Television

' The CNN deal came through in a meeting of minds' : Raghav Bahl - Television Eighteen managing director

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For Raghav Bahl, MD of the publicly traded Television Eighteen India Ltd (present market cap: Rs 7,300 million), it has been a long trek from his days in the cash-strapped Business India TV (BiTV) in the 1990s. Not coming from a business family, it has been a great learning curve for Bahl and his associate promoters who started TV18 as a software production house around 1996.

Today, the company has blossomed into a broadcasting outfit running two television channels --- both in the business news space --- and preparing to launch a third one in the general news space, CNN iBN, in association with Rajdeep Sardesai and CNN.

However, this journey hasn't been minus hiccups. TV18 had the reputation of being a company that expanded during good times to shrink drastically and lay off people when bad times came calling. But Bahl spiritedly defends such downturns as part of life. Rather, he goes on to add, `rightsizing' of the company had to happen only once and that too due to external factors beyond TV18's control. In a rare insight given to a business daily some years back, Bahl had described the painful exercise of laying off people as "necessary amputation" of a part of the body to save the whole body or the company from decaying into the dustbin of history.

Today, Bahl can afford to sit back, smile while looking back at such experiences and think it was part of his and the company's destiny. Television Eighteen is not only doing well financially, but is regarded as a darling of the stock market analysts who swear by its non-flashy, but steady performance. Something like the captain of the Indian cricket team Rahul `The Wall' Dravid --- a steady and solid performer --- who cuts out flamboyance for a clinically efficient performance.

In a rare interview with Indiantelevision.com's Anjan Mitra, media recluse Raghav Bahl opens up that wee bit to give a glimpse of thoughts that drive Television Eighteen.

Excerpts:

You have reasons to smile with the company doing well. How would you assess the situation?

The last few months have been eventful. But our strategy has also come out clearly, both in actions and transactions. More than saying things, we have executed what we have not said and said.

Television Eighteen sees itself purely as a news and information company. Within news and information too, the company has sharpened its focus of being in the business of business and business-related news. The business information segment has successful properties like CNBC TV18, Awaaz, commodities.com and moneycontrol.com. Some of them are hugely profitable, while others are on the brink of breaking cash profit.

Our focus also got sharpened partly due to government norms, which state that 51 per cent holding will have to be with a single Indian entity in news ventures. The company underwent a restructuring to comply with such norms and, in the process, we have created a structure that enables us to carry out our existing successful businesses along with making high profile forays into other segments of news information.

It's an obvious question, but why enter a crowded general news space when the advertising pie isn't growing as fast as the number of news channels?

As a group, we are clear market leaders in the business news and Internet segments. We are making a high profile entry into the general news space along with Rajdeep Sardesai and Sameer Manchanda (former NDTV whizzes). The entry point is significant, as there aren't very many players in the English news space, unlike the Hindi news segment that is very competitive.

If you earmark your segment within the news space and target the audience properly, there are opportunities to be tapped in the news and information space. Awaaz is an example as it has created a niche for itself amongst viewers who had never tasted business and related news and information in Hindi in a big way. India still doesn't have any big business daily or magazine in Hindi, but Awaaz has managed to hook audiences.

Would the industry and audiences see more niche products from the group in the near future?

It's very easy to say 'yes', but I would not like to commit myself at this point of time. We have made a success of CNBC TV18 (business channel) after almost six years. So our next move will depend on how the proposed product in the general news space fares and the time we take to turn into a profitable venture.

In one way, our strategy is clearly to make a high profile entry into news segments and follow a sustainable and profitable growth model. The next challenge is to make the English channel a success.

Though we are not (RPT: NOT) in an empire building phase, as a group we are always open to (launching) more products.

How are the Internet properties doing and would TV18 go in for more such acquisitions?

Both the existing properties are doing well. Moneycontrol.com is an influential portal that is visited by almost everybody who wants business and stock information.

I think the age of Internet has come and we are seriously looking this space for expansion.

But the challenge in the Internet space, where things are just a mouse click away, is to convert information into transactions. Any serious Internet strategy will have to keep this in mind.

It seems the attempt is to play up anchor driven shows on India TV. Is this a conscious decision?

If people are noticing that there are known faces on India TV hosting shows, then it's a good sign. The attempt and game plan is to have anchor-led shows and an anchor-driven channel. Worldwide, the trend is that news channels are anchor driven. A majority of people come on to CNBC, for example, to see a Jay Leno. It's only in India that the trend is to be news driven and most channels, except NDTV 24x7, don't believe in propping up their anchors, hosts or known faces.

'Like any other news Co., inflating wage bill is a concern for us too, but we did not have to make any extraordinary adjustments (in the

Balance sheet) like others'

In the overall kitty of the company, how much do Internet operations contribute to be taken seriously and hope to get ramped up?

If we see the overall revenues being generated by the company, the Internet properties will contribute about five per cent (between RS 70- RS 80 million) of the total TV business. Now this five per cent might not look big, but the margins are high.

