Hindi news channels on high growth rollercoaster

What's on the news tonight? Well, pretty much the full spectrum - from ghouls to goons, politics, drama, comedy, tragedy, tragi-comedy? and everything in between. We've even had our own version of "Ripley's Believe it or Not" LIVE as it happened beamed into millions of homes. Remember 5-year-old Prince from Haryana and his 50-hour ordeal down a pit that played out over all the television news networks. Some pundits have decried the carpet bombing coverage as indicative of the pits to which news reportage has descended but ask your average media planner / buyer and he'll more likely tell you (off the record of course): "Bring it on."

Rescuers carrying 5-year-old Prince who fell into a 60-foot hole in Kurukshetra, Rajasthan. Zee News, which first broke this story, went all-out on its coverage of what became a national event.

Because it is this smorgasbord of subjects of coverage, which offers something for everyone, that is driving up not just the ratings, but also revenues for Hindi news channels. And while there are those who wonder when the Hindi news engine will start to lose its steam, most are in agreement that it is not going to be any time soon.

Just how much Hindi news channels clocked this year varies (depending on who you speak to) from a low of Rs 3 billion to over Rs 4.5 billion. What most seem to agree on though, is that growth is chugging at a fast clip with the expectations for this year being between 20-30 per cent.

According to Meenakshi Madhvani, head of media audit firm Spatial Access Solutions, "From Rs 350 crores (Rs 3.5 billion) in the last fiscal, I think it (ad revenues) would go up to Rs 450 crores in this fiscal, an increase of 28.5 per cent in the genre. Hence a rate of growth significantly higher than the overall TV business."




Share %

Share %

Aaj Tak    24.5    27.0

Star News    21.3    18.5

Zee News    14.8    16.4

NDTV India    19.1    13.5

Channel 7    6.9    10.0

India TV    7.2    8.5

Sahara Samay National    6.1    6.0

TG CS15+ Hindi Speaking Markets (HSM) Source TAM Peoplemeter

Giving his reasoning, MindShare managing director West and South R Gowthaman says, "The Hindi news genre is growing as there is still a significant appetite. However, I am not sure whether there is space for more channels now. 2006 over 2005/4 grew on the back of new channels coming on board, in the sense this was an organic growth. Not a reflection of ratings, but a reflection of supply. I would say, the category (Hindi news cluster) "heat" is just right with 10 channels... 

"Overall share of Hindi News channel as a cluster can grow from now on only on the back of quality content, viz more local segments etc., which could help garner more share. Only garnering more share can provide fillip to increasing revenues..."

OMS regional director Madan Mohapatra offers his view on the key aspects that are underpinning this phenomenal revenue and ratings growth.

Based on Card Costs

Rank    Top Advertisers

1    Emami Limited

2    Hindustan Lever Ltd

3    Coca Cola India Ltd

4    Tata Motors Ltd

5    Biswanath Hosiery Mills Ltd

6    Paras Pharmaceuticals Ltd

7    Bhawani Textiles

8    Surya Food And Agro Pvt Ltd

9    Mahashiya Di Hatti Limited

10    Action Shoes

Source: AdEx India, A Division of TAM Media Research Period: Jan-June '06

Medium: Hindi News Channels

Says Mohapatra: "Four years ago, advertisers looking to build reach turned to general entertainment channels. Three years ago, Hindi movies channels got added to the reach build proposition. Hindi news is currently in the phase where this genre is transiting from niche to reach build. And it was Aaj Tak which showed the way for the rest to follow. If the pace at which this genre is moving currently is maintained, one year down the line, live Hindi news will complete that transition (from niche to reach build).

"Once this happens, the perception factor in determining rates will go down. This is already happening actually. For example, earlier, the faces on the channels made for a great built-in value add. Today, nobody is sure anymore which face will pop up on which channel. Thanks to this, channel perceptions are going to get evermore fragmented."

This could well sound a warning bell for channels like NDTV and CNBC, which enjoy a good mark-up on rates because of the "personalities" they carry. As Madhvani points out, "A channel like Aaj Tak is seen as delivering reach in the North, but when it comes to channel decisions, it is driven by personal choices. Because of which there is a lot of dichotomy. I have seen so many instances of people putting fairly large sums of ad money on CNBC, which doesn't deliver anything in terms of numbers but is seen as a channel which decision makers watch and the channel that delivers corporate India to you. 

There are these popular perceptions that some channels have very smartly exploited.

"NDTV for instance, which has a fantastic marketing and sales team, is able to leverage these perceptions to get more than their fair share of advertising. That's marketing!"

No Softening of Rates

The big question that flows out of all this of course is whether fragmentation will lead to effective rates going down in the near to mid-term? The answer is an emphatic NO!

Jai Jawan: NDTV India trumpets its patriotic credentials.

