Prabhat Dabral may not look like an archetypal head

 Fifty-something Prabhat Dabral may not look like an archetypal head of a clutch of news channels, but this former Doordarshan man has managed to climb to the top on the basis of sheer tenacity. At times braving downsides in life --- “being sidelined professionally,” as he would frankly admit. Managing Hindi language region-specific channels for a group like Sahara is not easy. And, that too when the group is known for making frequent structural changes and has flirted over the last few years with some big names of Indian television --- like one of the original poster boys of domestic TV broadcasting Vinod Dua.
Dabral admits that when he looks back over the eight years that he has spent with the Sahara group’s media venture --- the news channels project is barely three years old --- one thing that has stood him good is loyalty. “At time, I have thought what am I doing here? But then I have managed to hang on and ride out the rough patches, firmly believing in the vision of the group’s chairman (Subrato Roy),” says the man who at one time in his career has also worked with the Delhi bureau of GDR TV before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
In this interview with’s Anjan Mitra, done over a rare leisurely Sunday lunch of traditional home cooked fish curry and rice, vice-president of Sahara India Media and head of television news venture Dabral discusses the future of Sahara Samay news channels, which have been languishing towards the bottom of the ladder, except for a brief period of time when the national channel, Sahara Samay Rashtriya, shone brightly immediately after launch few years back. Surprisingly, Dabral also does not flinch away from some ground realities, which, according to him, may also change in the future.

Why don’t you start off by giving an overview of Sahara Samay news channel venture?
Sahara Samay (samay in Hindi means time) is a clutch of Hindi news channels targeting various Hind-speaking regions of North India and Mumbai. The venture was started with a view to have a new kind of television news dissemination whereby we targeted Hindi regional areas. We thought that the regional markets were growing for a variety of reasons and there was an opportunity to satiate the hunger of people there for news and also attract advertisers who would always not like to address audience at the national level with particular products. In fact, that is our strength still, criticism notwithstanding.

The basic vision was simple: television market was not confined to metros and urban areas only. Boosted by an economy on the upswing and growing consumerism, newer markets were getting created and our news channels try to address these emerging markets where the needs are more local (news), rather than national or international.

Over these three years, we have managed to create a mechanism where through our state-specific channels we target small city audiences through 50 bureaus. We have Sahara Samay Rashtriya channel, which operates at the national level, apart from those dedicated for states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, National Capital Region of Delhi, Rajasthan, Bihar and part of Maharashtra (Mumbai). In a way, each of these channels can be further sub-divided into smaller cities of these states whereby we try to address the needs of viewers through appointment viewing at particular time bands.

'We talk to small town audiences in a language that they understand and present a look that they can relate to. From Delhi or Mumbai’s perspective, it might be down market'

Did Sahara conduct some sort of a survey to assess these ‘emerging regional markets’ within India or just went ahead to fulfill desires of the top bosses of the company?
Yes, we did carry out several surveys on regional markets and their growth potential. For example, government subsidies to rural and semi-urban areas amounted to almost Rs. 40 billion few years back, which makes for huge amount of investible surplus in these areas. That’s the type of revenue support any sort of activity is likely to get there.

Our surveys also told us that consumer products were increasingly targeting such areas as urban markets got saturated. Beyond a point there isn’t much investible surplus in metros and bigger cities of India. Newspapers spotted this earlier than the electronic medium and started targeting readers in smaller towns and cities in local languages.

I would also put my neck out and say in today’s time, there aren’t very many national newspapers. Most target smaller groups or markets and from there they make money. Why is it that Times of India in Mumbai has supplements for various regions of Mumbai and a Hindustan Times has similar fare for areas around Delhi? Simply because these newspapers realized early there is an opportunity to target advertising at a very local level. In way, I’d also say that Hindi television news market leader Aaj Tak partly rode this trend initially to attract small time advertisers at low rates.

The basics are simple: cater to regional aspirations.

Has Sahara Samay channels got its act right by hitting upon the correct permutation and combination of news content and packaging?
I agree it’s a matter of content strategy and we have learnt a lot over these years. However, learning is a continuous process and we constantly keep on changing according to the needs of the regional audiences. That our larger outlook was correct is proven by the fact that even market leaders are now launching city-specific channels or are exploring the possibilities.

I would also agree that our learning curve has been long, but better late than never. We recently appointed marketing personnel for some untapped parts of Uttar Pradesh and in the very fist month the ad sales collection was so encouraging that our marketing team is confident of doubling it the next month. This is just to give an example of the type of response that we are getting in Uttar Pradesh for our channels.

Where do these regional channels of Sahara stand in the ratings heap?

If you just take a particular state in which we operate, then we are successfully competing with Hindi language national news channels like Aaj Tak, Star News, Zee News, etc. in that particular state market. At times, we have also beaten them in the local game. But if you compare Sahara Samay UP at an all-India level, for example, it would not cause even a blip. But that would be a wrong comparison because that channel is only distributed in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

So our aim is to present to advertisers regional platforms through content packaging that satiates the local needs of audiences in a particular market. Today, hardly any local press conference is started in the states of our operation without our presence. It may sound as if I am blowing my own trumpet, but it’s also a matter of pride and realization that our state-specific channels are important enough for people residing in those states and its smaller towns and cities.

