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Clash of the channels

P Vasanta Kumar | January 03, 2004

Why did a studio wall delay the launch of Eenadu Television's Telugu news channel for over two weeks?

The answer: the channel's bosses decided at the last moment to knock down the wall and put up a glass partition between the newsreader and the news production room.

Why did they suddenly decide that the newsroom desperately needed a glass partition? Because that's what one of its rival channel looks like.

That's the level of fierce competition that has broken out between the television channels in Andhra Pradesh. Till this month there were three channels fighting for eyeballs.

Now, the airwaves are getting more crowded. On December 28 Eenadu launched ETV2, its 24-hour news channel, in a bid to stay in front of the competition.

That will be followed on January 15 by the launch of another news channel TV9, backed by entrepreneur and venture capitalist Srini Raju.

The main battle is over news, which is getting a giant chunk of the advertising bucks being spent to reach Telugu viewers.

The battle is so intense that two other channels, Maa TV and Vissa TV, have poached ETV's newsreaders and newsdesk. The two channels have been offering hefty pay-packets to lure the popular newsreaders and experienced desk staff at ETV.

As the fledgling news channels make their debut, the existing entertainment channels are fighting back in other ways too.

Teja TV, which belongs to the Chennai-based Sun TV group, is planning to increase its number of news-related shows from the existing five to 15. That will include new current affairs programmes, debates and talk-shows.

Similarly, Vissa TV, a Telugu channel launched a few months ago by Chennai-based Raj TV, is strengthening its position with four news bulletins a day.

And Maa TV, a two-year-old channel promoted by a troika of young entrepreneurs, plans to have six news bulletins instead of four.

Even Government-owned Doordarshan is gearing up to increase its Telugu news broadcasts. There are also rumours that the Sahara group plans to launch a Telugu channel that will focus primarily on news.

It isn't hard to understand why these channels are fighting over the Telugu news.

Says V Ravi Prakash, CEO, TV9: "Eenadu TV has raked in over Rs 10 crore (Rs 100 million) from advertisers in the last fiscal from its five news bulletins a day. There's a lot of money and viewership potential waiting to be tapped for news in Telugu."

The Sun Group's Teja channel also earns advertising revenue of about Rs 50 lakh (Rs 5 million) per month, even though it doesn't put much emphasis on marketing its news programmes.

Besides the viewers in the state, there's an additional bonus for a successful Telugu news channel. The channels are also hoping to catch the attention of the Telugu-speaking diaspora in the US, Singapore, Malaysia and the Middle East.

"These non-residents want to know what's happening in their native land and we want to get our programmes to these people," says Prakash, who has just moved to TV9. He was earlier in charge of news at Teja TV.

Some of the new channels are spending heavily to make their presence felt on the small screen. TV9 has received Rs 15 crore (Rs 150 million) from Srini Raju's i-Labs Associated Fund and Chennai-based Unify Wealth Management.

The channel is also forking out large sums to put together a team of 100 reporters in the state and five bureaux outside.

However, the channel says it is working for the betterment of society.

Says Prakash: "This is the first time that a 24-hour news and current affairs channel in a regional language has been promoted by professionals with the objective of promoting better values and improved transactions within the society."

Content-wise also, these channels are gearing up to entertain the viewers with innovative programmes. Both ETV and TV9 have enough programmes for a month in place.

ETV2 will have hourly news bulletins in addition to which programmes on agriculture, education, science, culture and health will be broadcast for different segments of the viewers.

If its 100 reporters aren't enough, TV9 has additional strong backing that could help it to be first with the news. It has tied up with i-Vision, another venture promoted by Srini Raju, to buy and sell exclusive national news footage.

i-Vision, a national news agency for television channels, aims to have offices in 150 important locations around India. It plans to be connected by 2MB leased lines to all these locations.

Srini Raju is said to be pinning a lot of hope on the i-Vision venture and is spends a lot of his time on it.

Do Telugu audiences have such a large appetite for news programmes?

V Janaki Rama Raju, joint managing director of Maa Television Network says: "News is primarily watched by the A and A+ segments. High-end car manufacturers, mutual funds, credit cards and other financial services providers are the major advertising contributors to news broadcasts."

Maa TV, a recent entrant into the satellite channel industry, initially hatched plans to launch a separate channel for news, but dropped them later.

The channel started news broadcasts two months ago and in January it will increase the number of its news bulletins from four to six.

Meanwhile, Teja TV is planning to make its channel more news and current affairs oriented by end January.

The four-year-old channel currently broadcasts five news bulletins, with the rest of the time devoted to entertainment. According to sources, the channel plans 15 news and news-related programmes per day.

Teja TV is also making other changes to ensure effective news coverage. Its entire newsdesk is being moved from Chennai to Hyderabad.

In addition, it will start uplinking news broadcasts from Hyderabad in January.

Sun Network is also gearing up to launch Gemini Cable Vision, its third Telugu channel, which will operate like cable TV with focus on entertainment and local events in respective towns.

Why this proliferation of channels? One reason is, of course, demand. Secondly, the advent of digital broadcasting has made it cheaper to put a channel on air.

That's because digital transmissions occupy less bandwidth than analogue For instance, an analogue channel occupies more than half the bandwidth of a 16 MB transponder, while a digital broadcast occupies less than 4.5 MB. Raj TV says this this is one reason it has launched Vissa TV.

Whatever be the reason for mushrooming growth of the news channels, it will soon be time for the Assembly elections. So news-hungry Telugu viewers will have plenty of entertainment on all these channels as the gladiators of the political world vie for their attention.

While the politicos battle it out, the viewing public can sit back in their sofas and reach for their remote controls.

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