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Mohalla live!

Welcome to India’s TV news revolution: Hundreds of channels spread across the smallest towns, thriving on local viewership and advertising. The other India is finding a new voice, writes Shalini Singh.

delhi Updated: Sep 06, 2009 01:38 IST
Shalini Singh

It’s afternoon, and Seelampur in northeast Delhi oscillates between brisk business and lethargic traffic. A short walk down Hari Om Galli brings one to a nondescript door, through which a staircase leads to an office that comprises a studio and editing room. Welcome to Bharat TV, whose editor-in-chief Anil Sharma, 50, has also been bringing out a weekly newspaper, Shahdara Mail, since 1990. “I felt that this bank of the Yamuna was neglected. The big channels do their stories on us but don’t air them,” he intones, sitting regally at his newsdesk, explaining why he set up his channel on Independence Day, 2005.

Cut to Doda town, headquarters of Doda, one of most backward districts of Jammu. On January 10, 2005, Riyaz Ahmed Andrabi, Ishtiaq Ahmed Dev, Javed Iqbal Khan and Mohammed Ilyas Andrabi got together to launch City Channel. The idea: to cover major happenings in the area.

Typically, across India, channels such as these are thriving, divided by geography but united by an unwavering focus on local news and views, their dependence on the neighbourhood businessman for revenue, and the (usually) voluntary nature of their staff.

In Salem, Tamil Nadu, 48-year-old entrepreneur PV Kalyanasundaram, a Physics graduate, launched Polimar channel in 1999, inspired by desi television brands like Dyanora and Solidaire, which were based in Chennai.

What makes these channels tick? On Bharat TV, a display ad costs Rs 3,000 a month and a scroll ad between Rs 1,000 and Rs 1,500. The channel has 12 employees, monthly expenses of “Rs 80,000-plus”, and covers local news. On Sundays, it features an interview with anyone willing to pay a minimum fee of Rs 2,000. For Andrabi and partners, the total revenue is Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000 per annum.

Local flavour
Local TV
Anil Sharma (foreground) with the newspaper he runs. Behind him, son Rahul helps as an anchor and editor. Sharma’s brother Sunil is at far right.
On the other hand, you have Mahakal Cables in Ujjain, a unique triumvirate of multi-system operators "We run losses of Rs 1 to 2 lakh every month," says Abhay Dharme, manager. Mahakal Cables spends around Rs 27 lakh per month on operational expenses and its revenues are Rs 19 lakh-odd. The rest is ad revenue. "We are uncertain about the future," says managing director Vivek Jaiswal.

So it isn’t always the money. Bharat TV, for instance, has a helpline to register grievances. In Salem, Polimar “is a way of talking to the neighbourhood”, says the manager, Leena.

India will become Asia’s leading cable market by 2010, and the most lucrative pay television market by 2015, says Hong Kong’s Media Partners Asia (MPA). Advertising revenue for cable television is set to grow to $1.8 billion by 2010. But while top dogs Star, Zee Telefilms and Sony Entertainment Network have a 60 per cent market share, there is evidently room for micro-level players.

BG Verghese, chairman of The Hoot, a media watchdog, and a former member of the National Broadcasting Corporation of India, says the importance of local coverage is underestimated. “All large areas are made of local regions. In the rush of national news, local issues are squeezed out,” he adds.

Similar sentiments come from Sharma’s son Rahul, whose favourite anchors are Prateek Trivedi of Aaj Tak and Rajat Sharma of India TV. “I like the way they speak the aam aadmi’s bhasha. They would be at home in any middle class colony. But they should go to these localities rather than get people to their studios.”

Channels like Bharat TV, City Channel, Polimar, Vishnu Buddha Channel in Gaya and Kaimur Channel in Bhabua, therefore, assume the role of watchdogs. Says Verghese, “Local channels deal with issues close to the people... Today, policies must encourage community endeavours.” If these provide community service, all the better. As Sharma says, “I don’t want my sons to work elsewhere. If they do, what have I worked for these 25 years?”

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