"People out there are desperate to poach from Aaj Tak" : Aroon Purie - TV Today Network CMD

Media baron Aroon Purie, almost 60-but-looking-like 50, wears various hats as one of the most successful entrepreneurs of post-Independence India. He is the founding editor & editor-in-chief of India Today and CEO of the India Today Group. Additionally, he is also the MD of Thomson Press (India) Ltd. and CMD of the listed TV Today Network Ltd.

Though the Jains of Bennett, Coleman & Co. (publishers of The Times of India and other newspapers and magazines) may be credited with commodifying a newspaper to be sold like any other product, Purie is generally credited with being instrumental in changing the face of journalism in India. In 1975, he founded the India Today Group, which is now acknowledged as India's most diversified media conglomerate

Purie's understanding of the Indian media space is reflected in the package of media vehicles he has put together since the launch of India Today. In 1992, the Group launched Business Today. Four years ago, Cosmopolitan was added to the group's stable. Today, the group has a rich product mix - India Today Plus in the lifestyle segment, Smart Inc covering technology, Travel Plus looking into travel and hospitality, Design Plus mapping trends in interior designing business and the specialized sports journal Golf Digest. More products are in the pipeline.

In an attempt to replicate the print medium success, Purie led the group's forays into TV, music (Music Today) and various other related businesses. And while traversing the business path, building institutions, Purie received recognition too, including the Padma Bhushan, a civilian award conferred by the government for his contribution to Indian journalism, in 2001.

Not prone to giving frequent interviews, Purie agreed to an interaction with us, surprisingly easily. In this conversation with's Anjan Mitra, a relaxed Purie not only holds forth on various issues of the media, but also poses happily for our photographer Sanjay Sharma in his eighth floor office at Videocon Towers in Delhi, which also houses other media companies like Television Eighteen, apart from TV Today and Business Today magazine.


How do you view the overall media scenario in India at the moment?

The media scenario looks very exciting, especially the news scenario. The general elections are coming up, which means good news for the news medium. It would result in increased viewership of TV news channels as the general interest levels go up. Add to that, the factor that the general economy is doing well and so people would be more inclined to increase their spend on the media. I see a healthy growth in the media, both in terms of audiences and advertising spend.

Amidst this feel-good factor that everybody is talking about, do you see any particular segment of the media growing faster or there would a general all-round boom?

TV is growing faster than the print. All facts and figures point to that at present. I think it would continue to be so. But if you ask me, there would be an overall growth witnessed in the media --- TV, print and even in radio.

Radio, according to me, is the next big thing. Once the task force recommendations are implemented by the government, which would usher in more liberalisation, radio broadcasting, a money-loser at the moment, would see tremendous growth. Changes in the licence fee structure should lead a growth in this sector and, subsequently, a growth in advertising on this medium. Personally, I am very excited about radio.

(A task force set up by the government under the chairmanship of Ficci secretary general Dr Amit Mitra has suggested radical changes in the existing FM radio policy. This includes allowing foreign investment in private FM radio ventures, airing of news and current affairs programming and scrapping the licence bidding process in favour of revenue sharing of between 3-4 per cent with the government. The information and broadcasting ministry is yet to take a final view on the recommendations as accepting some of the suggestions would mean seeking a Cabinet okay, which can now only happen after a new government is installed in Delhi.)

What sort of growth do you foresee in the news business in 2004?

The growth would come at two levels. One is connectivity. The number of cable homes itself is growing at a rapid pace. At present, the total number of cable homes is said to be around 45 million, which is projected to grow to around 65 million by 2006 or so. With the news universe expanding, more people would be added fueling part of the growth.

Then, with more events happening and newer players coming in, the general universe too would expand the base of news business. In fact, in the last couple of years, growth has been witnessed in the Hindi movie and news channels segment. I am quite hopeful of this trend continuing.

What are the broad expansion plans for TV Today Network that is now a public company?

We have been talking about the consolidation of the leadership position of Aaj Tak. We had dwelt on this even during the (run-up to the) initial public offer. We are in the process of doing that in terms of ordering equipment, setting up new bureaus, improving our connectivity and infrastructure. The elections, which are around the corner, are also occupying our time (in terms of organising coverage). Both these processes are happening simultaneously.

Further down the road, we would consider the option of going pay (with Aaj Tak), depending on how conditional access system shapes up. Another initiative that we are looking into is launching new channels, which would, again, depend on how the industry shapes up over the coming months. But that would happen, I think, sometime around 2005.

Considering that CAS looks like a nonstarter, does it upset TV Today's plans of going pay with its products and what are your views on addressability over which the broadcast and cable industry is divided with no consensus looking like emerging?

The planning does not really get upset because both the channels are free-to-air and that's how it was meant to be. Because CAS was being talked about, we thought this should be something that we should be ready for.

I think CAS is the right way to go forward. It's good for the development of the industry and for bringing in newer technologies. Also, we need to change the system or the mind set (of the viewing public). The change must be for an ideal model that people who watch must pay for what they watch. Rather than pay for things they don't watch.

