The Boom and Bust of Kannada News Channels

Show goes on News channels are functioning under considerable financial strain. photo: KPN
Show goes on News channels are functioning under considerable financial strain. Photo: KPN

Sunil Sirasangi, a 34-yearold media professional has been busy running around the labour court and labour commissioner’s office for the last few months. The young man who made a transition from print media to television five years ago, had not bargained for this kind of a life, where he would have to fight for not just his rights but also for the rights of 60 other employees of the Janashri channel in Bengaluru.

Sunil and several others were left jobless one fine day when they raised their grievance of not getting salaries. Sunil recalls, that in December 2014, he and 65 others were stopped from entering the work premises. “Our only request was that we wanted the channel to pay our salaries. The management did not like the fact that we put up a collective representation,” he says.

Seven months on and the group of 60-odd journalists are now on the verge of a breakthrough, as the petitions that they had filed with the labour court is likely to result in a direction being issued to the management to pay the salary due to them.

“It has been a tough task, to reach this far to get justice for ourselves. The seven months without salary have not only made me default on the home loan instalments and also forced me to mortgage my wife’s gold jewellery,” says a television journalist requesting anonymity.

This fate is not unique to the 60-odd media professionals who worked with Janashri. Over 150 other Karnataka TV journalists have also faced hardships like never before. A number of Kannada TV channels going bust in the last one year has impacted several lives in the silicon city, which otherwise boasts to be the fastest growing city in Asia.

The place where the Kannada media stands today is starkly different from 2007 when the boom began.

Starting with, the coming to power of the coalition government of the BJP and the JD(s) led by HD Kumaraswamy in 2007, Karnataka became known as one of the newsiest states in the country. The famous 20-20 power sharing, the continuous political bickering during the Yeddyurappa regime, the change of chief ministership forced by factionalism within the BJP, the unearthing of the mining scams running into thousands of crores relating to the Reddy brothers and the cracking of the whip by the then Lokayukta Justice Santosh Hegde on the mining mafia, all kept the journalists as well as the viewers busy.

The phase between 2007 and 2013 was the golden phase for Kannada media. The birth of over six Kannada news channels highlighted a growth potential which saw several industrial and political investors pump crores of rupees into the media business. The birth of TV9 Kannada in 2007 was followed by Suvarna News started by MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar and the high-flying launch of the Janashri channel by the Reddy brothers and the Samaya channel by the Jharkiholi family.

The rapid opening of the channels threw up opportunities like never before, as hundreds of young journalists with little or no previous experience in television were absorbed into the industry. Recruitments were haphazard, no training was done and the on-air content quality was often compromised. But for the news hungry state, which saw high political drama like never before, none of this mattered and the cash registers kept ringing till the Assembly election of 2013. The arrival of a Siddharamaiah- led Congress government doused the political drama in the state. Along with it, the interest in news channels also dipped. Dipping revenues and sliding TRP’s threatened the existence of many channels.

While Samaya News has seen transfer of ownership on more than two occasions, Janashri is looking for investors to bail it. Others like Suvarna and Public TV have opporseen trimming of operations and face a great challenge in the form of attrition. The oldest news channel Udaya News, meanwhile, has survived on the virtue of being a low cost set up run with minimal staff.

While two new news channels have kicked off in the last few months, these are yet to make an impact on the viewers. Both the channels were setup with a large chunk of funding from real estate sector but that doesn’t guarantee their success. “Many investors enter the TV news business under the impression that it will enhance their clout in the political and social circles. After a period of time they realise that it’s a whirlpool of huge operational expenses 24X7 and the revenue streams seem to be only getting smaller,” says Nazar Ali, a management consultant who had earlier contemplated investing in media.

With investors shying away and growth not looking promising, the worry is not just for over 250 media professionals who are already scouting for assured jobs but also for over 700-odd students who pass out every year from the 29 journalism colleges in the state. This huge talent pool may have to fight it out for the few media openings that will emerge in the industry in the coming years, until better times return to Kannada news channels.

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