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One of the three fully equipped studios of “Public TV” at the office in Yashwantpur, Bangalore, Karnataka. Photo: Raksha Kumar for The New York Times

A long, winding staircase ends on the seventh floor of the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corp. building in Yashwantpur, Bangalore. At the entrance to Public TV, a new Kannada-language network, rows of green plants greet visitors. Like everything else at the TV station, the potted plants were purchased from an abandoned enterprise — in this case, a software firm.

“I got these lights for just 40 rupees each (76 U.S. cents) when Wipro closed one of its branches in Bangalore,” said H.R. Ranganath, chairman and managing director of Public TV, pointing at the ceiling.

“These cubicles, which my reporters and editors use, were bought from a shut-down office of Kingfisher,’’ he added, while doors were purchased from a Siemens branch that closed. Salvaging equipment from failed companies was the only way that Mr. Ranganath was able to create an independent TV network, free from corporate or political influence.

Mr. Ranganath, 45, has been a journalist for 25 years in the southwest state of Karnataka, where Kannada is the official language. He was the editor in chief of a Kannada-language daily, Kannada Prabha, and the editorial head of a regional news channel, Suvarna.

The state of Karnataka has seven Kannada-language news channels; out of those, six have overt backing from political or business leaders.

In November 2011, Mr. Ranganath came up with the idea of starting a Kannada-language television channel without any political or corporate financing. “If software professionals can do Infosys, then why can’t we journalists start a self-financed company?” he wondered.
One of the second hand cameras “Public TV” bought for 200,000 rupees.Raksha Kumar for The New York TimesOne of the second hand cameras “Public TV” bought for 200,000 rupees.

One of the second hand cameras “Public TV” bought for 200,000 rupees. Photo: Raksha Kumar for The New York Times

According to Mr. Ranganath, the cost of starting up a regional television news channel in Karnataka is anywhere from 45 to 50 crores, or 450 million to 500 million rupees ($8.5 million to $9.4 million). He figured that if he could cut capital and operational costs at least in half, then he would be able to build a network without any outside financial help.

He was able to get Public TV to begin broadcasting in March by investing less than 10 crores, or 100 million, rupees, financed by himself and Arun Kumar, the network’s chief executive, who used to run a construction business. Mr. Ranganath also said his operational costs are only 30 percent of his rivals’ costs.

For a few months, Mr. Ranganath and his staff went hunting for used equipment from shuttered television stations across the country. “We bought the cameras we use for 200,000 rupees each,” said Shashi Deshpande, facilities manager at Public TV. “Each of them would have cost us one million or more if purchased new.”

The Public TV office also has three fully equipped studios, which can expand to six if a few chairs and background sets are moved around. No more than a few thousand rupees have been spent on each of these sets.

Mr. Ranganath kept operational costs down by hiring fresh college graduates to fill 80 percent of the 200 or so staff positions. “That means some pressure on the 20 percent senior, experienced people on board, but someone’s got to give the new graduates a chance,” he said.

On the day that the channel began operations in March, Mr. Ranganath declared on the air that the public was free to check his and Mr. Kumar’s assets to make sure that there was no illegal money involved in starting the channel. “I don’t want anyone to question my credentials,” Mr. Ranganath said. “In any case, the viewers should know who is giving them their daily dose of news.”

The ratings reports for the past two months show that Public TV has been struggling to gain popularity. But Mr. Ranganath said that he was not worried and that the network was already planning to expand its operations.

“We are No. 5 or 6 among the seven channels,” he said. “We will surely do better as time progresses.”

Viewers said they liked the network’s transparency and commitment to integrity. “I am impressed by Public TV as it has no overt political connections,” said Shiva Prasad, 45, a resident of Bangalore. “If they improve on their news presentation, I would love to watch them regularly.”

Published in: The New York Times
Published on: 16 May, 2012

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