News channels - shifting gears, positions

And charging down the back straight is Star News, snapping at the heels of leader Aaj Tak but still not quite there yet. Early pacemaker NDTV India, meanwhile, seems to have run out of steam and has dropped two places down to fourth behind steady stallion Zee News...

It's been a topsy-turvy nine months in the Hindi news space as TV channels tried different programming innovations to woo audiences and advertisers and gain market share. What has clearly been demonstrated is that improvements being shown by some news channels and the addition of fresh blood makes the news channel ratings race a roller-coaster one. Media observers term this period of upheaval as a time when the rules of the game are being cast and recast.

That this upheaval has been more for the positive is indicated by the fact that the news broadcast industry, which two or three years ago was worth just Rs 1 billion, has grown into a Rs 5 billion market with the potential of growing further. However, as a media analyst points out, a shakeout is bound to happen through consolidation. But till that happens, these "frequent ups and downs in the ratings charts will continue" to take place through the ways events are covered or, maybe, just on innovative presentation.

Revenues in this sector grew 13 per cent, which is about even with the growth rate of the Indian TV industry as a whole, according to the TAM Media Research. Is there room for further growth? It would appear so. A recent study conducted by Synovate, the market research arm of Aegis Group, indicates that a majority of Indians (78 per cent) trust a lot of the news stories they see or hear. It is that trust and appetite for news that the current players and the upcoming wannabes are banking on to sustain growth going forward.

Entering the last quarter of calendar 2005, it has clearly shaped up into a two-horse race for the numero uno position between long time leader Aaj Tak and the year's biggest gainer by a mile Star News. A sea change from 2004 when it was NDTV India that was doing all the running to catch up with Aaj Tak.

According to TAM, the Hindi news segment witnessed a spike with respect to certain channels in viewership during the calamity that hit Mumbai on 26 July and in its aftermath. And if there is one single event that really gave the Mumbai-headquartered Star News its critical forward thrust, it was the manner in which it managed its coverage of the catastrophic Mumbai deluge. Conversely, NDTV India's dip in channel share is also partly linked to its coverage of the Mumbai floods and serves to highlight that things are still in the evolution phase as far as channel rankings go.

Consulting firm KPMG's associate director Anindya Roychowdhury offers what can be taken as both a cautionary note and one of hope to those who have seen a downswing in their fortunes in the recent past. Says Roychowdhury, "Although there has been a shift in (channel) positions, nonetheless it needs noting that news channels have sticky eyeballs, which is unlike entertainment channels." Roychowdhury's point is that because news channels extract more loyalty, if a channel manages to get its act together again, viewers that have been long hooked to its offerings earlier would like as not return (or if the rival channel loses some of its sheen on the content and presentation front).

Adding to what Roychowdhury said, another financial analyst states that the channel which has a grip on robust content will survive in the long run.

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