Why? Says Madhvani, "This is on account of rates being upped, more advertisers/ad categories being targeted and a greater level of effort being put in by the sales teams and less due to the launch of new channels!

Mohapatra opines, "This is because the choice of clientele is proportionately growing. This year, I see sectors like property, infrastructure, education, retail, IPOs all contributing to this growth. There will be many first time advertisers as well. Add to that, now, because of the reach deliveries, even FMCGs are looking at news channels.

Estimated Revenues Hindi channels achieved in FY2006

Aaj Tak    Rs 1.4 billion

NDTV India    Rs 900 million

Star News    Rs 750 million

Zee News    Rs 600 million

DD News    Rs 400 million

Channel7 / India TV / Sahara Samay    Rs 300 million

"What will happen is that channels at the bottom of the spectrum will be able to up their rates. I see a flattening of rates across news channels happening. And those that can't raise rates will simply increase the number of spots they carry. What we are also seeing across news channels is an increase in ad secondage per hour. If the average earlier was 10-12, today it is 14 and even higher in some cases."

Targeted Advertising

Media planner Rahul Panchal says, "Today all channels in their own way, indulge in customized ads through lifestyle shows. Major brands like ICICI and Tata Motors spend approximately Rs 60 million to Rs 80 milllion on news channels through this avenue. Adds Panchal, "Customized shows provide mileage to the brands and the show without tampering with the core content."

Clients also target their ads. Aaj Tak primarily targets the middle class, servicing the north-east region. (Brands such as vest / undergarments are glaring on the Aaj Tak screen). Research indicates that Aaj Tak primarily brings in and engages male viewers, Panchal says.

Crime Scene Investigation - Star News style.

According to Panchal, Star News has a strong hold in Mumbai, while Zee News is strong in Delhi. When looking at Hindi news channels, clients pitch in their money according to frequency plan, besides perception and ratings, he avers. 

"When a new ad campaign is unleashed on Aaj Tak, it has a high reach in the initial week. While in the following weeks it will witness a low incremental reach. On the other hand NDTV India, where the loyalty is less and it is more of a co-viewing, the incremental reach is high in the following weeks and not in the initial week." 

Meanwhile, when it comes to the gore factor, it is the crimes shows on Star News Zee News and Aaj Tak that advertisers flock to.

Hindi News TG definition Blurring

One function of the increasing spread of coverage that news channels are attempting is the blurring of distinctions as to what TG defines a Hindi news consumer. Points out Madhvani, "News channels always have the option of the mass route and the class route. The Hindi channels appear to have exploited this better than anyone else. Taking the Aaj Tak example, if Aaj Tak caters to mass markets (including a significant chunk of the class), Tez is specifically targeted at the upper end.

Aaj Tak - Still leading after all these years.

"I would say that Hindi news channels are the 'male mass channels' that compete with the Star Plus' of the world. The genre is still evolving and putting a demographic TG to it (to possibly differentiate it from the English news genre) will not do justice to it."

Avers Gowthaman, "Currently the content seems to be targeted towards, self employed professionals, traders and to some extent broadly to the chief wage earner of the house. However, I still believe there is no clear cut focus on content that could clearly distinguish the target. All the channels look the same and they cover pretty much the same topics."

Distribution Issues Will Drag Down Revenues

The biggest issue that all news channels are confronting is the ever rising costs of distribution. And with more and more players coming in, there is just no respite from that.

This is inevitably going to result in the flattening of the growth curve over the next two years. Particularly on the distribution side, revenues coming in look unlikely except on addressable platforms like DTH, digital cable, IPTV, mobile TV, etc.

An industry observer sums up the situation aptly when he says, "Earlier channels paid carriage fees. Then it became carriage + placement fees. Today, even displacement fees (of rival channels) have come into the picture." 

Says Madhvani, "Those who get the distribution game right will rule. Geographic expansion (whether urban, rural, national or international) is dependent on it. And with CAS/DTH in the offing in India, penetration will become a key issue for all players, in urban as well as rural markets.

"Primary drivers of viewership for a news channel could include variety of coverage, relevance and immediacy (and of course distribution); however it is credibility that sustains viewership and will drive growth in the long run.

"Channels that have the right mix of all elements and can still differentiate from the rest in terms of content and presentation will thrive."

The right mix. That is easier said than done. To quote McCann Erickson India president Santosh Desai from his column - The Last Word - in the 30 July edition of The Week: "Market forces seem to push channels away from balance and not towards it. The moment the success of news channels gets evaluated in terms of its viewership, and not the credibility and impact of its coverage, news becomes a spectacle and channels strain every fibre to keep people hooked."

In the near term at least it could well be that spectacle will rule. The billion rupee question is really - will credibility take centrestage in the long run? The road the news channels are taking currently offers no credible assertion that it will.

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