Can Times Network create a dent in the Hindi news space, with the upcoming Times Now Navbharat SD or will the absence of TRPs during launch prove to be tricky for the network?
With a firm presence for well over a decade and a half in the English news space, riding on marquee channels like Times Now, ET Now and Mirror Now - Times Network had earlier this year taken a plunge into the Hindi news genre with the launch of Times Now Navbharat HD and ET Now Swadesh. With the latest foray of Times Now Navbharat into the mass SD space, Times Network has declared itself as a serious contender in the battle for the Hindi heartland.
Talking about the upcoming launch of Times Now Navbharat in SD, MK Anand, MD & CEO of Times Network says, “As we set foot in the hindi genre with Times Now Navbharat HD, we optimized for the discerning upscale viewer first, focussing on quality of content, programming and speed. We also laid special emphasis on the design & packaging of the channel to suit HD resolution. Which means, even before entering the important SD space, we have ensured that the product and all key aspects were top notch. We have used this interim period to fine tune the entire apparatus including the right people, brand elements and operational efficiencies. So the SD launch comes with a fully functional and ready product. All we needed to do is to open the distribution channels.”
In 2020, news being the only fresh content available to viewers on TV, saw a 27% jump in viewership over 2019, the highest jump by a genre in the pandemic year. Its overall genre share stood at 10%, showing the massive appetite India has for news, as per the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India’s annual ‘What India Watched’ report for 2020. There were also occasions when the Hindi News genre overtook the GECs to become the most watched genre on Television, at a time when the pandemic was at its peak in 2020. Even after the ratings blackout by BARC, the genre has seen new entrants as also existing players launching fresh channels like Good News Today.
On competing with super anchors in the Hindi news space
We’re just trying to make space for ourselves and attempting to grow the pie of news watchers. The viewers don’t necessarily have to be hooked on to a person, or if they are, it’s not necessarily a watertight compartment that stops them from sampling somebody else.
On the number game
I don’t get into the number game, I never have, even in Times Now. I just pick my stories from the heart.
On the emerging formats of news
As far as the viewer is concerned, he’s watching how we present the news, the ways by which we give information and how we connect with them. Sometimes, it’s too much of shouting, screaming and debating, so you just need another format to convey the news so that the people understand.
On Toxic News
It’s about fair reporting, and the value that the Times Now brand brings to the table and we stick by those standards. We are not scared of expressing opinions, and we don’t pussyfoot around it. Factual journalism is what we strive to do and that is what we will do at Times Now Navbharat.
The reasons for that are many, Hindi news channels undoubtedly have a greater reach than English news channels, and also enjoy the attention of a wider section of mass-market advertisers. Which is why the domain has seen a lot of activity in the past two- three years with launches like Republic Bharat and TV9 Bharatvarsh in a market with lots of strong players like Aaj Tak, Zee News, ABP, India TV, News18 India, NDTV India etc.
“For the 9pm slot, we thought of doing analysis instead of a debate led show, bringing back old-fashioned journalism through ‘News ki Pathshaala’. We show only 3-4 news pieces but cover it in-depth. People felt it was unique. Also, we launched our channel first in HD and then in SD which was challenging as far as connecting with mass audiences in North India was concerned. We are three to four months old on YouTube, but already have 2.5 lakh subscribers, all of them organic. So, social media’s role in reaching out to our viewers has been very important because we weren’t on SD first.”
So, in the current scenario what would it take for the latest offering by Times Network to break through the clutter to become the most watched channel, and get their anchors to stand out amidst the biggies like Rajat Sharma, Sudhir Chaudhary etc. MK Anand responds, “We believe that we are the best creators of television personalities in this country. Whether it was Arnab or Faye when they started off with us or the way Navika, Rahul and Padmaja have grown, it has become a natural tendency of the national viewer to follow anchors presenting news on ‘Times’. That along with the IP assets and the way we promote our anchors will ensure that all anchors of Times Now Navbharat will become household names. In fact, they are already getting there, it’s just a matter of time.”
“Most big Hindi news faces, barring a couple, are people who shot to fame for their anchoring, they have never been field reporters. I have been on the field extensively and that would be my USP. Also, people have watched the established anchors for many years, and are yearning for a fresh perspective, face and point of view. Secondly, there is a little bit of class attached to English news especially in the production value. Being a bilingual journalist with an English news background, I can bring that experience and production value for a Hindi audience.”
