Television

"Our performance has made others pull up their socks" : Uday Shankar TV Today Network news director

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Sitting in his seventh floor sparsely furnished office at the Videocon Towers in the busy Central-West area of Delhi, Uday Shankar, the 30-something news director of TV Today Network (part of The India Group) is a busy man, though he'd like to give the impression he is not sweating under the collar of his well starched white shirt. Probably, he doesn't even have time to look down at the rooftops with dish antennas and glimpses of the busy traffic through the wide-glassed windows. 

As one is ushered into his room where Shankar apologises for the TV monitor that is not behaving properly that day as it keeps flickering off and on. Then comes the honest admission, "I am sorry to have kept you waiting for so many days (for the interviews). These days, I literally live in the office and only return home to grab some home food and few winks of sleep between noon and 2 pm."

One can understand the reason for Shankar's punishing schedule. Media baron Aroon Purie (owner of The ITG), TV Today Network chief executive officer G Krishnan, marketing head Rajesh Seshadri and news director Shankar (who is a former print medium journalist Times of India), form the core team of the company that is hell bent on re-writing few chapters in the annals of Indian television's history of the development of the news and current affairs category.

Having also done a stint at Zee News and Sahara, a media shy and, at times, reticent Shankar talks to indiantelevision.com's Anjan Mitra on the prospect of the new English news channel in the pipeline (tentative name News Today) , Aaj Tak, competition and, of course, the poaching to which Aaj Tak had been exposed to.

Excerpts -

How has the English channel shaped up ? 

Quite well.

What would be the difference in the approach of the proposed English news channel vis-?-vis Aaj Tak ? 

English viewership is different from that of Hindi. The tastes, aspirations and viewing habits too are different from that of a Hindi-speaking and Hindi viewing public. We have taken into account all such factors while designing the editorial content for the English news channel, including the on-air look.

Thus, the English news channel is more tilted and focused towards the personality of the English-speaking and English-viewing audience. .

Has the company made a departure for the English channel during the planning stage as competition would be tough in this category ? 

Not really. While we were planning for Aaj Tak (voted the best news channel by indiantelevision.com's Bajaj Boxer India Telly Awards late last year), we again had taken into account who all would be watching the Hindi news channel, the profile of the viewers and their tastes.

In hindsight, I can say that everything went according to clockwork where Aaj Tak is concerned. But there had been some anxious moments.

Would the English news channel also introduce innovations to keep pace with competition who are going in for new ideas like NDTV's proposed `cut-aways' for regional news ? 

Certainly there would be some new ideas as per our feedback from the market. But, what's the big deal about breaking for local news for a certain region ? Doordarshan, if you remember, has been doing this for years, delinking for regional news. Because such initiatives have been done by DD, not many have taken note of.

"Give the viewers what they want in a refreshing manner and the advertisers will follow. "

So, what is going to be the name of the English news channel ? 

(Almost gets taken in to recover fast) I like that. Slipping in that question so casually. No, I cannot comment on that. Actually, even we haven't decided on the final name yet. There are a few options, which I cannot reveal. 



When are you looking at launching the English news channel ?

The dry runs are on. We are ready to launch any day and are awaiting certain permissions from the government (Indian government nod for uplinking the English channel from India hasn't yet come through, having got bogged down in the controversy regarding news channels' equity pattern and FDI).

We also did not launch Aaj Tak with great fanfare and it was a low-key affair. The same would be for the English channel. No pre-launch media campaign or publicity. Once we get the green signal, we can even launch the next day and then would come the period to unleash a media campaign. Our philosophy has always been that tell the world of your product in a big way after it has been launched. The quality would come through only then.

TV Today Network is launching a news channel, and that too in English, when a slew of similar products are slated to hit the market. How do you view competition ? 

Star is a big company and has deep pockets. NDTV is known for quality products for a long time and I feel both the channels are slated to do well. Would not like to talk much about Sahara as I spent some time there too. Actually, a large part of the infrastructure that Sahara has at present (for its television venture envisaging launching seven news channels and streaming 30 local news channels) was set up when I was there.

Don't evade the question. What I meant, is the Indian market ready to take in so many news channels as everybody would be fighting for a limited viewership and ad pie? 

I don't agree with the `limitations' that you are enumerating. The news and current affairs category is still not exploited to its fullest and there is more than adequate numbers still to be achieved.

Moreover, it has not been our strategy to wean away viewers from competition. Even with Aaj Tak it was the same. We did not take away any viewership from Zee News, but created a new category of viewership that started watching news. The same strategy we will follow for the English channel. Give the viewers what they want in a refreshing manner and the advertisers will follow.

You mean to say that with Aaj Tak you set industry standards ? 

I don't know about industry standards, but we have done many `firsts'. At Aaj Tak we got out of the studio-based news presenting to be more reporter-led. Basically, people want to see news for themselves as it unfolds and that's what Aaj Tak does. We were also the first one to get OB (outdoor broadcast) vans. Our initiatives have made others to pull up their socks. News certainly has come a long way as new styles of news gathering in a dynamic medium is being unraveled.

There has been lot of criticism about the in-your-face attitude of Aaj Tak where news presentation is concerned. For example, a plane crash would be headlined `aasman se gira' (fell from the sky) or a controversial issue on Ayodhya would be dubbed `tain tain phis' (nothing happening contrary to expectations). Is this an intentional strategy ? 

In a way, it is. We believe in direct communication with the people and viewers. We also feel that since everybody is in a rush and don't have much time to sit through long-winded news and its interpretation, the news and its meaning should be told upfront and in as less words as possible. Where `tain tain phis' is concerned, it's a straight proverb in Hindustani that aptly summed up the shadow boxing being enacted by all those concerned with Ayodhya.

Rivals have poached Aaj Tak most heavily. Do you feel threatened by stalwarts leaving the company for rival networks that also may tell on the less-than-adequate human resources management of the company ? 

The people who have left TV Today Network are great and competent professionals. But one has to live with the fact that people will leave you if one is the best channel. But don't forget that all those who have left us have got their grounding and basic training at Aaj Tak and are likely to use that experience.

You mean those who have left Aaj Tak are capable of putting together an Aaj Tak clones only? 

Isn't it natural? If your grounding has been in certain style, the likelihood is that you'll react the same way where ever you are. In the end, it may be that all those people may end up doing another Aaj Tak.

Where HR practices are concerned, I think TV Today Network is a very proactive company. At the end of the day, you cannot stop people who really want to go and that's the price you have to pay if you are the No.1.
 
Aaj Tak is No. 1 and the company is launching another channel. Where do you go from here ? 

Chart new paths and road to success (laughs). When Aaj Tak was launched, the market share of news and current affairs was around 2.6 per cent. Now, along with others, we have managed to bring the figure up to 8+ percentage. That is still the pits. I think we have to take the market share of news and current affairs to 20 per cent plus.

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