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Talk of an enterprise built sans the ubiquitous e-mail communication of today, and you have Brand Republic. Arnab Goswami, Managing Director, Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of Republic – part of the ARG Outlier Media Private Limited – says he and CEO Vikas Khanchandani may have exchanged as few as one or two mails in the entire year since the launch of Republic TV on May 6, 2017, preferring to communicate through WhatsApp instead. But that did not deter Republic TV from consistently gaining top ratings in the English news genre since its launch. Now, for the company that says it has “more than achieved” its first year targets, it will be interesting to see the strategy it adopts to fuel that growth momentum in Year 2 of its existence.

What Goswami is betting on is “Digital, Digital and Digital” to take the company forward. “I am very excited about Digital, and I am steadily moving there,” he says.

But operating as it does in a niche genre, it remains to be seen how Republic’s Digital+TV strategy pans out. One challenge will be driving engagement and appointment viewing, as a media planner who did not want to be named mentions that the average time spent by a viewer on an English news channel is only 3-4 minutes per day.

Republic has been dogged with controversies since its inception, be it the name of the channel or its investors or the potential of conflict of interest and what not. Post its launch, the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) called out Republic TV for allegedly using “tactics to claim a high viewership” and sent a plea to the Broadcast Audience Research Council of India (BARC) to delay the release of its viewership data. Much drama followed in the days to follow, with all English news channels, except Republic TV, pulling out of BARC, only to return a week later.

An innovate strategy adopted by Republic TV at launch was coining the term ‘founding partners’, and this included advertisers such as Vivo, Jio Digital Life, Renault, Hike, Ola, Star India, Yes Bank and Microsoft who had associated with the channel before launch. While most of the founder advertisers have continued their association, the channel has also locked in a few more long-term partnerships over the last quarter.

The tie-up with Hotstar, Star India’s OTT platform, that had associated with a news channel for the first time, worked for Republic in multiple ways. With Hotstar being the largest OTT player, a presence here guaranteed reach and impact that was required to establish Republic on the Digital platform and lent it brand salience. Additionally, Republic was able to gain strategic insights from the platform, in terms of consumer behaviour on its content, and this was leveraged into the Digital strategies that went into its own digital platforms. Commenting on this association, Goswami says, “We launched with an innovative strategy on Hotstar and got one million people on Day 1. I remember that Star congratulated us for what we had achieved. It’s not always about monetizing the content, but about making your channel and your product available.”

Meanwhile, Republic has tied up with other OTT platforms, the latest being Sony Liv that has just come on board. “We have an extensive digital distribution strategy and our aim is to mirror our broadcast reach in a short period of time,” Khanchandani says. Republic has also forged content partnerships with many media outlets, specifically regional players. These include partnerships with Asianet News, Suvarna News, Polimer TV (Tamil Nadu), OTV (Odia), News Live (Assam), and North East Live, amongst others.

Q] This is the third time that you have been involved in building a business ground-up, after NDTV and Aidem Ventures. How would you describe the experience of setting up Republic TV?
I feel blessed to have experienced some amazing journeys working with building businesses ground up. With NDTV in 2004, we built a new marketplace especially with English news and that was exciting. With Aidem Ventures in 2010, it was about stabilizing and then building a strong services business and creating new business opportunities within technology and Digital. Republic has been one of the most exciting opportunities thus far, where I get to be part of a young, charged and driven team that keeps pushing the boundaries. I feel completely empowered to build the business with a talented bunch of colleagues and we look at opportunities as intrapreneurs. Republic has been one of the finest television launches in the country and the first year has been exhilarating. Our successful start has given us a significant heads-up and a strong base that will help us build a profitable business.

