Rajat Nigam: Innovation, pricing and technological flexibilities are keywords of the business model

People are seldom aware of the importance of technology in seamlessly supporting a large media network such as the one Reliance has. Owned by Mukesh Ambani?s Reliance Industries, Indian mass media venture Network18 Media and Investments Limited is one of the oldest television networks in India. Known for its array of business channels in India, the network has partnered with other networks such as ETV and Viacom.

At the helm of the group?s technologically integrating other networks and channels under one umbrella efforts is Group Chief Technology Officer Rajat Nigam. Managing the technology and technical infrastructure of all Network 18 products, be they television, radio or digital and also looking after Reliance Infocomm, industry veteran Nigam has an experience of about 20 years in the fields of television, radio, sports etc.

Nigam is gearing up to bring better upgradations and new technologies with best practices that include having an unified digital newsroom with integrated technology and workflow supporting different businesses of traditional broadcast and digital platforms.

Speaking with Megha Parmar, Nigam sheds light on the challenges that he faces for the smooth functioning of all the channels under the network, digitization, DAS, VOOT, on HD and 4K, competition and the technological roadmap. Excerpts of the interaction:

What books and blogs do you read, more so currently?

In this collected world, you have lots of things to read about. If you are asking about my personal interest, I like reading blogs on cricket and the discussions that happen in various business forums. I also keep track of multiple newsletters globally that keep me updated about everything for which I have subscribed. It?s my sneak-peek into what is happening in this world.

What has been the most complicated assignment done by you?

I have been here in Network18 for about 10 months now, which is a significantly small time. However, I can?t say that there was nothing challenging, because Network18, just by its size and expanded horizon is a challenge as well as an integrated opportunity.

With so many channels under the group, what are the challenges that you usually face for the smooth functioning of all of them?

Broadly speaking, we can divide Network 18 into two parts. One is the entertainment sector and the channels which are related to it and the other is the news sector. In entertainment there is fiction as well as factual entertainment. So the more challenging aspect from a technical point of view is to create a workflow around the sector. Entertainment channels by their very nature are packaged channels with more emphasis on the creative content.

From the technology point of view, the challenge of virtue and integration happens mostly in news channels. The content keeps generating instantly and all the time across the globe to which we need access. You have to start putting it out with speed and accuracy. So, from Network18? perspective, it?s a very difficult thing to integrate this and to enhance the quality and productivity to ensure an efficient workflow. It?s more of an opportunity. But this requirement is more on the news channels side. We currently operate more than 20 news channels in India and are the biggest news network in the country. All the news channels are based out of different places and locations in the country. We have an integrated newsroom operation which creates an opportunity for professional satisfaction as well as the channels? growth.

Network18, on the one hand is a content generator, and on the other is a content aggregator. We are quite rich on digital as well, with portals like which has a huge subscriber base.

Network 18 has taken over some other networks. How easy or difficult was it integrate technologically these other networks and channels under the Network18 umbrella. What were the challenges faced?

Technology in the broadcast and digital industry is moving very fast. That by itself is a challenge in every aspect. Having different networks and groups integrated is a challenge, but it is a challenge that is possible to overcome. We have laid a roadmap for it and are working towards it. We have partly achieved it as well.

We will reveal more information about the unified newsroom soon.  As far as integration is concerned, it will be one of the biggest in the globe.

Network18 has recently launched VOOT, what are your thoughts on that and other digital properties?

Yes, VOOT managed by our group company Viacom18, is the OTT carrying content of entertainment genre. We, as a group, are committed to provide premium quality offering for our viewers across platforms. VOOT is a destination where superior quality entertainment content for all age groups can be accessed at any place and on any device. Network18 has been one of the top two digital networks for many years now, having a variety of rich content. All of our products have uniqueness and are widely accepted, be it Moneycontrol, Firstpost, Overdrive or any other property. News18 and Pradesh18 provide digital consumers news as it happens with the latter being highly localised and available in multiple language. We shall continue to expand our digital offerings in the coming months with innovative and smart technology solutions creating digital destinations underlined with philosophy of mobility and personalisation.  

