NEW DELHI — When a court in New Delhi in February freed two men accused of the murder of model Jessica Lall, the country was outraged.
The protests forced the police to reopen the case against suspect Manu Sharma, son of an influential politician who was believed to have been let off the hook because of his connections.
But when Lall was killed seven years ago, the news barely traveled beyond New Delhi.
The difference today is the explosion of TV news channels that have broken out of regional limits.
“It was the news channels that took the (Lall) case national,” says Vir Sanghvi, a political commentator and Hindustan Times newspaper editor.
After more than two decades of dull fare from pubcaster Doordarshan, with two half-hour bulletins a day, Indian TV began transforming in the early 1990s, when the government allowed the launch of satellite channels, both local and foreign.
Today there are some 15 satellite news channels broadcasting nationally 24 hours a day, each trying to outdo the others by breaking a story.
Latest to join the fray are CNN and Reuters, which have formed partnerships with local companies to launch India-wide news channels.
Rumors that the two major international media groups were planning forays into India had been rumbling for much of the latter half of 2005, but it still came as a surprise when CNN and Global Broadcast News suddenly and without fanfare on Dec. 17 launched their joint venture, 24-hour general English news channel CNN-IBN.
It quickly made an impact, slotting in at No. 4 with a share of 11%, behind runaway leader NDTV, CNBC TV-18 and NDTV Profit.
Six weeks later, Times Now — the Reuters venture with Times Group — took off, aimed at metropolitan viewers.
Instead of repeating the same news headlines hour after hour, experts discuss and interpret the latest news to give the viewer a “surround experience,” according to CEO Sunil Lulla
Despite a well-publicized launch, the channel didn’t make the same sort of splash as CNN-IBN, coming in with 5% market share — just above BBC World’s 3% and CNN’s 2%.
CNN-IBN has since climbed to about 18%, while Times Now remains around 5%.
Media experts say it is too soon to say whether Times Now will survive in the cut-throat and pricey business of around-the-clock news broadcasts.
“It’s too early to say good or bad — every channel needs time to stabilize. If we are even comparing it with CNN-IBN, the latter is 2 months old now,” says Divya Radhakrishnan of MediaEdge consultancy.
Carat Media’s Pradeep Iyengar says the brand image for Times Now is more important at this point than the ratings race.
“Times Now is a channel for the urban, and they have done a great job of ensuring that they live up to this claim. They are the Indian answer to the BBCs and CNNs of the world. And numbers are just a question of time,” he told Exchange4media Internet news portal.
Reuters has staked a lot on the deal. Its 26% stake in the venture (as much as is allowed under India’s foreign investment laws) is its first investment in a broadcast outfit worldwide.
“Investing in a television channel is important from a strategic perspective,” says Charles G. Stocks, VP of Reuters Media.
As the third largest cable TV market in the world, India has 61 million cable and satellite homes and 110 million TV homes. That’s a far cry from the 600,000 or so TV homes in the early 1990s just before the new wave began.
In those days, people in Kolkata barely knew what was happening in their own backyard, let alone, as now, that the alleged murderers of a model in Delhi got off scot-free.