Television

"APTN is a not a channel, nor has any ambition of becoming one" : Ian Ritchie APTN CEO

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Associated Press Television News (APTN) is the world's largest video news agency, breaking international news service delivered via satellite to 87 per cent of the world's television news broadcasters. It has a specialised Broadcast Services department, an Entertainment News division, a Corporate Video & Video News Release (VNR) distribution service and an extensive video and film archive.

The company, set up in 1994 is also the international television arm of The Associated Press, the world's oldest and largest newsgathering organisation. APTN has over 80 bureaus in 67 countries, from which breaking news stories are gathered, then relayed back to a central newsroom in London, UK. These stories are then edited, and sent with fact-based scripts via satellite to over 500 broadcast newsroom subscribers around the world.

But APTN has realised that with a boom in the news segment in the electronic medium, just providing a service would not do. The service has to be tailored for the customer's needs and, more importantly, tailored in such a way that it addresses the region and audience that the broadcaster, who is a customer of APTN, wants to target and is targeting.

Keeping that in mind, APTN is in a structuring mode, especially where South Asia is concerned where India is an important market with a large number of television news channels and media companies experimenting with alternative media like broadband and the Internet too. APTN CEO Ian Ritchie is currently in India to explore various business possibilities to meet the demands of a changing world, which includes forming joint ventures with Indian telecom and/or media companies.

Ritchie brings a wealth of experience stemming from senior roles at some of the most high-profile television companies in the business. During a distinguished career spanning over 25 years, he has held senior management positions within Russell Reynolds Associates, Yorkshire Tyne Tees Television Holdings plc, Carlton Studios, London News Network and Channel 5 Broadcasting. Prior to taking the reins at APTN, he was the CEO of Middle East Broadcasting from 1998 to 2000.

In this interview with indiantelevision.com's Anjan Mitra, Ritchie discusses various aspects of APTN, stressing on the fact the company should not be confused with a broadcaster "as APTN is not a foreign broadcaster and neither has any ambitions of becoming one in the near future."

Excerpts:

What brings you to India? 



We do consider India an important market for APTN and feel that the needs of the customers should be addressed. As an organisation, we also feel that there is a need to enhance regional content and the new agenda is based on that. The feedback that we have got is that our broadcasting customers' needs are dependent on their target audience. For them, the domestic news comes first on the priority list, followed by regional and international news.

Since there are good players in the domestic circuit in most countries, we are not interested in getting into this segment extensively. APTN needs to focus its product to enhance the overage in a particular region. And South Asia is a region for us. We think, we can provide good regional coverage to our customers. In this connection, I am in India to explore the various possibilities and how such things can be done.

How would you define regional coverage? Does it also mean getting into regional coverage of India as a market? 



My definition of a region would be like that of the South Asian region, which would include countries like India, Singapore, Thailand and Pakistan. But to provide focused coverage of a region, we would also need to improve the coverage from the region that can only happen if our network is big enough.

We are planning to expand our Delhi and Mumbai bureaus that would provide coverage from the region to supplement our international coverage.

Considering APTN is also a service provider to non-traditional media, what are the opportunities in the region for that sort of a service? 



Yes, the second most important thing in a market place is new media like mobile telephony and broadband services. We are exploring these too here, but for a technology like 3G to come to India may take some time, but it is a potential area that we need to keep in mind, especially from the point of view of providing regional content via such new media. And to tell you the truth, we are in talks with potential business partners in this regard.

Does that mean that APTN is looking at joint ventures with service providers like telecom companies for delivering regional content? 



That's right. It's one of the options. But at this point of time, I cannot tell you the specific nature of the talks and people with whom we are talking.

What is APTN doing to improve and expand its distribution network of the services? 



The big issue is providing live or near-live service. We have to get a system in place where the movement of content happens quickly from various regions to be sent to our London centre from where it can be distributed to our customers. For this, again, we are looking at various options like satellite-based and Internet -based delivery.

Is APTN looking at Indian partners from the delivery point of view?



There is a good probability of that happening. There are two aspects to such decisions too. First, it always makes sense to have a local partner who understands the market. There is no point is sitting in London and thinking that we also know various markets. But then the local partner should be good enough to gel in with our plans. The second aspect is that we may do it on own.

However, I'd like to be categorical here that the decision would depend a lot on the regulatory framework in India and the need (or the redundancy) for a local partner vis-?-vis the law of the land. APTN abides by the rules and regulations in all the countries and recognises the need for such a set up in each country. We'd abide by all the regulations in the country.

"Internet is one area where we are very bullish and trying to see how we can combine the text (AP's wire service), photo and video services together for a client delivered on the Internet"

Is APTN focusing on the non-traditional media with a new aggressiveness? Does it feel that new technology and delivery platforms would come up with better business opportunities? 



Yes. There is a feeling that faster the content is delivered, the better. Internet is one area where we are very bullish and trying to see how we can combine the text (AP's wire service), photo and video services together for a client delivered on the Internet.

I personally feel that products delivered over the Internet would hold sway over other media. If you see, many media houses are moving slowly towards this structure where the text is combined with other services like streaming video and still pictures.

Considering the expansion that is being undertaken by APTN here, what is the size of investment? 



I obviously cannot tell you the exact figures, but the investments run into multi-million dollars. The investment is generally broken into two parts, the operational cost and the capital expenditure. Investments in both the segments are in seven digit figures. It may not be a huge number, but the regional news coverage would get an extra boost.

Who are your Indian clients? 



Most big broadcasters like Aaj Tak, Star News and NDTV are our clients. We are also in discussion with Doordarshan.

Has APTN tried tapping the Indian regional language channels? 



Yes, that's an area we are actively looking into, but no actual discussions have been held with possible customers yet. But we do realise that vernacular language channels are potential customers of news and other events too and are exploring how such a service, as and when it materialises, can be tailored to suit their needs. Simply because one size would not fit all.

How big is the Indian market in the global kitty of APTN? 



At present, pretty small. But the effort is to try expand the traditional market and tap the new media too.

What has market research , which you have undertaken, shown you? 



Several aspects came up through the market research. There is a feeling that we provide too much content or are not sufficiently focused. Then we need to keep in mind the order of priority of our clients and segment the market and content.

But it is also true that the basic issues in India are the same as in any other parts of the world. The strategy for enhancing regional coverage is based on this only.

"There is a distinction between us and news channels operating in India and we have to get this across to the government too"

How do you view the Indian regulatory framework for media that has been undergoing several changes in recent times and also creating controversies in the bargain? 



Personally speaking, I feel the march of technology is going to make a lot of such framework and structure anyway redundant. If you are trying to be projectionist, then it may create problems as the free market would ultimately have its say.

Having said that, I also feel and recognise that every country needs to have its own set of rules and regulations and in that way, India is no exception. I would appreciate if you have a projectionist attitude , say, in the field of production of entertainment related stuff. Many countries like France do that. Still, I feel that greater liberalisation is an inevitability.

Are you also meeting government ministers and officials to discuss the regulatory framework in India? 



I haven't yet, but I think we need to clarify certain issues with the government. The government has asked for clarifications on whether we are a channel and that too foreign owned. We also understand there are various riders for foreign wire services.

So, I think these things need to be clarified and the doubt removed.Though I must admit that I have not found anyhting inhibiting in the government queries. APTN is a not a channel, nor has any ambition of becoming one. There is a distinction between us and news channels operating in India and we have to get this across to the government too.

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