What are the challenges you face on your digital platform as India is yet to see a completely rolled-out phase of digitization?

If you see the global practices, it?s natural to consider and figure out what could be in store for India. We clearly are at an early stage when it comes to digitisation. One part of it is happening on field - that is the roll-out of DAS IV which will get completed by December 2016 and is very important from broadcast's business point of view. But, from the technology point of view, digitisation or the digital world, enabling us around content differentiation is more relevant. There are a large number of OTT platforms that are getting rolled out in India, while some are available in India from outside. VOOT is an entertainment platform which has rolled-out effectively and the response has been very good. We are very confident about the content that we have.

VOOT uses high end technology and surely provides a high quality experience which is very important in this era. With respect to content, the advantage that we see as a network is the vastness in our content, which is our USP.

How many updates has the app undergone so far as in the software that runs these devices, considering that portable devices - be they on mobile screens and other touch screens that are evolving quickly?

In a digital era, the upgrades and updates are extremely important. Five years back, innovation was supposed to be a unique thing where the focus on innovation was an option. In today?s time, innovation is a routine and continuous. If we don?t innovate, we are sure to perish. The upgradations and updations will be a regular part, whether it is VOOT or for all our digital products. We will continue to enhance our user experience and the aim is to provide quality service. Consumer gratification is the bottom line.

We have a highly capable team of talented people who remain updated on what is happening in the world and they innovate themselves. It gives us confidence in enhancing our product. We continue to reach the expectations of the viewers and that also provides us an edge over the competition. Everything which is good for the network will be explored.

What is your take on OTT and where do you see it over the next five years in India and globally?

OTT is openly a very generic word. It?s a term which is used in hurry. The most common OTT that we use in our daily lives is WhatsApp. When we see the bigger picture, OTT is across. From the content consumption point of view, the challenge is with respect to the infrastructure as we are not yet a digital country. We are yet to have a digital structure at par with the other countries in the world. In the next few months or in a year, we will have a better infrastructure and that?s when the actual OTT business model will start working.

With Netflix entering India, is India using that as an advantage and leapfrogging technologically?

India is a different country and the consumers are totally different. We cannot generalise what is happening outside with the Indian market. The platform that you are referring to is extremely successful in the world, but the challenge with respect to India is pluralism of taste, language and the fragmented consumers. This is where the problem lies in India in contrary to other international players.

Innovation, pricing and technological flexibilities are keywords of the business model. We keep that as a part of our working guidelines. The challenge that we have from a network?s point of view and a network dominated by news is skilled talent with innovative approach. It is a part of the culture and it needs to be imbibed.

What?s your idea about expanding Talent Quotient (TQ)?

There is always a need to improve TQ and should happen in a coordinated fashion, so that we can reach the common objective.

Will DAS IV be a boon or a curse for the network? How has DAS I, II and III affected Network 18?

This is the last phase of digitisation. Digitisation has been long in demand from the industry. We surely look forward to get benefitted from it. DAS IV is in the interest of everyone i.e., the broadcasters as well as the viewers. Honestly, even if there is no guarantee on it, digitisation is bound to happen. One has to compete with different platforms with the content available across platforms, its digital formats. It is also important to have content delivered in good quality as well as in a controlled or adequate manner that the consumer wants. It?s good that we are in the last phase and post December, the scenario is going to be better and there will be unification across.

The earlier phases have been beneficial. DAS has provided us better control on the business. More of control and transparency is good for business.

Given that many networks are going HD and 4K, what is your take? And your take on 8K?

India as a country has been late at adopting technology. High definition TV channels started in 2010 in India which was by far quite late if we compare the availability of HD TV and content outside. From 2010 to 2016, suddenly there was a splurge of HD channels in the country and that will continue to happen. Going further into the next stage, more people have started talking about 4K and 8K. Honestly, 8K is something which is used as a term in the labs today; it does not have relevance for the consumer?s application at present. From the television perspective, 4K is a generic term. The real term is UHD TV which is more relevant for television.

