Positive national developments will be showcased on revamped Sahara news channels

While channels are opting for virtual reality journalism in the backdrop of generally declining news viewership and questionable methods of garnering eyeballs, Subrata Roy's embattled Sahara media group, with an eye on a digital future, is recasting its programming and packaging its Hindi, Urdu and four other regional news channels.

Sahara India Media (SIM) has re-employed the veteran journalist Arup Ghosh as the CEO & editor-in-chief of its media division who, it says, will maintain the standards of the media with "old-style, factual and non-noisy journalism."

Samay News Network, with seven editions of the Hindi daily Rashtriya Sahara and nine editions of Urdu daily Roznama Rashtriya Sahara, is now set to foster an entrepreneurial digital culture, although the new editor's social media profiles (till Sunday evening) were antique and stayed un-updated, giving no hint of plans in the offing.

Ghosh says he was aiming to take Samay News Network & Rashtriya Sahara (Hindi & Urdu) to the next level by introducing differentiated content, maximizing content monetisation through synergised operations between TV, print  and digital verticals.

The new CEO, who denied knowledge of Sahara's January 2017 Project Storm to reportedly hand over editorial control to Kolkata-based media baron Kaustuv Ray, mentioned more than once that he is reporting in to the out-on-bail Sahara group chairman Subrata Roy. And, even as Sahara sources say that Ray is still consulting with the group's news channels, the latter refused to speak further on Project Storm when called him up. However, industry sources pointed out that  the proposal did not materialise.

Management of the Sahara news division aside, Arup says he is in charge now and he is excited to be back and rejuvenating it. Among the first things he has done is launch two shows - one is a live 30-minute ad-free Editor’s Choice, and a three-minute short-format show focused on the hourly news called AG’s Take. The idea is provide agenda-setting news shows that, it says, would cut through the corporatisation and trivialisation of news.

Ghosh chatted with's Parvinder Sandhu on his plans. Excerpts from the interview:

Could you tell us whether Kaustuv Ray and company are running Sahara news operations?

I am not aware of what happened in the past. I came here when 'Saharashri' (Subrata Roy) called me. I was here earlier -- between 2001 and 2004, when the (Sahara group) chairman had asked us to launch a bouquet of channels. We worked on the content to put up a national news channel and regional channels. Then, in April this year, I came back as there was an opportunity to revamp the channels with a lot of focus on the digital content.

So, what is the plan, and how are going about executing it?

We have been working on creating a digital footprint for the last five months. The salient features are: there are two expert teams working on a digital platform each for television and print.The  process would complete in the next three months. Samay News Network will have a strong digital presence -- which we will monetise and create good branding. We want to take the modern route -- the newspapers, for example, will have a strong e-presence -- e-papers would be launched on these platforms. The television arm will also have a robust and rare digital presence.

The second part of the story is that the content of Samay will be visible and interactive on most of the popular social media platforms -- which was a little behind schedule. That process is now in top gear and moving very fast.

For Sahara's six television channels, we are in the process of hiring some middle-level people -- anchors and others. Content rejig is currently under way. Between now and December 2017, a total technical revamp is on the cards as approved by the chairman (Subrata Roy).

His vision is that the media wing must be strong and robust -- nothing negative or anti-India, for example, should go into the content. A lot of positive national developments that have happened should be showcased in the right spirit -- we are working on that plan.

How are the channels doing, what are your recent observations?

On most of the regional networks, I have seen, the time spent has shot up quite a bit, which is really a function of content.

What are the new plans?

The distribution is being beefed up -- gradually. The plan is to work in phases and restrengthen the regional network and devise a new plan for the national channel. The studios etc will have to get a completely new makeover.

I am launching a programme at 9 pm on 28 August from our modern studio of international standards. I am also launching a small digital capsule called "My Take" -- within three minutes or less, I will give an update on the current topic of the day; it will keep playing on the network and also on the digital platforms. We are trying to keep things brief, we are trying to break through the madness and the clutter that has taken place in the last two to three years.

The 9 pm break-free show would showcase two to three  top stories of the day -- it will have adequate information on why something has happened. It will have one or two informed voices and a brief chat. Somebody who wants to see facts-based news that used to be telecast earlier but has ceased of late.

This is an attempt to restore some clarity in news -- to look at news the way it should be. We would rather bring in informed opinion but in a way that guests are allowed to speak, and not cut down as it happens nowadays. We also plan to bring in editors who are specialists of their respective subjects and explain the real reason behind an incident or an event that has happened -- there is huge gap there that I have studied closely over a period of time, what works online and what goes viral as far as news is concerned.

People are hungry to have an informed opinion. They may or may not agree -- that's a different issue, but there is respect and need to know why something has happened. Our new structure and news format would be rather simple. There won't be cacophony, people shouting at and gunning for each other. It is attempt to bring sanity to news proceedings, and that is what I am working on.

Would you explain the reasons behind this total revamp, which includes branding and content?

We had some great shows in our earlier avatar which had received tremendous response. It was now the wish of the chairman that we should build our media brand -- it is something very global and achievable. It needs a certain strategy going forward. He had shared his vision with me and I am trying to implement it.

In the hyper-competitive Indian news market, how is Sahara looking to occupy a position -- as a views channel, a news-views channel or simply an old-fashioned news outlet giving domestic and global news without views?

