In television-saturated Tamil Nadu, news that Pudhia Thalaimaru (New Generation) television channel has emerged as a leading news channel in the region in about two months went largely unnoticed. In a state where television news has come to mean propaganda with political parties launching their own channels, where “objectivity” amounts to simply not believing any source entirely, and where sectarian interests dictate news coverage, the success of an “apolitical” television channel is something to write home about.
The SRM Group launched Pudhiya Thalaimurai, with the tagline “unmai udanukudam” (truth instantaneously) in August 2011, buoyed by the success of the weekly Tamil magazine by the same name which was launched in 2009. In a press meet ahead of the launch, managing director of the group T R P Sathyanarayana had reportedly said that the channel would seek to fill the void in the regional televisionscape for a channel that had no political leanings, that provided more than film-based entertainment and that was as informative as it was entertaining targeting the youth.
At first glance, it can be said that the channel has succeeded in its aim. The success is particularly significant, as it came at a time when the only other apolitical news channel in the region, the NDTV-Hindu, launched in 2009, was floundering and had accumulated Rs. 20 crore in losses. It has since changed hands.
Perhaps, the initial success of Pudhiya Thalaimurai lies in that the SRM group chose a time when there are alternatives to the cable connection in the form of DTH (direct-to-home) television, which is of late becoming more popular owing to the “cable war” that the DMK and the AIADMK are embroiled in. Speaking in another context, Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) chairman Sashikumar pointed out that first tussle between the DMK and AIADMK in the nineties was over the issue of establishing the huge network required for cable television. Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s announcement of the setting up of Arasu Cable Corporation is a measure to combat the overarching reach of Sun TV and the monopoly Sumangali Cable Vision enjoyed in the State. It is said that more and more viewers, tired of their favourite channels being blacked out in the political war, are turning to DTH which only costs marginally more. Interestingly, the government also imposed a 30 per cent entertainment tax on DTH which has been stayed by the Madras High Court.
But Pudhiya Thalaimurai has more to its credit than warding off political affiliations. The periodic news bulletins are interspersed with talk-shows, discussions, news features, district round-ups that attempt to present information unlike the other Tamil television channels. For instance, “konjam soru, konjam varalaru” (A bit of food and a bit of history) traces the origin of items in the Tamil cuisine while “Yuppieskku mattum illai” (Not just for the yuppies) attempts youth-talk that is not contrived. Its programming thus differs drastically from that of other channels that have more or less followed the pattern set by the commercially-successful Sun TV. In terms of salary packages it offers, it is said to be competitive.
Its presenters are young, dressed neither in the formal DD style nor the “loud” style of Sun TV. They are like everyday youth that one gets to spot on Chennai roads dressed in decent casuals speaking a Tamil that is neither classical nor Anglicised. It is perhaps for the first time that Tamil viewers get to hear the news delivered in a conversational tone, devoid of the particular intonation pioneered by Sun TV, copied by other channels and parodied in Tamil cinema. The sets are reminiscent of The NDTV-Hindu where the television newsroom, complete with staff walking around, is seen in the background. Interestingly, the news team from the NDTV-Hindu seems to have relocated to Pudhiya Thalaimurai.
Its news segment also differs in terms of content and not just for the perspectives that it takes. The focus is more on social issues, which also helps it to steer clear of political leanings. Its young reporters are dressed in salwar kameez and jeans. Unlike other Tamil channels, it covers more than the regional and political and has a fair amount of information about the national and international which has so far been relegated to the English news channels. Pudhiya Thalaimurai’s success turns on its head the assumption that Tamil viewers are not interested in anything that is not associated with “Tamil” and in its attempt to redefine “Tamilness.”
It is, however, a little early to predict if it will set trends the way that Sun TV has. While Sun remains the undisputed leader in entertainment in the region, the success of Pudhiya Thalaimurai has had an effect on Sun TV, if sources are to be believed. It has apparently caused a rethink on Sun TV policies, including Maran’s dictum that it is the organisation and not the individual that should be projected. But changes, if any, are yet to become apparent.
The channel, however, is not without its detractors. Preceding reports of the channel topping the list of news channels in Tamil Nadu, there were reports that Pudhiya Thalaimurai was far from “objective,” the criticism stemming from the seemingly changing stand on Koodankulam nuclear plant. Its “political-correctness” has been seen as an attempt to offend none and appease all. It remains to be seen if it is able to tread the tightrope when faced with a crisis. After all, the SRM group has a finger in almost every business pie. It is when one of its interests is affected that its resolve to remain apolitical will be tested. Till then, it is a welcome fare for the Tamil viewers.