Even more interesting, however, are reports that he will be joining the even-more-struggling DawnNews which is trying its best to pull itself out of its forlorn legacy as an English-language channel. According to insider sources, staff at DawnNews have already been told to expect Hussain to take over as overall head of the newly-Urduized news channel in November.
Aaj TV, which had been begun by the Recorder Television Network (part of the Business Recorder Group) with quite a bit of fanfare in 2005 as primarily a business news-cum-entertainment channel along the lines of CNBC in the US, has struggled to define itself in a fast expanding and changing media market. Part of the reason for this was a belated realization that there was not much of a market for a business-focused channel in Pakistan (as CNBC Pakistan also found later) and partly it was because of the entertainment revenues-feeding-news gathering model being turned on its head in Pakistan. To their shock, most channels realized within a few years that the appetite for news and current affairs was far greater in the country than for entertainment programming.
After General Musharraf's amended media regulations in 2007, under which channels had to choose between news and entertainment, Aaj jettisoned most of its entertainment programming and focused rightly on news but could never match the resources of either Geo or (at that time) ARY. A steady trickle of trained staff to other channels did not help either, nor did the gradual wearing off of the novelty and falling viewership of its one genuine hit programme "Late Night With Begum Nawazish Ali."
Recently, it has seen its star plummet further as newer entrants such as Dunya TV and Express TV outstripped its market share for the No.2 and No.3 slots (the top slot of course going to Geo, which is far ahead of all others in terms of ratings). This despite bringing in Talat Hussain, who was, at least initially, considered a more sober and news-savvy alternative to the shriekfests on other channels. The news ratings continued to slide, despite a relaunch in 2009 as a 24-hour news channel. And the mostly mediocre-but well watched (in its 11pm time slot) "Bolta Pakistan" began to lose the plot, substituting irritating homeliness for real analysis or insight. (It didn't help that Dunya TV's jocular offering, "Hasb-e-Haal" destroyed everyone else in the 11pm slot.) The latter's Stan and Laurel Hardy duo - Mushtaq Minhas and Nusrat Javed - were in fact eventually weaned away by Dunya TV, not that many cared. That left only the "4 Man Show", considered by most as too juvenile for serious viewership, and Talat Hussain's flagship "Live With Talat"as the non-news programming highlights for Aaj.
Trying hip: Aaj TV's witty billboard ad in 2007 (Source: Karachi Metblogs)
But "Live With Talat", despite its occasional excellence (particularly its coverage of the army operation in Swat), suffered from being pit at 10pm against Geo's "Aaj Kamran Khan Kay Saath" which, for better or worse, even Geo's fiercest governmental critics watch, if only to make their blood boil. Lately, however, it seemed Hussain had also succumbed to the demands of sensationalism-as-ratings-boosters and begun to promote wild (and planted) stories as well as taking a decidedly more hawkish line.
According to Aaj TV insiders, Talat Hussain had also been engaged in a geographical power tussle at the channel. Based in Islamabad himself, he wanted to move even micro-control of the newsroom to Islamabad. This of course sat well neither with the Zuberis (owners of the channel), who are all based in Karachi, nor with the people who managed the newsroom in Karachi. To be fair to the latter, however, Hussain's model which apparently involved all input going to Islamabad and output coming from Karachi would have been pretty unworkable from a practical point of view.
In any case, Hussain's departure will probably make Aaj TV further irrelevant in the news media market, unless it is able to pull the some proverbial rabbit out of the hat.
On the other hand, DawnNews will gain at least some credibility in the short term with his coming on board and will also benefit from the viewership that he brings to whatever programme he hosts at the channel. In fact, DawnNews had also attempted to lure Hussain earlier and Dawn Group insiders say the management was quite miffed when he used their almost final negotiations then to negotiate a better package at Aaj. However, all of this bitter history seems to have been swept under the carpet because of DawnNews' own precarious situation. Dawn Group's management will be hoping that he can turn their fortunes around - his is the fifth or sixth top level editorial management change at the channel in its short history.
One issue will still linger, however, which is very similar to Hussain's problems at Aaj: will he attempt to micro-manage a newsroom based in Karachi while sitting in Islamabad? Apparently, Hussain is still reluctant to move cities and with him coming in above Director News Mubashir Zaidi (who was moved from Islamabad to Karachi for this express purpose), there is a chance for friction to develop.
International recognition: Talat Hussain on board Gaza-bound flotilla
It also remains to be seen how Hussain, well known for having a rather large ego (he was recently dubbed 'Flotzilla' for his well publicized exploits as one of the journalists on board the Turkish flotilla to Gaza that attempted to break the illegal Israeli blockade and came under Israeli attack), fits in with the Dawn Group's more low-profile culture. Remember, this is the same journalist who once, while still heading Aaj and hosting a current affairs show, saw nothing problematic about appearing in a Head & Shoulders shampoo ad. Anyone have a Youtube link to that?