NDTV staff aren’t saying much.
All calls to NDTV staff on Wednesday were rather short. Asked to comment on the Adani group’s acquisition of their TV network, they declined to speak, even off the record. Coaxing did not help. Several anchors at NDTV 24x7, the network’s flagship English news channel, said they had nothing to say.
The management has not enforced non-engagement with the media, we learnt, but the editorial staff might still be processing yesterday’s newsbreak.
“Nothing has changed,” said a reporter at the Hindi TV news channel NDTV India when asked about how the newsroom has reacted to the news. “Everything is as it was yesterday.”
On Tuesday, Adani Enterprises announced the acquisition of 29.18 percent stake in NDTV. The group, led by billionaire Gautam Adani, will also launch an open offer to purchase another 26 percent of the network.
The Narendra Modi government’s fondness for the Adani group isn’t a secret. Nor is its impatience for NDTV, which it tried to put off air for a day in 2016.
In an email Tuesday night, Suparna Singh, president, NDTV group, informed her colleagues that “developments of today are entirely unexpected for NDTV, and for Radhika and Prannoy”.
Prannoy and Radhika Roy are co-founders and promoters of NDTV.
A news industry executive who was once associated with NDTV, told Newslaundry that he felt sorry for the network. “It must be hard for the Roys to digest this,” the executive said, “I am surprised how the Adanis pulled this off.”
The Adani group used a subsidiary, AMG Media Networks Ltd, to buy 100 percent of the equity stakes in a shell company which had loaned over Rs 400 crore to the Roys in 2009. In lieu of the loan, the shell company, called Vishvapradhan Commercial Private Limited, VCPL, had acquired rights to 29 percent shares of NDTV.
VCPL was once owned by companies linked to Reliance Industries chief Mukesh Ambani. Just before Adani’s takeover, it was linked to Ambani’s associate Mahendra Nahata.
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The Adani group’s NDTV grab has been described as “hostile” after the network announced that it was done “without any input from, conversation with, or consent of the NDTV founders”.
For author Sandeep Bhushan, who has worked at and written about NDTV, the takeover might be part of the BJP’s plan to set the stage for the 2024 general election. “Knowing the Roys, I don’t think they would have wanted to sell the stakes,” he said. “They have middle-class entrepreneurial ethics. Prannoy is not counting cash. If the duo wanted a resolution with the government, they would have subdued an anchor or two, or taken other steps. But it seems they did not anticipate this.”
An NDTV reporter seemed more optimistic. “I don’t think anything will change,” the reporter said. “The channel’s reputation for good journalism is what makes it unique. Adani is a businessman, not a bhakt. If he changes NDTV into a pro-government megaphone, it’ll become like a dozen other channels and lose its brand value.”
This came with a caveat. “If there is going to be a brazen change at the channel’s editorial line,” the reporter added, “it will happen only in the run up to a major election”.
The industry executive made the opposite case. “In the TV news industry, pro-government news gets better viewership than anti-government news,” he said. “NDTV lost business because of its anti-government work. But the Adanis, who have an aggressive tendency of one-upmanship, will now compete with Ambani’s Network18. So the NDTV model might have to change.”
Those who have closely observed the Adani group told Newslaundry that the Adanis believed their corporate group did much good for the country but got more bricks than bouquets from the media.
In June 2021, media reports – purportedly leaked by a rival business conglomerate – alleged that the accounts of three Mauritius-based funds with $6 billion worth of shares in the Adani group had been frozen by India’s national share depository. Consequently, the stock prices of Adani companies nosedived.
The reports, it is believed, pushed the Adanis to change strategy. No more cold distance from the media; buy media brands and fight your own battles.
Media expert Vanita Kohli-Khandekar told Newslaundry that Adani’s entry into the TV news industry was signalled after former business journalist Sanjay Pugalia was appointed CEO and editor-in-chief of AMG Media Networks in September 2021.
“However, their reason for buying NDTV is beyond me,” Kohli-Khandekar said. “The TV news industry is one of the worst performing industries. It is hard to guess their motivation.”
Those familiar with the conglomerate’s modus operandi ventured a guess. “It is Adani’s gift for Narendra Modi,” said an industry source. “The network will be used the way other networks are used – to impress the powerful.”
Bhushan said Reliance, which controlled VCPL, “might have been under pressure” to sell its stakes to Adani because it “undersold” a company which had loaned over Rs 400 crore to the TV network for only Rs 113 crore.
The industry source that one cannot rule out the possibility of “coercion” in the purchase.
“VCPL was the vulnerable underbelly of NDTV,” Bhushan added.
It’s only 24 hours since the Adani-NDTV announcement. There’s not enough information to say what might be on the cards for the news network.
“It seems likely that the Adanis will pour money into NDTV channels,” said the industry executive. “NDTV’s digital properties are doing well; its app has the highest downloads among news apps. But its broadcast properties are weak with low viewership and poor distribution. Huge money might flow into them. It is worth observing if the revenue will end up matching investment.”
Adani observers, however, wondered if profitable media business is what the conglomerate really wants. “The network will be used to serve business interests,” one of them said. “NDTV will change fundamentally.”