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The times of our stars

July 21, 2003

Many writers, including this one, have written about how Star TV's ownership structure in India violates the spirit of the law, since the parent really controls the operations, though the law says Indians should be in charge.

Investors like Vir Sanghvi, Hemendra Kothari and Suhel Seth may own more shares than Star in Media Content and Communication Services, the company that will be the content-provider for Star News, but as India Today (July 14) has reported, this is a fiction.

Ravina Raj Kohli, the president of Star News is listed as the president of MCCS, applications for MCCS' uplinking licence are made on Star News letterheads. . . there are other such coincidences.

That said, it is interesting to see the backgrounds of those most critical of Star's ownership structure. The Times of India group, India's largest media house, owns Radio Mirchi, and many of their anti-Star stories target Star's radio operations.

Though the law forbids foreign equity in radio, the ToI points out, Star de facto runs the FM channel Radio City ("Not just TV, look into radio, DTH holdings too," ToI, July 15).

India Today, the other media group focusing hard on Star, owns the TV channel Aaj Tak (Aaj Tak's TAM ratings have fallen from 62 per cent in March to 38 in July, while Star News' have gone up from 11 to 22), and FM channel Red FM, which competes with Star's Radio City.

Even more interesting in this context is the kind of coverage being given by the rivals. The Times, on July 10, had a News Analysis, curiously without a byline, headlined 'Star News equity: More than meets the eye.'

In this, it trashes the Star independents.  "Hindustan Times editor Vir Sanghvi, known for his political influence; adman Suhel Seth, known for his suave deal-making... Incidentally, Sanghvi is also a high-profile and well-paid anchor of Star TV."

The piece then goes on to say that Sanghvi used his newspaper to sabotage the implementation of the CAS system which Star was totally against... "Further when the entire media supported CAS, HT consistently opposed it", the piece says.

The fact, however, is that several newspapers, including this one, opposed CAS since it just doubled cable TV bills for no good reason -- it wasn't just Sanghvi's Hindustan Times.

And targetting Sanghvi does look horribly like a case of the pot calling the kettle black, since The Times group consistently uses its newspaper  to plug its other operations.

Some years ago, when Yahoo began its India operations, The Times had fairly one-sided front-page pieces on consecutive days, running down Yahoo in comparison with its own portal, -- since, at this point, The Times readership was far higher than the number of Indians who regularly surfed the Net, the impact of the stories must have been huge.

The popular 'ET in the Classroom' column of The Economic Times of July 7, for instance, is titled 'Can policy affect FM?' The piece asks, and then answers, the question: Why is Indian FM growth stunted?

The answer, according to ET, India's largest financial daily, is the high licence fees charged.

And not once in the article does it bother to tell readers that the same group owns an FM station, whose licence fees are being discussed!

The Times group SMS service '8888' gets a separate story for itself in The Economic Times of July 15, talking of how the service's success has spawned a host of me-too services from the likes of 'Living Media (India Today, Aaj Tak), NDTV, Radio MidDay, MSN and, all of whom have had a varied success rate.'

And a new scheme, offering a discount on combined purchases of The Times of India and Navbharat Times, is announced through a front page story in ToI, with a headline in Hindi!

India Today, my former employer, is more transparent.

In its July 14, 'Loopholes Galore', IT does mention that the India Today group broadcasts Aaj Tak.

But this is only in the context of a direct allegation by Star's Peter Mukherjea that the magazine is motivated by business rivalry.

And while showing that FM channel Radio City is actually a Star operation, IT never mentions that it owns Red FM and so might be an interested party.

As a Free To Air broadcaster, similarly, India Today says the government has bent over backwards to accommodate Star, which could be crippled in the short-run by the introduction of CAS.

The 'Loopholes Galore' story is sympathetic to the cable operators, who most customers will tell you behave like mafia dons in the way they fix prices and prevent competition from entering their territories.

Murdoch, India Today says, "will be able to bypass cable operators, all 60,000 of them nationwide, and thanks to his financial muscle, he will be able to subsidise the supply of dishes as well as set-top boxes and get a stranglehold on the Rs 12,000 crore (Rs 120 billion) market. So much for the BJP's nationalist media policy."

Given that rivals like Zee have already got their DTH broadcast platform ready, and that competition has ensured that no one in any market has ever managed to get a stranglehold so far, you have to be naive to believe Star is that close to monopolising the Indian market, or that Star is the only one to figure out how to grab the Indian customer.

Wrapping oneself in the national flag, to stave off competition, is in any case an age-old ploy.

Postscript: As a government harassed by the likes of NDTV's stand on Gujarat, I'd do my best to ensure Star stays, for if there's one thing Murdoch is known for, it's batting for the government in power!

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