Television

News channels - shifting gears, positions

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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.

An overview of data for the last nine months (January-September) provided by TAM (C&S, HSM, All Adults, 15+) shows the country's subse tez (fastest) news channel Aaj Tak continuing to stay ahead of the pack in this space, despite witnessing highs and lows.

Aaj Tak
Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
June
July
Aug
Sep
29%
28%
25%
25%
25%
26%
27%
25%
25%

What has Aaj Tak to offer on its position?

According to Aaj Tak executive news director QA Naqvi, the channel is undoubtedly the market leader and "shall remain so to create history." Says Naqvi, "Aaj Tak has been able to retain its position as India's leading news and current affairs channel primarily because it has stayed steadfast with its core principles --- credible, authoritative and insightful."

Pointing out that viewers have always chosen to watch Aaj Tak during major news events, Naqvi adds, "We recognise that the appetite of the audience for news has changed and we have changed to accommodate these without changing our basic values."

So does this mean that the other channels do not bring the same facets on air? Naqvi refuses to take the bait. "I'm here to speak of Aaj Tak and that's about it," he counters.

But the seasoned news manager does admit that with eight Hindi news channels already on air, any further additions - as is being projected by various companies - would further segment the already fragmented news space. "Competition is intense," he admits.

Completing five years of a successful run, Aaj Tak is now looking at consolidating its position. "In the first year (2000) Aaj Tak's share of audience was 55 per cent (Zee 31 per cent and Star News 9 per cent). We were number one then, which was no mean achievement, and we are still at the top. This is an even greater accomplishment," avers Naqvi, but doesn't forget to add that these days nothing should be taken for granted.

That media planners buy into the Aaj Tak story and swear by it is a given, more so since it has proved its efficacy over five years and counting. Says Meenakshi Madhvani, CEO of media audit outfit Spatial Access, "Aaj Tak is a great reach builder and in certain SECs even works as a frequency delivering mechanism that compares with the mass general entertainment channels (Star Plus, Sony, Zee TV)." In terms of comparable value in a targeted media plan, about the only channel that delivers similar results to Aaj Tak is Cartoon Network, points out Madhvani.

While Aaj Tak has managed to retain its leadership position, it is Star News that has been hogging the headlines. Over the last eight months, Star News has witnessed a phenomenal climb from 18 per cent in January to 24 per cent in September, coming within sniffing distance of Aaj Tak that remains ahead by a nose at 25 per cent channel share.

Star News
Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
June
July
Aug
Sep
18%
17%
17%
17%
16%
16%
20%
24%
24%

Explains a justifiably elated Star News CEO Uday Shankar, "Well, it is not a sudden turn around. It is an endeavour that has been going on for a long time, which is now visible. It has been a gradual process."

The former Aaj Tak news head does not shy away from admitting that a cloud of uncertainty over its news uplink licence and the row with the government in 2003 over shareholding pattern in Media Content & Communications Services India Pvt Ltd (MCCS), which is the holding company for Star News and its sibling Star Ananda, had "taken a toll" on the performance of the Hindi news channel earlier.

"At that point, more than the growth, the company's survival had become the focal point," Shankar points out.

But after the running battle with the government --- some say instigated by rivals --- got sorted out it was time to concentrate afresh on building the channel and making it more responsive to people's aspiration and needs.

"Our aim had been to make Star News a channel that sets the agenda of news (for other TV channels as also print)," Shankar says, giving a glimpse behind Star News' philosophy that revolves round 'keeping the viewers abreast of news'. To quote Shankar from a recent release. "We strive to give our viewers stories and news that affect their lives, and this has led to Star News’ steady growth throughout the past year. Our success has been built not only on attracting new viewers, but in keeping them interested enough to keep coming back."

"That the slow process of building a channel and a relationship with viewers can bear fruit is evident from Star News climbing to the No. 2 spot in the month of August," asserts Shankar.



He acknowledges the fact that the Mumbai deluge gave an entirely dimension to disaster coverage and the information imparted by Star News turned out to be remarkable. The visuals put out by Star News, Shankar gushes, "expressed something that words failed to and the coverage simply reflected the true face of the devastation."