The business news channel and Awaaz have CNBC as a partner, while the proposed English channel will be co-branded with CNN. Is it also part of the company strategy to launch products in co-branding deals with foreign news brands?

The co-branding model is not a conscious decision. They just happened as opportunities came along. CNBC was fallout of ABN's merger with CNBC and the CNN deal came through in a meeting of minds. Both partners see value in each other's business. And, nobody can question the pedigree of CNN and CNBC, two of the biggest known news brands in the world.

Globalisation will help Indian brands too to grow. However, we do intend to develop our own brands. But at this point of time I cannot say anything on this, as the future would unfold itself.

The group has launched South Asia World (SAW) in the US and the UK markets. Is there a proposition to bring the product to Asia and other parts of the world?

That question should be ideally answered by the company managing SAW as the Television Eighteen Group has a minority stake in the venture.

Still, though we believe in globalising products --- minority or majority owned by us --- there is still a question mark on the revenue potential of such products. Agreed, the Zee group is doing phenomenally well in the overseas markets having the beginner's advantage, but SAW's expansion is not immediately being thought of, nor the fact whether TV18 should scale up its investments in the venture.

For any news channel to be a success, it has to be different from others of its genre. What is the programming strategy of the channels in the stable even though some rival news companies term CNBC TV18 as a mere stock market channel instead of being a business channel?

Coming to CNBC TV18 first, there is a perception that it's just a stock market channel. I think we would have to live with these reservations though the channel's overall content is akin to any business newspaper anywhere in the world in terms of stories covered and information given. But I must add that CNBC TV18 doing extremely well, both in terms of audiences and revenues.

Awaaz was a completely unique experience and we are still in the learning curve. The channel was created for an audience that had never sampled any big business information product in Hindi language in print, though there are many established Hindi-language general newspapers. Still, Awaaz, the country's first consumer affairs channel, has approximately three per cent of overall Hindi news market and is growing fast. That's not a bad performance for a product launched seven to eight months back in an area that had not been charted earlier.

Work is still on as far as CNN iBN is concerned, but we are hopeful that by the end of calendar year 2005 it would get launched. Again, the strategy is to give the audience what it wants, apart from what it already has.

How will you describe the financial health of the company?

As a media company, Television Eighteen must be having one of the strongest balance sheets in the country. Tell me which other media company has reported profits and growth for 14 continuous quarters like we have done?

Awaaz is nearing cash breakeven, while the Internet properties are generating adequate revenues. Of course, the main channel is the feather in the cap and generates annual profits between RS 400- RS 500 million. But the group is ready for initial losses that the new venture, CNN iBN, would generate.

Almost all companies, which are into TV news business have been concerned about bloating wage bills that has been turning the bottomline scarlet. Does TV18 also have such concerns in this growing news market as demand and supply of trained manpower doesn't match?

Like any other news company, inflating wage bill is a concern for us too, but we did not have to make any extraordinary adjustments (in the Balance sheet) like others. In a sense, Television Eighteen has been the bench mark as far as pay packages are concerned.

But when you get good talent, they have to be awarded too. That's why between 10-15 per cent of the company is held by employees. We want the employees and colleagues to work hard and make money too.

As a seasoned player in the media and broadcast industry, do you feel that the Indian market is over-regulated and various foreign investment caps are hampering growth of TV channels?

Before I go into the issue of regulation and government initiatives, let me make one thing clear:" TV18's growth has never been held up due to paucity of funds, which are available in plenty within the country too from domestic sources.

After having said that, I would say that the question is not about under or over regulating, but of regulating properly. I also think that regulation needs to evolve much more in the media industry as a better regulatory framework will fuel a boom like it happened in sectors like telecom and insurance.

For example, there's not much difference between 26 per cent and 49 per cent holding. The moment an investor is allowed 26 per cent, he gets all the rights that a 49 per cent shareholder/investor has. So, why restrict foreign investment in news venture to 26 per cent? Second, there's a big difference between foreign direct investment (FDI) and investments made by FIIs. FDI comes with rights and privileges, while an FII is merely an investor without any rights. Now, why include FII investments within the overall foreign holding cap of 26 pr cent in news ventures in India? But, I feel these are evolutionary times and corrections will happen in the future.

Will digitalization and introduction of addressability or CAS in Indian cable homes see the Television Eighteen group introduce more products more frequently as distribution problems decrease?

Addressability will certainly help in launching niche products and there are opportunities in the news space. For example, there isn't a TV channel exclusively devoted to information and news relating to women or entertainment. Without taking news and information in its strictest sense, CAS would open up opportunities, which we might tap at the right moment. Of course, addressability will solve to a high degree the problem of distribution and increasing carriage fee.

But in a big market like India, anything will not happen overnight as is being touted or wanted by some people. Things will transform slowly. But when the inflection point is reached, growth will happen very fast. The pattern will be the same with digitalization and CAS too as DTH happens and slow permeation of technology starts taking place.a

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