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The Political Economy of Tamil Television II

September 15 2007 was not yet another day for Tamil television channels and their benefactors – viewers, owners and their political sponsors. The day marked the advent of Kalaignar TV. The Tamil word Kalaignar is an honorific title conferred on Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi in recognition of his literary acumen and abilities. In the literal sense, the word Kalaignar denotes the meaning ‘exponent of arts’.

Inaugurated by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Hon’ble Kalaignar M Karunanidhi, Kalaignar TV evokes interesting thoughts on the political economy of Tamil television. One of my early thoughts on watching Kalaignar TV on its maiden day pertained to the analogy between the vexatious times of Parasakthi (1952), the first Tamil film of the political kind, and the equally vexatious times of Kalaignar TV in 2007. The man behind both ventures, separated in the time and space of more than fifty years of socio-political milieu of Tamil Nadu, is Kalaignar M Karunanidhi. But he is only scripting a different kind of foray this time in tune with the present times and with a different kind of medium. The compulsions for him now are neither ideological nor social in contrast to the times when he made powerful political statements in Parasakthi. The present compulsions appear to be driven primarily by the politics within the family and the need for a television space and time for spreading the words and deeds of the party and himself without losing their decibels in the cacophonous campaigns of the rival party channels and Sun TV.

On the eve of the political crisis flowing from the mid-night arrest of Kalaignar M Karunanidhi on June 30,2001, Sun TV had put in a seemingly ceaseless loop of the video footage showing the shoving around of a nearly 80 year old senior politician, Kalaignar M Karunanidhi and his loud cries at the hands of police. This was a case of political propaganda managed solely by a television channel not owned by a political party, but was tacitly nurtured and promoted by the party through the logic of goodwill and family interests-centered benevolence. The above mentioned propagandistic coverage would have caused as much discomfort to the AIADMK regime as Jaya TV‘s propagandistic coverage of the attack on the Madurai office of Dinakaran, the Tamil daily owned by the Sun TV group in May 2007, allegedly by DMK men, did to DMK. The spark for this attack was allegedly provided by a opinion poll carried by Dinakaran on the topic of the likely successor of Kalaignar M Karunanidhi. The DMK leadership was not pleased with the results of the polls which showed poor ratings for one of Kalaignar M Karunanidhi’s sons and saw a ‘political mischief’ by Maran brothers.

The turn of events from then on took dramatic and swift lines of descent for the family of Marans. The turn of events since then not only took a toll of Mr Dayanidhi Maran’s position as the high profile cabinet minister in Dr Manmohan Singh’s government, but has also provided uncomfortable moments for the Sun network. The long association between the DMK and the media group was certainly on the rocks when its crew was denied the permission to cover a mega meeting attended by Ms Sonia Gandhi and Dr M Karunanidhi in Chennai in the wake of the Madurai attack.

The writing on the wall was clear for Maran brothers as well as their competitors in the business of Tamil television. Raj TV, a long time rival of Sun TV became the instant solution to the lack of a television channel like Sun TV. As days passed, rumours ran riot as regards the possibilities before the DMK to checkmate the Sun TV. They had their echo in the relative prospects of the shares of Raj TV and Sun TV in the Bombay Stock Exchange. The value of the shares of Raj TV boomed whereas the shares of Sun TV were reported heading the downhill path. The owner of Raj TV, Mr Rajendran, added a new dimension to the stories of the changing contours of Sun TV vs DMK politics when he joined DMK as a member, even as stories floated announcing a DMK sponsored television channel to teach a lesson or two to Sun TV. It was rumoured earlier that the new channel would be supported by the party and run by Raj TV. It has become clear now that the new channel Kalaignar TV is a venture supported by the party and run by the party leadership’s family.

The launch of Kalaignar TV must be read as a multi-pronged solution on the part of DMK to the problems on account of the parting of the ways of DMK and Sun TV group and the ever changing contours of political control of television in Tamil Nadu. With the singular exception of the STAR TV‘s Tamil channel, Vijay TV, every other Tamil channel aspires for a political relationship. No longer, any political party can afford to run its political business without owning and sponsoring a television channel in order to get into the hearts of the voters. Another interesting thought concerning the analogy between the times of Parasakthi and Kalaignar TV gives an indelible impression that while Parasakthi was one of its kind, before and after its times; the case of Kalaignar TV informs us in no uncertain terms that it is a different kind of an attempt in Tamil political television, but certainly not a one of its kind.

