February 21, 2020
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Reality Bites With Images

Television in India is on the threshold of its second boom. And this time news will call the shots.

Reality Bites With Images
Reality Bites With Images
Even as you are reading this article, NDTV special correspondent Srinivas Jain is probably on the phone with a real estate agent in Mumbai to get a fix on his new flat. This is prime time for Vasu (as Jain is known in the fraternity), who is gearing up to shift base from Delhi along with four of his colleagues including special correspondent Abhigyan Prakash, associate business editor Shivnath Thukral and anchor-reporter Sonali Verma. This is NDTV's core team, which, in less than two months, will shift to the financial capital as part of the channel's twin-city hub strategy.

Simultaneously, at the Star News headquarters—where the buzz is all about its soon-to-be-relaunched Hindi news channel—in Mumbai's Mahalaxmi, the dry runs have so far been satisfactory. Hair stylist Javed Habib is now busy grooming anchors and reporters and, to begin with, journalist Ajay Suri had to sacrifice his moustache because of NewsCorp's (Star's parent) global credo of "no hair on the face" for those who appear on camera. The rulebook permits only shoulder-length hair for women. The four-week orientation session under sky TV and Star TV 'trainers' too has just got over and the 300-odd team is ready to dive into the thick of competition. Television news guru Rob McBright also did his bit, chipping in with expert editorial advice.

Cut to the 7th floor of Videocon Towers, New Delhi. Design consultants from BBC's Channel 4 team are having a brainstorming session with Aaj Tak employees as the former get busy giving a new look to the studios of the proposed English channel. A floor below, CNN's Roy Wadia and Aida Santori, who have been flown in specially from Atlanta, are discussing the finer points of TV journalism with a motley of fresh recruits. Not too far away, Kevin Oakley from Geneva-based software company Matrox Digisuite is taking the Aaj Tak's producers through the company's Incite editing software.

Good evening and welcome to yet another bulletin of television news. Or shall we say, to quote private news broadcasters, the real prime time with nearly a dozen new television channels set to spring up in the near future? And going by their zeal, it would seem what you witnessed so far was a mere trailer.

From All Fools Day (April 1) this year, you will get blown away by the information superdrive. Prannoy Roy's NDTV will seek your attention with two brand-new channels in Hindi and English while in Mumbai, Star's president Raveena Raj Kohli and news director Sanjay Pugalia will relaunch the channel's Hindi news. The divorce between the erstwhile content provider (NDTV) and the broadcaster (Star) becomes official on March 31 midnight.

By then the saab se tez Aaj Tak would already have invaded your living rooms with another 24-hour English channel to go along with its existing Hindi news service. So, if you thought the existing half-a-dozen channels that jostle for your precious eyeballs was all that you could handle, then switch to Nickelodeon right now.

Because this is just the beginning of a new news channel boom. Venugopal Dhoot, chairman, Videocon group, is spending Rs 40 crore on a Hindi business channel that will break with the Budget and the frenzy wrought by the assembly polls. The test runs have started and studios are getting ready in the capital and Mumbai. "I personally understand business and media is where future growth lies," Dhoot told Outlook. The running costs are bound to be high but Videocon's existing businesses are expected to subsidise the channel in its first three years, till it breaks even.

Unlike Dhoot, the Lucknow-based Sahara India has an absolutely different approach. It intends to unveil six regional and one national channel within the next five months and, by the year end, this number would go up to 35.With it, Sahara's focus will also shift from regions to specific cities. In short, this frenzy means that investments of around Rs 800-900 crore will hound a Rs 300-crore advertising market.

So, do we need such a surfeit of channels? And will they all be viable? The good news, according to TAM (an agency that measures TV viewership) data, is that viewership of news channels has registered a phenomenal growth of 130 per cent in 2001 over the previous year, thanks to bad news like the Gujarat earthquake and 9/11. The figure may have gone up further in 2002. End result: TRPs have moved up from 0.2 to 0.8 and gone even higher during breaking news. Moreover, feels R. Chandrasekhar, associate media director, Mediacom, Grey Worldwide, the audience involvement with news channels is rising and there may come a time when the generally rising TV viewership may switch from soaps to news.

Even the advertising pie seems to be getting bigger. News channels' advertising revenues are expected to go up by 66 per cent, from Rs 300 crore in 2002 to Rs 500 crore this year.

As there are only a handful of TV news channels, analysts say that new players can move in to tap the virgin market. Says Gopinath Menon, vice-president, TBWA\Anthem: "There is room for more. News today is also about entertainment. And advertisers who not only have sales objectives but want salience for their brands will come to news channels." Last year, for example, big-time advertiser Samsung spent 8-10 per cent of its television ad spend on news channels. "We use them to reach out to our specific target group composed of high net-worth individuals," says M.B. Lee, the company's vice-president (marketing).

Dhoot believes it's all about economics since eight hours of programming run three times over during the day. Moreover, with the cost of programming and infrastructure coming down to Rs 1,000 per hour, it's cheap to produce news. But Meenakshi Madhvani, head of media buying house Carat India, offers a fresh perspective: "People are getting in, not only for the revenues, but for the political clout that it brings them." Also, we may follow the global trend, where revenues come more from subscription, rather than advertising, as most of them become pay channels.

