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CNN IBN: Combining speed with solidity

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 Mid-December 2004, when a new English language news channel went on air in the already cluttered Indian sky, the first question that came to everybody's mind, including the sceptics: will the market support another channel?

But CNN-IBN, a service of Time Warner and Television Eighteen (listed companies in the US and India, respectively) launched on 17 December 2005, was confident that it would be able to make a dent.

Though optimism stems from the fact that competition in the English language news market is not as tough as in the Hindi space, which has over 10 national and region-specific players, sustainability is the key word to long-term success. Why?

Sample some facts: total media advertising market, including cinema, is worth Rs 132 billion, out of which the share of television is approximately Rs 54 billion. Of this, television news corners Rs 6 billion. But fighting for a bite of this ad pie are over 25 Indian and international news channels, making the Indian market, probably, a unique place on the globe with so many players and lusting for more.

While Hindi news channels, led by Aaj Tak, Star News, NDTV India and Zee News, corner a big share of the news television advertising, their English counterparts do manage a fair share. Especially those English news channels that are majority controlled and owned by Indian companies.

So, when editor-in-chief of English language CNN-IBN Rajdeep Sardesai says that there's still "scope for a good English news channel," he's trying to say the Rs. 6 billion ad pie is growing, albeit slowly, and a good product may just manage to expand the market further.

As we take a first look at the over-a-month old CNN-IBN, it's important to see who the competitors are. The English news space is dominated by NDTV 24x7, followed by the likes of Aaj Tak's sibling Headlines Today, CNN, BBC and business channels CNBC TV18 (not necessarily in that order). In a few days’ time, a Times Group (publishers of Times of India) and Reuters service, Times Now, too will join the English bandwagon.

After NDTV managing editor Rajdeep Sardesai left the company in 2005 to join hands with professionals like Sameer Manchanda and TV Eighteen CEO Haresh Chawla and TV Eighteen Group promoter Raghav Bahl to form Global Broadcast Network (GBN), industry's expectations rose on a slew channels that GBN promised it would float.

GBN, which has stitched a licencing deal with CNN for its first offering CNN-IBN, took over six months to cobble together a team comprising industry veterans, poaching heavily from NDTV.

Established faces like Anubha Bhosle, Bhupendra Choubey, Prabhakar Kumar and Sardesai mingle with an array of comparative newcomers and not-so-new ones such as Sagarika Ghosh and Suman Chakrabarti to make a team blending, in Sardesai's words, the aggressiveness of Virender Sehwag and solidity of Rahul Dravid to form a Sachin Tendulkar. But why have an anchor who resembles NDTV 24x7's managing editor Barkha Dutt?

Says Sardesai, "There is scope of improvement everywhere. Any channel wants to constantly improve. The worst thing you can do in a channel is to be smug or complacent. It has been a great (one) month in terms of stories broken by us."

An added advantage of CNN-IBN is that it's leveraging some of the manpower of CNBC TV18, especially credible and known TV personalities like Karan Thapar and Anurradha Sengupta (host of Storyboard on CNBC TV18). Result: an interesting interview of Pakistani president general Musharraf by Karan Thapar and an engaging tête-à-tête author Vikram `A Suitable Boy' Seth had with Sengupta.

On-air look & logo

The on-air look is pleasing without being cluttered and refrains from overloading the viewer with information simultaneously. This seemingly CNN-inspired look --- especially the morning show --- does impart the channel a clean-cut image.

The logo, CNN-IBN, at the bottom left hand side of the screen with an image of the revolving globe as the dot of IBN's `I' definitely imparts a sense of dynamism and movement that NEWS ideally should denote.

Partner CNN sticks to its now world famous red coloured logo, while IBN in white stands out on a reddish background. Indeed, the co-branding agreement with CNN has lent its distinct flavour to the logo too.

Pointing out that many aspects of the channel are still in an evolutionary phase, Sardesai admits, "The good thing is that we are a young product and can make changes."

The on-air look and logo was designed in-house by CNN-IBN Vipul Panchal and Television Eighteen Sanjay Raychowdhury.

Content

The channel's philosophy is to give all aspects of news, sans jargon and as simply as possible. The way traditional journalists will treat an issue, trying to do a 360 degree examination. In short, CNN-IBN attempts to blend the sharpness and speed of Aaj Tak, which redefined the Hindi news space to a large extent, with the depth and experience of NDTV.

"In our existence till now, the best compliment that I have received is that we are Aaj Tak in English," Sardesai states, paying a backhanded compliment to the Hindi news market leader.

But somewhere the grounding in NDTV of Sardesai and his other senior associates does filter through news analyses, chats shows and debates sprinkled across the channel interspersing the news bulletins.

But a serious attempt has been made to keep a hawk's eye on the watch and not continue endlessly. That viewers' attention is difficult to stretch is something that CNN-IBN team has learnt from the first day.

No wonder a studio discussion on the buyout of Air Sahara by Jet Airways, which was conducted by Sardesai in the late night edition, was snappy enough to let the representatives of the two airlines make their points lucidly without letting them meander all over the place.

