THE CPM owns three successful Malayali television channels in Kerala. However, they are not quite the desi versions of Hugo Chavez’s Telsur or Fidel Castro’s Television Cubana. Tearjerker serials, horror shows, prime-time soap operas, Vaastu Shastra advice, online lottery results and cinema-based shows constitute the bulk of programming beamed by the channels.
The entertainment channel Kairali, for instance, broadcasts a show called Mayavi, which promotes superstition. People, the news and information channel, sells air-time to Christian evangelical missions which air programmes not usually in consonance with the basic tenets of Marxism. And We, the channel aimed at the young, caters to urban tastes shaped by the post-liberalisation consumerism.
Kairali still claims to be a channel with a difference in spots aired during commercial breaks, but clearly the market is winning over Marx. OK Johnny, Kerala’s leading media critic and documentary filmmaker feels that Kairali is aping its competitors. “The viewers see no difference between the tearjerker soaps appearing in Kairali and other Malayali commercial channels like Asianet, Amrita and Surya. The Malayalam television scene is ruled by female audiences. So Kairali is imitating commercial channels in winning women viewers and advertisers who sell household goods,” he says.CPM’s success as a media conglomerate in Kerala has inspired the opposition Congress party. While the Congress doesn’t even own a newspaper at the national level, its Kerala unit has set up its own television channel — Jai Hind. Congress president Sonia Gandhi will launch the new channel on August 17. “It is a commercial channel with popular programmes. It will be a balanced channel with nothing partisan,” said MM Hassan, former Congress minister who is incharge of the venture.
A.Vijayaraghavan, who represents the CPM in the Rajya Sabha, and is a member of Kairali’s Board of Directors, clarified that the channel is not a party mouthpiece. “My party has its own newspaper Desabhimani and a number of other publications to propagate our ideology. Kairali is a separate entity which also works with people who might not agree with the CPM ideology,” he says.
However the CPMstations are not above partisan politics. Kairali often acts as a shield against attacks on the CPMstate secretary and Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan’s detractor, Pinarayi Vijayan — both from within and outside the party. Achuthanandan never seems to get any such consideration.
While a news channel like India Vision attacks politicians across the spectrum, the People channel abstains from such criticism — even against CPM’s political opponents. Its sole concession to the Leftists seems to be its consistent anti-US position, as in the case of the war in Iraq. P. Surendran, the well-known
Malayalam short-story writer who was recently expelled from the CPM, feels there is a contradiction in People’s approach. “The channel may take an anti-imperialistic posture while reporting from the Gulf. But it still accepts advertisements from Coca Cola and Pepsi even as CPM workers are fighting them courageously in Plachimada and Kanjikode. Don’t forget that Mathrubhumi, Kerala’s second largest daily, continues to decline advertising worth crores of rupees from Coke and Pepsi to protect the water rights of the local people,” he said.
Berlin Kunhananthan Nair, a Left leaning journalist, feels that the channels are mindful of their Communist ownership. “Who says Kairali is independent? It has 2,36,000 ordinary shareholders, all of them card carrying Communists. Abkaris (liquor contractors), NRI businessmen and controversial officials might have invested huge amounts. But we cannot discount the enthusiasm of party workers in setting up their own channel,” he says.
Nair feels though that Kairali is not helping the cause of the CPMin Kerala. OK Johnny concurs. “Except for a few good programmes like Pen Malayalam, the channel is making no difference whatsoever, contrary to its claims. The new We channel for the young treats them as mere consumers with no intellectual capacity. It has no progressive content and is just a comic version of Channel V,” he says.
ACHUTHANANDAN LOYALISTS in the CPM say Kairali could have been a Left leaning professional channel when it was established seven years ago. Sashi Kumar, the driving force behind Kerala’s first television channel, Asianet, had shown how a channel run on a mix of Leftist ideology, politics and professionalism could be commercially viable.
“There was a broad Left intellectual space in Kerala when Kairali was launched. The channel was in fact an extension of CPM’s positive intervention in fields like literature, theatre and cinema. But the decision to keep Sashi Kumar away from the channel and relying on people from the media world who were not as committed eroded its Left base. Above all, the ongoing ideological tussle in CPM also contributed to the Rightist deviations of Kairali,” says Johnny. He feels that in its pursuit of commercial success, the Kairali group has ignored the cause of Dalits and other weaker segments.
Since its inception, Kairali has also faced allegations that it received capital from dubious sources. Several attempts by TEHELKA to contact Kairali’s managing director John Brittas failed. Though the channel is profitable now, it ran losses initially. Those days are long gone. The addition of new channels to the Kairali stable suggests that the CPM in Kerala has tasted capitalist blood and likes it.