Wednesday, April 4, 2018

'OUR ENEMIES AT MULTICHOICE': Rajesh Sundaram in his book, Indentured - Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV, reveals how ANN7 execs lied to MultiChoice, how meetings with MultiChoice were a farce and how political pressure were allegedly exerted to get a better DStv channel number.

In his must-read book, Indentured - Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV, published by Jacana Media, the former ANN7 (DStv 405) editor Rajesh Sundaram reveals how ANN7 executives saw MultiChoice as "our enemy", blatantly lied to MultiChoice in meetings about ANN7's progress, and allegedly roped in former president Jacob Zuma to put pressure on MultiChoice to get a certain DStv channel number.

TVwithThinus already reported how in Indentured - Behind the Scenes of Gupta TV Rajesh Sundaram reveals how the Guptas and ANN7 plundered the SABC's archives - but the public broadcaster wasn't the only TV organisation being lied to and exploited.

ANN7 execs were apparently paranoid over MultiChoice, made false promises to MultiChoice and allegedly kept lying in order to get ANN7 on DStv as fast as possible.

Rajesh Sundaram writes on page 62 that "Atul Gupta was deeply suspicious of ANN7's television distribution company, MultiChoice, and filled me with many conspiracy theories about how they planned to sabotage the launch of ANN7".

"He was very suspicious of a demand from the company to get a copy of the electronic programme guide, or EPG, a schedule with a brief description of each show that each broadcaster is supposed to supply to its distribution company."

"Rajesh, I want you to prepare for our first meeting with DStv, our enemies at MultiChoice. Arun and you will go to the meeting tomorrow and I want you to give them a copy of the EPG and make sure that channel 404 on DStv is allocated to us. But I want to warn you, they are our enemies. They will try everything to see us fail," writes Rajesh Sundaram.

On page 63 he writes that "The Guptas did not want to follow the time-consuming process that DStv required in terms of quality checks and technical discussions. The DStv top brass, I was told, were not happy with being coerced like this."

Chapter 5 of Indentured - Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV starts off with ANN7's first meeting with MultiChoice, that Rajesh Sundaram describes in his book as "a very strange experience".

"It was coordinated by Max Magwaza from MultiChoice. We were told to insist on channel 404 and take a tough stand on any conditions that the MultiChoice team might set with regards to the launch."

"All the news channels are in the slots after channel 400. We must get the slot immediately after eNCA. This is critical. MultiChoice are playing politics and want to put us in a slot after 500. In your meetings with MultiChoice, make it very clear to them that we will not accept any other channel than 404. Ajay, my brother, is talking with the highest office in the country to ensure that we get this slot, but you must also push from your level, Atul told us before we left for the meeting," writes Rajesh Sundaram.

"It was clear that the team from MultiChoice did not believe we were technically or editorially prepared to launch a news channel by the end of July. The tension in the room was palpable. They were visibly upset with the political pressure that was being brought to bear on them to launch the channel quickly and on the terms directed by the Guptas."

Rajesh Sundaram writes that he "listened with growing disbelief" to the false promises the Guptas were making to MultiChoice and "that I knew we'd never be able to meet".

"The EPG I had made for them was an ambitious one that offered live programming for 18 hours a day. I knew that we were nowhere close to making that content."

"We did not have the people, the studio was not complete, and much of the broadcasting equipment had not even been ordered at this time. The team did not even have newsgathering and studio cameras."

Rajesh Sundaram writes that "clearly the channel would never meet the tough criteria set by MultiChoice in the given timeframe".

"The bi-weekly meetings with MultiChoice were a farce. Y P and Arun were forced to tell the the team lies about the timelines related to the status of broadcast systems and technical equipment. MultiChoice made no commitment about the slot they were going to give ANN7. The Guptas saw a conspiracy in this too."

"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. 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."

On page 126 Rajesh Sundaram writes that "DStv suddenly gave in. 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 president Jacob Zuma's office to oust Russia Today from the 405 slot and give it to us."

On page 100 of Indentured - Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV, another TV news channel, India's NDTV gets mentioned in another fascinating story when Atul Gupta switched to NDTV to show how he wanted ANN7 to look.

