|An Interview with global
director of airtime sales of BBC World Jonathan Howlett
"The Indian market offers
a double opportunity for us"
on 23 November 2002
|Jonathan Howlett, global director of
airtime sales of BBC World, is no stranger to India. He has come to
the sub-continent often and is a keen observer of things, issues and
trends. So much so that this time round when he was in India, with
one of his stopovers in Delhi, Howlett pointed out that the Capital’s
air smells cleaner compared to his early visits (the Supreme Court
which has been at loggerheads with the Delhi government and transporters
over phasing out old fume belching vehicles from the Delhi roads and
go increasingly for CNG-driven public utility vehicles like buses
and auto-rickshaws can sit back and smile now, probably).
Howlett, who joined BBC World in 1994 from the UK-based Carlton Communications
(his posting was in Delhi in the early 1990s), not only sniffs out
the cleaner air, but also business opportunities that India presents
being in a unique position of having an economy which despite the
global meltdown has been “comparatively less effected.”
A former director of sales also at Meridian Broadcasting, having spent
his career within ITV sales, the seemingly 40-something Howlett, unlike
some of his counterparts in other global media companies, is a soft-spoken
and low profile man. Getting information out of him for a journalist
looking for a 'good copy’ is as hard as coming out of an interview
on Hardtalk unscathed.
Still, braving the odds, indiantelevision.com’s Anjan Mitra
tries to fork out information on BBC World’s new strategies for South
Asia, specially India, and other issues in this recent interview with
Howlett at the poolside of the Hyatt Regency in Delhi even as the
BBC World’s PR people hover round to ensure that nothing too sensitive
gets out .
As a marketing and sales person, how do you view the situation
It’s not very exciting, but okay. There still is an element
of uncertainty that stems out of economic concerns. The (concerns
about) corporate governance issue out of the US has subsided a lot
and now there is more business confidence. Asia is certainly coming
back as are other markets like Germany and Europe. Japan is still
flat, but India is a great market.
The GDP growth rate (of India) looks okay and today there is far
more international access to the market here. International companies
want to come to India and lots of Indian companies are looking at
international opportunities. In a way, we win both ways (where business
opportunities are concerned).
| Are you trying to say
that India is turning out to be a good market for media companies
because the Indian economy has been isolated or did not got affected
by the global economic meltdown?
I would rather put it that the (Indian) economy was comparatively
less affected. The Indian market is more robust compared to some other
countries. What’s more, there is an increased interest in India in
news channels. The general mind block about news channels (as vehicles
for advertising campaigns) is going away and we at BBC find ourselves
in a unique place as the channel’s global agenda is different (from
the local news channels).
So, you see good growth in India for BBC World over the next
As I said, India has been less affected. But the truth is also
that we cannot change the market place. We can explore the challenge
to open up new business opportunities. We also cannot always dictate
the pace of growth. If one doesn’t recognise that one will end up
with a mish-mash (of a strategy).
The Indian market offers a double opportunity for us. First, it
is a still growing market for us and, second, there are more interactions
between India and the rest of the world. If we understand the market
well, we can grow our share of revenue and also viewership in India.
How big do you think the news channel market is in India?
It is difficult to put it in context and I am not sure how big
the market is. But here we generally target the upscale viewers
in the socio-economic category of `A’ and `B’.
Does that mean that BBC World will be content to confine itself
to metros and other urban areas in India?
Not really. We reach into the smaller as well as bigger cities and
BBC is building up its distribution across the country. But we do
target upscale viewers because lifestyles are changing, purchasing
power is increasing as also the availability of products. For example,
there are more people here who work for international companies
like SAP. In that way, probably, we are also competing with channels
like National Geographic for the upscale audience.
reach into the smaller as well as bigger cities and BBC is building
up its distribution across the country. But we do target the upscale
viewers because lifestyle are changing, purchasing power is increasing,
as also the availability of products"
| Which will be the product
categories or sectors that have not been fully exploited by BBC World
from an advertising revenue point of view?
If I can give an example, we haven’t taken enough (advertising revenue)
out of the telecom sector (in India) as compared to travel and tourism.
In that way, do I compete with Nat Geo? Yes, we do on certain category
base. What distinguishes the Indian market from others is that there
is a broader base across more categories. If you want to build a market,
then you must look at each sector and optimise your performance.
| Do you think local Indian
news channels like Aaj Tak and even Star News are competion to BBC
World where the advertising pie is concerned?
Yes and no. I need to be aware and interested in all the new news
channels as also the existing ones in India. One benefit of the new
news channels is that more advertisers are prepared to use news channels
now and see it as actually delivering (the eyeballs). I would say
that there is complimentarity between local news channels and BBC.
What is the reason behind a renewed interest amongst advertisers
and media planners in news channels in India ?
News channels have redefined their agenda. News channels no more
mean only politics. There is news about travel, sports, information
technology and business. Now, all these are potential targets (for
advertising). When you think of BBC today, it doesn’t really mean
that it will be only about politics.
Globally there this is a trend now that because of the cost of
providing satisfying news, consolidation is happening. Globally
there is lesser number of players.
| So, what is the strategy
that BBC World is adopting to tackle and exploit the changing ways
that the news channels business is managed today?
We are targeting secondary and tertiary markets directly instead
of going through London or New York. We are going to (markets like)
Philippines and Frankfurt directly rather than having the (advertising)
money come from New York or London.
The other places where we are pushing ahead is Eastern Europe, Pakistan
(at least four Pakistani companies advertise on BBC World, including
the country’s national airline) and Indonesia.
News channels have redefined
their agenda. News channels no more mean only politics. There
is news about travel, sports, information technology and business"
Since India is a good market for BBC World, do we foresee more
localisation of content on the channel ?
The way we look at it is just focus on India looking at exploiting
the channel we have and getting more out of the product instead
of going about commissioning more programmes from local players.
If I can given an instance, the idea is to attract viewers through
existing top class programming that we have on air. Top Gear
for example can generate, and does so too, a lot of interest in
India. Today, I see more variety of cars on Indian roads. Then we
have this great product in Mastermind India as quizzing has
always had a particular place India.
We need also to promote programmes like Asia Business News
and we feel that viewership will grow (in India) for such programming
over the next one year. If you grow the viewership, you’ll also
grow the revenue.
| Is that why Tim Sebastian
of Hardtalk has been brought to India as part of a roadshow?
Yes. And why not? Hardtalk is a great product (for advertisers).
How has the revenue been growing, or declining, for BBC World
Well, I cannot speak on figures as part of policy, but what I can
say is that revenue in the calendar year 2002, until now has grown
significantly globally. Revenues from India too have grown significantly
and it is more a significant market now.
What will be BBC World’s market share in India ?
Very small, just a fraction of the whole market. But being a
small player has its advantages. If you are small, then you can
still do well if the market is not doing very well at any given
time. (BBC World claims to be reaching 11 millions Indian cable
Has the revenue situation improved since the time BBC decided
to do its own airtime sales instead of having a third party like
Star do it in India ?
The revenue (since then) has increased manifold and the brand
count massively. To sell a channel like BBC World, you have to explain
the values to the media. We are getting that message across better
How has the last year been in the aftermath of 11 September,
Last year has been quite intense. Though 11 September had a
dampening effect on revenue, there has been an increase in viewership.
Now is the time to exploit the increased viewer base.
In a way, the tragic incidents of 11 September, 2001 have actually
turned out to be good business proposition for TV channels, is it
It’s a very selfish thing to say, but yes. It has not been bad
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