"For a niche channel like CNBC India, CAS, if properly implemented, is a boon" : Raghav Bahl TV 18 Managing Director

Sitting in the visitors? room, waiting for Raghav Bahl, managing director of Television Eighteen Ltd, at the company?s headquarters in Delhi is an education in itself. Apart from books on TV and radio broadcasting, there is this big screen LG television set with a fancy remote control. But if one starts using it, one will realise that most of the channels in the TV set are tuned to CNBC India only. The other channels that one, probably, can see are Star News and some hazy visuals of DD and Zee News.

The setting tells a story: of a company that is focussed. And Bahl does not mince any words when he says that the company is in a consolidation phase after having managed to lay a strong foundation. To hell with critics (there are many) and stock market analysts who think there is not enough action happening in and outside the company for the TV-18 scrip to become the darling of the markets. A time for that will also come too.

TV-18 is India?s first business news broadcaster and a leading media content provider. TV18?s wholly owned subsidiary, Television Eighteen Mauritius Limited entered a joint venture with Business News Private Limited, owners of the CNBC Asia brand in December 1999. The joint venture owns and operates the CNBC India channel, the only dedicated 24-hours business news channel in India.

In this interview with Anjan Mitra, Bahl, who looked relaxed after just having returned from a rather spiffy hair cut, holds forth on the company?s present strategy, future plans, and, of course, conditional access system which he says will immensely benefit niche channels like CNBC India.


How will you describe the present phase that TV-18 is going through which some critics have dubbed a totally dull and inactive phase in the company?s history?

The company is in a consolidation phase and that is why the criticism. But let me tell you it is also in a scalable phase from where we can grow phenomenally, both in terms of revenue and reach. If I may give some figures, then we are in a phase where after making losses for the last two years, the company is generating cash on the investments made in operations.

If I have to use a cricketing analogy, then the company is in the 25th over stage in a one-dayer (of 50 overs) where one can say probably Rahul Dravid is batting; slowly and surely building up the inning so that the an all-out offensive can be launched later. 

What sort of investment has been made and what has been the return on investment so far?

As I said, we have started generating cash. We hope to close the current financial year (ending 31 March, 2003) with cash generation in the range of Rs 5-6 crore (Rs 50 - 60 million). And next year, we hope to better it with cash generation of about Rs 10 crore. We started to see cash about five months back. Over the last two years close to Rs 50 crore has been invested in CNBC India and over the next 18 months or so we hope to increase generation of cash. That?s when Phase 1 of the strategy will be complete. From now on, every year we hope to generate more and more cash.

(TV-18 Ltd recorded operating profits for Q1 ended 30 June, 2002 at Rs 15.15 million compared to Rs 0.79 million an year ago.)  

"The strategy to have one fixed team generate every entertainment-related show was a blunder and it came a cropper"

What is the revenue mix for TV-18 as a company?

CNBC India accounts for almost 90 per cent of the company?s revenue, while 5 per cent comes from (operated by a subsidiary of TV-18) and the remaining 5 per cent comes from entertainment-related products that we generate (like the Sonali Bendre-hosted musical show Kya Masti Kya Dum for Star Plus).

At one time TV-18 had a fairly big entertainment division that has been scaled down drastically since then with employee layoffs also taking place. How do you explain this?

Agreed we had expanded our entertainment division thinking we can be a fairly big player in that area of programme generation too. But I must admit it was a wrong strategy decision, a mistake which we have rectified and are still tying up some loose ends.

The strategy to have one fixed team generate every entertainment-related show was a blunder and it came a cropper. Now the strategy is to be a completely boutique player in the field of entertainment programming. We are not here to compete with other production houses (like Balaji Telefilms) whose expertise is in doing entertainment programming only. We will continue to do programmes in this area, but only those that have the possibility of a very high visibility.

Now that you admit the company is in the scalable phase, what are the plans on launching new products and channels?

We are clearly interested in the broadcasting business and the value that we are creating now will increase our ability to invest in larger projects in the future when money, too, will be available for such ventures.

Even till early last year TV-18, was very bullish on launching an infotainment channel on the lines of NDTV World which had been proposed by Prannoy Roy?s NDTV. Is the infotainment channel happening?

I can only answer for TV-18 and not Prannoy?s plans. As far as TV-18 is concerned, we?d love to do an infotainment channel, in English preferably. Initially we were looking at institutional funding for this venture, but with the whole economy going into a tailspin, it was advised to us to put the project on hold. Maybe one-and-a-half years from now, when we will begin to generate more money ourselves, we will have another look at the infotainment channel. 

"Maybe one-and-a-half years from now, when we will begin to generate more money ourselves, we will have another look at the infotainment channel" 

It is being said that TV-18 is breaking its ties with Sony Entertainment TV India for the distribution of CNBC India and shaking hands with rival bouquet Zee Turner. Has the deal been formally completed?

I cannot comment on this. Officially speaking, we have a tie-up with Sony for distributing CNBC India. If something happens on this front, both Sony and TV-18 will  let you know of the development.

What is the revenue mix where advertising and subscription is concerned? 

At the moment, 70 per cent of the revenue comes from advertising, while the remaining comes from subscription.

Do you see this mix changing if and when conditional access system is implemented?

Definitely. For a niche channel like CNBC India, CAS, if properly implemented, is a boon. Now, for example, CNBC India charges approximately Rs 3.50 per household per month from the cable operator who gives it to all his subscribers. If CAS is properly implemented, then being a niche channel we would prefer not to go into every household. Those who want to watch us will watch us anyway and also pay the subscription amount even if it is higher than the present level. Post-CAS and addressability - which is an inevitability ? we can also charge for CNBC India a multiple of the present price and people will pay too.

Market analysts are not all enthused about TV-18 scrip and say that it is underperforming. What is your explanation?

The market is reacting the way as it has to and so are the analysts. When are markets and analysts enthused? When a company is showing excellent results and profits and/or undertaking new initiatives and launching new products. As a company, TV-18 is doing neither of these two in this phase of consolidation. Agreed we have started generating some cash, but probably not enough to excite the stock markets.

But I am a great believer in the fact that the market will value you correctly over a period of time.

"If something happens on this (distribution) front, both Sony and TV-18 will  let you know of the development"

Why is it that layoffs seem to be a recurring factor in TV-18?s life history?

I have made more right decisions in life and business than wrong ones. But the wrong ones seem to have had more impact than the good ones. We did say goodbye to quite a few people in the mid-90s to late 90s phase, but that was inevitable. For the survival of the whole company and many more people, few had to be asked to leave. It was a survival tactic. The same with the entertainment division. We have had to scale down the manpower definitely, but again it was imperative to the growth of the company. Still, I am happy to say that a lot of those who have left us do work with us on assignment basis and many other production houses also boast of TV-18 products who are doing well in life.

Where do you see the (10-year-old) company on its 15th birthday?

Well bigger, healthier and certainly more cash rich. I would also love to add one more channel to the company?s portfolio by then. And hopefully, the portal business would also be doing well by then.

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