"We want all the graphics on our channel like NDTV. We should have the graphics at the top and the bottom of the screen. There should be many layers. The people of South Africa want a screen that keeps moving and updating. They do not get that with eNCA."

"I tried explaining to him how it was considered less sophisticated to have too many graphic bands and elements on screen, how it would be better to have a cleaner screen with a graphic band only in the lower third of the screen. This is not what he wanted to hear. 'I want the screen to be cluttered; we must dazzle our viewers with as many elements as we can.' "

On page 107 Rajesh Sundaram details how Atul Gupta decided to do away with professional, experienced news anchor for inexperienced models who had to be trained by Gerry Rantseli-Elsdon.

"His plan saved the company thousands of rands, but it cost the company millions in lost reputation, as we found out post-launch."

"Why do you want to hire a European to train the presenters? We will have a Miss South Africa train them. She has hosted hundreds of shows and this would be a piece of cake for her. The viewers will have a bombshell every time they tune in to ANN7,' Atul said."

"Atul wanted Gerry Rantseli-Elsdon to train the models. Gerry was hired to present the breakfast show, which had been branded Vuka Africa."

"Gerry was given a table and chair, a white board and a training room. Some days she had a camera at her disposal. She had no teleprompter, professional monitors or audio equipment in the initial weeks."

On page 130 he writes that "The bulletins we had produced at that time were, unsurprisingly, fullof technical glitches and were anchored by a group of models hired by Atul and trained by Gerry Rantseli-Elsdon. The young women were very raw, clueless about the news they were reading and very unfamiliar with a studio setting."

On page 147 he writes that "Even a day before launch, bulletins would be disrupted as the server crashed or the play-out system would fail or the teleprompter would go blank on the presenters."

On page 114 Rajesh Sundaram recounts how Atul Gupta said "we are nowhere near the quality of CNN International or BBC. He had very little understanding of television or the primitive conditions under which the bulletins were being produced."

On pages 156 and 157 Rajesh Sundaram in Indentured - Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV recounts ANN7's disastrous launch night that became a blooper-fest of epic proportions on DStv.

"Caroline Samuels and Mahreen Chenia from the sports desk were all set to host Game On, the prime time sports show, when at the last minute the teleprompter and play-out failed. On live television the two young presenters waited for many awkward seconds for the studio director to cut into a break and play promos."

"But the young Indian studio director who had just arrived panicked. The lack of training started to show. He told the anchors through the communication system to announce a break, but the system also malfunctioned at this time."

"Meanwhile Caroline and Mahreen bore the brunt of the technical failure and the clear lack of coordination between the play-out control room staff. After waiting for about a minute, Caroline walked to the play-out control room, assuming that the studio director had taken her out of vision. She had worked for over 16 hours without a break for the last three weeks, and as she walked intot eh PCR she was in tears."

"Atul came back from the launch ceremony and summoned me. 'The launch is trending on Twitter. They are talking about every mistake the team is making."

"The launch was this way because he chose to arrogantly ignore DStv and not stick to the roll-out plan they had prescribed. The launch was this way because he decided to go ahead without training the staff. The trickle of jokes on social media swelled into a tsunami by late night and had a crushing effect on the young team."

"The systemic issues grew over the next few days. Despite the best efforts of the technical team, the systems continued to crash regularly. The play-out system, the communication connections, the graphic engines, the teleprompter - anything that could crash did. The newsroom automation system would malfunction, mostly because of user-related errors."

TVwithThinus asked MultiChoice about Rajesh Sundaram's writings that political pressure were put on Naspers' TV unit to allocate a certain channel number to ANN7 on DStv.

Here is MultiChoice's response: "We can confirm that the teams from MultiChoice and Infinity Media Networks discussed the allocation of a channel number to ANN7 as part of preparing for the channel launch. The team from Infinity Media Networks proposed to be allocated on channel 404."

"MultiChoice then allocated ANN7 to channel 405, so that all local news channels can be grouped together. Russia Today was moved to channel 407."

"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."

Indentured: Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV and published by Jacana Media is now on sale for R185.
MultiChoice is dumping ANN7, now owned by Mzwanele Manyi, from its DStv platform in August.