'Channels will stop chasing TRPs if we had a proper subscription revenue model:' Vikram Chandra

In an industry where people change jobs every few years in order to quickly climb the ranks, his association spanning more than two decades with Dr Prannoy Roy’s NDTV Group speaks volumes about his commitment and stability. One of India’s leading journalists, he now helms NDTV Group as executive director and CEO. He is also the executive chairperson of the company’s online venture - NDTV Convergence.

What’s more, even with the increasing managerial responsibilities, he manages to find time to anchor shows like Gadget Guru and The Big Fight and therein reflects his love for the Fourth Estate. He also flirted with the pen when he wrote his first fiction thriller titled The Srinagar Conspiracy in the year 2000. He is none other than Vikram Chandra.

With many a feathers in his cap, Chandra is now well poised to take NDTV to newer heights with the expansion in the digital space. Tapping new avenues, NDTV now has its fingers dipped in multiple segments like wedding, fashion, auto, gadgets et al… and all under Chandra’s stewardship.

In a chat with’s Megha Parmar, Chandra sheds light on his journey, NDTV’s businesses ventures, cable TV digitisation, social media and the road ahead for the company.

Read on for excerpts:

NDTV is now expanding its digital footprint with gadgets, auto and retail. What drives you towards digital despite being a traditional broadcaster?

This has been one of NDTV’s key strategies from a long time. Going digital is a key part of NDTV from several years. Way back in 1999 and 2000s, we started to believe that Internet is going to be a dominant part of our lives. While TV is still a core part of our DNA and plays an important role in everything that we do, we then wanted to expand into digital from a long time.

Today, people can consume the same NDTV news though different streams. You can watch it on your TV, phone and the NDTV app. There are different ways to get the content that we are enabling for people. Going forward, we took a decision that there were individual niche areas where we want to make a major impact. That is what we are building on from the past couple of years; be it food, auto, wedding, retail and there are other things also coming into place.

How much does digital contribute towards the company’s revenue?

Digital’s contribution to the company’s revenues has been growing. It used to be around three - four per cent sometime back, but today because digital revenues are growing at a faster rate, digital accounts 20 – 22 per cent of NDTV’s revenue. The number is growing rapidly.

What was the idea behind NDTV entering the online wedding market?

Everything that we are doing in these areas has a very specific planned execution strategy. We thought it is a good proposition to be in and we got into it. We followed the same thing with Gadgets360 and the other portals. In weddings, we have found the same niche that we think is going to be very attractive. 

Are revenues from television on the decline?

The revenue from TV has grown over the years and will continue to grow. It’s just that the revenues from digital are growing at a faster rate almost at 15 per cent a year from a long period of time. While the share of digital revenue is increasing, it’s not that the TV revenues are declining.

How long before revenue from digital will surpass that from television?

We’re a long way from there. There is a lot of action going on TV also and we are also expecting regulatory changes to happen soon. If everything goes fine, the revenues from TV will also grow at a faster rate. There is no competition between the two. As long as the both are growing and are doing well, that is what we want.

What are your plans with Gadgets360 and Auto? Do you see enough monetisation opportunities?

Gadgets360 is by now a very dominant property. It is not just the number one gadget site in the country, it’s four or five times far than the number two in the entire world and has gained a very massive position. With Gadgets360, we tend to hold a position of considerable dominance in the space. If the people want to buy a gadget and want to know about anything related to it be it news or reviews, they have to refer to some or the other NDTV’s properties. It gives us a good position to build a strong community around the gadget loving and gadget dying population. We have now started to do some select launches of individual products that we think are interesting on the website. Many e-commerce transactions have also started to happen on Gadgets360 and the initial response has been quite astonishing. The first two three phones that we tried to sell were sold out in a month’s time, which surprised us. So now we are planning to do more such things, which will surprise us in many other ways.

Auto is an area where we have built a powerful franchise over a long period of time. We have a good combination of content like and technology package combined with good engineering. This will help the auto portal also scale up both from the content side and from the transactions point of view.

Do you see enough monetisation opportunities in Gadgets360 and Auto?

Gadgets360 is doing well for us and has stayed ahead of our expectations. The monetisation is coming in. Once you have strong communication in various communities, it’s not just an attractive proposition from the revenue point of view but also from advertising. From an advertiser’s perspective, where else would you want to put your money than on a leading portal in that space? If you have a leading tech, auto or food content portal, that’s where you will want to put your money. Auto is also emerging successfully.

What kind of investment is being pumped in for these new ventures?

Well these have raised funds already. Food is the recent one, which has raised funds to the tune of $12 million roughly. Each of these have been visualised as an individual entity and they have a life of their own. Each of them have been done in a very entrepreneurial manner like start-ups. We don’t have the group dynamics playing; it’s all done by individual entrepreneurial team. They have raised their own money including some of the top investors.

Can you share your overall plans for NDTV Convergence? It's already the leader in its space but now there have been others joining in too.

There will always be competition and that’s good. We are not scared of the competition. The more the activity and action in the field, the more it will help in growing the market. Today, only a small fraction of our population has access to the internet but the number of people who are going to use the service five years down the line is huge. It’s a vast untapped market. If more people come in, it will just expand the market. So far, with competition, it has not changed our position, market share or even the traffic that we get. We are in a comfortable position.

In the age of clutter, competition & multiple start-ups mushrooming in the country, how does NDTV plan to have an edge over the others in the new areas that it has ventured into? 

There are things that we do and focus on. So far we have managed the competition right. If you look at the page views or the traffic, it’s clear that there are a couple of clear leaders and while a few competitors are at some distance behind. We know how to manage the space.

How do you see digitisation changing the game in India for broadcasters in terms of content, revenues, etc?

