Rupert Murdoch's grand takeover in Kerala

Last Updated: Tue, Oct 14, 2008 06:42 hrs

Kerala has ignored a call by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leadership to revolt against the entry of media mogul Rupert Murdoch's STAR TV network into the State.

The call was made by CPI-M State Secretary, Pinarayi Vijayan. In a speech early last month, he recalled how leading writers had campaigned against the Times of India group's attempt to take over the Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi two decades ago, calling it a 'cultural invasion'.

Vijayan spoke as the STAR group was in talks to acquire control of Asianet, the oldest Malayalam satellite channel. "This should not be seen as a routine takeover," he said. "They want to change our society." However, there has not been a whimper of protest against the Murdoch takeover. Interestingly, the STAR group has been functioning in the other CPI-M stronghold of West Bengal without inviting the hostility of the party's unit there.

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The Hong Kong-based STAR group had initially confined its Indian operations to English and Hindi. It stepped into Tamil in 2001 by acquiring controlling interest in Vijay TV. In 2005, it set up STAR Ananda, a Bengali news channel, in association with the Ananda Bazar Patrika newspaper group. A few weeks ago, it launched STAR Jalsha, an entertainment channel in Bengali.

Three months ago the STAR group began talks with the owners of Asianet, which has changed hands thrice in the 15 years of its existence. The Asianet channel company and a cable company bearing the same name were promoted by Sashi Kumar, former head of Press Trust of India's TV division, with seed capital provided by his uncle, Reji Menon, a Moscow-based businessman. When the companies faced a financial crunch, the real estate firm of Rahejas helped, and it was given 50 per cent stake in the cable operations.

As business prospered, the Rahejas wanted a stake in the channel operations too. While Sashi Kumar, who held half the shares, resisted their overtures, Reji Menon, who held the remaining half, struck a deal with them. Under the deal, the Rahejas got full control over the cable company. Menon used the consideration they paid to provide his nephew a golden handshake.

Sashi Kumar's exit created a sense of loss in the state CPI-M leadership, which had viewed Asianet as a friendly channel. It promoted a company to set up an alternative channel. Today the party-promoted Kairali group and Asianet have three channels each - a general entertainment channel, a news channel and a youth channel.

An attempt by Subhash Chandra's Zee group to acquire Asianet from Menon fell through apparently because the severance agreement with the cable company prohibits the channel's takeover by a company with interest in cable operations.

Two years ago Menon pulled out of Asianet turning over control to Rajiv Chandrasekhar, a Bangalore-based businessman of Kerala origin, who is a Rajya Sabha member and currently president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

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Since then Asianet has launched an entertainment channel and a news channel in Kannada. Last week it entered the Telugu market with an entertainment channel. A Telugu news channel is also on the cards.

According to industry sources, following negotiations with the STAR group, the Asianet channel company has been reorganised and all its operations other than those of the news channels will come under the STAR banner. Apparently a formal announcement is delayed because STAR has yet to free itself from an earlier agreement with the Balaji Telefilms of Mumbai for joint operations in the regional languages.

In the wake of reports about the Murdoch takeover, Asianet Vice-chairman K. Madhavan issued a press release saying: "There is no basis for the speculation that the policies of the Asianet News network will fall under foreign control.” The purported denial indirectly confirms that STAR will take over all except the news channels.

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With the acquisition of the Asianet group, STAR will provide complete coverage of the entire spectrum of Southern languages.

There are now nearly a score of television channels in Malayalam. Being in the red, most of the channels are an easy prey for empire-builders.