Auds get all news, all the time

English, Hindi channels aim for niches, families

MUMBAI — TV news is hitting the headlines in India, one of the world’s most potentially lucrative media markets, as five 24-hour news channels join four all-news broadcasters this month.

For decades, the staid, state-run Doordarshan monopolized TV news. That monopoly was broken 10 years ago by local media mogal Subhash Chandra’s Zee News, hugely popular Hindi station Aaj Tak and Rupert Murdoch-owned Star News.

Now, the media scene is exploding.

New Delhi Television (NDTV) is starting Hindi and English channels; Aaj Tak is beaming news in English; there’s a new Hindi-lingo Star News; and the Sahara Business Group has bowed the Sahara Samay (Time), which also plans to start 36 more regional channels.

Still to come: a channel from electronics manufacturer Videocon and a business news channel from Zee News.

“TV news has taken over completely from print, in a manner that was unimaginable five or six years ago,” says Rajdeep Sardesai, anchorman and managing editor of NDTV.

“The impact is huge. People who earlier used to wait for newspapers each morning now get the news in their living rooms within minutes of it breaking,” says Vinod Kapdi, anchor and head of news at Zee News.

The arrival of these new players is prompted by the market. The industry estimates news channel revenues are growing by 24%, which could take broadcasting revenue from $1 billion to $2.9 billion by 2007, according to a projection by the consulting firm KPMG.

Viewers in India, a country of more than 1 billion people, have access to about 100 channels in various languages, including 16 round-the-clock channels beaming in English, the national language Hindi, or several regional languages.

And millions of expatriate South Asians worldwide watch Indian programming on satellite television and the Internet.

Murdoch started the news gold rush when Star launched an all-Hindi news channel after parting ways with NDTV, which had provided Star’s news in English and Hindi up until March 31.

Star News Hindi grabbed a market share of 21% in its first two weeks, cutting into the shares of previous leaders Aaj Tak (down to 51% from 59%) and Zee News (down to 21% from 26%).

Sahara Samay (Time) scooped 4% of the television news audience in its first week, according to the Tam Media ratings.

“The English-speaking population is really very niche,” says Star News prexy Ravina Raj Kohli. “By going Hindi we can reach upwards of 80% of the audience. We are now becoming more inclusive in our approach. We are, after all, catering to a one-TV home.

“The very nature of news watching is changing. Previously, all news was targeted at the older male members of the family. Now it’s more oriented to the family as a whole. There has to be something for everyone.”

Star now plans to launch a standalone English news service.

Meanwhile its erstwhile partner NDTV, a leading production house which pioneered television news and current affairs in India, last week launched its own news channel in English, called 24 by 7, but no ratings are yet available.

An NDTV Hindi channel is soon to follow, under the brand India.

NDTV is hoping its long innings at Star will keep viewership from wandering, and is using the familiar faces of its anchors on billboards across Indian cities to pull in auds.

Indians first saw live TV news in 1991 when thousands watched CNN on big screens in hotels and clubs. Since then, CNN and the BBC have become extremely popular alongside Indian channels, which have transformed their technology and look. Hundreds of staffers have been hired. New equipment and satellite vans have been bought, studios revamped, logos changed. In a first for India, NDTV will use helicopters for news coverage.

Some channels have turned into finishing schools. Star News ordered reporters and anchors to shave off facial hair. Staffers were put through grooming sessions. Top fashion designers and hairstylists are creating new looks for anchors and reporters, some of whom have trained at broadcasting school.

“The whole transition … was a mammoth task,” says R.S. Chauhan, a VP at Sahara TV. “Some of our staff had never used computers in the newsroom before.”

Such attention to style has been criticized.

“News should be presented by anchors, not by people who look like models or movie actors,” says Kapdi of Zee News.

Don’t expect foreign news orgs to rush in to stake a claim in India’s news gold rush, however.

The government is cautious not to let foreign investment color the news. It has placed a 26% cap on outside investment in channels with satellite uplinks from India, much to Murdoch’s irritation.

(AP and Bryan Pearson in New Delhi contributed to this report).

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