May 13 is not a day Alka Saxena, head of programming at Zee News, will easily forget.
"It was the single largest ad revenue earning day for the news channel. The pressure of commercial ads was so much that we were forced to go live from 5 am, as opposed to the 7 am news bulletin on regular days."
That story was repeated at other news channels like NDTV, TV Today and Star News. Many of them almost doubled their ad rates on May 13 to cash in on the huge wave of advertising that engulfed them.
In just four weeks, India's television channels raked in a humongous Rs 60 crore (Rs 600 million) in advertising revenue of which news channels accounted for around 15 per cent against around 9-10 per cent normally.
What is more, double the number of people watched television news this time than those who watched the September 11 attacks on New York's World Trade Centre and its aftermath. Seven times more Indians watched this event than the number who watched Elections 1999.
The event in question is, of course, the 2004 general election soap opera. It had high drama. It had tragedy. And it tugged at the heart strings.
Television audiences and advertisers lapped it up. The viewership share of news channels for the Elections 2004 counting week shot up to 9.3 per cent, far surpassing that for the September 11 attack (4.5 per cent), the attack on India's parliament on December 13, 2002 (2.7 per cent), the Gujarat earthquake (1.18 per cent) and the 1999 elections (1.75 per cent).
"We experienced a tremendous surge in viewership, particularly on May 11 and on May 13, when election results started pouring in. We were flooded with queries from viewers all over the country," confirms Saxena.
Adds Atul Phadnis, vice-president, TAM Media Research: "The fact that news channel viewership during the 2004 general elections far surpassed the levels attained during September 11, the attack on parliament and the 1999 election comes as a major surprise. What perhaps made it even more interesting is that the elections took place in four phases, thereby increasing the suspense for the 407 million potential Indian TV viewers."
According to the TAM Media study, the steepest viewership increases came from states like Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and West Bengal, besides Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Delhi and Mumbai, cities that traditionally are riveted to news programmes.
The viewership -- and advertising -- spurt began well before May. A Tam Media Research study of television viewership and ad spends during the four weeks of the elections starting on April 18 shows that advertisers spent an estimated Rs 175 crore (Rs 1.75 billion) on election-related events, with advertising on TV and in the print medium accounting for Rs 137.3 crore -- Rs 1.373 billion -- (of this, the Congress and its allies and the BJP and its allies spent a whopping Rs 93.9 crore -- Rs 939 million).
But while television news channels gained viewers (the viewership share of news channels as a genre, according to Tam, shot up from an average of 5 per cent to almost 7 per cent for the four election weeks to 9 per cent during the counting week), fewer people watched sports, regional and general channels.
Indeed, sports channel viewership dipped from 5.9 per cent to 1.5 per cent, that of regional channels dropped from 25.8 per cent to 25.5 per cent and of Hindi mass channels to 31.9 per cent from 32.6.
Says Punitha Arumugam, CEO of Madison Media, which handled advertising and media for Mumbai Congress candidate Milind Deora's campaign: "Viewership and brand advertising increased, especially during counting days and polling days. In fact, in most news television channels, the time slots were all sold out."And what did advertisers showcase? "Mostly summer products, since the elections coincided with summer," replies Partho Ghosh, vice president at Media Edge, the media buying arm of Rediffusion.