Tamil television is broadbasing itself. Now, every network wants a range of channels. Kicking off the trend is Jaya TV which, as its name suggests, supports AIADMK chief Jayalalitha.
Like the prisoner in the Maggi ketchup commercial, executives of the Jaya Network keep saying, ''It's different,'' when asked about their two soon-to-be-launched Tamil television channels - news channel Jaya Plus and music channel Jaya Max. Both channels commenced trial runs this month.
But vice president (news) K P Sunil, and vice president (programme and operations) V Murali Raaman have reasons to be cautious. The Tamil television industry is notorious not only for copying popular programme formats, but also poaching entire programming teams from their rivals.
No wonder all that Sunil is willing to say is: ''We plan to make it a news plus current affairs channel.'' The entertainment component, says Sunil, will be in small doses. He also refused to say anything about which programme hosts the channel has hired.
The channel will air news bulletins every 30 minutes. But what is interesting is that the women newscasters are attired in smart western clothes, giving Jaya Plus a young and vibrant look.
Sunil says the target audience will be Tamil viewers across the globe, regardless of the age. And he doesn't conceal the channel's slant towards the AIADMK when it comes to reporting political news.
That is no surprise. All Tamil channels with politicians (or those who have a strong association with a political party) as promoters tend to give their political news a slant.
Amongst the existing 10-plus Tamil channels, half - Mega TV, Kalaignar TV, Jaya Network, Sun Network and Makkal TV - are promoted by politicians or those connected to a political party.
The news channel, Sunil says, has around 40 stringers in Tamil Nadu, and also in all other major Indian cities. ''In addition,'' he points out, ''we source news from agencies.''
For the Jaya Network the addition of two more channels was a long-felt commercial need. Advertisers prefer networks that offer a bouquet of channels. ''When most other television companies have more than two channels, a single channel company will always be left out,'' says an industry executive.
Now that it has three channels in its fold, Jaya Network can offer cross-channel promotions and also have a combo advertisement tariff card.
Jaya Network is yet to finalise the ad rates for the new channels. Though advertisers on Jaya TV have expressed interest in taking spots on the two new channels, company executives say they do not have an exact estimate of the revenue potential for the Tamil news channel segment.
That's because Sun News is the only thoroughgoing Tamil news channel. And, since it is part of the Sun Network that offers combo ad rates, it is difficult to put an exact number on its standalone revenues.
The North Indian Hindi and English news channels are pay channels with a national network that helps them to earn substantial subscription revenues. But since most Tamil channels are free-to-air, Tamil news channels cannot even dream of charging subscriptions, as there will no takers.
Since it costs money to run a television news channel, the only way to make money is to be free and ride on the entertainment channels in the network. Another television company, Raj Television, is also planning a Tamil news channel, Raj News.
Compared to news channels, running a music channel is relatively cheap, especially if a network has a general entertainment channel. ''The movie and song rights are bought with the understanding that they will be aired across the network. This reduces the content cost,'' says an industry executive.
Raaman refuses to say anything about Jaya Network's library size, but rivals Sun Network and Raj Television seems to have an edge. The latter owns rights to over 2,900 films, and also plans to launch a music channel called Raj Musix soon.
Taking a dig at the rival Sun music channel - where the programme hosts talk a lot - Raaman says, ''The accent in our channel will be minimum peachu (talk) and maximum pattu (songs).''
Soaps becoming slippery
Meanwhile there is a perceptible change in the programming mix in the Tamil general entertainment channels. Competitions and talk shows are replacing mega serials, even at prime time.
Interestingly, mimicry, song and dance contests, and talk shows in Tamil television were started by Vijay TV and Jaya TV. Contests are revenue spinners, as they are interactive. Viewers call numbers given to register their votes, and telecom companies share the revenue with the channel.
As they gained popularity, rivals copied each others' formats, indicating that programmers were running out of ideas. Says Raaman, ''Mega serials will continue, but the ratio of mega serials to competitions and talk shows will change in favour of the latter.''
''I find Jaya TV programmes can be enjoyed with the family. They are different, and cater to people with a somewhat more refined taste,'' says G Sriram, a Chennai-based businessman.
Can a channel consciously target a niche audience with a higher purchasing power? Raaman has his own take on this. ''Every programme has its own set of viewers. All have differing purchasing power. Programmes are designed taking the marketing department into confidence,'' he says.