Digitisation was always anticipated to be a game changer but to some extent we are disappointed. What is causing disappointment in the market is that the business models have not changed after digitisation.

Digitisation was supposed to transform the business models for broadcasters where distribution revenues start to become a very major contributor, where subscription money starts to flow and also lower the reliance on advertising. That was the logic that digitisation was supposed to drive.

There was also a strong economic business rational for this that in analog systems you only had 40 slots for 200 channels but now you have no capacity constraints. What we really would want to see in 2016 is concerting actions to be taken especially by the government and the regulators to try and persuade people that the model needs to change and formulate what the correct model should be.

There is an effect on the content model as well. If subscription revenues were robust, then it sets up a business model where quality channels will have money to invest in quality content and a channel’s revenue will be based on subscription and not around chasing the advertising. Then what will be the need of content if one is chasing advertising? It’s not only chasing advertising; the channels are chasing TRPs, which is to some extent evident in the news space. They are clearly following tabloid type of news content, creating sensationalism and other things that are basically designed to get more TRPs. If you had a proper model wherein channels could make money from subscription, then people will not want to chase the TRP game. They will do good quality content and would gain some money from subscription.

How much importance do you give social media? Do social media insights play a vital role in penning down your strategy?

Social media is a very powerful tool and helps people connect with each other. There are obviously issues around and you should not think that social media is everything, which sometimes you pretend to do. Social media sometimes acts as a platform for the loudest voices but with a disproportionate scare. For a journalist too, it’s one of the first bases where you might get breaking news and information about what’s happening around you. But you do need to be careful about how you use social media and how you engage with social media. You should not believe on everything that goes around.

Having said that, I don’t think social media plays any key role in driving our strategy back at NDTV.

The credibility of a news story is now defined by a trending hashtag. If your story leads to a trending tag, it's a successful story, otherwise it's not. Is it a fair proposition?

I don’t agree to that. It’s good to have your story trending but you can do a very successful strong and powerful story, which does not necessarily need to trend. It should not be the only metric. As a journalist, I think that it’s not necessary that something that drives more clarity or will trend means that it’s the only form of journalism you can do. You can still do very powerful journalism in various areas, which may not drive TRPs or trend on Twitter.

Do trending #tags like presstitutes bother you?

I think on social media a lot of the language and discourses have become disappointing. The language used, at times, is inappropriate. There are some people using abusive language. I think this is dangerous as at times you will find accusations, which aren’t true. People are straightforward and mature and also are definitely using social media for the right purpose but there is a possibility that they sometimes might pick up something, which is incorrect or not accurate and is a total fabrication. Someone will put something on social media and then it will be re-tweeted repeatedly and will be passed around, which is not true and will cause damage. 

Social media has helped us in democratically using the voice of the people. Anyone can access it and express their views on anything, which should be rolled forward. But everything has a sad part attached to it and here the issue is about how we control the worst impulses of a few people putting something, which is invalid or not factual. We have to find a solution to how we can control such things from taking place on social media.

Suppose a journalist is doing a hard hitting story like on child smuggling or malnutrition or about what is going in the Vidarbha region; these are not negative stories but are strong powerful development stories and may lead to some transformation happening in one place or other.

We often hear people commenting on why we don’t publish positive stories or development stories. The answer is, these stories are done but are not the kind of social stories that will either make TRPs or be trending on Twitter. You do a great story on solar power and publish it; it will not work that much. But the story should be done. We should find ways to tweak the model that those stories are done on and are broadcast without anyone worrying about TRPs or trends.

How important are ratings in the larger scheme of things?

Ratings are a currency. TRPs will always reward a certain type of content over another type of content. That is one another intrinsic problem with the rating system. Now we are seeing new methods of measurement also coming out with a much larger monitoring system and a larger sample of people, which is interesting. At some point, I am sure BARC India and others will start monitoring digital data as many consume news not only from television but also from live streams.

For a long time, NDTV has not been trying to sell on the basis of TRPs alone. I think the sales team has done a great job. Many of the powerful and important brands are keen to be a part of NDTV now.

Is digital gradually taking over TV when it comes to news? What should TV players be doing to keep the audience intact?

I don’t think it is going to be an either or situation… just as television and print have co-existed from such a long time. It’s not that after the invention of TV the newspapers shut down. Digital is another facet of it.

We at NDTV are content providers and will provide content to  consumers in whichever format we can. It will be on TV, desktops, mobiles, etc. Wherever the consumer is consuming content, we will be there in that space. We are visible in most of the areas. So I think TV and digital will go together.

From Doon School to journalism to Chief Executive Officer, how would you define your journey so far?

Well, it’s been an interesting journey. I have worn so many hats so far. I have always enjoyed my years as a journalist and I still enjoy my anchoring. I get a lot of satisfaction especially from things like the special projects that I do and the big campaigns in which I play an active role as an anchor.

Other than Gadget Guru and The Big Fight, I don’t get to do so much journalistically, which taps some area of regret within me. 

What role has Dr Prannoy Roy played in your career?

He has been a guide and a mentor in more ways than one. I went to TV because I saw Prannoy anchoring a show. That’s when I decided to make a career in the same field. He has been a role model for me and many of us. I wouldn’t have been a journalist if it wouldn’t have been for him.

What can we expect from NDTV in the coming year?

We are hoping for another change in the TV business model in 2016. On TV, we will continue to target growth and profitability. We will focus on our three basic aspects of TV, i.e. digital content, TV  and e-commerce business. Each have their own targets and matrices against which we will be evaluating them. We will go to the bottom line and get the profitability up as much possible.

In digital content, we will try to consolidate our leadership position. On the e-commerce side, this is a crucial and critical year of all our new ventures that we are launching and we are hoping that the success that they have seen in the initial stage will turn into strong marketing business model.

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