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Now, The Big Fight

Half a dozen new channels and newspapers are set to jostle for space in three metros

Now, The Big Fight
Atul Loke
Now, The Big Fight
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
For G.B. Shaw, soldiering is a trade like any other trade. So is the media, only it's turning out to be more intriguing and violent. Siddhartha Gupta, the 24-year-old director of Jagran TV, owned by the Dainik Jagran group, says he has received threats from rival TV news channels whose employees have moved to Jagran's Channel 7. The editor of a yet-to-be-launched newspaper in Mumbai adds he'll know about the product's contents only after he joins.

As excitement increases in the media industry, with several new products on the horizon, secrecy is the buzzword as players keep their cards close to their chest. The editorial head of a new news channel screens prospective employees, sometimes at his residence early in the morning, but doesn't issue offer letters fearing they'll be used to drive bargains with other prospective employers. And, logically, security has been beefed up at most media houses.

Diligent Media, a 50:50 joint venture between the Zee group and Dainik Bhaskar, has dragged Bennett Coleman (which owns The Times of India and Economic Times) to court for allegedly hijacking the former's teaser campaign for its new, yet-to-be-launched paper in Mumbai, Daily News and Analysis or DNA. Obviously, DNA, armed with a pre-launch war chest of Rs 40-60 crore to take on TOI in the latter's most profitable market, doesn't want to see its money being wasted.

TOI, in a bid to prevent flight of manpower to DNA, gave unprecedented mid-year increments—up to 30 per cent—to hacks in Mumbai and instituted an "intrapreneurship award" involving huge monetary benefits. Estimates put the number of new jobs for professionals at 500, with Mumbai journalists juggling three offers.

Yet, these are early days, as we prepare for simultaneous—and titanic—media battles in several cities. While these upcoming tussles are aimed at denting the leader's stranglehold, they are complex in other ways. For, the aggressor in one city may be the defender in another, close friends have turned professional enemies and some have no qualms in proving a point to their former employers.

While Chennai primes to a classic clash (street-smart TOI takes on the conservative The Hindu here), it's messy masala in Mumbai (where Pradeep Guha, the former TOI marketing brain behind DNA, and the owner of Hindustan Times, Shobana Bhartia, wish to dent TOI's fattening bottomline). In Delhi, David (TV-18 with NDTV's former editorial head, Rajdeep Sardesai) is rearing to face Goliath (Prannoy Roy's NDTV 24x7). Others too are part of this healthy clamour—Channel 7 against Aaj Tak, Deccan Chronicle against The Hindu in Chennai, and TOI's Times Global Broadcast against NDTV.

No marks for guessing why the media is witnessing such excitement. According to AdEx India, the annual advertising pie for news channels, around Rs 500 crore, grew 15 per cent in 2004. Ad spends in print media—nearly Rs 5,500 crore a year—grew at nearly the same rate at 14 per cent. But what must be remembered is that three metros—Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai—account for 30 per cent of the print budgets. Newspaper circulation is also likely to grow. Delhi, with a population of 1.5 crore, buys about 15 lakh newspapers daily; Mumbai, with 1.7 crore people, consumes only about half as much (only the English morning dailies, not including the afternoon papers).

Add to that the fact there's a dearth of competition in many segments. "Most evolved markets—Bangalore, Delhi, Hyderabad—have at least two strong newspapers. It is amazing that Mumbai does not," says Suresh Balakrishnan, director (marketing & sales), Diligent. Neither does Chennai, although recently Deccan Chronicle has attacked The Hindu's fortress. Similarly, among English news channels, 24x7 is ahead with its viewership ratings.

Finally, there are the usual factors like egos and ambitions. DNA's Guha is excited about a street war with TOI in Mumbai; so is HT's Bhartia, who has witnessed toi's growing strength in Delhi, where her paper was once unchallenged. Dainik Bhaskar and Dainik Jagran, both of whom have successfully launched Hindi newspaper editions in several cities, now want to tread new territories. Jagran is hoping to be a major player in the news channel mart, and Bhaskar is keen to do the same in the world of English dailies.