So, there is potential to grow and opportunity to make money. At least for some of the players, if not every new one that will be launched this year. But is there a magic formula for success? For one, it will require aggressive marketing. Till date, the success of Aaj Tak was because of its reach in smaller towns and cities. "With slackening demand in metros and manufacturers witnessing growth only in smaller towns, Aaj Tak was the perfect vehicle to reach out to the new customers," says an executive from a media buying house.

But while Aaj Tak made a killing, the channel's image took a slight beating and drove big advertisers away. "You are known by the company you keep and Aaj Tak's portfolio of brands did worry me. And even though it was the most viewed news channel, it was not imperative for me to advertise a premium brand on it," says a media planner. Therefore, in the new scheme of things, all broadcasters are putting in place blueprints that would maximise ad revenues without affecting their channel's brand equity.

By splitting news operations into two, Aaj Tak and NDTV will gain the most. Their English channels can attract the SEC A, young, urban DIYs in the metros and the viewers in the south, while Hindi will cater to sections of prosperous mass markets in the hinterland of the north and west. So, what happens to single channels like Star? Kohli feels that "Hindi is where the majority of audiences lie," and launching an English news channel "means you are moving away from the masses".

The English media is equally bullish about its own prospects. Says a senior manager in a firm that has a stake in NDTV: "In print, English dailies and news magazines have a mere 17 per cent reach but the ad revenues generated are 65 per cent compared to 35 per cent for all the regional dailies, including Hindi. TV echoes these numbers to a large extent." Add to that the premium image that the channel acquires. Her Majesty's tongue still dominates.

It has a flip side, though, warns G. Krishnan, executive director and CEO, TV Today, which owns Aaj Tak: "Continuous projection of the premium identity carries an inherent risk of alienating large chunks of the market." So, most channels will be subtle about their premium image.

Sahara, however, looks at the whole game differently. Its strategy is quite simple. Today, even the smallest retailer is keen to advertise but has no vent to do so. He is unwilling to pay extra to advertise in national channels for it makes no business sense for him. Now, through the Sahara's city channels, even the kirana (neighbourhood grocery shops) will have access to market. "It does not pay for Delhi's Nathu Sweets to advertise elsewhere but in Sahara. His clientele is in Delhi and not in Guntur. So, a city network will give him the maximum mileage," explains Vinod Dua, media advisor to Sahara's TV project.

But it's not just about marketing strategies. Content, at the end of the day, is king. As Lakshminarayan Goyal, director, Zee News Group, puts it: "The viewer isn't loyal to a channel but to programming." Most players, therefore, are vouching for exciting, relevant, out-of-the-box-and-beyond-the-headlines stories to be their channel's hallmark. Add adjectives like class, contemporary and international quality standards to complete the experience. So, get ready for a brand-new Hindi weekly show on Star News by Vir Sanghvi, The Hindustan Times editor, that will reveal "a new side" of the already known TV host. Siddhartha Basu, say Star sources, is also likely to produce information capsules to be aired between specific programmes. "We want to be inclusive not exclusive," says Kohli. Pugalia will insist on a credible news service, focused on "consequential reporting".

Audience needs will, of course, drive the entire effort. So, personalised innovative programming is on the cards. "We will have interactive programmes where inputs will be provided by our viewers. They will also grill leaders on live TV," says Arup Ghosh, head, National Channel, Sahara Samay. NDTV too wants to get close to its viewers and the advertisers. That's the reason why it wants to move to Mumbai and adopt the twin city approach (see graphic). Although Roy refused to meet Outlook, company sources said Mumbai will soon become the second hub focusing on business, Bollywood and entertainment. Delhi naturally retains the all-important political bureau, but "there will even be English and Hindi general news anchored out of Mumbai," said a senior NDTV official. And as far as the vision statement, the two channels—NDTV News and NDTV Samachar (that's the likely names, say insiders)—will have distinct identities but a common content and healthy competition.

Channels like Aaj Tak are looking at sharing resources like reporters and infrastructure between their two channels as a common pool to cut costs and keep in line with the global trend of single newsrooms. The company, we are told, is keen on a production-driven network where back-end producers primarily conceive the stories and ask the assignment desk to coordinate with reporters for footage and sound bites. Subsequently, the assignment desk sends the footage back to the producers who in turn edit, write the script and make it into a story.So, as we go to print, bilingual reporters are what the channel is desperately looking for.

All that is impressive but what about distribution and uplinking? While Star already has a bouquet offering, NDTV, says sources, may tie up with Sony to become part of a bouquet. However, Aaj Tak is likely to venture alone with just two channels. In terms of uplinking, NDTV has supposedly inked a deal with PanamSat for satellite transmission, a fact not confirmed by Roy. Star is still waiting for the go-ahead from the i&b ministry. Kohli has the final word: "We are pretty confident of clinching a deal but even if it does not materialise in time, the channel will not be compromised. If need be, we will continue to uplink from Hong Kong."

Is that confidence or bravura? With the market getting competitive, that's a combo that all of them would need. And that too in ample measure. As for the viewers, well they merely need to pick up their remote and get ready to surf.

Arijit Barman, Gauri Bhatia And Charubala Annuncio

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