Rajesh Sundaram: MultiChoice, ANN7 and the president's stick
A former editor at ANN7 has lifted the lid on how Gupta employees deceived MultiChoice into believing it was ready to launch on its DStv platform.
Indian journalist and former ANN7 staffer Rajesh Sundaram provides a peek behind the cameras at the Gupta-linked news channel in his new book titled Indentured - Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV.
Sundaram was shipped into South Africa by the Guptas in mid-2013, in preparation for the launch of their news channel. As an experienced journalist and video editor, he was tasked with giving the channel a running start.
He relates how ANN7 lied to MultiChoice regarding the budding news station’s readiness to launch.
“The biweekly meetings with MultiChoice were a farce. Y P (Singh) and Arun (Aggarwal) were forced to tell the (MultiChoice) team lies about the timelines related to the status of broadcast systems and technical equipment.”
Singh Aggarwal were part of the technical team responsible for setting up the station.
Despite not being in a position to launch the station, the Guptas and their Indian business partner Laxmi Goel pushed ahead regardless.
‘Worst channel launch of my career’
“There had been no serious discussions on content or the kind of programming. It was bizarre. Laxmi, Atul and Ajay [Gupta] were all keen on a rushed, half-baked launch. I was looking at the worst channel launch of my career. A launch that could potentially wreck my reputation.”
According to Sundaram, the Guptas showed scant regard for the quality of its production, even during preliminary discussions with MultiChoice.
As part of these talks, MultiChoice demanded that ANN7 submit an electronic programming guide (EPG).
The EPG is a schedule, setting out the timing and duration of programme slots on the channel, as well as a brief description of the content of these programmes. The EPG would set out the channel’s planned broadcasts for the entire month, allowing MultiChoice insight into the direction and quality of the channel.
“Most professional television stations brainstorm for weeks and do detailed research of target audience groups and viewing and rating patterns before they lock an EPG. Atul wanted me to produce one overnight and without any research input or support. ‘Why do you want research?’ he asked. The research companies are all linked to our rivals. They will take money from us and give us the wrong information. You are an experienced journalist. Go with what you know, and ask [former Oakbay Investments CEO] Nazeem [Howa] if you need any clarification.
“I had been part of many television news channel launches before but had never come across such arrogant ignorance about critical issues like content planning.”
MultiChoice explained the extraordinary windfall was a pro-rata prepayment on the amended contract, entered in order to improve the channel’s poor production quality.
Industry experts described the once-off payment as unusual.
The prepayment to ANN7 came shortly after former communications minister Faith Muthambi enacted policies favouring unencrypted digital terrestrial television (DTT) regulations.
A News24 investigation in 2017 revealed that the Guptas leveraged their relationship with former president Jacob Zuma to enable Muthambi to amend the national policy on DTT.
MultiChoice had a vested interest in the DTT policies allowing for unencrypted DTT transmissions, as it would pose a major hurdle for their competitors in the pay TV market.
Encryption would provide a means for the set-top boxes to receive encrypted signals from MultiChoice’s competitors, thereby opening the market.
In the absence of such encryption, they would need to find other ways of ensuring only their customers could access the signal.
MultiChoice denied any wrongdoing.
Sundaram explains his surprise at MultiChoice’s sudden about turn on ANN7’s readiness to air.
“I was told that the president’s office had been approached to pressure DStv to offer the 405 slot to ANN7. After initially insisting that they would not offer us the slot until they were satisfied with the technical and production standards over one month of test broadcasting, DStv suddenly gave in.”
He attributed this sudden about turn to political pressure.
“Even as ANN7 was offering three bulletins a day produced on primitive systems and equipment nowhere near the quality standards prescribed by DStv, it was announced internally that DStv had been ‘pressured’ through (former) president Zuma’s office to oust Russia Today from the 405 slot and give it to us.”
While the Guptas initially pushed for the channel 404 slot, they were beaten to it by the SABC, which launched its own 24-hour news channel shortly before ANN7.
“Channel 404 is the only vacant slot next to eNCA, but these people will not allocate it to us until we hit them with a stick on their head from the highest office. (Channel) 405 is Russia Today, and we will be pushed to a slot lower than 410, and no one will watch us’, Atul said.
“It was telling how the Guptas were not willing to subject themselves to the quality control and technical checks that MultiChoice wanted, yet were willing to invoke the president’s office to put pressure on MultiChoice to give them the 404 slot.”
MultiChoice confirmed on Thursday that it discussed allocating channel 404 to ANN7 between May 2013 and August 2013, but decided to allocate it channel 405 instead. MultiChoice denied that this was due to any political pressure.
“Grouping similar channels together - like mainstream international news channels, all movie channels or all sports channels - offers our customers an easier navigation experience. We were not contacted by the former president’s office to remove Russia Today from the 405 slot to make way for ANN7.” — News 24