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'The discerning Hindi viewer has moved away to English news channels' : Anurradha Prasad - B.A.G Films & Media Ltd managing director

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 When she started Bhagwan Allah God Films, a television content production company, many thought she was out of her mind. The company (known better by the acronym B.A.G Films) has moved far above what it had initially stepped out to achieve. Today, it is a full-blown media house and a public limited company, with stakes in content production, TV broadcasting, radio channels and mobile content development.

In an interview with Sujit Chakraborty, B.A.G Films & Media Ltd managing director Anurradha Prasad talks about the steps the company is taking to emerge as an integrated media company.

Excerpts:

Now that you have got FDI (foreign direct investment) clearance, how much does it ease your investment plans?

We had already raised substantial money earlier for our broadcasting venture. Now what we are getting is Rs 600 million from Fidelity. We are also going in for FCCBs (foreign currency convertible bonds) in two tranches.

With the funding in place, what are your launch plans?

We are launching E24 in the first week of March. It is not a GEC (general entertainment channel). It has snacky entertainment content - like glamour, lifestyle, Bollywood. We shall not have fiction and soaps. No saas bahus for us, though my content division is doing saas bahus for others (laughs). Moreover, there are already three new GECs and others coming in. My TG is different even within the entertainment genre.

Our next launch will be Bliss24, a wellness channel, after 4-5 months. Life24, the fourth channel, will come up after a similar time lag, and we are firming up the content for that.

Once we are over with the channel launches, we will look at the film production business more seriously as it is an area of expansion.

What has been the progress of the Hindi news channel which was launched over a month back?

As far as market position goes, News24 is behind NDTV India but we have a long way to go. We have to sort out distribution problems and go far beyond the channel's 19 per cent reach. As connectivity grows, we will also grow.

The encouraging thing, though, is that audience stickiness to the channel is high when big news like the Narendra Modi (Gujarat chief minister ) issue breaks. Our stickiness has been as high as the top three Hindi news channels. This strengthens our belief that credibility is valued. Even as one realises that we are operating in a cluttered market, we are also convinced that our stance towards news coverage pays. Otherwise, the credibility of Hindi TV news has eroded.

Trends show that you might get lower ratings than the rival news channels that have a preponderance of sex, violence and the supernatural. Would you say people in the Hindi belt prefer nonsense to news?

That is a misnomer. The discerning Hindi viewer has moved away to English news channels. There is definite demand for proper news in Hindi.

The government has a problem with repetitive shots of violence and abuse - the mainstay of Hindi news. Are you doing the same?

No we are not. But if it is news, it will be on my channel. Two years back, you could not have thought of one Indian Test win in a series getting an eight-column banner headline in newspapers. But this is happening. So the way people are viewing news is changing. It is a young, vibrant India, and if we do not reinvent at every stage, we shall be out. But it is not that people want only bhoot-pret and sex. If that is so, why should NDTV, CNN IBN or IBN 7 work? And they are working.

There has been a demand that such channels be termed 'tabloid channels' and not news channels. But if people want to see these things, they will. Does any change in definition make any difference?

Let them. It is for the government to decide what goes on air - whether people are becoming more superstitious or not. I am saying that I shall not go for that kind of news content. Besides, there is a span of time that certain things sell. The same old thing does not last long. Proper news has lasted and will last.

You created the Hindi news crime show Sansani but are now doing away with sensationalism in your own news channel?

People have missed the point about Sansani, as it was much more than a show where people with problems would come to us rather than go to a police station. It was a socially important show. We stopped doing Sansani last July because we were coming up with our own news channel.

Are you planning something on those lines for News24?

We are going to do something. Crime against women is a big issue for me. We are working on that, after launching the campus programme in which students from across the country report for us.

Good method of increasing penetration?

Yes, of course. It works very well.

Which economic or social segments does your news channel target?

A and B category viewers. But as I see it, the real problem is with the ratings system. The economic definitions of A and B are not correct. If the criterion is the ownership of a fridge and a TV, then in the last five years a whole lot of lower strata people have moved up in economic terms but not in cultural terms. The system by which weightage is given is flawed. Some channels are taking advantage of that because it is their business model. As a strategist, I would rather trace out the need gap, which I have, and put things that way.

Ultimately as a content person, I must do what I believe is the need and that has to be based on scientific studies. My analysis shows that news was losing credibility. Secondly, a whole lot of channels were not reinventing themselves. There was a strong need for a young, vibrant and credible brand… that's why News24.

There is a concern that with tabloid news channels getting more TRPs, advertisers might swing their way. Does that worry you?

Going forward, it can't be like that. Any good advertiser will check out whether he is reaching only the masses, or hitting the target consumer or not. As an advertiser, I would be asking my media buying department, Boss, jismey dalaa hai uska return kya hai? (what is the return from the channel where you have placed my ad)? Right now, the returns are all hedged because they are all enmeshed in the whole issue of TRP and GRP.

'E24 shall not have fiction and soaps. No saas bahus for us, though my content division is doing saas bahus for other channels'
In the FM radio business, you were talking of leading a consortium of smaller operators. Since that has not taken place, how has it affected your revenue flows?

Our revenues are not affected as it was not based on consortium selling. Besides, we now have a network to sell across TV channels and radio.

Does it make better business sense going to the smaller towns?

Definitely, because that is where new buying power is coming from. We are now in places like Hissar, Karnal and Patiala, and these stations can be looped. We have still to launch in Simla, Jalgaon and Jabalpur out of the 10 FM stations we have won the bid for.

Don't you think metros offer bigger opportunities?

Metros will be there, but they are saturated markets. The psyche is different in the smaller towns and the push is happening from there. We are not afraid of competing in the bigger cities. But we saw the saturation coming, so it was a conscious business decision to go the small-town way. This will give us better penetration and better revenues.

How are you differentiating your content from the others?

Firstly, in most of these cities, we have the first mover advantage. Then interactivity is a huge thing for those towns, and we have fully interactive studios. Besides, we are a content company from the beginning and our content is different. The songs may be the same, but in our case interactivity is huge. And we are geared towards the youth.

But isn't every radio operator doing that?

Yes, I am sure they are, but in these small B and C class cities, the youth is massively aspirational.

What are the regulatory issues that concern radio operators?

The government has opened up radio licences but not done those other things that need to make radio a successful industry. They are not allowing news. They have irrationally capped the FDI in radio at 20 per cent. These are crucial issues. In advertising and films, you have 100 per cent FDI.

When you first forayed into the Film City and started your venture, a lot of newspaper circuit people said it was crazy to shift to media production. So, what was the idea then?

I did not change. I was just working for someone else. A newsperson in the television arena, I decided to do it for myself instead of doing it for others. I was just quitting the Observer Channel. True, since there was hardly anyone else there, people might have thought "she is crazy." Television business was not like what it is today. But by the time I started in 1994, Zee TV had launched, and satellite TV had come in. So I could see that things were changing. I felt that if one has to learn about it, why not do so by being with oneself?

What would you say were some of the landmarks in that phase?

Every show had been a landmark in its own genre, whether it was Zaikay Ka Safar which was a food and travel show that went on for eight years, or Chitrahaar, in which we radically changed the format and many others. They all were landmarks.

What, according to you, had been the most important step from the government to boost the industry over the years?

Actually the best thing is that the government did not do anything for a long time, which ensured that we grow on our own. But the government ought to have done something on the distribution area in the initial stages. Of course, now they have started doing certain things.

You mean Cas (conditional access system) as one of them?

Cas is one, and then there are various DTH (direct-to-home) players coming in. But there seems to be no desire to push digitisation forward in a big way.

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