And what of NDTV India? TAM data shows that Prannoy Roy's channel has been on a downward spiral ratings-wise. According to media analysts, NDTV India's loss has been Star News' and Zee News' gain.



 

NDTV India
Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
June
July
Aug
Sep
21%
21%
21%
21%
20%
19%
17%
17%
16%



And that's another tale in itself. Zee News, the first Hindi news channel, has withstood the storm of new players in the space for over a decade, The channel that started 2005 with a 15 per cent channel share has steadily increased it to a high of 19 per cent in the months of June and July, and plateaued out at 18 per cent in August-September. Presently, it occupies the third slot.

Zee News
Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
June
July
Aug
Sep
15%
15%
16%
17%
18%
19%
19%
18%
18%

Zee Telefilms news group director Laxmi Goel reiterates, "Zee News has been in this space for over a decade from the time when there was only Doordarshan for news and to the present time when there are eight to 10 news channels. Still, Zee News is going strong and it will continue to run the race with its philosophy --- Haqeekat Jaisi Khabar Waisi."

How does he view the ratings race? Goel adds, "Zee News has seen growth and consolidation in its viewership numbers this year. We have seen a healthy growth in the cluttered news space despite marginal up and down movements on the ratings chart."

Goel, however, pointed out that though the number of players have increased "there is little difference amongst the front runners." There are the top four and then there are the rest is his contention.

One of those "fringe players" is Sahara Samay Rashtriya. Despite a number of news channels in its stable --- both region-specific and a national channel --- Sahara Samay continues to remain on the outside looking in.

Sahara Samay

Rashtriya
Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
June
July
Aug
Sep
6%
6%
6%
6%
5%
5%
5%
7%
6%

Still, Sahara Samay Rashtriya vice-president Prabhat Dabral has a different theory. Sahara had adopted a different strategy altogether, he empahsises, adding, "We have a game plan wherein the media company will first strengthen the regional channels. As this happens, their combined strength will push up the national channel."

When his attention is drawn to the numbers, Dabral, however, admits the national news channel is not doing well in the rat race, but is hopeful it will "pick up steam very soon."

Another of the also rans is India TV. After completing a year, the Rajat Sharma-promoted India TV is now gearing up for some action. The company has roped in Universal McCan president Chintamani Rao as India TV CEO with an aim to strengthen the channel's brand equity as it gets ready to launch two regional news channel in the Gujarati and Punjabi markets.

 
India TV
Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
June
July
Aug
Sep
5%
6%
8%
7%
7%
6%
6%
5%
6%

And what about India TV's performance on the ratings meter? The channel really picked up steam in March through a series of steamy sting operations that resulted in its hitting a high eight per cent market share.

In April and May, India TV maintained a 7 per cent share, which dipped to 5 per cent in August bringing it to a level from here it had started this year in January.

Yes, casting couch stories did create a buzz and they did reflect on the ratings chart. As per TAM data, on 13 March, India TV mounted right at the top of the heap with a never-before channel share of 22.4 per cent. This was the day when India TV caught on camera film star Shakti Kapoor in a queasy corner that fanned the casting couch issue anew.

That the expose had the charts rocking could be gauged from the fact that even market leader Aaj Tak on that fateful Sunday (13 March 2005) dropped to 20.2 per cent, while NDTV India stood at 18 per cent, Star News posted 14 per cent and Zee News 13.4 per cent. Sahara Samay and DD News were lower down in the order with shares of 6.2 per cent and 5.9 per cent, respectively.

Then there is also newer entrant, Channel7, which has managed to emphatically establish one point: it's no pushover.

Coming from the Jagran newspaper stable, which has a wide network of newspaper editions, Channel7 is cashing in on its strength in the Hindi speaking belt of North India and the state that it's headquartered in: Uttar Pradesh.

But the new kid on the block too is grappling with distribution problems. Though Channel7 is "paying a carriage fee," some challenges still need to be overcome.

Channel7 CEO Piyush Jain says, "If you compare week-on-week, then certainly there would be a little volatility. It is always better to look at trends over a three to four-week period. We are very delighted with the overall performance of the channel till date."

