OTHERS

Foreign hand

FOR the media in India, this is turning out to be the year of the Australians. Australian-American Rupert Murdoch's Star TV holds the country in thrall with a money-making game show that is becoming a phenomenon to rival the impact of Ramanand Sagar's "Ramayan" in the 1980s. From factory hand to chairman, from maid to memsahib, everybody is watching "Kaun Banega Crorepati". The advertising world is busy taking off on the show's title every chance it gets, and its phrases have entered daily dialogue. When a school teacher in a Delhi classroom asks a student "Are you sure?" a back-bench is likely to quip, "Lock kar diya jaye?"

Earlier this year both Murdoch and son James were in the country to kick off a series of investments in Internet properties. Now another seriously rich Australian, also with a son called James, is set to make an Indian TV debut this month. Kerry Packer's initial Indian toehold will be more significant than other foreign broadcasters who have preceded him, because it will be terrestrial. Several millions more will be watching his offerings than have so far watched Zee, Sony and Star.

Doordarshan in its wisdom sold him bulk air time on the Metro Channel earlier this year. With a Rs. 59-crore bid for a two-hour evening prime time slot, Packer has bought his way into Indian homes on a channel that still protests that it is actually a public service broadcaster. From September 11, DD Metro will begin to air the Packer band.

The tough old Australian who had revolutionised cricket is here to be a long-term player. He is on record saying that he would rather invest in India than China because of the currency the English language has here, and because India has a society that is moving with international trends. Murdoch, on the other hand, is still very keen on China.

Rupert Murdoch remains unconvinced about new media and convergence though he is reluctantly investing in it. Packer, on the other hand, is more than convinced and is working towards becoming a big player on the convergence scene. His visit to India in March this year was short but purposeful. Before he left, Packer announced that he had acquired a 10 per cent stake in Himachal Futuristic, currently among the biggest private telecom players. He also announced a three-way venture capital fund with Futuristic's Vinay Maloo and Gujarati stock broker Ketan Parekh.

The Samajwadi Party politician, Amar Singh, who is a sort of superstar among contact men fondly calls Packer "uncle". And he pulled out all stops for him at a Ashoka Hotel pool side party for the bold, beautiful and powerful to meet him. India's bold and beautiful are very obliging. Around the same time they also showed up in strength, the Prime Minister downwards, for a similar do featuring Rupert Murdoch.

Last week the pink business newspaper had full page ads announcing Himachal Futuristic's Punjab and Chandigarh debut as a network provider. Soon the DD Band ads should beginning running.

Kerry Packer's first distinguishing feature is that he is Australia's richest man with the latest estimate of his wealth putting it at A$ 8.2 billion. Second, his interests are more diverse than Murdoch's, including as they do cricket, polo and gambling. In terms of media acquisitions however, his assets are nowhere as varied and impressive as Murdoch's. He part owns the company that owns Channel 9 in Australia and owns some 60 per cent of all magazines published in that country.

With his money, Packer is buying talent to lend an edge to his Indian TV debut. Just as Murdoch came and hired Rathikant Basu from Star TV for a tidy sum, Packer has acquired Sony Entertainment Television's very successful and very spiffy- looking programming chief Ravina Raj Kohli for a doubtless tidy sum, to programme the band on DD Metro.

For a very sick man, Kerry Packer has enormous drive and is all set to make his mark here. And he has been to one place Murdoch has not: the hereafter. He was once dead for six minutes before he was revived and reported later, "I've been to the other side and I can tell you there's f-----g all happening there." Meanwhile, given the fires he is used to lighting under many backsides, Packer will ensure that a lot more happens in the here and now.

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Competition is here, and the established players are sitting up. Star TV is still resting on its "KBK" laurels, but Sony, Zee and B4U are busy announcing new programmes. This column is going to the press before the other two have unveiled their plans, but Sony's new line up begins from tomorrow. Mondays, 7.30 p.m. "Yeh Duniyah Hai Rangeen", set in a chawl in Mumbai. Same day 8 p.m. a new serial called "Choodiyaan", featuring two sisters, one of whom is mentally deranged because of a childhood tragedy.

Tuesdays, 8 p.m. a new soap called "Dil Hai ki Manta Nahin". It seems to be okay these days to shamelessly cog movie titles. Same day, 7.30 p.m. a new comedy set in a hospital, called "Haal Kaisa Hai Janaab Ka". Thursdays, 8 p.m. a new serial called "Milan". A love story. Thursdays at 8.40 p.m. a new serial called "Shaheen", about a young Muslim beauty married off to a much older man, who, she discovers after the wedding, is a widower. Mornings and evenings every day from September 1, a Disney hour, 8.30 to 9.30 a.m., and 6 to 7 p.m..

SEVANTI NINAN

E-mail the writer at sevantininan@vsnl.com

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