Now the way the chain for television is built, for the conversion of a channel to 4K, the complete chain has to be changed from content production to content delivery. The content can be produced at a controlled rate as a broadcaster. 4K is surely bound to happen, but it will take time. 4K content is premium quality content which will ride on the digital platform for sure. In the days to come, there are platforms which will carry 4K content, but the challenge there again would be the availability of 4K content.

We have been exploring 4K content and as a group we want to be at the forefront in that respect. We have also highlighted some 4K content. We have studied the entire workflow. We are sure that we would be one of the early adopters of 4K content, but it?s still sometime away before 4K content starts streaming into houses.

What are Network18? plans in that direction?

4K is more relevant for entertainment channels and sports. We don?t have a demand or high compulsion for news channels in HD as yet. Conversions are driven by business models, and currently the models that are followed in SD news channels are themselves not hugely motivating. That is why if a channel wants to get upgraded to HD, the big value chain has to get upgraded. The entire infrastructure also needs to get upgraded. However, gradually we will see a few news channels in HD, but the entire news fraternity going HD is not an immediate proposition.

In the case of Network 18, we are HD ready and have a proper technology roadmap with us whenever it happens. We will look into giving HD feeds in near future.

What is your opinion about reverse signals and the challenges its implementation will bring out?

They all are different philosophies and ideas to provide innovation to the consumers. We are looking at new cultures and technologies and building them up even more, which will translate to a good workflow. The challenges are common, though the viewer/consumer remains the king and he needs to be gratified. Every strategy needs to be driven for the viewer?s benefit. We are migrating to a unicast industry, but as the number of users is high and each consumer would be the user of the content, it is still far for us.

Many companies have started going the cross platform partnership way. Your view on that? Will Network 18 do something similar?

As I mentioned earlier, innovation is the key in today?s time and is extremely important. Network 18 has a portfolio which is highly diversified. There is no immediate need for looking for collaborations from outside. However if there is an opportunity, we will be open to it.

Network18 has an eCommerce platform, online publications, etc. How are they different from the technology perspective compared to eCommerce giants such as Flipkart, Amazon, etc.?

Every organisation is bund to have an advantage of carrying legacy with it. We were in the business much before the earlier younger players started coming into this market. We have been in the market. However, legacy also comes with experience and that is our strength. But the challenge is to have an integrated infrastructure and technology to support each other that we are working on.

We have seen news in two forms - video and text. What type of results does that have?

Video is certainly going to be the future. We have recently rolled out our new website news18 and it has got a good response. The user satisfaction has been high and the quality is good. The technology that has been used for it is also optimum quality. The decoding that has been done is also high. It is integrated with news TV. It is only to provide news in a better way to the on-the-go users.

What else is there on Network18?s technology road map?

Technology has, off late, changed its form from being a business enabler to being a business driver and this has been duly recognised internally by us. The industry is witnessing interesting times wherein technology is galloping imparting pluralism in relevant aspects from content production of next generation 4K and HDR immersive experience to gratifying content consumption on multiple platforms taking the industry from broadcast to unicast mode

Network18 technology teams, supported by the management, are engaged in all these emerging trends and continue to focus on evaluating newer technologies and innovative workflows to enhance working efficiencies and improve presentation values. Upgradations and bringing new technologies with best practices in the facility is work- in- progress.

We shall soon have a unified digital newsroom with integrated technology and workflow supporting different businesses of traditional broadcast and digital platforms. Going by our size of such a vast news network in multiple languages and genres, a global solution designed for the network that would allow searching and sharing of content and news stories across locations with ease and efficiency will soon be commissioned. It will be a one of its kind, even globally. We are quite excited about our plans and these will unfold in the days to come. We continue to strive for professional excellence.

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