"The Indian market offers a double opportunity for us"

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,’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 at present?

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 few years?

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.

  "We 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 homes.).

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 now.

How has the last year been in the aftermath of 11 September, 2001?

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 not?

It’s a very selfish thing to say, but yes. It has not been bad

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