Distribution Front:

Distribution still remains an important aspect for all the news networks. Shankar asserts, "Distribution is very important. You may have the best of product, but if viewers or the target audience (TG) do not get to see it, what use is the product."

Admitting that Star News did face some hitches in a few pockets of the country that needed fixing, Shankar said, "We first built our content, ramping up the quality and then turned our attention to the distribution side of the channel."

Concurring with Shankar, Zee News' Goel offers a related perspective on the distribution game --- that of placement of a channel. "Zee News did not suffer from the malady of low connectivity, but on some cable networks the news channel was not anywhere near tunable bandwidth," Goel says, adding from the day that problem was fixed, dividends have started accruing.

With the news market getting more fragmented, Dabral acknowledges the challenge increases. "As a strategy, we have decided to distribute Sahara Samay Rashtriya only in those markets where the reach of the regional channels does not exist."

Almost everyone concurrs that carriage fee is an open secret of the industry and news channels do pay up to get carried on cable networks. "It is a two-way process; one pays a carriage fee and the other accepts it," Goel says candidly.

Present programming strategy and looking ahead:

Strong position of a news channel is a comprehensive mix of content, marketing and distribution. All going hand in hand.

Having gained in ratings, Zee News, a pay channel in sharp contrast to the others that are free, will have to strive harder than the rest to maintain its gains.

That's why Zee News is attempting to broadbase its 'thought' leadership with out-of-the-box programming strategy. An example is Jinnah vs Jinnah, a documentary on Pakistan's founding father who is still creating political turbulence in modern India. "A timely film (Bharatiya Janata party president LK Advani came under fire for terming Jinnah a secularist), Jinnah established our editorial maturity and thought leadership further," Goel claims.

Quite a few prime time shows too were refurbished on Zee News this year with the discontinuation of News at 9 pm and making the Prime Time 9 as a one-hour definitive news package where the first 30 minutes are dedicated to top stories of the day and the latter half devoted to a special story on weekdays.

On the other hand, Star News is attempting to create a programming line-up, apart from news bulletins, that is reflective of innovations like developing new time bands. Shankar names shows like Wah Cricket!, Sansani and Insaaf ka Taraazu on different time bands in this regard.

"None of the news channels associated afternoon viewing with news channels. We were the first to develop this time band by introducing a show like Saas Bahu Aur Saazish to drive traffic during the afternoons," Shankar explains, adding, "Suddenly afternoons have grown to be a strong time band."

Aaj Tak too is giving itself time and options to experiment with news-based programming, though it refuses to spell out the details. "Obviously I would not like to go into the specifics about our strategy, but we will be experimenting with new subjects and fresh treatments of some existing programmes," Naqvi states.

In the recent past, Aaj Tak has re-branded news segments such as Dus Tak, the late bulletin at 10 pm and Aaj Subha in the mornings. "Not only have the look and feel of these shows been changed, but the focus too has shifted to give the news coverage more depth," Naqvi elucidates.

Pointing out that Aaj Tak's new programming initiatives have yielded results, Naqvi claims, "The success of newer shows only strengthens our conviction that news has a wide appeal that has to do more with the inclusion of a variety of subjects in news programming, rather than sensationalising or trivialising news."

Advertising Income:

Has the change in channel positions started having its impact on ad revenues on the various players as yet? Not as of now but when rates come up for renegotiation, it likely will. Says Starcom South Asia CEO Ravi Kiran: "Normally we have bulk annual deals done in the industry. So the present turnarounds, basically issue-driven, will not affect the rates. A smart media planner should always be ready to handle such risks. But when the rates come for a revision, such factors may play a role."

Concurs the CEO of another big media agency: “It is a supply-on-demand market and such changes wouldn’t have a dynamic impact on the rates. We should wait and watch to know what such changes would do to the rates. Yes, when the rates come for the annual revision, the market positions and rankings would play an important role."

Conclusion:

In a nut shell, it has been largely observed that natural or man-made disasters do help the news channels in attracting newer audiences, but this effect is temporary. The gain in viewership has to be sustained through convincing programming, otherwise stray viewers go back to the channel they are used to viewing.



(Despite several reminders, NDTV and India TV declined to offer any inputs to this report)

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