The mother of all these battles will be in Mumbai. TOI will face its first real challenge in the biggest ad market for print publications. Of the Rs 815 crore spent in 2004, 70 per cent went to English publications and TOI alone sucked in about Rs 400 crore. But Guha and Bhartia will want this to change and they're willing to pump in the money. DNA has painted the city "yellow" by buying space on 150 hoardings and 500 kiosks. To make DNA the readers' paper, it's talking to lakhs of people to get feedback on what they wish to read every morning. The launch date will be in August-September this year.

HT, which raised over Rs 150 crore by offering foreign investors a sizeable stake and plans to raise another Rs 250 crore through an initial public offering (IPO), has stated in its draft prospectus that Rs 50 crore will be the capital investment in its Mumbai venture. Bhartia has also put together a management team, headed by Ranganathan Thota, who has worked with MNCs like GE, Whirlpool and Pepsi. The company has already spent Rs 12 crore and has acquired land for a printing press in Mumbai.

However, TOI, with its mouth-watering profit margins, can't be taken lightly. Even before the competition has stepped in, it has launched counter-attack moves to defend itself. TOI, say sources, will soon launch a broadloid—a tabloid in broadsheet format—likely to be named Bombay Mirror. Going by the fact that DNA hopes to woo young and hip readers, this may stymie Guha's strategy.

In Chennai, the third largest ad market after Mumbai and Delhi, TOI is the invader, not the defender. Chennai has so far been a Hindu territory, with the New Indian Express playing a scarcely audible second fiddle. Interestingly, TOI's traditional tactic in a new market—to play the predatory pricing game—has been adopted by Deccan Chronicle, which has launched an all-colour 36-page daily priced at Re 1, with an initial print run of 1,50,000. The Hindu responded by making significant changes in its working. The working hours for its ad managers have become longer (their not being available after 6 pm is passe) and it has started to organise events for advertisers. The paper itself has been redesigned with international inputs with the intention of looking younger. "The Hindu is aware of TOI's intention to appeal to the youth. And Chennai is changing; the night life is different from what it was four years ago," points out a manager in a publishing house.

The shake-up in the TV space, true to the nature of the medium, is personality-driven. NDTV's former managing editor, Sardesai, thinks he can do with TV-18 what he did in his previous job. (A website wrote he quit NDTV because he thought he worked the hardest and yet there were five people who were earning more than him.) "We will start a network of channels, in English, Hindi and more," says Sardesai, shuddering slightly at the thought of having to travel to TV-18's office in Delhi's congested Jhandewalan Extension. The first one is likely to be a general English news channel that will go on air before the year-end, by which time, the number of news channels in India should cross 30 (the US has half a dozen major ones).

Times Global Broadcast, the television arm of Bennett Coleman, has made a splash with its tie-up with Reuters, which will buy a 26 per cent equity in the company.Apart from its entertainment and spiritual channels, Times is talking of a news channel. Says Tam India head L.V. Krishnan: "The prospects are good. News channels have started eating into (the advertising of) entertainment channels and others, too."

But the trick will be in attracting new viewers who'll help boost revenues. "We will redefine the concept of news. Breaking news is not Mulayam Singh going to Raj Bhawan to stake claim to form the government," says Sardesai, but refuses to elucidate what it'll be. Gupta of Jagran admits his channel will have the usual mix of politics, crime, fashion and sports—just as a toothpaste must clean teeth and a soap must wash—but still be different in the way it will demystify and interpret news for viewers. "The aim is to occupy the space somewhere between bbc and Discovery," says Gupta, whose Channel 7 airs five crime shows daily, all of which, he claims, are distinct.

Will the products gearing up to woo markets be as distinct as one crime show from another? To stand out in an increasingly crowded, and loyal, market, they'll need more than that.
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