'Channels building bouquets to provide the advertiser discounts is an unfortunate and shortsighted perception' : Sunil Lulla - Times Now CEO

Times Now CEO, Sunil Lulla has been associated with the business of television over the last two decades. His strength lies in building brands from scratch. And the channel is going to need all that experience as it continues to find its feet. 30 January would mark the completion of one year for Times Now but the man at the helm knows that he still has a long way to go.'s Sujatha Shreedharan caught up with Lulla to discuss the channel's performance over the past year and how it hopes to take on the competition in what is turning out to be the most fiercely competitive space on television.


What's the big picture in the news broadcast industry as you see it?

While news channels are trying new formats, there are certain restrictions as an English news channel that we have to contend with. Our audience is niche, the kind of formats they have adapted to so far dictate our content too. We need to break out of that mould.

That said, is there space for a focused or niche channel? Yes of course there is. While weather does not play such an important part in our news unlike the US - there is a space for a specialized Weather news channel or Sports news channel. But as of now we are confined to the (general) news space and this is where we will bat it out. There was a time when we had five channels gunning for about 80 per cent viewership. Today we have over 30 channels looking at the same viewership. There is audience fragmentation but that has also meant a certain rating system and therefore a certain level of accountability. Look at our ad to GDP ratio. It is perhaps better only than a Bangladesh.

As the market grows, the consumer will have more choice. This proliferation is necessary as it will grow the ad curve. One of the more underleveraged areas in my knowledge is India's ability to produce content for international markets. We need to take our content and license it to other players.

The last year seems to have been as much about sorting out what exactly is the personality of the channel as anything else. Have you arrived at clarity on this?

We were always clear that we were and are a general news channel and as such our competition is also in the general news space. When we started out NDTV was the only dominant player and our natural competition in this space. The launch of CNN IBN was a surprising entry. This meant that there was a huge amount of viewership traction.

So in terms of competition you would name NDTV 24x7

I have no problems naming NDTV 24x7 as our competitor. I think NDTV 24x7 being the first English news channel in India and the vast experience it has behind it will remain a competition and a benchmark for all the following channels.

But you were also competing with the English business news channels in the 8 to 4 band?

Yes, we do have a business band that we took a re look at and decided to restructure it. We have now made our business band slimmer. The restructuring of the business band happened around 16 July and I think we've bounced back pretty fast.

Our focus is on the 'Big story'. This is what has worked for us. So if that big story is Abhishek and Aishwarya, then we'll cover that. If it is Sourav Ganguly and cricket then we will track that.

What improvisation is being made on the content side to build up a loyal audience?

On the cusp of our one year completion, we can only plan things for ahead. But using this as an anchor point, we will have announcements and changes to make on the content front. We are in the process of launching an entertainment based show to air during prime time weekend. We are already experimenting with different formats. We have our sports show 'The Game' repackaged and presented in a fresh format especially focusing on the World Cup.

We will start the new entertainment based show in February while March and April will see us beefing up and fine tuning the weekend programming. Prime time for the weekend would be a combination of news and programming. Wraparounds are the way forward.

Times Now will also launch its campaign coinciding with its completion of one year on 31 January called 'One year: In tune with what's next'. It will be launched as both a print and television campaign.

Speaking of content, due to cut throat competition, news channels are increasingly resorting to sensationalizing what they broadcast and even becoming quite sordid. This is only giving a greater handle for regulation to come into the sector which is hardly what anyone wants. Isn't this a cause for concern for all news broadcasters?

Within the breaking news format, it has always been the combination of activism, regulation and media that has pushed up the immediacy of news. So whether it is Bollywood or cricket - both of which have shown pretty dismal performances - is always covered by the Indian media. I think where the idea of sensationalizing news needs to be questioned is by the news network itself. That is a matter or an individual call of what one must not do. There is a certain sense of values the news network follows or maturity it shows in handling issues.

Then there is regulation. Sure it's a concern when it becomes interfering but the regulation is simple, lucid, clear to understand and detailed. We live in what is called the 'google world'; we have information at the tip of our fingertips. So to shy away from news, whatever the content would not be fair. How we approach it is another issue.

Now that Times Now has settled down, what's the strategy to take it forward and drive up ad sales?

There are a few things which come together to create ad sales - performance in a genre in which you are perceived to be a habit, traction in terms of ads, to hold prices and take them up, offer properties which will attract the advertiser. For instance, we will have a budget special coming up soon. But by the first week of January we had already sold that. Similarly we have the ET Awards. The idea is to ROS advertiser for which you are a reach vehicle. We need a pipeline that's full but at a healthy price. We need to identify tent pole properties which will rope in the advertisers. Obviously we accept that NDTV has more advertisers than us.

What do you think is the number of channels that are practically sustainable in each genre of news?