Direct-to-home (DTH) televisions service would also come in some form or other. It's a question of time when it gets implemented, though in a limited way the service has been launched and is witnessing some problems with differences amongst the various stakeholders. But, over a period of time these would get ironed out.

Would TV Today hop onto a DTH platform?

As content providers we are open to all platforms whether it be broadband, DTH or normal cable. Our decision to join a platform would be subject to the fact that we, as a content company, should get fair deals in terms of revenue sharing, whatever that may be.

"Radio, according to me, is the next big thing. Changes in the licence fee structure should lead a growth in this sector and, subsequently, a growth in advertising on this medium"

What would be the strategy of Aaj Tak, the current market leader, in this growing news market?

The key thing in this business is to maintain your leadership position because in media it is an established fact that the leader corners most of the revenue. Your market share may come down as the universe expands, but as long as you maintain your numero uno position, revenues would keep coming.

In that context, Aaj Tak has established itself as a brand delivering what people want and expect it to deliver.

Aaj Tak has introduced a Javed Jaaferi show, which is more of entertainment than traditional news and current affairs programming. Other news channels too have experimented with such strategies. What is the reason behind such a show?

It's a conscious decision to look at Aaj Tak's weekend programming differently. It's a way of introducing genuine infotainment where social trends and behaviours, the political scene and news, in general, are looked at from a different angle.

It is an experimentation that we have undertaken and I am quite happy with the initial reaction. As long as there is topicality in a programme, a news channel can expand and innovate.

Aaj Tak may be the toast of the news business, but Headlines Today is floundering. What do you have to say to critics who opine that it should be closed down to stop drainage of resources and funds?

Headlines Today, I'll maintain, is a different product. In fact, moving into the new studio and some other changes that we brought about is already showing result. The average time spent by a viewer on Headlines Today has increased from 5 minutes to 15 minutes, which is about the same as that of NDTV 24x7.

Now comes the issue of connectivity and reach, which we are addressing.

Q: But the perception is that all these cosmetic changes still don't make Headlines Today worth watching?

It's a media perception that would change once more figures come in. Till now, we have made changes in the technical side of the channel, but soon we intend to revamp the content too to make it more relevant.

The unique thing about Headlines Today is the format that is obviously appealing to a section of the population.

But, more importantly, the break-even cost of Headlines Today is much lower than what it would be for a full blown channel because it relies on shared infrastructure and is like a spin-off channel of Aaj Tak.

Aaj Tak may be the leader in the news segment, but where its HR policies are concerned, the likes of NDTV seem to be better off. Otherwise, why would the leader experience so much of churning and desertions?

I think it's the opposite and reflection of a good HR policy. We select such good people that others want them. It's always easy to pick some people from an organisation, offer them senior positions by doubling and tripling their salary and lure them away. That's what has happened. People from TV Today have gone to Star News when they launched the channel. Even NDTV took our people when they launched channels. It is a problem that a leader would always face. I have faced this in India Today magazine too where people would be lured away by people who are desperate to launch new products and looking for good people.

This churning and leaving is an ongoing process. I think new stars are born everyday in this business (of TV). It's a question of training and providing the right environment, which Aaj Tak has.

But see the bright side of it. Aaj Tak has not suffered from people leaving the organisation as it has continued to maintain its lead.

I think, it's an exaggerated notion to say that people have left because of bad HR policy of TV Today. Yes, people have left, but have left for reasons not related to Aaj Tak. They have left because it shows how desperate people are out there to get people from Aaj Tak in terms of giving them senior positions and paying them a higher pay packet.

Couldn't Aaj Tak have attempted to retain talent by playing the game as per the current rules that you are mentioning?

Sooner or later everybody reaches a saturation point. That's the stabilisation process, which is taking place now. Moreover, I think correctional measures need to be taken to maintain a balance between salary packets of journalists in the print and TV media. At present, the differential in the salaries of those in the electronic medium and those with similar experience in print is becoming unreal.

Sooner or later, the industry has to take note of this fact and look at ways to have adequate supply of trained manpower because the cost of salaries of TV journalists has been increasing, which, in turn, has increased the cost of running a news channel.

How do you account for the fact that in recent times, the number of people leaving TV Today is higher and at a faster rate than the intake? It takes time to create 'stars'.

That has happened because in one year six new news channels have been launched. Where would they get people from? They would get them from the existing players only. It's an unusual situation that, probably, hasn't happened in any other country. Such things are witnessed in any growing industry.

Would you also attribute this high churning to the fact that very little of R&D is happening as far as trained manpower is concerned?

There is, obviously, a lack of supply of trained people. As an industry, the players have to think of the issue of training people or outside institutes doing that adequately to maintain a proper balance between supply and demand. I think that would happen as we get over the transition phase.

What are the plans for making international forays?

Aaj Tak is already available on a pay platform in the Middle East. We would

consider going into the US and the UK markets with Aaj Tak or a combination

of both the news channels. We are looking into the economics of transponder costs and as soon as the costs reach a level that would make good business sense for us, we'd consider tapping other markets.

