Television

We will consolidate all our channels under one brand: Avinash Kaul

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Heading a network in the highly competitive Indian news television business is not easy. Commercial, political, editorial,  bottom line  and competitive pulls and pressures can end up giving you high blood pressure. Where your network is only as good as the last news it broke - or the one it did not. But, for Avinash Kaul, Managing Director, A + E Networks | TV18 and President - Strategy, Product & Alliances it is all  a part of a day’s work.

Since 2014 when he took over,  Kaul has been working on putting his stamp on the news behemoth, which is today a part of the Mukesh Ambani-headed Reliance Industries. First, he focused on bringing in stability into the company’s operations which were rocked courtesy the spate of departures following its sale by the promoter Raghav Bahl to one of India’s largest business groups.

Then, earlier this year, he rebranded its English news channel CNN IBN to CNN News18. And now, he and team Network18  are looking to work some of their magic on the just relaunched Hindi news service News18 India (earlier called IBN7). It even as a new tag line Danke Ki Chot Par (earlier Bebaq.Bekhauf).

Not only has the channel got a refreshed look and feel, but it also has a new programming line-up and an array of popular anchors on board. 

With the Hindi and English channels getting a total lift, the network plans to consolidate its other news services under the News18 umbrella.

Kaul got into a chat with Indiantelevision.com's  Megha Parmar on the News18 revamp, and other issues relating to the business. Excerpts:

What is the idea behind the revamp of IBN7? What was the research done? 

IBN7 operates in the Hindi news space which is fiercely competitive. There are lot many new channels and established players and, from our network perspective, it’s never been one of the strongest competitors in the Hindi space for a long time for various things like it was acquired at one point of time by Network18 and obviously lot many efforts were taken but I don’t think it has got very comprehensive full-grown efforts to take it to the leadership space. A lot of hard work has been put behind the channel from one year or so into revamping it not only in terms of look and feel but also in terms of all the content. 

Getting a new editorial team, technological updates, content programming, anchors, new shows, all of it was happening. We did not want to change anything in one day. We have been at it.  

The channel will be revamped at 6:57 pm today.

What new will we see with the refreshed look and feel of IBN7? 

We started with an entertainment show called Bhabhi Tera Dewar Deewana in the day time which has doubled the ratings of that slot for us. We did Aar Paar with Amish Devgan which is a high-end debate show on IBN7 at 7 pm. It has also doubled our ratings. Then, we already had Hum Toh Puchenge with Sumit Awasthi at 8 pm which has gone up now ever since Amish’s show. It has come up and is hovering around 9-10 per cent viewership every week. We recently launched Sau Baat Ki Ek Baat with Kishore Ajwani, which is now the highest rated show and has more than doubled our 9 pm time slot which is prime time in Hindi news. And we are glad that it is growing at 12 per cent average. 

The channel’s primetime starts at 6 pm and goes on till 11.30 pm.

Last week, IBN7, for the first time, was the number two channel which means that it has beaten Aaj Tak, India TV, ABP News in the 7 to 10 pm slot which is hard-core of Hindi news. It was a part of our strategy. We never wanted to do a one day launch of all the new shows. Amish was ready with the show and we launched it.  As and when Kishore was ready with the show, we launched it. A couple of weeks ago, we launched an astrology show, then we have built upon crime as a separate vertical which will soon be on air.

We now have Priti Raghunandan. She is launching a show titled Kachcha Chittha which will air at 10 pm followed by a special report at 10:30 pm. We are also launching a crime show Criminal at 11 pm.

By one show at a time, we have been at it from the last three to four  months and the traction has been fantastic.  Yet there is a lot of work that we need to do in the morning and afternoon. We are looking at fixing that as well.

With the revamp in place, will there be any change in your editorial team?

Not really. Prabal Pratap Singh is our consulting editor, Sumit looks  after input and Kishore looks after output. That is the structure.

Is the logo designed internally or did you hire any agency for it?

The logo, its packaging, everything has been done internally. It has got new music and styling which I am confident will stand out of all the other Hindi news channels. We will watch it from tomorrow about how things turn out but a lot of efforts have gone into it. It is completely new and fresh.

How important is Broadcast Audience Research Data as a metric?

It gives you a direction. In the absence of anything else, it is a good indicator on how things move. It has its own challenges but I guess, in the absence of anything else, it gives you an indication on how things are panning out.

How do your ad sales work? Is it only based on ratings?