I would say when somebody tunes in to a Sahara news channel, the viewer would know exactly what is happening -- in a very reasonable way, some of that is old-fashioned -- which got left out. People would want to know why something has happened, for which we have a strong research team.

For example, the Ram-Rahim incident that has happened.  Our research team has studied some American cults and exploitation of women by the babas there. Our team also studied the babas of Punjab and Haryana to understand what was the need gap and why they had such a huge following. Ours will be basically factual reportage and unlike the format where people shout at the top of their voices and politicians gunning for each other. To answer your question specifically, it will be more quieter rather than old-fashioned with a lot of research and views added in. It is going back to what news used to be.

A lot of people told me that they tune in to Doordarshan when they needed to know today's happenings and facts. Other channels, they said, are into mindless entertainment and shouting under the garb of news.

Have the product's positioning and branding been thought through?

Yes. It will take a couple of months more to implement it. We are working with a marketing and a branding team and we are doing a lot of brainstorming. Our channel heads are pretty experienced and a couple of good guys with enormous experience have joined us. The plan is to work it out and keep unravelling those processes.

Would you be expanding the number of bureaus you have or you will depend on news agencies primarily to feed you news? How many bureau do you have at present?

I can't recall the exact number of bureaus, but we are there in most of the state capitals. Some of the bureaus would be expanded. We will relaunching some channels to cover Rajasthan, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. Some of these bureaus will be beefed up.

There are some gaps where we did not have people, so that is being planned now. For example, coverage from the north-eastern states was less. We have recently hired some people in Odisha, and more will be employed. We have planned special coverage for Jammu and Kashmir. Studios and facilities have been built in Gurgaon to cover Haryana and in Jammu as well as in Srinagar to cover the hill state. Subsequently, a  small studio is being planned in Jaipur and one in Chandigarh to cover the Punjab and Himachal belt.

With state elections on the cards, we would concentrating on that. We would like to go back to serious news reporting and on understanding how political elections are fought in India. Now, we have an experienced team in place. We want to move away from the dirty business of hidden cameras and stings to bring in numbers (viewership). A couple of channels tried it for a while and may be they succeeded for a while but ultimately they had to back.

A number of news organisations such as NDTV are also experimenting with MoJo (mobile journalism) as cost-cutting measures and also being truly digital. What are your views on such initiatives and would Sahara products too employ some such measures?

Our digital plans are already under way, and a separate team is being groomed to do digital work. I had serious discussions with the chairman as well as our media and corporate communications expert Abhijeet Sarkar.

We understand the need for MoJo. We will be experimenting with it to a certain extent and we'll see how far we must go with it. We would definitely like to run a profitable enterprise, which will take a while and that is the way forward. We plan to create a lot of synergies between print, digital and television wings. There is also a combined team which will ensure constant integration.

How will the TV channels and the digital products be different or will the digital only help play out linear TV's offerings?

The content that television is generating will be curated; it will be customised for digital. There will be shorter and packaged stories for digital as compared to television for which editors would also go live interacting and engaging with people and adding their opinions. A website would be separately launched for that curated content.

Rebranding and programming revamps costs money. How much is Sahara looking at investing in this part of the operation?

I will have to check with the top management before sharing any figures.

Will such measures help shore up the bottomline? What is Sahara TV's annual revenues at present? Could you share the annual revenue figure?

I don't want to get into all that. Sahara's media wing in the last two to three years has gone through difficult times. But, now, our revenues are shoring up. It will take us a while, we have to ensure that the digital wing is launched quickly. There are certain projections which are being made and a marketing strategy drawn up. We are also hiring a full-time sales head who will be doing things professionally.

What are your views on TRPs for Sahara News? And, what would be the present BARC ratings that Sahara news gets?

The ratings were low as we were lacking in distribution. The channel is now releasing funds and we are available on most of the platforms. Of course, ratings do matter. The beauty of regional channels is a lot of people like our brand. Sahara is not a new brand -- it's a well-known and respected brand, which is being represented and refurbished and pitched as a completely different channel. With more energy and better content, the stickiness is increasing. We'll need some time and we'll get there.

Please name the distribution platforms that Sahara news channels are available on?

We are available on different networks such as Den Networks, Hathway  Cable & Datacom, DIGI cable Network India, Hathway CCN entertainment (India),CCN Digital Network,Darsh  Digital Network,S R Digital Media, A C N   Digital, Digina Projects, Lucknow 9 Cable Network, Blue Sky Network, Uttranchal Cable Network, Haldwani, Rajasthan Infotech Services and Radiant Digitek.

Amidst the revamp, are you also looking at streamlining the operations and costs? How and where?

We want to ensure that 'less is more'. We want to work with committed professionals and we want to ensure people who are hired are delivering, and there is accountability. We want to make optimum use of manpower and resources. We are aware that a number of large-sized broadcast networks have shut shop. Ours is a very tight operation -- we just have to ensure that we are able to convert.

How many new brand sponsors Sahara news channels have netted?

There are a couple of names which I will mail you. (No mail was received till the time of publication this morning; the interview was conducted yesterday telephonically).

Would you like to comment on the recent controversies surrounding multiple LCNs and alleged buying of landing pages?

I am aware of that. This race has taken an ugly turn. A couple of new channels had a bitter fight with the older brands who say that it is humanly not possible for a channel with limited resources to zoom to the top of the chart, and then slip and then flatten. These incidents are very unfortunate. As far as our brand is concerned, we would like to stay clear of those things.

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