There have been talks of TV Today starting niche channels. What is the status of that game plan?

I think we'd like to create something unique for the Indian market and not just bring in channels from abroad.

But for that plan to be effected, technologies like CAS are a key element. When the viewer starts paying for niche content or the cable operator starts sharing with the broadcaster a bigger part of the money he collects from the subscriber, that would be the time to launch niche channels. Seeing the way things are moving, new technologies would get implemented in India.

Now these plans are still on the drawing board. What we mean when we mention niche channels is that with CAS being sought to be implemented, we thought we should be ready with plans to take advantage of the situation as and when they become a reality.

Which are the areas that you think can be targeted further with niche channels in India?

Channels relating to business, women, health & fitness, etc. can command niche audiences and revenues too.

"Well, there are business channels and there are some who appear to be business channels, but are nothing more than being merely a stock market channel"

Isn't the business news segment getting crowded a bit with Zee planning to launch one, Television Eighteen proposing a Hindi business channel and others like Dhoots of Videocon threatening to dabble in this area?

Well, there are business channels and there are some who appear to be business channels, but are nothing more than being merely a stock market channel.

The same way as there are different business magazines covering various aspects of business, there can be business channels covering various aspects of business. So, I think there is still scope for a proper business channel that would dwell on various aspects of making money and not from just the stock market.

Are you suggesting that CNBC TV 18 is a stock market channel?

What else is it?

Is TV Today looking at aligning with any existing bouquet for greater penetration?

In a few years time, we would have ourselves become a bouquet with a variety of channels.

The TV Today scrip is overweight and market analysts are worried about it. Your comment.

That's the market's perception of the management and the company. In a way, may be, it also reflects on the expected performance of the company.

How is the radio business of the group doing?

We are doing okay like any other private player. But if the government brings about changes in the existing radio policy, it'd see a growth. If they allow news and current affairs, it adds to the excitement. At the moment radio's share of the total ad pie is about 1 per cent, which I see growing to about 5 per cent if the changes in the licence regime, etc, are brought about.

I think radio is a very exciting medium.

Would the company acquire licences in newer cities during the second phase of the FM radio?

At the moment, we are present in three cities. But future expansion would depend on various factors like the quantum of revenue sharing and other policy changes. But our current preoccupation is to see how soon the three radio stations become viable.

Would you agree with the claim being made that Radio Mirchi, part of The Times of India Group, is the leader in the FM radio segment?

I think that's only a perception because there is no credible measurement of audience. Everybody does its (including India Today Group's radio division that markets under the band name of Red FM) own surveys. Then it boils down to how much of marketing is done of those surveys and the noise made around the figures. Depending on that you can claim to be a leader.

Times of India spends a lot of money in its own publications (publicising the surveys) and, therefore, it is perceived to be a leader, which I don't think is necessarily true.

Are there any expansion plans for the print business lined up?

We'd continue to expand with niche products here too, like health & fitness and women, continuing to address different segments with different products. The same theory is being expanded in the TV business too --- continue developing editorial content for different segments of society.

I strongly believe that what happened in the print medium would happen in TV too with a variety of offerings for a cross-section of consumers. Though there is no time frame, but I expect within 2004, we'd launch a couple of magazines.

A section of the media, including you, lobbied hard to get the government to allow foreign investment in the print medium, but not very many proposals have come forth since then. What could be the possible reasons for such a lukewarm response?

The policy is not that attractive for foreigners to come into the news business with 26 per cent. The government had an exaggerated sense that people would come here and take over newspapers and magazines. I don't think that's the case.

The current policy also does not allow for the printing and publishing of foreign publications here that easily, though I believe that may get changed as Times of India goes ahead with Asian Wall Street Journal. At the moment, there are too many ifs and buts in the policy and it needs to be made clearer and more transparent.

I think foreign publications should be allowed to come and print and publish from here, including carrying Indian ads. Of course, there should be adequate Indian control. The policy needs to be further liberalised.

Is Living Media looking at attracting foreign investment?

We don't want to disinvest in Living Media and give part of it to some foreign company as we don't need foreign investment in that company. We generate enough revenue to fund our new projects.

But we are open to striking joint ventures outside Living Media with foreign companies for publications and printing of newspapers and / or magazines in India.

You had been in the forefront of a group of domestic media companies lobbying hard for strictures against foreign players. Are the Indian media companies really so afraid of losing their turf to foreign ones?

What we were looking for was uniformity in policy. For example, if the government has allowed only 26 per cent foreign investment in the news category in the print medium, why would 100 per cent foreign investment be allowed in a 24-hour news channel? It was illogical.

That was targeting Star News.

Well, in this case it happened to be Star News, but tomorrow it can be somebody else. The policy was not consistent as TV, to my mind, is more powerful than print in terms of reaching a larger number of people.

So, the Indian Media group got together to bring up various issues like tax benefits that the foreign channels were enjoying, remittances abroad, etc. All of them boiled down to a level playing field and that was exactly what we were asking for.

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