The story behind India’s first live private news broadcast 24 years ago

The link between India's first regional private live news bulletin and a US army base in Philippines.
The story behind India’s first live private news broadcast 24 years ago
The story behind India’s first live private news broadcast 24 years ago
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It was 7.30pm IST on 30th September, 1995. A thin, bearded man in his twenties appeared on Malayalam channel Asianet and uttered, “Namaskaram, pradhana varthagal”. (Namaskaram, Here are the headlines)

This half hour bulletin was the first ever live news telecast by a private channel in India. History was made.

The face of the bulletin was Pramod Raman, the news-anchor. He was sitting in a studio at Subic Bay in Philippines to read out the major news events of Kerala, India and the world.  Those were the days of Doordarshan’s news bulletins,  Zee and Sun were the only other private channel that had news content, but deferred live.

Now a leading journalist in Kerala, and Co-ordinating Editor of Manorama TV, Pramod Raman says they never saw it as a huge event then. “We saw it only like bringing the news from newspaper to television, we never thought of it as a historic event. Just three of us living in Philippines, managing a bulletin,” he told The News Minute, casually reminiscing over what, in hindsight, was a watershed moment in the history of Indian news.

Unlike the huge news crews that we see today, the show was being managed by just three people in Philippines. “There was me, NK Raveendran and a person who handled the camera. When I was anchoring, Raveendran used to be production-in-control and vice versa. We used to live in a rented apartment,” he recalled.

Asianet's editor MG Radhakrishnan says they are proud of the history the group created, and how it lead the way for many in the country.

Private news channels like Zee, Sun TV and Asianet were initially using transponders based out of Russia for uplink facility, but later shifted to locations closer. Though all three private entities were telecasting recorded programmes, ‘live’ was a still a novelty.

Asianet general entertainment channel was the dream child of journalist and entrepreneur Sashi Kumar, who believed that news was an integral part of a Malayalam GEC or General Entertainment Channel. “It was important to have news or news related programmes even in a GEC in Malayalam. Those days were not easy.  Information wise we were live, but not visual wise. The bulletins only had the anchor with stock photos or stock footage,” he explains.

Stories were sent from the Asianet headquarters via fax or teleprinter. “A lot of still photographs of leaders, places etc were already positioned with them, so it could be used. We also had stock footage which was likely to figure in the news,” says Sashi Kumar.

Though the resources were limited, all attempts were made to make bulletins interesting. “Even though ISD calls were very costly, we used to occasionally connect a political leader on the phone,” says Sashi Kumar.

Pramod Raman recalls that what first started as a single news bulletin in a day soon became two bulletins. “We started anchoring a bulletin at 12.30pm IST. This bulletin mainly focused on international news events and so we could use daily footage from Reuters,” he says.

Within months operations shifted from Philippines to Singapore. “Travelling to Philippines was not easy. A person with tapes (for all general entertainment and news features) used to travel to Singapore, then Manila and from there take a third flight to Subic Bay. When Singapore government gave us permission to uplink, we immediately shifted to Singapore. I think our team also felt more comfortable there as there was a more Indian presence there,” Sashi Kumar recalls. “We even anchored an election programme out of Singapore, and I handled the camera once,” he chuckled.

Anchors like Maya Sreekumar and Nikesh Kumar too had lived and worked out of Singapore for Asianet then.

Pramod Raman and Sashi Kumar believe that the advent of news in private TV channels changed the game as people were no longer receiving just what Doordarshan doled out. “We were being critical and that was appreciated,” says Sashi Kumar.

Sashi Kumar says with limited resources, the news bulletins packed as much variety as possible. “Now it’s the same 5 or 6 stories covered through the day by all channels.”

Today, however, journalism has taken a backseat even thought the technology has moved far head, says Shashi Kumar. “Now in spite of everything, news has become more about opinion than reporting. These days the prime time debates have people who are known to toe a particular line. If they don’t clash on TV, the anchor’s job is to make them clash.” 

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