'Our revenue runs neck & neck with general news players' : Haresh Chawla - CNBC TV18 CEO

When Television Eighteen was started in 1994, critics dismissed it as a fad. As if on cue, the company went through a bad phase towards the end of the last decade when it had to lay off a large number of people, which, naturally, generated lot of bad vibes in the industry. The critics sniggered and wrote off the company completely. But promoter Raghav Bahl and associates were made of sterner stuff. They clung on, though in an interview given to a business daily then, Bahl lamented the fact that he had to let go many people who he would have liked to retain. Retrenching people was like amputation; you cut off a part of your body to save the rest, Bahl had then reasoned.

But today, he and company CEO Haresh Chawla, who joined the company in 1999, have reason to smile. Analysts say that there may be star media performers who may get a thrill out of a roller-coaster ride on the stock market, but if any scrip is a steady performer, then it?s the TV18 stock.

With new channels in the pipeline and a growing business, TV 18 CEO Chawla --- a reticent person otherwise --- engages in a free-wheeling conversation with Manisha Bhattacharjee.


Let?s begin with CNBC Awaaz, which is six months into its launch. What?s the update on performance?

We have seen massive improvement in performance and distribution over the last six months. It is (one of the) the fast growing channel(s) and we are witnessing 20 per cent growth week on week on viewership for the last two and a half months. It has already gone far ahead of other business channels and is virtually snapping at the heels of the general news Hindi channels.

When Awaaz was conceived, the aim was to reach out to an average consumer rather than players on the stock market. How far has it been successful in keeping to its mandate and how are you tracking its efficacy?

We have a healthy mix of programming. During day time, the channel focuses on the stock and commodity markets, addressing the needs of retail investor living in the small towns of the country. People love to watch the coverage in Hindi. Clearly, the issues

and the way they view the stock market is different from savvier investors. And, in the early evening, we focus on consumer programming taking up issues like personal finance, shopping and consumer-related news across the country. On weekends, it is only consumer oriented programming.

From the programming point of view we have lived up to our promise that Awaaz is a consumer driven channel, which is why it is gaining in popularity and stickiness (for eyeballs). Over the last three-four weeks running (The interview was conducted on 12 July), the channel has been even ahead of Aaj Tak in places like Gujarat and Maharashtra.

Why are you comparing Awaaz with general news and current affairs channels as it?s a niche channel taking up specialized issues?

Well, I?m merely explaining the popularity of Awaaz. These are not the figures (comparisons with the likes of Aaj Tak) that we are really talking about. But we are getting the sense of the fact that there are the trends that we are seeing that the channel is pulling in audiences regularly and strongly. The channel is pulling in new audiences. Clearly, it is doing what it had set out to do; build a new audience in a new genre.

So, are you saying that there is no cannibalization

of CNBC TV18 viewers and advertisers?

Not much. Clearly, consumers do consume several news channels. What we are saying is that there are new viewers coming in for Awaaz whose needs are different. Awaaz as a genre is getting established very quickly versus what general news channels offer.

But the distribution cloud still hangs over Awaaz. How is that problem being addressed?

It has all changed over the last three months. We had some issues in some of the geographical areas. We have a brand new distribution team in place, which is being headed by Piyush Goyal and we have close to 12 people taking care of the distribution business.

'In the English news space, a measure of strength is really influence, credibility and size'

Coming to the overall news landscape, news channels

are mushrooming all over. How do you foresee the

future of news channels?

Well, in the Hindi news space there seems to be some extra bit of supply. Definitely there is crowding happening in the Hindi news market. I think two things will happen; either there will be a bit of consolidation or products will start to differentiate themselves for survival.

I think both are inevitable. Presently, there is not too much difference between the channels that are there. Clearly, all of them are aiming at the same consumer or attacking the same kind of profile of news and current affairs. The pressure of the business will ensure that they either consolidate or find ways to differentiate themselves in way that they can possibly serve different needs of the same consumers.

When do you foresee the inevitable happening?

All this will start playing out in next few months as the players, clearly who are not able to make a mark in the mainstream news, will try and find ways to differentiate as they start running short in the money game.

Whatever be the claims and counterclaims between CNBC TV18 and NDTV Profit, there is no getting away from the fact that it?s a tough fight in a space that had been monopolised by CNBC TV18. What do you have to say?

We are extremely delighted with what we have seen in India. We have proven that our business news channel, despite being in a niche environment, has viewership, influence and reach equivalent to, if not better, to a general news channel. Clearly this a fallout of the increasing focus of Indians on what?s happening in the business environment. The channel?s performance is incredibly good and it is a phenomenon not seen in any other market in the world.

