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Avinash Kaul on Network18’s news business growth, TRAI tariff order impact & landing page row

The network saw a 48% YoY improvement in subscription revenue

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MUMBAI: Propelled by the ad spend on general elections, subscription revenue growth and the strength of its regional network, the news business of Network18 delivered solid numbers in the first quarter. The television news business grew 29 per cent as compared to the corresponding quarter last year, with a rise in news viewership share to 10.1 per cent from 9.3 per cent post TRAI’s new tariff order implementation. The broadcaster witnessed a 48 per cent YoY improvement in subscription revenue and a doubling of the Hindi news ad-revenue. From an EBITDA loss last year, Q1 FY20 saw a jump in profitability to Rs 20 crore. For a deeper insight into the network’s performance, future growth and other issues faced by the news broadcast business, Indiantelevision.com engaged A+ E Networks | TV18 managing director and Network18 CEO broadcast news Avinash Kaul in a freewheeling chat.

Standalone news business revenue grew 29 per cent. Can you give us some colour on that?

Primarily, we have been reworking our channels and consolidating the regional and national networks. Our ratings have significantly improved over the last two-three years. All the effect of whatever we have done to propel ratings for in the recent past not only resulted in us being the number one news network, but also came in handy at the time of elections. When you have a large news network in the largest democracy, we were bound to get good traction from advertisers (ad spends during elections). In addition to that, there is obviously the new tariff order (NTO).

The NTO obviously took away a lot of sheen from what our original plan might have been in its initial stages. It brought in some rough weather for everybody especially for pay channels including us. So there is no hesitation in saying that it did create a lot of rough weather for us initially. But thankfully we were able to surmount most of the challenges and by the end of the quarter we were back on top, but we did take a dip. We went down to 9.3 per cent of the overall channel share from around 10.1 per cent because of NTO transition and decision to stay pay. That call though eventually benefited us because it helped fetch us a 48 per cent growth in subscription revenue.

Thirdly, we have continuously been on a path of cost-cutting, that’s been an ongoing effort. We integrated our regional and national networks and analysed the synergies and duplication. Those benefits are now starting to play out.

Which segments have been the key growth drivers within the news business?

Hindi and regional have been at the forefront of this growth. I am breaking Hindi and regional separately because Hindi grew on the back of the superlative performance of News18 India. Languages come second. English has been fairly muted especially because it also comprises business segment which is not an election mainstay. So, very clearly growth was driven by general news and within that, it was driven by Hindi and regional.

Have you identified any standout regional language markets?

Biggest advertising markets are Bengali, Marathi and the Southern states. There are no surprises there. Other markets are relatively small in nature like Assam and Odisha They are not as big as the established markets.

Have you witnessed an advertising slowdown in the months of June and July?

Yes if you see, after a high of the election, there has come a slowdown. There was also the World Cup. There is a certain amount of threshold which got built in the month of June, which also continues in July as well. There are no two ways about that. There are economic headwinds. But the festive season is also not too far away. So we are hoping we should see some revival in August which will continue in September and the rest of the year.

You witnessed a 48 per cent growth in subscription revenues. Will you be able to carry forward this momentum or do you expect some churn going forward?

If you remember the initial NTO days, there were people who did not have a clue what package to take or not to take. Even the subscriber management system, cable headends and the DTH operators were not ready to deliver that diversity. So, the settlement will take time. People will begin to figure out the prices. An aspect that has emerged through my conversations with most of the industry leaders is NTOs on dual TV homes. With increasing cable bills, they have taken a rational call on channel selection for the second TV. Several other factors like the conclusion of the World Cup, children’s holidays will contribute to the churn.

Some consumers will make their choice, while others will opt for broadcaster packs or DPO packs. So, I don’t think everything is settled or everything is perfectly fine. The fine-tuning continues. I am expecting this entire fiscal will see some sort of settlement. The percentage has come down, you will not see that kind of volatility. The good part is despite the challenges, it’s a step in the right direction because subscription has got a boost. We are hoping that will continue in the next quarter. Unlike advertising scenario, which is dependent on events and situation of economy, this is more immune to those kinds of activities.

The growth of business news channels has been fairly muted. How do you intend to deliver change this scenario?

Business channels are facing a challenge not only for us but as a segment across. There is a certain amount of reinvention required in the entire genre whether it’s from a content or advertiser perspective. Now real-estate is in bad shape, automobile is not that great, banking sector has huge NPAs on its books, IPOs are not that great and general economy is not that great.

There is a certain amount of cyclical softness that emerges and unfortunately, these cycles are not advertising cycles. These are business cycles. There is a need for a certain amount of introspection, cost control measures while trends like movement to digital and other things are happening. The challenge is to reinvent the product and see how we can make certain offerings to advertisers in the market in order for them to see things in a different light. It could also very well mean that more emphasis on subscription than advertising sales than ever before at least for this sector. So, it depends. For a business model to pivot, it takes a longer time and that’s the journey most of us are in.

As a network, what do you expect from the remainder of the year?

We continue to invest and stay invested in content. We have an ambition of not only maintaining our market share (currently around 10.3-10.4 per cent with all channels) but to make sure that we get higher. I would really peg it at 15 per cent by the end of this year. We are the largest player in the segment and by that, we have a certain amount of responsibility on us to make sure we reinvent and grow the genre along with us. That will keep us motivated for this year.

What is your subscription to advertising revenue ratio?

Honestly, this will be a better conversation to have at the end of this financial year. This is just the first quarter and it has several factors like cricket and elections influencing it. There is general stress in most English channels. Some of these models will pivot very differently. Several things like the effect of the best-fit plans need to settle down. So it’s early. Personally, I’m very keen to know what that ratio will be at the end of the year. It also has a bearing on all the employees of the sector.

The ongoing landing page issue has the potential to impact the ecosystem’s dynamics. Your views?

Either it works for all or works for none, we are okay either way. What we are not okay with is the manual intervention (BARC’s data validation and outlier policy), which benefits some people, not others. If it will completely go away, we have no qualms, we will be the happiest. We do want a level playing field. We do not want somebody getting extra benefits because of X or Y reasons. Primarily that’s what our standpoint is.

So, your issue is at a systemic level?

It is a systemic issue. There are channels that launched on the back of these things. Any kind of manual intervention is not good for any system. There is no document to see on what basis this manual intervention is happening. Even the (BARC) technical committee has not issued an advisory to state what the basis of these moderation policies are. We are not comfortable with this arbitrary situation. Why would anybody want to do that? We are not a fly-by-night operator; we want transparency in the system and a level-playing field.

What has been the impact of the new tariff order on lifestyle and factual entertainment brands?

The impact of the NTO varies from genre to genre. Both History and FYI are part of Colors value pack. So, they were available wherever Colors was available. Today FYI is the largest lifestyle channel in India and History is a very close second to Discovery. We cannot take away the fact that Discovery is in existence for more than 25 years now and History is eight years old. These things take time to catch up.

From an advertising front, there are same issues that general English entertainment channels and factual entertainment channels are facing. So, business is not as usual. There is an impact but you cannot attribute it directly to NTO right now because there were elections, IPL and the World Cup. We are hoping for a certain amount of resurgence now. But obviously subscription comes in handy and our cost control measures are always there. So, from a profitability perspective, we are on track.

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