Q] Tell us about the growth in revenues and viewership?
Post launch of Republic TV, the average weekly English news genre viewership increased by 41% as compared to the 11-week period before launch, according to BARC. Republic TV broke records in the first week of its launch, and has retained its Number 1 ranking for the past 51 weeks. As a new entrant, Republic TV had to convert the audience affinity for Arnab Goswami into a sustainable news channel in the broadcast space. At the end of our first financial year ending March 31, 2018, which was a period of 10.5 months; our objective has been met. In terms of revenue size from commercial airtime sans content projects, the channel is the new leader in the genre.

Q] In terms of ad-rates, where are you placed compared to competition?
Our advertising rates are premium and commensurate with the performance of the channel. Our flagship shows, ‘The Debate with Arnab Goswami at 9’ and at 10 pm along with his weekend shows are monetized as impact properties and deliver a massive 50-70% market-share, thereby helping brands build visibility without having to spread their investment. We have a large gap between us and our competitors on performance and pricing. A large part of our advertising deals were long term and we have seen significant growth from last year’s investments.

‘I am far more reflective today, and hopefully a more mature person’
Arnab Goswami’s desk is adorned with a framed picture of freedom-fighter Bhagat Singh presented to him by his son, a caricature of Rahul and Sonia Gandhi’s agitated reaction to the former’s famous interview with Goswami and a hand-written, framed copy of Republic TV’s first ever ratings, which shows the channel at the top. While these give a glimpse into the persona of Goswami, he says that launching Republic has made him a more mature person. He also says that Republic has made him reflective and upped his ability to delegate better. Here are excerpts from a conversation with Goswami.
Q] There is a perception that Republic TV is proestablishment... how would you respond to that?
That’s complete rubbish because nobody has been more critical of the Government than us. In fact, Kathua and Unnao (rape cases) would not have been national issues had it not been for the manner in which Republic went after the ruling dispensations hammer and tongs, both in Jammu & Kashmir as well as in Uttar Pradesh, both areas where the BJP is in power. We have had the most independent coverage on all these issues. That perception has no basis.

Q] What is your take on the I&B Ministry’s recent circular on fake news and then withdrawing it at the PMO’s behest?
Fake news is a problem area and if anybody says that fake news is not a problem it will be wrong. Also, what’s happening is that there are certain digital news organizations, with clear political funding, who call themselves fake news busters; that’s not right. If there is direct and indirect support from a politician or a political lobby, then you can’t be independent and call yourself fake news busters. However, the way the I&B Ministry was looking at it, it wasn’t the right way. I have not seen the note in detail, I am no fan of that note, but it was one page out of some recommendations. I haven’t read the whole set of recommendations in detail.

Q] How do you maintain a work-life balance?
There is no balance! However, I am taking Sundays off now, which I didn’t take during the first six months. But, have I been able to take 3-4 days off together? No. I have taken two days at the most. But, it’s a startup, it’s a big place, it’s grown so fast. What can one expect? It’s all work, but I really enjoy what I am doing and I am really immersed into it. I have become more a student here at Republic. I have understood that there is so much more to understand about people’s responses to news, what works and what doesn’t. In the last few months, we have just been assessing what to do next. I usually need two new things to do every year. In the last 12 months, I have done only one. So, I am getting fairly restless. In the next six months, I will do a few new things and create new brands and products.

Q] What is different about the Arnab of today compared to Arnab a couple of years ago?
I have fulfilled phase one of my dream, that’s the difference. I feel very responsible as an entrepreneur. I think I delegate better now and have realized that my organization’s growth will be dependent on mine and the team’s ability to think strategically. I am very grateful today for what we have achieved. My whole team also feels a sense of gratitude and a blessing, because this does not happen often. We did not have some large mega bucks or mega organizations backing us and I feel very blessed that we have been able to do it. The best thing is that we have proven that we are not a flash in the pan and are a steady, growing player. One thing that I have learnt is that nothing can defeat a bunch of professionals who are driven by a honest spirit of enterprise. Secondly, there is space for new players to come in. There will be resistance from the older players, but nobody owns the media. All of this bunched together, I think, have made me far more reflective and hopefully a more mature person today.

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