I do not think the issue is of a monopoly. I think the question to answer is: 'is business news more popular than general news or has an equal demand?' And, now we are seeing the signs of that happening. Yes, there are other players who will enter the business news space, but the key point to realize is that the business news space has been grown by us to what it is now. Other players will come in and it?s inevitable because we have shown how big the space is. Our revenue runs neck to neck with general news players. Our job is to keep expanding the space and that?s what we have done by launching Awaaz.

You can check with audiences too on this, but we are clearly dominating as far as perception goes as well as on the ratings front. We do not see ourselves as a competitor to NDTV Profit at all. Our direct comparison, if it has to be made, is with the channel of an equal stature like NDTV 24x7.

Why with NDTV 24x7?

In the English news space the audience is small but are influential. In the English news space, a measure of strength is really influence, credibility and size. We are as influential and credible. If you ask 500 CEOs as to what they watch, they?d say CNBC TV18.

Of course, Television Eighteen is getting back at NDTV by proposing to launch an English language news channel through Broadcast News. That would make it three English channels in India. Can the market take in so many products?

We always had our eyes on the general news space. It is an audience that we understand, it?s a space in which we have built up our influence. We understand the advertisers too. Therefore, it?s very logical to enter general news, which is clearly a space that has got a monopoly. We also feel the market can absorb and will be delighted to have an alternative product. Yes, it will be a challenge for us to make sure that the alternative that we offer is different from the current products.

Is Broadcast News also looking targeting the Hindi news space?

Our first launch will be the English news channel. We will follow it up with a Hindi news channel because the synergies are immense. But that is a decision we will take once the English news channel is launched.

What will be the USP of the proposed English channel?

I'm afraid, I cannot disclose it now at this stage. We plan to give our viewers a very good alternative to the current platform and possibly a better one.

Is the English news channel being launched early next year?

We plan to launch the proposed channel before the end of this calendar year. We are building up a large facility in Noida (on the outskirts of Delhi) over 60,000 sq feet of space. We already have recruited a large part of the staff.

'Entertainment segment is dominated by larger players with deep pockets, entering into that space may not be a wise thing for us to do'
What?s TV18 Grop's equity holding in Broadcast News?

TV18 Group holds 74 per cent stake in Broadcast News. The balance 26 per cent is split between senior professionals in the business and for those senior people who will join the venture in future.
What are your expansions plans?

We are watching very carefully the changing structure of the industry today. Over the next couple of years, several things will change with the entry of broadband, proliferation of DTH and the inevitable digitization of cable. Those moves within the industry

will make several new opportunities for us as well as for other broadcasters.

Today, leading news channels are eyeing the regional space? Is Television Eighteen also eyeing that space?

It is going to become increasingly attractive over a period of time as the news consumer in India matures. We would look at it at the right time and moment.

Will you bring in new products for the DTH platform?

Well, all opportunities will open once the delivery platform achieves some critical mass. It will be at this point that content for these services will become economically viable and feasible. I don?t think it makes any sense at this stage to launch any kind of specialized product for a segment of the market that is just about opening up.
South Asia World is a product that has been created for the overseas markets. Will we see it nearer home?

SAW is not a platform owned by TV18 as we supply content to the channel. At present, SAW is in the US and UK and it will look at launching in the Middle-East market shortly, which is an extremely

attractive. I think all the overseas markets are becoming increasingly attractive for Indian broadcasters. The NRI population is large and affluent and it has absorbed the launch of entertainment products fairly effectively. We believe that

information will be the next thing they will turn to.
Does TV 18 have plans to venture into the entertainment segment as you do have a division for such programming?

Not at the moment. We believe that our strength lies in news and that?s the market for us to be in. The entertainment segment is dominated by larger players with deep pockets. Already there are three platforms and we believe that entering into that space may not be a wise thing for us to do.

Television Eighteen, according to the government, is still to adhere to the uplink norms vis-?-vis foreign investment. When will the restructuring be completed?

I think the government is still modifying its guidelines and what has come out in the media is its stated intent. We are awaiting the new guidelines and will do the needful once the picture is clearer.

(The I&B ministry had taken certain amendments to the uplink norms to the Cabinet for an okay some time back. As there was no consensus on certain issues, the whole policy now has been referred to a group of ministers, which has not yet been formally announced.)

With the mushrooming of news channels, poaching too is getting rampant. How are you safeguarding your company from this threat?

TV18 has a very strong internal structural team. Let me put it this way, most of our employees already have ESOPs and fairly good incentives to grow with the company. We have a young and energetic team and an open and challenging work environment. We, therefore, believe in fighting out this phenomenon in the business.

Poaching is a phenomenon that every growing industry faces, but things will stabilise over a period of time. I think the flow of talent into the business is fairly strong as media companies are taking in a large number of youngsters and training them. The environment is challenging but there is no dearth of talent entering the business.

Most broadcasters like NDTV and TV Today are looking at having their own bouquet of channels to solve distribution hassles. What about TV 18?

We too hope to have one some day.

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