Television

'Proper placement for a news channel will only come after payment so one is left with no choice' : Laxmi Goel - Zee Telefilms news director and head of news group

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He may not look like the typical corporate executive and globe-trotting businessman like his elder brother Subhash Chandra or appear to be as techno-savvy as his laptop-friendly younger brother Jawahar Goel, but don't write off LNG aka Laxmi N Goel, head of news group of Zee Telefilms, as just another promoter's kin throwing his weight around. In private, some of the top professionals working in Zee News and Zee Business channels have admitted that LNG's business and news sense is acute and though he loves to give his colleagues a free run in the day-to-day activities, his criticisms can be scathing at times, which also highlights his understanding of the news medium and the audience that is being targeted.

A seemingly happy-go-lucky person, who sports a smile almost always, LNG is credited with doing what some topnotch professional CEOs in the past had not been able to do --- turn round Zee News' dowdy down market image to one that is contemporaneous without being elitist. And in recent times, Zee News, country's first private sector news channel, has been doing a Salsa with the ratings too; at times even flirting with the top spot.

In this interview with Indiantelevision.com's Manisha Bhattacharjee, LNG holds forth on competition, the evolving news space and the strategy of following no particular strategy to rock the ratings charts.

Excerpts:

How do you foresee the future of Hindi news channel business with so many players crowding the landscape?

We are all aware of the developments in the news channel space. Although, everybody has the right to launch a news channel, there isn't much space for new entrants. Soon people will realize that it's not so easy to survive in this space and then consolidation will start taking place. Though some of the newer players will manage to co-exist --- as some are still doing by the skin of their teeth --- in my opinion, frankly, there is space only for four big players in the news space.

Today there are eight players in the Hindi news space, with some more in the pipeline. Where does Zee News stand?

All I would like to say is that Zee News has been in this space for over a decade from the time when there was only Doordarshan for news and to the present time when there are eight to ten news channels. Still, Zee News is going strong and it will continue to run ahead on the race track with its philosophy --- Haqeekat Jaisi Khabar Waisi. There will be no dash for sensationalism as our correspondents run their stories, which is done on the

basis of their news worthiness.

How do you plan to take on the existing and possible new rivals?

We do not fear competition. At the same time, without being complacent, we are confident on the breed of news the channel delivers and also the wide variety of shows that are put together. These programmes have been designed completely for the masses and the channel has been packaged that way itself.

Zee News was the first Hindi news channel in India, but over the years it has slipped in position and ratings, especially after Aaj Tak's entry. What are you doing to boost your channel's prospects?

Indeed, the position of number one rests on a couple of aspects. One of which is, of course, connectivity. Then, positioning of the channel too plays a major role in gaining the No. 1 position.

'It is a two-way process; one pays a carriage fee & the other accepts it'

So, are you admitting that Zee News channel has low visibility because of low connectivity?

Zee News does not have low connectivity, nor did it ever suffer from that malady. However, there was a slight difference in positioning of the channel in the sense that on some cable networks it was not put on the prime band and people had difficulty in accessing it. But things have changed now; there has been good amount of improvement in the channel's positioning on cable networks.

What was the strategy that you implemented in gaining prime position amongst the 100-odd channels that an average cable network distributes?

Well, our professionals interacted with cable operators and managed to convince them of Zee News' prime positioning.

Did this convincing of cable ops also involve paying carriage fee?

Well, it is a known secret in our industry. Everybody, including the leading news channels, are into paying carriage fee for various reasons. It is a two-way process; one pays a carriage fee and the other accepts it.

Do you think this carriage fee problem has gone out of hand for broadcasters? Do cable ops ask Zee News and Zee Business also to pay carriage fee?

If one is told that proper placement for a news channel will only come after payment, one if left with no choice. After all, we are also in this business and cannot remain isolated from the various bad trends in the industry.

Was carriage fee a reason for Zee Business, launched some time back, lagging behind and not seen on most networks in the country?

Zee Business is an 11-month-old channel. There have been some teething problems, but things have improved on the distribution front. It will take some more time for the channel to get fully established, but you cannot say that it is lagging behind. It has half a million connectivity at present. But, I'll be frank and say there are still problems relating to distribution, which does lead to low visibility in some areas.

So what is the strategy you intend to employ to eliminate the hitches that Zee Business channel is facing?

It is an ongoing process where we are networking with the cable operators and even interacting for carriage fee.

On the programming front, how you see the both Zee News and Zee Business channels faring?

Both the channels possess a healthy mix of routine and unique programming addressing various segments of consumers of our channels. So far, the type of news based shows that have been delivering good ratings are Crime Reporter, Asia Bhi Hota Hai, Special Correspondent and Inside Story to name a few. In the process, Zee News, for example, retains the news component, while new programming initiatives are continuously explored to bring brand new matter for viewers.

That goes the same with Zee Business channel also. Zee Business has Shri 420 Treasure, Bazr Hafte, 101 Ideas, Biz Yatra, Wheelocity, to name a few.