The message of the changing contours of the political control of Tamil television is that there are no permanent friends in television channels, unless you own them.

7 comments

1 Kishore Budha { 09.18.07 at 12:53 am }

When discussing cinema and politics in Tamil Nadu (which is probably the only state in India where the fate of the two are inextricably linked), we also need to look at power.

Power is often classified into five principal forms: force, persuasion, authority, coercion, and manipulation.

The access to controls of the state brings with it the force, authority, and the ability to coerce (something we have often noticed in the murky affairs of the state). Earlier with cinema and now with television, political parties see access to levers of persuasion, authority, and manipulation.
DMK right from its inception had its eye on the material power of the state as well as the soft power of cinema and it blatantly used it and the concept of nation to gain access to material power.

As the public have legitimised this power through adulation of the soft power (which you have highlighted in your earlier posts).

The question I have is: to what extent is television different from cinema in the power relations between the fan/voter vs the political parties? One would hypothesise that unlike cinema (which is a communal activity bringing with it its own social and political) television has the ability to atomise cultural consumption and the citizen subject. Especially with commercial/satellite television, the viewer’s identity would be appropriated by the ISA. What are your views on this?

2 Prashant Das { 09.18.07 at 1:30 am }

don\’t u think it could reflect the declining clout and infighting? after all, even in maharashtra after thackeray, infighting broke out.

3 Kishore Budha { 09.18.07 at 3:42 am }

Interesting parallel in Gujarat where Modi is using technology. Read here: http://tinyurl.com/2zkg6w

4 Ravi { 09.18.07 at 7:55 pm }

Hi Kishore. I think television and cinema have their unique ways of defining the power relations between audience and political parties, at least going by the experiences of the past/present and emerging scenarios in Tamil Nadu.

No doubt, cinema-audience relationship is a communal activity, but it is rooted in the psyche of the individual spectator. I think the reason why films of MGR are able to convey their political message to the fans of MGR 20 years after his death lies in the enduring nature of the relationship between individuals as fans and their stars (and their world view or party affiliations). The same can not be said about the relationship of television viewer and the programmes/channels he watches. It is more transient and lost in the ‘television flow’ of Raymond Williams.

At least in the context of the emergent conditions of political television in Tamil Nadu, we do not see a ground for a long term enduring relationship between audience and political parties. Vote bank political logic holds the view that the vote banks of major political parties in Tamil Nadu such as DMK and AIADMK remain the same at their base levels. What decides their winning chances are the alliance arithmetic defined by the vote banks of small parties. A fan of MGR is very likely to be the voter of the party he founded (AIADMK) and identified with. The propaganda of the rival party’s channel is very unlikely to change his love for his star or his party. It can only harden his/her views against the rival party.

Moreover, the logic of propaganda masquerading as news falls flat once the issue at hand blows over. The logic of switching channels also disrupts the logic of political loyalties that may motivate viewers early on to switch on their channel/programme first.

The political films of MGR and DMK clicked because they had a monopoly. No other star or party ventured into the territory of political cinema. The message of political channels via the news casts and current affairs programmes can not linger forever in audience minds as there are too many channels revving up television-based political propaganda.

5 Kishore Budha { 09.19.07 at 1:28 am }

This culture of adulation of MGR is (as far as my knowledge goes) restricted to Tamil Nadu. Don’t think that in Andhra NTR evokes such strong sentiments. In a Zizekian context, a voice that refuses to go away, cannot be killed and talks to us from the beyond.

6 Ravi { 09.19.07 at 7:59 am }

You are bang right Kishore. The culture of adulation of the MGR kind is restricted to TN. Rather than posting a long winding comment in elaboration, I will turn this opportunity into short post.

7 Global Voices Online » India: Tamil television and politics { 09.17.07 at 8:24 pm }

[…] Culture and Politics of Tamil Cinema on the many intersection between television channels and politics in Tamil Nadu. Share This […]

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