, early last year, the subject of IT raids for alleged tax evasion.

Not many outside the state (or even within) may know of the IJK – a political party floated by the vice-chancellor of SRM University, T R Pachamuthu (which could perhaps merit an entry in Ripley’s believe it or not). The IJK is a constituent of the BJP’s rag-tag coalition of motley parties that also comprises the DMDK, PMK and MDMK. Although the IJK (and the BJP) does not have a record to speak of here, one would never know how the equations would change if at all it becomes an established player. 


Would the PT too tread the path of its contemporaries? Would its famous objectivity take a backseat then? Your guess is as good as mine.
Until then, sit back and savour its decent news coverage.