What improvisation was made on the content side to build up a loyal regional audience?
The mantra is simple: go local and more local. More our news channels talk about and pick up local issues, more the audience we get. For example, a viewer may get to hear that freak floods are created havoc in the desert state of Rajasthan from a national channel, but will switch to our local channel to know more about his or her own locality and area. I am also told that police stations in smaller towns keep tuned in to our channels to track untoward incidents in their areas of jurisdiction like an employee of a very big company would turn to an in-house journal to know about the daily happenings.

Let’s take the city of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh. No national news channel would have more than two reporters and an equal number of camera units to cover the city, but we have 10 reporters routinely fanning out in the city looking for developments and news. When a big development takes place, Sahara Samay Rashtriya (the national news channel) may air the story for a couple of minutes, but our local channel would cash in on that further and devote more time for the viewers’ benefit.

Now, if we are able to offer advertisers such dedicated and loyal viewership, revenue is bound to flow in.

It seems Sahara’s philosophy is to cover small town news through a down market product. Would you agree?
That’s an urban or a big city perception. From our point of view, it’s coverage of even the smallest of news in an up market fashion. After all, our technology and equipment are second to none, if not better. We talk to small town audiences in a language that they understand and present a look that they can relate to. From Delhi or Mumbai’s perspective, it might be down market. Still, the revenues being generated tell a different tale altogether.

We are like the city news pages of a local newspaper.

But wouldn’t successful Hindi regional channels cannibalise the revenue potentials of the national news channel of the company?
Up to an extent that’s a fair assessment. However, for areas like Gujarat, rest of Maharashtra and Punjab where we don’t have state-specific news channels, we target the audience through the national news channel. Mind you, all the places mentioned not only bring revenues for other news channels, but also ratings. We have tried to create a bouquet for advertisers for different needs.

Would I be correct in saying that the focus seems to be on the region-specific news channels rather than the national channel?
We had always hovered between 8-9 per cent of the market share with our national news channel. Even latest figures reveal that we have managed to hang on to 8 per cent. But, as it happens with any TV channel, there have been times when the market share of the national channel had fallen well below six per cent. Still, you are right in saying that our present focus is on the regional channels as we feel they can surge ahead faster.

With a market share of eight per cent, Sahara Samay Rashtriya must be languishing at the bottom of the Hindi news channel heap.
Well, our national channel has been ahead of the likes of Channel7 (rechristened IBN7 after management takeover by the TV18 Group), India TV and Doordarshan News. That’s small comfort, but I feel over the next few months Sahara Samay Rashtriya should be increasing its market share up to 9.5 per cent and then we would be certainly ahead of three channels mentioned. A slackness had been witnessed, which is being corrected now.

The flip side, of course, is to aspire for the No. 1 slot. But we understand ground realities and are not reaching for the moon.

The perception about Sahara Samay news venture is that frequent structural and manpower changes have impeded a smooth growth. Your comments.
The slackness that I was talking about was partly due to internal changes that have been happening, which, I feel, should not be read out of context. Especially for an operation of this scale by a corporate group that has diversified business interests (Sahara group is active in the fields of small savings, airlines, real estate, entertainment and print and electronic media).

Ups and downs in any business are natural and Sahara group’s television news venture is not an exception. However, I don’t mind saying that our prime focus is on the city-specific channels as we feel that’s where the audience and money are.

If that’s the case, then why not wind up the national news channel?
Why should we? It’s not a white elephant and incremental costs are manageable. Having a national channel, which is a by product of city-specific channels, also helps us in creating inventories that can be sold.

What are the expansion plans for regional channels?
We would be adding more cities through time bands on our state-specific channels. Our target is to have 60 bureaus throughout India. We will also get into other Indian languages like Bengali with a news channel for West Bengal and surrounding areas. There are plans to go to South India and Punjab too. We are in the business of (city-specific) appointment news viewing and we will expand further between first and second quarter of 2007.

Presently, we are consolidating revenue-wise as far as city-specific channels are concerned. We had not been able to adequately monetize our audience base up till now, but a new marketing push is being given as response from advertisers has been very encouraging. Our ad revenue has increased almost three-fold in the last six months compared to the corresponding period a year ago. I can also add that most big brands now are either on board or in the process of being so.

What’s more, by December all the regional news channels from the Sahara stable should break even. The UP channel is almost poised to break even ahead of others.

How much would have Sahara invested by now in its TV news project?
I would not be able to reveal those figure, but operational expenses of our news channels is between RS 20-RS 25 million per channel per month. That is also because we do a lot of cost optimization by sharing resources. However, a large investment has gone into fixed assets like state-of-the-art studios and equipment.

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