Current affairs shows extend to areas like business, sport and

entertainment, though the business segment does look bland compared to other sections. This despite CNN-IBN doing watchable business news features occasionally like the one on the facts behind the privatisation of airports in Mumbai and Delhi and how unsafe there two premier airports are. Why isn't the channel leveraging CNBC TV18's expertise in this area more?

But one has to admit that with Sardesai's knowledge of cricket and contacts in the sporting world --- his father Dilip Sardesai played cricket for India --- one of the best showcase for the newly-launched channel was an edition of LoC (as in Love of Cricket and not Line of Control) just ahead of the Indo-Pakistan cricket series that featured cricketing greats Imran Khan and Kapil Dev.

However, a media critic on the condition of anonymity pointed out that CNN-IBN will have to have some “serious differentiators to stand apart from NDTV”, which has defined to a large extent the way English news is presented and consumed.

Sardesai's riposte: "There is a (set) format to 24 hour news channel that no one can really break beyond a point. To that extent, there will always be similarities and let's not forget NDTV has been around for 10 years. But, at the same time, those who see us see us as a different product."

What are the other cool spots on the channel? World 360, India 360, Devil's Advocate and E 360.

Content treatment

The channel covers important economic, political, sporting and social issues. The morning band is comparatively `lighter' compared to the latter half of the day. Political news does have a major share.

Over the weekend, the channel airs shows that focus on prominent personalities. So, you have a surprisingly disarming Vikram `A Suitable Boy' Seth in a lucid conversation with Anurradha Sengupta on a leisurely Sunday.

The channel covers news like any other news channel, but still tries to stand apart in its treatment. Take, for example, the issue of endangered species vis-à-vis environment and displacing of tribal people in areas of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

Nothing unusual. Viewers have been pumped with this news time and again, but the way the story was delivered by CNN-IBN, especially with an eye on endangered species, made an impact as viewers did not feel being part of just a passive audience.

Points out Sardesai, finding out the unusual and then not giving into sensationalism, while making the audience feel part of the whole development, is one of the USPs of the channel.

"We do plan to take interactivity beyond the SMSs (short text messages on cellular phones) and online voting to bring in greater degree of viewer involvement. But for that you'll have to wait for some more time," he gives a sneak preview of things to come on CNN-IBN.

Though it claims to be breaking news almost everyday, as emphasized by Sardesai and some politicians too whom Indiantelevision.com spoke to in Delhi, the channel's big day was when it stumbled upon the information that the law minister in the Congress-led government in New Delhi has ordered for de-freezing of foreign bank accounts of an Italian accused in a multi-billion rupee Bofors (gun) scandal that had rocked the Indian Army and the then Congress government almost two decades back.

Sensing that the story was God-sent ammunition to fuel the prospects of a new channel, CNN-IBN went to town with it, but refrained from resorting to sensationalism. In the process, the news channel set the agenda for the national media in rare instance and also cornered some market share.

In an effort to connect with the Gen-X, who form an important target audience for the news channel, CNN-IBN has attempted to keep its programming format casual and chic without being flippant. So, when some of its reporters sign off saying `bye’ with a big smile, it doesn’t look odd or irritating. Nor does it insinuate that the report being taken up has been trivialized.

The website & other aspects

All news channels have their own websites these days where not only news is updated in text format, but also streamed. But CNN-IBN's website, www.ibnlive.com, has added an interesting facet by coming up with a blog section.

The blog section not only serves as a place for senior editors to comment on various issues, but gives reporters and other channel professionals a chance to air their views and divulge behind-the-scene information related to stories and their coverage.

The first entry in this section is, of course, by Sardesai who speaks about the launch and people's expectations that form part of the big challenge.

It is also interesting to see the way the channel is being marketed for promotional activities by liberally using big names from the world of showbiz, sports, and politics who testify for the channel.

The list itself is mind-boggling. From reigning demi-gods of Hindi cinema Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan to former Miss Universe Sushmita Sen, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, Olympic medalist and ace shooter Harshvardhan Rathore (“keep the nation well-informed”) to music maestro Zubin Mehta (who watches "CNN-IBN everyday") all have encouraging words for CNN-IBN.

According to data provided by CNN-IBN, the channel's viewership has grown 50 per cent since its launch. Presently, 13.3 million individuals tune into CNN-IBN weekly. The proportion of NDTV 24x7 viewers who are also watching CNN-IBN is increasing --- up from 27 per cent in launch week (17 December 2004) to 35 per cent at present.

But an apt summation comes from a merchant banker who tracks media companies with enthusiasm even as he scouts for investment opportunities for his company. He says, "When you watch CNN correspondent Nic Robertson providing you the details (on CNN-IBN), it does provide an edge over NDTV 24x7. Still, CNN-IBN has a long way to go as it is not easy to dislodge the leader."

This is something that the promoters of GBN and even Sardesai would be constantly reminded of. Till at least a year from now when the channel will celebrate its first birthday and have more substantial results to show.

(Rs. 44=1US$)

ALSO READ:

Ad pie big enough to sustain a good product: Rajdeep Sardesai

Pictures by SANJAY SHARMA/Indiapix Network

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