Tamil Nadu’s TV Empires

Political heavyweights openly influence content on Tamil Nadu’s regional TV channels. And how!

BySudha G Tilak
Tamil Nadu’s TV Empires
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It’s never easy to rule a TV Empire. Rupert Murdoch who runs the world’s second largest media conglomerate and was recently facing a tough trial would know. TV isn’t an idiot’s game.

Given the political chicanery and the greasy nature of Tamil Nadu’s politicalscape, the state – for over two decades – has been ruled by the emperors of Tamil TV channels who have moulded and influenced public opinion, waged political battles and brought down political fortunes through TV broadcasts, outdoing and besmirching political rivals. And even if you haven’t listened to the Radia tapes, you’d still know how members of the erstwhile TN chief minister Karunanidhi’s extended family are enlisted in the control of their media conglomerate led by a bouquet of TV channels.

This is one area of media-ownership and control through television over the masses, which even the demi-god of Tamil cinema, Rajnikanth, is wary of toying with! For unlike a Bachchan quizzing small-town wives and awarding them a crore of rupees, or an Aamir Khan making the nation wake up to bitter truths over Sunday brunch time, the top star of Tamil Nadu knows that in this state, TV is an instrument used by political masters for overwhelming influence over the hoi polloi. Even super stars dare not mess with that.

It goes without saying that the 30 and more Tamil entertainment and news channels eating into a Rs 1000 crore advertisement pie have enough battles to wage against each other – be it aping each other’s programmes for one-upmanship, poaching on star anchors and serial stars, vying with each other over television rights for movies, or getting high entertainment value by roping in film stars to attract eyeballs during the pre-elections stage. In the last instance, the government offered free TV sets to the poor in 2011.

Can TV fill hungry bellies? It seems it can in Tamil Nadu. TV can mess around with the minds of the gullible electorate who are mesmerised by the flickering images on the boob tube into voting for the party which offers the highest entertainment on TV. The water problem be damned, give us the daily dose of our favourite TV soap, gossipy news, glamorous starlets, daily horoscope predictions and the best way to make chicken 65 as an aphrodisiac for comely Tamil housewives to seduce their husbands.

Tamil Nadu’s social and political history reveals the use of popular mediums of entertainment for disseminating political views and influencing public opinion since the Twenties. It hails from the olden tradition of koothu or street theatre in Tamil Nadu in which fledgling Dravidian parties used to employ pantomime, song and vaudeville to share their views on caste and political power for subtle indoctrination through story and drama. Soon they became dramatists, orators and scriptwriters and were influential opinion-makers.

Both Murasoli Maran and Karunanidhi were instrumental in writing and founding newspapers. Even today, the newspaper and magazine industry in Tamil Nadu is polarised among the various Dravidian parties. By the Fifties, the film scripts by Maran and Karunanidhi became runaway hits and sowed the seeds for the Dravidian parties to foster matinee idols like MG Ramchandran, whose successful tenure as All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) chief minister and the first Tamil Nadu (TN) superstar has had few rivals.

The early success in amassing mass adulation and following has helped the Dravidian parties control and manipulate media houses for over 60 years. Entertainment (read film content and news) remains the mainstay of TV channels. The Sun TV Network established in 1993 by Kalanidhi Maran had a successful role to play during the elections. In the most dramatic televised appeal, superstar Rajnikanth appeared on Sun TV and exhorted the people of TN to vote for the DMK-TMC alliance and oust Jayalalitha’s corrupt regime in 1998. This was repeatedly telecast by Sun TV in blatant contravention of electoral norms until the last day of polling. It worked. Jayalalitha was ousted ignominiously, and the DMK was sworn in. Years later in 2010 when a financial crunch threatened his film, Kalanidhi Maran’s Sun Pictures helped produce Rajnikanth’s blockbuster.

Sun TV’s formidable success in wielding content control with 20 licensed TV channels across south India, seven FM radio stations and DMK-coloured magazines and newspapers, and the rise of Karunanidhi’s grandnephews Kalanidhi and Dayanidhi Maran, has had few rivals. That the Sun TV offices were on the top floor of the DMK headquarters in Saidapet in Chennai and belong to Karunanidhi’s family eroded any doubts about its political allegiance.

Following the success of Sun TV’s political muscle, rival AIADMK founded its own Jaya channel in 1999. Raj TV which was reported to have had a tough time setting up operations in Tamil Nadu and had to contend with Sun TV muscle; the neutral Vijay TV which tied up with Star News had to contend with the formidable reach and political power from grassroots to the Central government which the Marans had with the Sun Network. The latest is Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam’s (DMDK) Captain TV launched in 2010 (named after Vijayakanth, after the title of the red-eyed Rambo of Tamil cinema’s eponymous character Captain Prabhakaran in 1991) which hasn’t posed much of a threat to the DMK or AIADMK’s channels.

Such is the clout and influence of the Maran brothers that in 2007 the patriarch of DMK, Karunanidhi, had to found a new channel (named after him, for nomenclature matters in TN) Kalaignar TV following a rift between uncle and nephews. Sun TV offices were ousted from the DMK headquarters to make way for Kalaignar TV.

But Sun TV continues to be the leader and its reach and ability to control content during elections is largely attributed to the enviable cable connection network. It began with the DMK planning ahead with the idea of controlling the reach of its own channel. It aligned with the weekly Kungumam and the defunct Sumangali (the DMK’s idea of reaching to the considerable female population of TN and to make a departure as a masculine political entity) thus diversifying their business by founding Sumangali Cable Vision. The Sun network and DMK’s cable monopoly allowed them to employ small district level party players to acquire cable distribution licenses. This made it easy for expanding the reach of Sun TV to the remotest corners of TN; and the tight control over the TN capital, with Sun Direct a DTH (Direct to Home) network in Chennai. Brilliant strategising.

Since last month, the arrival of Arasu cable network, which has Chief Minister Jayalalitha’s tacit support,  has thrown a challenge to the Sun network. However, given the first-person-advantage and the decades of work through the party across the state, TN observers say that it will be difficult for Arasu to challenge the penetration and clout of the Sun cable business overnight.

Media watchers in TN however say there are positive signals emerging in TN to check the DMK and AIADMK content control through their channels. Pudhiya Thalaimurai TV (New Generation) of the SRM business group has brought in a fresh change. While the news channels of the main political parties are confined to only reading news in the format of Doordarshan of eons ago, Pudhiya Thalaimurai has brought vox pops, live news feed, reporters from the scene and live voices adding credibility to news. Media watchers say that while the Sun network continues to lead in the entertainment segment PT TV’s balanced news has begun to receive patronage from viewers, and the company is now planning to branch into the entertainment segment with a sister channel as well.

The arrival of new channels may usher in a non-partisan whiff of sense into the maniacal control and rule of people through television. Despite these channels and the growing influence of social media networking sites, the reach to the poorest by the political masters continues to be television. If unchecked, this tacit control of people through images in TN may assume worse proportions of corruption than it has already unleashed.


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