BOB GARFIELD: Meanwhile, Murdoch's media empire keeps expanding. Two months ago he acquired Direct TV, America's largest satellite platform. Last week he launched a 24 hour news channel in Italy -- Sky Italia -- and earlier this year Murdoch also launched an entertainment channel in China -- Starry Sky. He's long had his finger on the Indian market, second only to China in size of potential audience with many fewer government restrictions on programming content. In April, Murdoch's Star India launched a news channel in India's national language, Hindi. Media watchers say Star will move into the number one position by next year. But it's not all been smooth sailing on the subcontinent for Murdoch. From New Delhi, Miranda Kennedy reports. [STAR NEWS JINGLE]
MIRANDA KENNEDY: When Murdoch launched Star News Hindi nay sayers swore the channel would flop and that all the top advertisers would go to the English language news. [STAR NEWS JINGLE] One week after Star News launched, its viewership doubled. Within three months, Star became the number two news channel in India with 50 million viewers in an already glutted market of over a dozen TV news channels. The slick Star News set and sharply dressed anchors may speak of Murdoch's 13 billion dollar assets and his media legacy spanning several continents. But there is no doubt that the news is entirely Indian. [NEWS HEADLINES READ WITH MUSIC]
MIRANDA KENNEDY: Sanjay Pugalia is Star's news director. ["STAR PLUS" HINDI FILM SONG]
SANJAY PUGALIA: As far as the question of being acceptable to the market is concerned, actually we are giving a channel to the viewer which is very Indian-- something of their own. ["STAR PLUS" HINDI FILM SONG] [FADE UNDER NARRATION]
MIRANDA KENNEDY: Murdoch's success in India began with Hindi entertainment. Unlike his counterparts at Disney or AOL Time Warner, Murdoch didn't use Asia as an opportunity to syndicate when he entered the market ten years ago. Instead he invested huge amounts of money in local programming, starting with a music channel. After MTV flopped in India because it refused to play Hindi music, Murdoch seized upon the chance and started his own music channel --Channel V. Sevanti Ninan is a media analyst in New Delhi.
SEVANTI NINAN: The first thing Channel V did was to come in and Indianize. So you had this kind of a music channel which was also willing to have Hindi pop. So Murdoch's very key thing was that you Indianize. You know the whole hue and cry that was initially there when Murdoch was on the horizon was about Indian culture and all that. On the contrary, what Mr. Murdoch saw was a market where you give them what they want -- their culture. All I want is the money. [MUSIC]
MIRANDA KENNEDY: Murdoch proved he could out-India the Indian market in more than music. Star's next big hit was an Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire hosted by Bollywood's leading actor, Amitabh Bachchan. [CLIP OF AMITABH BACHCHAN] The show hoisted Star's entertainment channel, Star Plus, to the top of the charts. [CLIP OF AMITABH BACHCHAN] His next successful formula is now the hottest show in India. It's a prime time Hindi soap opera or family drama called Mother in Law and Daughter in Law. The success of Star's family drama has brought a flood of similar shows on competing channels and a flood of protests from women's groups for what they term "stereotypical portrayals of women." And soap operas are not the only Star programs that have been accused of over-simplification. Shailaja Bajpai, a media columnist for the Indian Express accuses Star of leading the trend toward lowest common denominator news in India.
SHAILAJA BAJPAI: They claim that their research shows them that people are sick and tired of politics -- they want news that they can use and which is based on their lives. So whereas Star News Hindi has a certain amount of politics, because you can't avoid it, they're trying to mix it up with other kinds of human interest, consumer news, crime.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: The Star News entertainment-driven formula is creating a sea change in Indian news according to Star News anchor Aditi Arora.
ADITI ARORA: We're giving a new aspect to entertainment itself. We're not just covering entertainment events just for the sake of it. It is all circled around people. If people are interested in it, we give it to them. No more than that. And it's a fact that now other news channels which were earlier saying entertainment is back of the book for us has started copying Star News.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: Arora works on the Star News program City 60, an Entertainment Tonight style program. Star credits people-watching programs like City 60 with their high ratings, and they say these shows are based on formulas learned from America's Fox News. Star's top brass all spent time at Fox before launching Star News in India. Again, news director Sanjay Pugalia.
SANJAY PUGALIA: Of course, Fox has some very exciting formats, and we are inspired by that. Fox is a brilliant idea or a brilliant craft I would say to deliver news in a manner where viewers are just captivated by the treatment of the news.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: But that Fox style treatment brought its share of controversy in socially conservative India. Until fifteen years ago, all Indian television was state-run, so senior Indian journalists were shocked to hear that the Star News training included grooming sessions for reporters and anchors. Some of New Delhi's top beauty consultants and hair stylists --the same people who train air hostesses and Miss India's, sat with Star's reporters and gave them individual beauty advice. Aditi Arora.
ADITI ARORA: And it actually does make a lot of difference. You know a lot of us have realized, oh, my God -- we used to look like-- horrible when we were there. We didn't even -- we weren't even conscious of how we were looking! It's for the better that we went through this training.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: Aside from its small controversies, the success of Star News has made many wonder what Murdoch plans next for India. With national elections coming up next year and talk of war or peace with Pakistani forever looming, it is clearly an opportune time to launch an Indian news channel, but some wonder whether Star has political as well as economic motivations. Murdoch is known for taking particular care that his channels stay on the right side of governments in power. While courting China's media market, for example, Murdoch ordered his publishing arm, Harper Collins, to drop a book by a former Hong Kong governor because it was critical of Beijing. Shailaja Bajpai.
SHAILAJA BAJPAI: Well like with Fox News, he's shown that he can be-- you know, more of a patriot than you are! I mean Fox News is even more patriotic than, let's say, CNN has been! So I think he also holds that -- that look, whichever country I go to, I'm quite willing, if we go to war with Pakistani tomorrow -- I'm sure Star News would support us -- to the hilt! So he does have that ability to carve out [LAUGHS] -- become national in whichever country he is!
MIRANDA KENNEDY: Bajpai goes so far as to suggest that Murdoch has chosen a Star News editorial team that will keep up the ratings but ensure that content control remains firmly in Murdoch hands. Some say he did that by selecting the Star News top rung from advertising and entertainment backgrounds rather than news. [STAR NEWS CLIP PLAYS] [UP "NATIONAL REPORTER" MUSIC THEME] But Murdoch's resolve to hold on to the reins nearly lost Star its place in Indian broadcasting. Star's foreign tag continues to dog Murdoch even though almost everyone at Star other than Murdoch's son James is Indian. When the government declared that foreign investors could not own more than a quarter of any news channel, Star tried its best to get around the regulations. They found loopholes and set up Indian-owned companies, but it wasn't that easy. Star was nearly forced off the air no less than four times in the last several months, and its fate is still uncertain. [UP "NATIONAL REPORTER" MUSIC THEME] It was expensive getting to the top of India's media pile, and it looks like it's going to be a headache to stay there. [UP "NATIONAL REPORTER" MUSIC THEME] For On the Media, I'm Miranda Kennedy in New Delhi. [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price, Katya Rogers, Megan Ryan and Tony Field; engineered by Dylan Keefe and Rob Christiansen, and edited-- by Brooke. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at email@example.com. This is On the Media from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.