Rupert Murdoch, who has already established a presence in the Indian media through the Hong Kong-based Star network, has cast his eyes on the growing Malayalam television scene.
Murdoch's Star India, which owns English, Hindi, Tamil, Bengali and Marathi channels, is negotiating with Asianet, pioneer of Malayalam satellite television, to gain controlling interest in it, according to market watchers.
There has been no word from either side on the progress of the negotiations. However, Asianet's plan to restructure its set-up is believed to be part of the preparations for a deal which will give the global major a stake in the Malayalam media.
Asianet, promoted by Shashi Kumar, who had been Gulf correspondent of The Hindu and head of Press Trust of India's television division, went on the air in 1993. It was not possible to uplink from India at the time. The channel, therefore, hired a studio in the Philippines and beamed programmes to India using a Russian satellite.
As Asianet showed financial promise, the Rahejas, who held 50% shares in a sister company, which was operating a cable network, sought a stake in it. In 1999, Shashi Kumar's uncle and co-promoter, Reji Menon, eased him out of both the companies. Reji Menon gave the cable company to the Rahejas and kept the channel company with himself.
Asianet expanded under Reji Menon's leadership. Today it operates a news channel and a youth channel, besides the wide-spectrum mother channel. Reaching out to viewers in 60 countries, it links Malayalis worldwide.
Asianet also operates radio stations in Kerala and the UAE. Its forays into Tamil and Kannada were unsuccessful.
Two years ago, a Bangalore-based Malayali businessman, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, acquired controlling interest in the channel from Reji Menon.
Under Chandrasekhar, who is a Rajya Sabha member from Karnataka and president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Asianet re-entered the Kannada market with an entertainment channel and a news channel and made plans to break into Telugu as well. Industry sources currently value its assets at Rs. 5 billion.
There are now a score of Malayalam channels competing for viewers and advertisers. The only player from outside the State is the Chennai-based Sun network, which runs an entertainment channel and a youth channel.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Congress party, the Catholic Church and the Hindu saint Mata Amritanandamayi are among those who promoted channels in Malayalam.
Malayalis in the Gulf States contributed substantially to the capital of three channel companies -- the CPI (M)'s Kairali, Muslim League leader MK Muneer's Indiavision and the Congress party's Jaihind.
While a Dubai-based Malayalam channel, Middle East Television, folded up quickly, there has been no fatality in Kerala so far. However, most channels are deeply in the red and kept alive by continuous infusion of capital.
Kerala, with only one percent of India's territory and three and a half percent of its population, accounts for more than 10% of the country's consumer goods sale. But the State media's share of the national advertising pie is only about four percent.
Big national and international players have steered clear of the State until now presumably because the market is not large enough to tempt them. Star India's interest stems from its desire to build a national network, which covers all major language groups. A deal with Asianet will enable it to complete coverage of the South.
Rajiv Chandrasekhar reportedly plans to reorganize his holdings in such a way that there will be separate companies for general entertainment, news, radio and infrastructure assets. If a deal with Star India materialises, it may be limited to the general entertainment business.
A network which can offer complete national coverage will have a distinct advantage over the rest as an advertising medium. So, if Star comes, can Zee be far behind? There are also other media enterprises, like the Hyderabad-based Eenadu TV, which have national ambitions.
Some global players like CNN and CNBC have already established presence at the national level. As the regional language markets grow, they may want to enter them. The struggling Malayalam channels may find their offers too tempting to refuse.
When the Times of India group acquired minority shares in the Mathrubhumi daily two decades ago, there was a furore in the State. Channel ownership does not evoke the same interest in the public as newspaper ownership.--First published: Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 7, 2008