What do you think of regional news channels space? Do you see a future for regional news channels?

It is said the news market is getting bigger, but ad revenue has not been increasing in the same proportion. Now that is a problem.

So does it signify that Zee is not interested in launching a regional news channel even though rivals are getting into that space?

Well, as of now there are no plans of taking the Zee brand into the regional news space. However, I can't predict the future. But let me clarify that as a group, Zee Telefilms does have a presence in a wide swathe of the regional space.

Zee News is trying to be different by getting celebrity anchors like former FM Yashwant Sinha and now having former editor of The Times of India, Dilip Padgaonkar, on the channel. Do you really think such gimmicks would boost ratings?

Well, we have designed the programmes to bring in more awareness to our viewers. And, for that matter, tell me which broadcaster isn't in the ratings race? We keep in mind the ratings factor also but at the same time, the news based shows has been charted out to bring in awareness.

One positive for Zee News has been that in the last six months its market share has gone up from 15 to 18 per cent (19 per cent in June-July). What, in your opinion, is the reason for these improved ratings?

Besides charting out special news based shows and concentrating on news that matter to the aam janta (ordinary people), which is certainly an enduring progression, the channel share has propelled primarily due to proper positioning as well as increased connectivity.

This, however, does not discount the fact that whenever there is a disaster, natural or man-made, ratings of news channels trek northward.

What kind of programmes do you think gives news channel ratings?

News that concerns the masses fetches ratings for the news channels.

Talking about Zee news and Zee Business, what according to you are their strengths and weaknesses? What steps are being taken to plug the loopholes?

As for Zee News, breaking news is one of our strong points and with the channel's philosophy - Haqeekat Jaisi Khabar Waisi - the channel delivers news presenting both sides of a story. Our weakness lies in the fact that the channel does not cater to any sensationalism.

We have a healthy mix of programming and the channel is witnessing an increase in viewership. The business channel has also been designed for the masses. Well, we are still working to solve the connectivity problem, which is the main weakness at the moment.

'Suitability & sustainability are the words that can well be associated with Zee News'

You are constantly mentioning that your channel refrains from adding spice to the news. Can you substantiate it with an illustration?

Just to give you an example, our reports will never say, for instance, the Bihar governor Buta Singh has been axed from his present assignment until he has actually been removed. Our correspondents as well as our editorial people do keep in mind the bare facts of the journalism.

So, are you saying that you take stringent action against your people who breach these basics of journalism?

It depends on the gravity of the issue. But we do take action against professionals who slip up regularly, which probably any sane manager would do.

Mushrooming of news channels also brings the threat of poaching. How do you arrest the outflow of talent from your organisation? And, do you think people who are leaving should be tried to be stopped?

Suitability and sustainability are the words that can well be associated with Zee News. It has been over a decade that Zee News has been in operation and so it has been with some people too. Their association with the channel has continued.

Second, if one or two people are leaving for better pastures, it should not be seen as a threat. However, you will not hear that people have left our organization en masse or in large numbers.
A criticism against news channels is that in a hurry to get the news out first, often public sensitivity is not kept in mind. How do you respond to this criticism?

Let somebody give me one instance where Zee News has indulged in sensationalism or reported a wrong story and I'll respond then.

Recently Mumbai's police commissioner AN Roy said he's upset with news channels' reporting of the Mumbai floods and is actually thinking of demanding regulation of content on news channels. Don't you think that before the government comes and pushes through some law that gives them a licence to censor news, news broadcasters should have a code on how news like Mumbai floods should be handled?

Well, the police already have excessive authority, I think. If the police are also given the additional authority of censoring news, I do not think news channel will anyway object. Well, Zee News surely does not have any objection.

The Mumbai police commissioner, however, definitely cannot point out that Zee News has put out wrong reportage, or showed a wrong footage. If the commissioner can well highlight such instances relating to Zee News, I will personally look into the matter?

On 9 September, there were heavily rains in Mumbai. The met department anticipated that for the next 48 hours there will be heavy showers. While Zee News informed its viewers about the forecast, it also told viewers after some time that rains had stopped in Mumbai. The news channel is only informing people about the latest developments and providing up-to-date information. I think that should not worry authorities.

Zee Telefilms has been dragging its feet for over 18 months on the restructuring of its news operations vis-?-vis foreign investment allowed and government guidelines relating to uplinking from India. Why this indifference to rules and regulations?

We have never said that we'll not comply with government guidelines. We have made submissions that this restructuring will take some time and we should be granted additional time. The government realized our problem and has been giving us extensions because such a process takes time.



We are close to giving final touches to the restructuring that will be conveyed to the government very soon. It should suffice to say that only the paperwork remains to be completed.

These days broadcasters all over the world are exploring various mode of delivery of content; be it on mobile phones, broadband or on the net. Has the news group of Zee Telefilms thought on enhancing its content delivery mechanism?

Yes. We are planning something on these lines. But at the moment, I cannot disclose the details as plans are in their infancy and speaking now could also alert competition.

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