One of the reasons Reliance Industries has been successful is its ruthlessness in taking over the entire market. It did that with oil, it is happening with telecom, and now, it is attempting that with the news television in India.
Having taken over Network18, the Ambani group could soon have a news footprint in every state in the country. If the group succeeds, they could end up controlling the very source of news in India, and will have the ability to shape narratives to suit their business interests.
After acquiring ETV News Network in 2014, the media powerhouse has soft-launched three more news channels in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam/North East under the News 18 banner. The ETV News Network website boasts of being “the largest regional news network in terms of geographical reach and the number of languages it covers...With its bouquet of 10 regional news channel it now covers all of north India and most of south India.”
Besides ETV, Network 18 also includes national English news channel CNN-News18, Hindi news channel Ibn7, Marathi news channel IBN-Lokmat as well as the business channels, CNBC-TV18, CNBC Awaaz, CNBC Bajar and several print publications. So, why is Network 18 on an expansion spree?
“ETV is known as a voice of the people in all the states where we operate our channels in different languages. Now we are expanding our base to deep south and North East also and hope that we would emerge as the most credible player in these regions also and will become voice of the people in these regions too,” says Jagdish Chandra, Head of ETV News Network.
Following its soft launch in April, the Tamil channel from the ETV bouquet, News18 Tamil Nadu, is already creating a buzz in the state. Reputed TV news anchor and senior journalist M Gunasekaran has been brought in as the Editor of the channel.
A journalist who cut his teeth in the world of Tamil newspapers, he soon moved to English newspapers and worked with brands like Deccan Chronicle, The Hindu and Times of India. His break into television happened with the launch of Puthiya Thalaimurai, where he anchored the flagship show ‘Nerpada Pesu’ and grew in popularity.
Sources in the industry say that News18 group was in talks with Gunasekaran as early as February 2016, and made it official by March.
Amidst the hectic preparations for the Tamil Nadu assembly polls, Gunasekaran chose to quit Puthiya Thalaimurai and to join News18 as the editorial head of Tamil News.
According to sources in the channel, the hiring began sometime in March and about 90 per cent of the human resources required have been acquired and an evaluation process is now on.
The channel has been set up at a break-neck speed and is already on air. "We have had a soft launch now, but we are running the show like any other news channel, but with a skeletal team. and the final launch date has not been decided," says M Gunasekaran, refusing to divulge any more details. The final launch date is likely to be in the first week of July.
In Kerala, the newly-launched channel has had a challenging time roping in journalists from rival networks. With the tag of belonging to a Reliance-owned media conglomerate, many journalists in the state have been hesitant to join News 18 Kerala. "In February a top editorial person from News 18 had held talks with some senior journalists in the state. I was one of them who they had approached, but I was unsure how serious they were about the project. My impression then was that the channel would be run with minimum investment, but it would work from a marketing concept as News 18 can then blast off a far wider reach," says a senior journalist. In essence, a footprint in every state would give Network 18's marketing team the claim and opportunity to sell more ads with a larger bouquet of channels.
But recently TJ Sreelal, a senior and well known journalist from Kerala who was the Regional bureau chief of Manorama News joined News 18 as National Affair Editor. "With a person like Sreelal and few other seniors joining, they have managed to create a buzz in the market," says the journalist.
Sources in the channel say their larger bureaus would be based out of Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode. Though they have not yet zeroed in on an editor-in-chief, sources confirm Jagadeesh Chandra recently held talks with a top journalist from the state.
But Tamil Nadu and Kerala are highly saturated and competitive when it comes to the news space. While Tamil Nadu has nine news channels, including the Maran-backed Sun News and political mouthpieces Jaya TV and Kalaignar TV, neighbouring Kerala is no different. The state has around six to seven 24x7 news channels, with some owned by old and powerful media houses like Mathrubhumi, Asianet and Manorama. How and where does a new player like News 18 fit in?
Rajesh Raina, Group Editor, ETV News Network, however, is confident. “ETV being the first regional player in the country has earned very good credibility over the years. Being part of the largest TV18 group, we hope our channels will make a mark in these regions also,” he says.
But media observers say that the richest man in India controlling a media empire that has a presence virtually in every part of the country is a dangerous trend. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, journalist and co-author of ‘Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis’ says, “The whole purpose is to control the source of content. It’s not just content for the elite, but across the cross-section of Indian society, who prefer to read and write in a language other than English.”
Guha Thakurta notes that the process began in 2014 and is now being consolidated with its expansion into states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala. “Nothing critical about Reliance can be disseminated in these channels,” he says. Raina, however, denies such criticism, saying, “There is total editorial freedom in our channels.”
From a business point of view, “Having a presence in the mass media is part of Reliance’s plan to roll out its 4G services,” points out Guha Thakurta. The expansion of regional news channels can be seen as a part of Reliance Jio’s Rs.150,000 crore endeavour. After all, the business of news is no longer lucrative, with short term profits out of the picture.
Meanwhile, the media behemoth is growing further still. Network 18 has more channels in the pipeline, with plans to launch News18 in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and Goa.
(Full Disclosure: Anna Isaac is a former employee of Network 18)