Stale content could be a recipe for disaster in the news broadcasting business. But not for India Ahead. Well, almost.
Last week, one of its top stories at 3 pm mentioned the crypto market crash – a development from June last year. Launched in 2018, the channel appears to have been on auto-pilot mode with pre-recorded content since December last year – just two months after it was in the headlines for a against three people linked to the broadcaster and its parent firm Andhra Prabha in the Delhi excise case.
The signs of a rot, however, have long been clear.
Ratings have barely shown any sign of improvements and there have been a string of resignations, primarily due to irregular salaries, since May last year.
But the broadcaster has continued to receive a significant amount of government ads. It has clocked at least Rs 46 lakh in ad revenue since November, Newslaundry has learnt.
Advertisements and government response
While stale content does not violate eligibility criteria for a channel to be given government ads, such ads usually go out to outlets that demonstrate a sound track record on content and circulation.
“Nothing is wrong as long as the channel is not violating any programme code. It does not matter to the ministry which advertisement it is getting,” an official of the union ministry of information and broadcasting told Newslaundry.
However, the Uttar Pradesh government allegedly stopped giving ads to India Ahead after the public relations department’s monitoring cell found that it was broadcasting stale content in December last year, sources said.
That doesn’t mean the channel has stopped sloshing in ad revenue.
From March 19 until March 25, the channel broadcasted a 90-second ad by the Punjab government on admissions to government schools. Newslaundry accessed documents issued by Punjab’s department of information and public relations to India Ahead that indicate the channel was paid a total of Rs 7,08,981 for the ad.
For another 90-second ad for the Punjab government’s School of Eminence between March 15 and March 24, India Ahead was paid Rs 6,00,831. A third ad on “zero electricity bills” in Punjab aired for 10 days in December and fetched the channel Rs 7,08,981. A fourth ad from January 22 to January 27 on Aam Aadmi clinics in the state earned the channel Rs 2,40,378. A fifth on the Punjab government’s one-year anniversary will run from March 24 to April 7; India Ahead received Rs 14,17,961 for it.
Is the Punjab government aware of the channel’s current status, or the fact that it’s broadcasting stale content?
“If found to be correct, we will definitely take action accordingly,” said Punjab information and public relations department director Sonali Giri. “We are not giving any advertisement to this particular news channel as per my knowledge of media plan yet. I will get it checked for any previous one to be sure.”
There was a steady stream of ad revenue to the channel from the UP government before the latter decided to cut it off, according to documents sent to the channel from the UP department of information and public relations.
The channel ran an ad for UP’s Global Investor Summit 11 times a day for 30 days starting November 26. India Ahead got about Rs 7.4 lakh for it. A Deepotsav ad ran seven times a day from October 20 to October 26, and the channel pocketed approximately Rs 1.95 lakh. Another ad for Mission Shakti ran six times a day for 30 days starting August 25.
Dipping ratings and pre-recorded content
In March 2022, India Ahead was ranked number 9 in English channels with a market share of 0.9 percent, as per BARC data. For contrast, Republic was number one with a market share of 35.3 percent.
As things went downhill, the number of staff reduced from around 100 in May last year to about 40 across broadcast and digital now, according to sources.
And it showed in content. In November last year, content was entrusted to a “master control room” which means the channel has broadcast only pre-recorded content – such as shows on India’s “real changemakers” – since December. Only the ticker is updated in real time, though it also intermittently says “your favourite channel will return soon in a brand new avatar”.
Sample this. At 2 pm on Monday, the channel was telecasting a debate on abortion rights based on a Supreme Court verdict in September last year.
Last week, one of its top stories at 3 pm mentioned the crypto market crash – a development from June last year.
The hourly slots have mostly been occupied with an overdose of health and fitness shows, and technology segments.
“On November 1, the management called all employees and said they won’t be able to pay salaries,” an employee claimed. “We were given two options – to go on leave without pay or leave the job, or to continue working and get our salaries later.”
India Ahead’s president of news and editorial strategies, Sudeep Mukia, confirmed to Newslaundry that salaries aren’t being paid. “It’s not a hidden fact that employees at India Ahead are not receiving their salaries,” he said. “We are trying so that everyone can receive their money as soon as possible. Every day different people are receiving their salaries.”
An employee told Newslaundry “only 15 people” work from the Noida office for “four to five hours a day”. The rest work from home. At least eight employees told Newslaundry the management does not respond to their emails asking about back payments.
A former editor who quit in December said India Ahead owes him over Rs 3 lakh. “I’m paying my house rent and children’s fees through a bank loan,” he said. “I have borrowed money from my father to pay for necessities. I’ve written emails to Bhupendra Chaubey, Sudeep Mukhia, HR and even Gautam Mootha, but no payment has been made yet.”
Chaubey is India Ahead’s editor-in-chief. Mootha is the managing director of the Andhra Prabha group. Mootha is named in the CBI’s chargesheet in the excise policy case.
Another employee alleged India Ahead “refused to accept her resignation” when she tried to quit after not receiving dues of nearly Rs 50,000 from September 2022 onward. She was promised the full payment by January 2023 but never received it. She told Newslaundry she finally left the job but filed a complaint with the Uttar Pradesh Women’s Commission, saying it was her right to receive “what is rightfully mine”.
A cameraman said India Ahead hasn’t paid his salary for three months. “When I didn’t receive the salary or any response asking for it, I took away the company’s camera and LiveU unit to my home in Bihar,” he said. “The company asked me to return it but I said ‘if you repay my dues, I’ll return it’.”
Pankaj Mishra, a senior journalist who quit India Ahead, told Newslaundry he even sent a complaint to the prime minister’s office about his pending dues amounting to more than Rs 3.78 lakh. He’s still not been paid.
A failed crucial deal
The non-payment of salaries allegedly torpedoed India Ahead’s purported “deal” with Euronews, a news network headquartered in France. According to a former employee who was privy to these discussions, Euronews wanted to start a news channel in India and was searching for an established channel that was already operated with a licence. India Ahead seemed an ideal choice.
In October, the management summoned employees to its office in Noida saying “investors” would come soon to iron out details of this “deal”, which would be mediated by Aaron Capital on behalf of Euronews. Several rounds of talks had taken place from July between India Ahead’s Bhupendra Chaubey and others with Aaron Capital’s associate Jay Sinha. Aaron Capital’s chairman David Wolfe and managing director Emily Wolfe visited India Ahead’s office in Noida in October as a follow-up.
But the deal fell through. Employees told Newslaundry that Euronews backed out when it discovered India Ahead wasn’t paying employees their salaries.
Aaron Capital’s Jay Sinha declined to speak to this reporter. Newslaundry sent a questionnaire to Andhra Prabha MD Gautam Mootha. This report will be updated if a response is received.
This report was translated from Hindi to English by Utkarsh Sharma.