NDTV: End of an era

One is overcome with a keen sense of the loss of something precious as control of NDTV passes from Prannoy Roy's hands
Last Updated : 01 December 2022, 20:41 IST

Follow Us :


The news that Radhika and Prannoy Roy, the founders of New Delhi Television Ltd (NDTV), have stepped down as directors, soon after Gautam Adani took over the reins of the news channel marked the end of an era of nearly three decades of independent television in India. It brought gloom to those who had looked up to a channel that showed a defiant streak of independence against overbearing governments and people in power who trespassed over citizen’s rights and civil liberties.

Prannoy is not a raw-fisted streetfighter in the mould of a Ramnath Goenka, but his gracious and charming demeanour notwithstanding, he steered a fiercely independent channel. He is erudite, soft spoken and endearing, but his channel could not be browbeaten or silenced.

But first a few words about the man who pioneered television reporting in India. Prannoy, a Chartered Accountant who holds a PhD in Agriculture Economics, strayed into the glamorous and exciting world of television in the late 1980s. Those days, there were only two TV channels -- Doordarshan (DD) One and Two, which broadcast only in the mornings and evenings. I recall a brilliant cartoon by R K Laxman – the common man who never speaks but endures the vicissitudes of life stoically first switches on Channel 1 and sees Indira Gandhi haranguing; then he shifts to Channel 2 and sees Sanjay Gandhi gesticulating. He falls back into his chair in perplexed resignation. Roy made his first foray into this dreary television world by producing for DD a weekly broadcast ‘The World This Week’, a programme of international news and features. It came as a refreshing breeze and was an instant success.

Roy’s most valuable early contribution to Indian television was as a psephologist, scientifically analysing and predicting election results, a field totally new to India then. The Roys got a contract from DD to cover the 1989 general election. It was a spectacular success. This was followed by a contract to produce a daily news bulletin on domestic affairs called ‘The News Tonight’ on its second channel, and Prannoy morphed effortlessly into a news presenter and became the star and face of television news in India. When asked about this meteoric rise, he responded with modesty and self-deprecating humour – “With Doordarshan as competitor, won’t anyone be a star!”

Then in 1998, Prannoy, in the wake of liberalisation, entered into a contract with Star India to launch the country’s first 24x7 news channel. In 2003, at the end of its partnership with Star India, NDTV became an independent channel. The era of inexplicable, insatiable appetite for news had swept into the country, and Prannoy became the towering mascot for television news and election forecasts.

One day in early 2000, I got a call from Prannoy. He said, “Captain, can you please meet me in Delhi when you’re here next. NDTV wishes to buy a helicopter for telecasting live news by reaching the sites speedily and also cover special events from the air as in the US.” A week later, I was in NDTV studios in Delhi. It was an electrifying sensation. There were scores of news screens and terminals. It was a vibrant scene, with live feeds and a lively buzz. I spotted young Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, Sonia Singh, Srinivasan Jain, Arnab Goswami, Ajay Shukla and many others, all familiar faces to Indians. The energy was palpable and infectious. NDTV was the training bed that spawned new television anchors who have gone on to helm new channels across the country. But don’t blame Prannoy for the way many of them, infused with excessive nationalistic fervour, blur fact and fiction.

I was ushered into Prannoy’s office. He welcomed me with a disarming smile. It was the same easy, winsome manner and style one saw when he anchored news and conversed with his guests on air. We chatted in his tiny, unassuming open office over coffee. His young brigade flitted in and out without any protocol for a quick exchange of words. There was an informal air and they all called him Prannoy. We chaffed and laughed and closed the deal to provide a helicopter -- the first news-copter, an eye in the sky, which we launched in 2002, branded with the NDTV logo.

Over the years, Prannoy has interviewed multitudes of mighty ministers, politicians of all hues, scores of foreign diplomats and heads of state, hundreds of business tycoons, innumerable celebrities and distinguished academics and countless common folks on his election beat. He is so calm, composed, polite and amiable even during polarising debates that his guests too turn polite and shrink from raising their voice. That, in my opinion, is his greatest legacy to Indian television -- the art of civilised debate. A far cry from the anchors of today, who transform into gladiators on camera, shouting down their own invited guests.

Prannoy and his wife Radhika, sister of well-known Communist leader Brinda Karat, have been accused of being soft on the Left and hard on the Right, and of being pro-Congress. The NDTV channel has been in the crosshairs of the BJP ever since it came to power in 2014, it has had to face CBI raids and has been tied up in many litigations.

Now it has been taken over by Gautam Adani. The Roys had diversified when they were flush with cash after they went public in 2004 and promoted allied channels NDTV India, NDTV Profit and NDTV GoodTimes, and had resorted to borrowings from banks and private institutions pledging their shares in the holding company. Adani acquired the pledged shares, intriguingly from a company owned by Reliance Industries, which originally had lent the funds that had options of converting their debt to equity in NDTV.

Without getting into the intricacies of the deals between the two powerful corporate houses from Gujarat, it suffices to say that one is overcome with sadness, a keen sense of the loss of something precious by the recent turn of events. It is a poignant tale that the man, an icon to millions, who pioneered and blazed a trail in television reporting and election forecasting, whose courage and heartwarming idealism shone like a beacon, lost the great institution he had nurtured over the years to the inexorable march of corporate India.

It’s a cruel, harsh world. Commercial realpolitik has won the day, besting luminous talent and noble ideological fervour. No private enterprise can survive if it is financially overleveraged while simultaneously facing headwinds from the government. Some predator will snatch the jewel from you. It could be a cautionary tale for others who are striving to keep the light of freedom burning.

(The writer is a farmer, soldier and entrepreneur)

Published 01 December 2022, 18:47 IST

Follow us on :

Follow Us