Typically, it is the rank that you have and the channel’s share that determines your rates in the market. That is an important role but it is not a direct co-relation unlike GECs wherein we have ratings-driven models. We are a more rank-driven model. If you are in the top 1, 2 or 3, then you will get X and if you are in the bottom than you likely get Y. That is the kind of scenario in Hindi news.

How many advertisers do you have on your channel and the network? What is the 10 second ad rate on IBN7?

IBN7 would have equal number of advertisers that we would have more or less on the other Hindi news channels. The difference is not in the number of advertisers but it is actually in the rates. For us, advertisers are not a challenge. If I am not wrong, IBN 7 has close to 500 advertisers whereas our entire network would have some 1100 advertisers on board.

If you look at the leader and us, there is a 4x gap between the leader and the category where we are in right now. So, there is a lot difference. But, once the channel gets established and when we are able to break in the top four channels in the genre, then obviously the entire emphasis happens on how we dissect it which we will subsequently follow.

How did the advertisers react to the revamp of IBN7?

Everybody is waiting to see how the content and the ratings of the channel move. They have already seen the content. We have already got the traction and the number has improved significantly from what it used to be. So, there is a certain amount of excitement that the people want to say with what different we are doing and how things turn out to be.

How do you plan to promote\market the revamp?

There is a full-grown marketing plan planned by the team. The activity starts from 10 November which includes external television, the network television, outdoor, radio and print. We will promote it everywhere. There is a proper campaign which will be played across major cities in terms of radio and outdoor and the rest on TV. It is similar level of activities that we did for CNN News18 when it was revamped.  

Various players have spoken about the subscription model going forward. Is advertising model profitable? How far is the situation wherein Indians will start paying for news?

Right now, primarily on Hindi news, it is  an ad-driven model because there is an oversupply of channels. Over time, some people might find it difficult to continue in the game; there might be mergers, acquisitions, etc and then consolidation will happen. And, at some point of time, subscription could come into play for the top few players. But, as of now, it is mainly ad-driven.

Well, the whole paying thing is wide open. People are still thinking whether or not to pay for Netflix in India or about the new regulation of MRP pricing by TRAI and whether the people will pay.

There is still a lot of work which needs to happen. Nobody actually knows what is going to happen, going forward. Owing to regulations, prices have frozen. People are not ready to pay for more than Rs 180 for a cable connection which gives them 100 channels. But, at the same time, at the top end, people have subscribed to Netflix.

On the other hand, multiplexes are charging them far higher for one and a half hour to three hours depending on which movie you are watching. So, things are changing and I am sure over a period of time, the consumer behaviour will also change all based on the new regulations coming in, digitisation happening with the fourth phase scheduled to roll out soon and third phase to get totally completed. It does take time. More than one year on from the deadline, DAS III has not yet been implemented and we already are on the DAS IV timeline. 

So, things have moved; not at the pace it was expected to but no one can say nothing has been moved. Digitisation has significantly happened in the country. After sometime, the benefits will come.

How important is digital to your entire network as you have properties such as Moneycontrol, Firstpost, News18, IBNKhabar, Pradesh18, etc and you also have apps?

Digital is very important to our entire mix. When we will relaunch the channel at 6:57 pm, the website is also going to get relaunched too. So, IBNKhabar will be changed to News18 India. The app that we have for News18 will now include a toggle button for English and Hindi. Now, a viewer can either go to CNN News18 or News18 India on just a toggle. You do not have to download two apps for that. So, it continues to play a vital part for us and you will see a lot more action on digital front from Network18 also as far as products are concerned.

According to you, is the news space cluttered? Is there no place for new entrants? What is the case with Hindi News genre?

There is always a space for a serious player. The problem occurs when there are many players who are not serious about it and are coming for various reasons, which are better known to them. If you have to look at the hardcore players, you will not find more than four or five channels in the English news space and eventually that will happen here also. The top positions will be occupied by three or four big guys as it is not for the faint-hearted. Ever since BARC came in and the rural audience expanded, your expansion needs to be that much more. Your technology upgrades keep happening every five to 10 years which means that you have to completely redo your technology which needs huge investments. If you are not making money then eventually it’s a zero sum game for the people who are in it for reasons apart from profitability.

English still has a subscription piece going. So, there is substantial amount of income that a channel would likely get from a subscription standpoint. Hindi is problematic because it is driven by advertising.

How are you looking at CNN News18 as your direct competitor is going through a rough time as of now?

