Television

'The attempt and game plan is to have anchor-led shows and an anchor-driven channel' : Rajat Sharma - India TV chairman

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He has seen the downside of life. Portrayed himself in a Hindi potboiler film after becoming a successful media personality. At one time, he had even announced a proposal to pen a biography of former Prime Minister Atal B. Vajpayee. But today, Rajat Sharma doesn't have time to think of those things; he's too busy putting in place, along with his team, the plans to take India TV, a Hindi language news channel, forward.

Six months after the launch of India TV, Sharma discusses the ups and downs of running and managing a news channel in a conversation with Indiantelevision.com's Anjan Mitra. The Sunday tete-a-tete was peppered with some frank admission on carriage fee, how market leaders had messed up the cable distribution market and why India TV chooses to be different.

Excerpts:

It has been over six months that India TV went on air. How would you assess this time?

It's over seven months to be frank. But these months have been exciting and part of a learning curve where not only I, but my team also has learnt a lot of things about the business of broadcasting. When you run your own venture, the logistics look different. Even a seemingly small expense would need to be scrutinized and has to be justified. Still, the joy of producing a decent product, if not a brilliant one, is there. It would also be our continuous endeavour to better ourselves and actually serve the needs of the people and not only our ours. I have said it in the past that this is like a mission to me and I'll reiterate it again today.

During the time that India TV has been on air, it has faced resistance from the cable operators and distributors, unlike some other news channels, which hampered its visibility. What's your take on this issue now?

If you are talking about distribution, then it's true that there were initial problems. And, that problem, we quickly realised, could have a lasting impact on our growth prospect. Distribution became a problem that we had not envisaged. Especially when more than (investments in) content, other issues dictate the rules of the game. We have managed to address the problem to a large extent and we are also happy that whatever initiative we undertook in this regard has been bearing fruit. We are on prime band in almost all major networks in the country and our reach too has phenomenally increased over the last few months.

Did India TV actually give in to the demands of the cable industry and pay a fee to cable ops for carrying and positioning the channel favourable?

We had no option, but to pay carriage fee. At a time when the market leaders (in the news segment space) have been paying carriage fees, the cable ops don't shy away from asking the same from all of us too. We initially thought good content would drive demand for the channel, but it was not happening. We too paid carriage fee, which are in the form of annual contracts I am told.

Subsequent to this game plan, our visibility has definitely increased, which is indicative from the type and number of responses that we are getting for our programmes. It's not a healthy practise, but in this cut-throat world we have to play the game according to the rules already set. But, I think somebody --- either the government or the regulator --- should look into this aspect seriously.

Now that partly the distribution problem has been solved, what's the strategy forward?

We have introduced a change in programming line up in the evenings, which is basically aimed at providing viewers with fare that they would like to see at a time when other channels are not showing them. Take, for example, a late evening slot of 11 pm. Around this time, most news channels have crime shows going on, on India TV we have Speed News. This is aimed at corporate executives and people of the upper class who have come in late home and want to watch news and not some current affairs show. The speed news segment gives the news without any frills and packing in as much as possible. Fast and zippy when there's no time to blink

Similarly, at 22 hours India Live with Sudhir Chaudhary looks at the big news of the day, analyzing them with the sector-specific editor and correspondents across the country. For example, if the Sensex has touched dizzy heights, then after the Mumbai correspondent has filled in with his day's reports detailing the nittie-gritties, the business editor discusses with the anchor the issue and its various aspects. If it's a sports item, then the sports editor of India TV comes in with his expert views. At 21.30, when other news channels are getting onto their band of prime time bulletins, we have Showtime India, India TV's party go-around show.

This half-hourly programming line up has really helped us gain viewership from various segments.

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.

'At a time when the market leaders have been paying carriage fees, the cable ops don't shy away from asking the same from all of us too'

Do you feel that news channel managers are afraid of investing in people who will become too big for their boots?

Only a secure person can nurture and try build sub-brands. I can bet that the name and fame that some of the anchors of NDTV 24x7 have today, would not have been possible if Prannoy Roy had not been benevolent and secure enough to nurture them.

At India TV, it is a conscious decision to build sub-brands, apart from the likes of Sudhir, Maneka Gandhi (host of an environment based show), Suhaib Ilyasi and Rajat Sharma. We want to be anchor-driven, rather than news driven. That's why our shows too have been designed in a way to suit this plan.

How does India TV go about nurturing and building talents?

From the time a youngster joins us, he/she is made to go through a routine to spot the talent. Then there are stylists, speech and diction trainers and senior media professionals who put the youngsters through their paces. Ritu (Rajat's wife and business partner) and I too some time chip in with advise. After this, the effort is to give youngsters full chance to blossom. I am quite proud in saying that we have a bunch of youngsters who can be stars of tomorrow. People like Faraz Shere, host of Kal Ka India on Sundays, Speed News co-anchor Ranjini and even the Box Office India host are young people who have the verve and zest to make it successful and they will be.

What about your earlier stated plans to take India TV to foreign shores?

Negotiations are underway at the moment for the US market. We are also available in the Middle East where the feedback shows us we are not doing very badly.

A sizeable viewership for India TV comes from Muslim-dominated areas in India and that's because of the popularity of Al Jazeera. Would there be any change in the relationship if the owners of the Arabic channel sell off their shareholding?

I don't think so anything of that sort would happen and even if there is some change in the ownership pattern, our relationship is that of content exchange. That can certainly continue. But Al Jazeera certainly has perked up our viewership in smaller Muslim-dominated towns.

What about going pay?

Not at least for two years.

Is the company looking at raising more money from the market through an initial public offer?

In principle the decision has been taken that we would tap the capital market. In principle, yes an IPO is in the offing. But if you ask me for a time frame, I'd be unable to say. These are things that have been left to our financial advisors.

Does the company need money for expansion?

Actually, we don't need funds at the moment. We had envisaged a total expenditure of Rs. 100 crore and raised Rs. 700 million initially. We are comfortable as advertising has started generating some revenue.

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