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Monday, Feb 17, 2003

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Changing the turf

Nithya Subramanian

As a lot more news channels are set to enter the fray, it's channel-switching for familiar faces, while some channels are gearing up for the occasion by launching new ones.

These days if you try guessing the news channel by just looking at the newscaster and get it wrong, don't be surprised.

With a spate of news channels set to bombard your television sets, there's a churning happening in the business. Familiar faces on the various channels are switching turfs. And those who have not been able to draw popular names are gearing up to launch fresh faces.

So, while Aaj Tak seems to have been the favourite poaching ground with Prannoy Roy-promoted New Delhi Television (NDTV) managing to attract the best faces around, Star News and TV Today's English channels seem to be placing their bets on new faces.

Hence, you have Aaj Tak's star anchor Dibang moving to NDTV. Others like Naghma and Prasoon Bajpayee from the same channel have also moved. Zee News' well-known fare - Nidhi Kulpati - recently joined the NDTV fold.

But it's going to be fresh faces for Star News (Hindi) and Aaj Tak (English). While Sanjay Pugalia has been the biggest draw for Star News, the yet-to-be-launched Hindi avtaar seems to be relying more on some familiar names from the print media. The channel has taken in senior journalists and columnists from various newspapers and magazines. TV Today, on the other hand, is looking at honing the skills of newcomers. So youngsters, either fresh out of college or with meagre experience, are going to drive the new channel. The channel has had just 30-40 additions to its existing workforce as the technical staff remains the same.

The Sahara Group will also launch 37 channels — Sahara Samay — which are city-specific and region-specific, catering to specific audiences. The group has hired the services of ex-NDTV staffers to prepare for the launch.

So do anchors really become synonymous with channels? Is there an instant brand recall when the faces pop up on television sets?

"Television news is anchor-driven. The news stories on each bulletin remain more-or-less the same and a popular anchor develops a rapport with the audiences. But when an anchor job-hops, the audiences recognise the show but take time to adjust to the new channel," says Alka Saxena, Deputy Editor and anchor with Zee News.

But officials in other news channels feel differently and have set different priorities. "Our main task was to build the news room first. The faces could be established later," said a spokesperson from Star India.

Internationally, shows such as Larry King Live or Inside Politics with Judy Woodruff have catapulted news anchors to virtual celebrities. Even anchors such as Rajdeep Sardesai or Barkha Dutt of NDTV have managed to become popular names due to their weekly shows.

Do audiences also move to rival channels along with their favourite anchors? "Though there is no evidence to support this, I feel that a good anchor should be able to carry their audiences along. We are for the first time facing such a situation where there has been so much movement in the electronic media. We will have to wait at for least for six months before we get a clear picture," Saxena said.

Behind the scenes

The green rooms are buzzing with activity. Channels are not sparing any efforts in their bid to capture the news market. The ad pie for the news channel market is expected to reach Rs 500 crore in the next two years.

The lure is not only a new glamourous look, but good pay hikes. Wage hikes also seem to be a big motivating factor for television employees to switch. According to sources, salaries have sky-rocketed like never before. Producers, anchors, reporters and editors, who have changed jobs in the last three months, claim to have got between 40 and 100 per cent jumps in their take-home package. But it is anchors and editors who have made the real killing with increase in remuneration by 70 to 100 per cent.

Besides trying to woo the best faces, channels are working overtime to create new logos, put brand new sets in place and give a facelift to their anchors.

NDTV has appointed LA-based TAG Creative Brand Solutions to design the on-air look of its proposed Hindi and English news channels. TAG team was also employed by Steven Spielberg to create half-a-dozen commercials for his film Minority Report.

Star News brought in experts from sister channels Fox News and Sky News. A month-long training session was also recently concluded. Aaj Tak hired the services of both BBC and CNN for their news channel. "A reporter in Aaj Tak will report for both the Hindi and English news channels," reports an insider.

And that's not all. Newscasters are being given fashionable hair-dos, smooth faces devoid of moustaches, new make-up kits and designer outfits. They have also been asked to shape up, shed their excess kilos and give up habits that will affect their looks.

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