Just last week, as I was talking to someone, the whole discussion about the number of channels in India came up. There was this realization that we are about 300 channels short. Within the next three years, there will be about 250 million homes with television out of which about 71 million homes have cable and satellite while about 30 million of these are what we know as urban homes. And these are only homes that are reported. The number increases as more and more black and white television sets are replaced by colour television. So we are talking here of a paucity and not an overcrowded situation.

One unique aspect of the news channel business is that buyouts are the exception. The only one that comes to mind is Channel 7 in the recent past. Is that about to change soon? And if and when Times Now does view the regional market how would you go about it? Would you look at acquisitions or developing your own channel?

You are right when you say that buy outs and acquisitions are new to the Indian news space. But if you are talking growth then we believe in both organic and inorganic growth. We have no phobia to either approach. But the reason for such growth should be stronger and better shareholder value.

I personally think channels building bouquets to provide the advertiser discounts is an unfortunate and shortsighted perception. The priority should always be the value. I would rather have one channel at a good quality pricing than have 10 channels.

That said, I think Zee has done a better job at being a bouquet. I wouldn't count the regional channels because they are almost stand alone channels in that region. Star Plus and Star One again leave their other channels far behind.

This is not the kind of orientation we have at Times Now.

'Turning pay may have hurt us as a business'

As management head of Times Now, what's your priority --- toplines or would you rather watch the bottomline?

What is important is to generate quality content, build relative rank and close the distance between us and our competitor. We understand it's not about a short term game. The more often we manage to satisfy our consumer or advertiser, revenue growth will increase accordingly. Right now the priority is to get the content mix right and secondly to get the channel across. This does mean investing in distribution.

What sort of investment has gone into Times Now up until now?

Blood, sweat, grime and lots of hard work and planning ?. (Refuses to state numbers)

Has the channel reached breakeven yet?

Honestly, it won't happen so soon. It will take at least 4-7 years.

News channels no longer run on televised content alone. It has to have value add like online, mobile or on ground properties. What are the other revenue streams being tapped by Times Now? What is the overall percentage of revenue likely to come from these subsets?

There is a need to develop our web property and that will be our focus in 2007. The web strategy was not focused because there was a need for monetizing opportunity. At that point, TV was a more important monetization opportunity so concentrated on getting that right.

Now we will focus on building a stronger web connect for our advertiser and viewer.

As for mobile properties we were the first to tie up with a telecom company, Reliance Infocomm and are in talks with Idea as well. The format will be similar with streaming feed and select videos. But if you ask me what the revenue we accrue from them is, well it is very marginal. The telecom operator keeps the majority chunk. If this needs to be explored as a prospective revenue stream, we will have to work out better partnerships.

All indications are CAS will be spreading to cover the metros fully and later at least the Tier 1 cities. In such a scenario isn't it better to stay in the pay tier rather than take the short term (some would say short-sighted) approach of going FTA?

First of all, if you read the fine print on CAS, it clearly mentions that the channel can opt to a pay status given four weeks of notification. So it's not like we are risking anything. We are just saying that given the situation today and subscription offers being limited we thought it best to stay FTA. In case you noticed, by January a whole lot of unprepared viewers were staring at blacked out screens. But Times Now was available. When we know that the timing is appropriate we will go pay.

By that you mean that you would have a run a risk by going pay now?

Yes, it may have hurt us as a business. But for now we are available on all platforms - digital, Sky, Dish, analogue?

Times Now consistently topped the most watched news channel by India's affluent sections in the first findings of TAM's Elite Panel set up to understand TV viewing habits of the country's elite...

We are very clear that our ratings don't begin or end with the findings of the TAM national or elite panel data. Also the Elite panel was set up recently and if you look at the last quarter percentage analysis Times Now has maintained its position between No. 1 and No.2 in the past 13 weeks in a row. (Counting up until the 31st). Look at the sampling used by the peoplemeter - 25+ males, 1 million population cities, etc- whether it is TAM or Amap or other broadcasters - this is how they set their benchmarks.

The advertisers may worry about it but if we look at the news space itself - it started out with being a one horse race, then a two horse race and now they call it a three horse race. Either ways we are benefiting from the category but that does not mean we look at their findings to mould our content.

One of the findings of the Elite panel suggested that most viewers watching English news channels prefer to watch news even on weekends. Has that finding been considered by the channel?

We firmly believe that the heartland of news lies on prime time. But yes, we are bringing a sharper news focus to our weekend lineup.

When Times Now launched it made no bones about the fact that it would be a urban channel? Is there a fear that you might be losing both an audience and an advertiser in a non metro by positioning yourself in this niche bracket?

We maintain that we are a urban channel with a special focus on urban issues. We cannot satisfy everyone, we will have to choose and serve our target audience. The big focus in 2007 will be to prove our presence in the market place. Our intent is to make ourselves a habit.

Every single property from the Times Group is a leader in its field. Does that mean mounting pressure on you?

I think we are allowed to work fairly independently. But yes, we know the baggage we carry. The complexities to be a leader are far more severe in our case.

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