‘There is a ‘church and state’ line between editorial and advertising’ :Sunita Rajan

MUMBAI: Time and again news media, especially broadcast has come under scrutiny for compromising its editorial because of advertisers. Paid news and native advertising aren’t new to the industry and neither is the eternal debate between editorial and advertorial. Because the fact remains that the industry is heavily dependent on advertisers, and while selling content on entertainment channels is a task by itself, when it comes to news channel or other news media, it’s a completely different ballgame.

While people are quick to point fingers and accuse media for being ‘sold’ and its content being ‘paid news’, they seldom look at it from the shoes of those who perform the tough balancing act of editorial and advertising sales and keep the machine running so more news is produced and reported.

To understand how a popular mainstream media goes about doing its ‘business’ while ensuring that its editorial credibility is intact,’s Papri Das got in touch with CNN International advertising sales asia pacific VP Sunita Rajan to get some expert insight.

A key member of the CNN International team, Rajan has been tasked with setting the business strategy to drive advertising revenue for CNN’s global portfolio of multi-platform products among Asia Pacific based advertisers. With an emphasis on integrated advertiser solutions across the full range of CNN’s linear and non-linear properties, she is responsible for managing strategic relationships and brand partnerships. 

Excerpts from the interaction:

With broadcast news being heavily dependent on advertising revenue, how does CNN go about creating news content without falling prey to native advertorials?

I would like to break the response down in three parts. Firstly, as an advertising sales person, I don't manage or control editorial. That's part of the business agreement. My role is to run the business which is advertising and sales across the Asia pacific region. I think the best analogy to describe how we look at this is that there should be church and state lines between editorial and advertising. CNN is very clear about it. There is no blurring of those lines. 

We have maintained that we keep our audiences at the heart of what we do. Our editorial ensures that every piece of content that we produce is of value to the audiences. We don't make the news, we report the news. 

Even in the features, long form and analysis pieces that we do, we are mindful and also extremely stringent about selecting the stories that we believe are of value to the audiences. For example, our series on Silk Route, or even a lifestyle series.

Can you explain the business model for CNN international?

Our business model for CNN international is of ad sales and content sales. The other stream of revenue is business development which we have initiated in the last couple of years. The three key pillars of all streams of revenue are distribution, content and ad sales.

What happens when a piece of editorial content has a conflict of interest with an advertiser?

I wouldn't say there is a conflict of interest because we are not kept informed of what editorial does. Marketing and ad sales never get into the editorial meets. The only space where there's a discussion or interface it is with the number of features content that we do special seasons or theme weeks. There are times when the editorial highlights or showcases a particular country. We have a number of franchises, like On The Road, which is focusing on India this time as its relevant to our audiences. India is being talked about and with Modi’s Make In India falling into place, the youth and their aspiration need to be looked at.

What brings advertisers to CNN?

We go and talk to brands and partners, we build commercial partnerships. What we sell to clients and what we bring to the conversation is the brand proposition. We talk about our audiences, scale and size, texture and profile and a bit of what these audiences care about and why they consume content on CNN, how they come to CNN for its unique content and CNN as a platform. To be honest, what brands are buying is the quality of the audience, the profile of the audience, and that's what we showcase when we going for a pitch.

How do you react to advertisers wanting to get an editorial favour as part of an advertising deal?

We don’t promise the clients editorial coverage if that is what you are asking. I think the reason the clients come into conversations with CNN is because they recognise the value of the brand and they recognise the principles that CNN as an international platform adheres to. They come to us because of that integrity and the value we bring to the table, and not because they think they can influence the editorial. There are a number of channels that do operate with that market behaviour probably

From the ad sales point of view, for me and my team, it is our job to identify themes and content relevant to the client. For example we have CNN Money, which is an online vertical that CNN operates and that's our business proposition as well. It’s about how we present to our audience, what is unique about the content for brands and advertisers, the differentiation between how we capture the story and how others do it. Because we are not just focused in the stock markets, we go beyond that and talk about the aspirational values of stories and stories on finance and wealth etc.

How different is advertising sales in news channels from that of other entertainment broadcasters?

Ad sales for news, whether it’s international market or local news is very different from general entertainment channels and sports channels. Those brands and their content are very much a point of view. News, on the other hand is a must have; a daily habit. You dip in and out of it but it’s 24 by 7. It’s less about the specific show. Yes, we do have content on a specific time, be it daily weekly or monthly.  We do offer certain programs for sponsorships, everything except for news and current affairs and business as it can’t be sponsored in Europe like everywhere else. We don’t necessarily take one program to the market and ask for a sponsor for it. That’s because’ when you are buying news, you are buying the brands reach and not its audience at 7 pm or 9 pm like entertainment channels. Now advertisers may choose to place their advertisement at a specific time of the day. That’s where I come in and recommend what the media schedule will look like and which programming would be more relevant to the brand. 

But there are editorial events such as Heroes which is a very popular franchise and is in its 10th year this year. Or a republican debate, which we do sell as a big point of view. It has specific time bands and exclusives with CNN, so an occasion such as that is sold as a standalone property.

How important is TV viewership ratings to you from an ad sales perspective? 

Whole news brands and channels always had a good proportion of viewership command, it is not always that a news broadcaster focuses its ad sales or the opportunity to associate with brands just based on television ratings. We don’t sell on ratings but the reach of the channel across a week and also the context or the value of the environment. It is very much a brands sale than ‘how many people are watching or engaging with the channel.’

Both in India and in other markets, it is also about brands looking for an international platform and reach. I am not saying that we are not getting the BRAC ratings, but we are not selling on just the BARC ratings. We also very much have a multiscreen and multiplatform presence, be it on TV, desktop or the mobile or through a responsive website. 

There are a number of digital platforms in India that have started aggregating short form video content on news that audiences can consume on demand. Are they competition to conventional news broadcasters when it comes to the digital footprint?

From a business owner perspective and media owner perspective, one needs to be able to be where the audiences are, be it on an investment scale or technology scale that drives one’s content. And to be where the audiences are, you need to serve where they consume the content. Rather than concentrating on just creating programming, it is important to recognise who your audiences are, where are they consuming content and what kind of content they prefer. Not forgetting your primary audience on television, it is also increasingly necessary to evolve so that you have as many touch points with your audiences as possible.

As far as CNN is concerned we look at it positively. It comes as an advantage to have worked in a global market. We own the content we produce and showcase so we work with a number of platforms and partner with them, whether it’s Facebook, Youtube or Snapchat. While we see our content through such platforms, we also aggregate our own content, providing it to enrich the user experience, and driving audiences. So a number of these technology platforms have recognised the value of working with CNN. We don’t see them as threats but as opportunities. 

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