The good part is that we have had a great last few months. For the last 12 to 13 weeks, we have been at number one, ahead of our competition. We had even beaten Newshour  in the metros. There is more to come but we are a clear number two on an all-India basis. Our work has proven to be successful and we are very happy with that.

And yes, with the recent changes, it opens up an entire new thing for everyone and I am sure we are geared for it. We will see how it shapes up.

Some news channels have experimented with some infotainment type of content. Is Network18 looking at something like that sort for any of its channels?

Its something we have been keen doing. Not just infotainment per say but its basically featured content which is specially done during weekends. It is something which we have always been excited about. We have done some shows on CNN News18 like Off-Centre with Anuradha Sengupta. So, we are getting into these things because eventually you also need to expand your content library. 

Unfortunately, in the last five or six years, not much investments have happened on content which is what we are setting out to do. Hopefully, it will broaden the horizon of what people come to news channels for.

There are investments that have gone in and we are also at the forefront of it. But I have also seen some really nice content on ABP and Aaj Tak. They keep on doing some nice shows.

Do you think news channels have come to a point wherein they can provide HD feed to the viewers or is too early?

Well, at the end of the day, it is the consumer, who right now, is not specifically paying for the Hindi news specially. English news channels can still do it and have done as there is still consumer affinity in doing that. It is an expensive proposition because your bandwidth goes higher, the OB vans and live views’ bandwidth is still not equipped to transmit the bandwidth all the time but the technology is changing. With 4G coming in, the cost of HD has significantly come down. Over a period of time, I am sure it will happen. But a news channel unlike an entertainment channel is composed of various pieces of content stick together. So, to get all the pieces in HD, it is going to take some amount of time. You might have stringer who will not send feeds in HD. The offerings will never be 100 per cent HD. If you manage to get some new off air news from a journalist, which will not necessarily be shot in HD. You will always have those things because news is news. It happens anywhere and you will just pick up the camera, shoot it and give it to the channel to air it.

But, then we have apps which provide us with instant news updates. And with data costs coming down significantly, do you think digital has the strength to take over traditional media?

Content will remain king. It does not matter what the distribution platform is. Today, we also put our news on social media as videos. We are now an audio video news provider. The linear channel is one outlet, digital is another. It really does not matter. We have not reached the end of the road even now. 

According to the latest information from BARC, there are a total of 180 million households in India with TV sets while the total numbers of household are 250 million. There are still 50-60 million households that still do not have a TV. So, linear is far from over in India and it takes some time for things to get done. Yes, at the top end of the spectrum, some people do prefer to now watch news on the go. They have various apps which again will keep on increasing as the bandwidth cost keeps on decreasing. But no point of time I am imagining a change happening wherein people will stop watching X and only watch Y. Nothing stops at the cost of something else. 

Where is your major traction coming from? Is the north overpowering south when it comes to the consumption of Hindi news?

No, not really. When you look at English, the south has a much higher skew in terms of viewership than the north. In Hindi, of course, yes. Very clearly the focus of CNN News18 has been to cover as much of south as possible. We have done several things like dedicating an entire show for the south for news and it has done very well for us. A generic thing which has happened over a period of time and we have been really conscious about it and have gone deep to make sure that our content stands apart from the rest.

When do you plan to revamp IBN Lokmat?

It is tough to put a timeline and a fix on which channel next. We are working on many fronts. Whichever channel gets ready first will be launched. As you are aware of the changes that are happening in the news scenario, the opportunities that are open are very rare. For example, in the English news space, there is an opportunity to do something. In the business news space, there are many more entrants who will come in very shortly. There is some action likely to happen there. So, it depends on where we think the biggest opportunities, bigger challenges are. And we will put our energies behind that. There is nothing decided as of now. Hindi was a big opportunity and we have successfully looked at it. We shall look at the other opportunities for us. Finally we will end up doing all but it is just the question of what will we prioritise.

Network has a diverse portfolio of channels in various languages. Is there any new channel in the pipeline?

We already are present in almost all the states. Apart from J&K and Goa, I guess all the other states have Network18 regional news channels. Some of them are branded ETV while some are News18. Over a period of time, we will be consolidating the branding all the channels under one name. News18 will be the homogeneous brand for all our channels. 

Also Read:

"You will see us relooking at the entire IBN7 proposition in 3-4 months": Avinash Kaul

Bebaq. Bekhauf set to change; TV18 to revamp IBN7 on 9 Nov

News18 India rebrands 'Danke Ki Chot Par'; challenges status quo

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