Times Network’s initial launch of Times Now Navbharat in HD with a high decibel marketing campaign across the Hindi speaking markets gained immediate interest from a host of advertisers like Kent RO System, Century Ply, Radico Khaitan, Medibuddy, etc. Talking about the advertiser interest that the new SD version of the channel is generating, MK Anand says, “We are making a strong impact and a solid dent as a Hindi News Brand with the HD platform helping build high quality perception. The ad rates, the type of advertisers and the ad volume is testimony to the fact that it has been accepted at par with the current leader in the segment. I think we will get a similar kind of interest for SD.”
But as a new player in the industry, how tough has it been to command good rates from the advertisers in an already underpaid segment of TV. MK Anand is quick to explain, “We launched HD on 1st of August, and roughly in five months, we are already at 60% to 65% of the volume of Aaj Tak HD at a price which is either equal or slightly more on a point to point basis, on a client to client basis. We’re pricing ourselves at a level that we believe befits the leader in the segment; we don’t believe in selling for short-term gain. That helps compete in the short term but damages the genre in the long term.”
The English news genre which has a very small base in the TV universe is not driven solely by ratings, so the ad rates agreed upon by advertisers is largely perception driven. But the Hindi news sector has a big base where TRPs have traditionally had a big role in determining the revenue of the channel. The Committee on ratings has still not given a green flag, which puts TRPs for news channels in a further limbo of sorts. Most other Hindi news channels, even the new entrants have had some sort of historical ratings data to use as a benchmark for advertisers, this may prove to be a challenge for Times Now Navbharat SD.
Talking about what can be the measure of a new channel’s success in the absence of TRPs, MK Anand says, “From a trade point of view, ad rates can be a good measure. If we get a higher number than the others, we will know we are up there. We have robust systems for brand track and have been conducting them for the last several years now. We shall start the same for Times Now Navbharat also which will help us get the SD channel scores perception wise vis-à-vis competition. We are planning to lead on TRPs, but we would like to be leaders on qualitative parameters too.”
‘We’re back to pre-pandemic levels in the news business’
The absence of TRPs notwithstanding, their foray into Hindi news has been an impressive one so far, be it getting first access to people in a position of power or their news stories repeatedly trending on social media sites. With their distribution team in overdrive ahead of Times Now Navbharat’s SD launch on Jan 1st, MK Anand, MD & CEO of Times Network is a confident man, having strategically built on the success of the Group’s array of iconic brands. In an in-depth interview with Neeta Nair, he talks about what will make their upcoming launch a success.
Q] As a genre, especially in the Hindi new space, it is SD that thrives the most. So, while entering this domain, why did you first launch Times Now Navbharat in HD and later on in SD?
HD as a popular platform has been there for the last five to eight years and the HD version of the brand, be it a movie channel or GEC, is always perceived to be premium. As far as Times Network is concerned, we are a subscription focused company and are clear about having both HD and SD when we get into any business. Launching HD first was a strategic decision to position the brand at the upscale end and secure premium perception before expanding to the mass market with SD. Coincidently, when we launched in HD, the only HD channel in the Hindi News space was Aaj Tak HD which worked in our favour as it helped signal parity with the market leader by association.
Q] You are entering a space which has been held by some channels for almost decades, how are you weaning them away from anchors they have watched for years?
We have taken a different approach for our news shows. Our formats are innovative and interactive like in News ki Pathshala, Sawal Public Ka and Logtantra. They all stand out. In terms of anchors, two from our own stable, Navika and Padmaja and the newer three – Sushant, Ankit and Meenakshi – are all quite proficient. In the Hindi news space, it is difficult to remember more than one anchor’s name on each channel. We are taking a different route. We will ensure all our anchors are high on recall including the five primetime and morning anchors and thus hopefully will be known as a channel with many more top end anchors. We also bring Times Now’s special strength of being the one to break News first. We are good at that. All in all, we are confident of superior content.
Q] The Hindi news space of late has really exploded. What sparked off this interest by brands like Republic Bharat and TV9 Bharatvarsh and now Times Now Navbharat SD?
TAM boxes covered only 40% of India geographically. When BARC came in, they increased the universe and there was a push to cover rural areas. When the number of boxes increased, it disproportionately increased in rural areas and thus regional language news, including Hindi news viewership grew. Secondly, digital and OTT in any case were giving competition to GECs in urban areas; the FTA space was doing the same to GECs in the rural areas. It may be a small number, as far as the latter is concerned but that is good enough for News, because it comprises hardly 7-8% of the overall TV universe, which has now grown to 10%. Basically this increase in measurement and actual viewership has made News more and more attractive. It also got compounded during the pandemic when the only fresh content available was News. At that time, developments such as late actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s case and the BARC issue where certain players and the BARC management was called out by the Bombay police gave news much higher top of mind recall than earlier. As we go forward, when OTT really settles and there is more digital access, news will become much larger than what it is now. In a country of 1.4 billion, there are so many stories, so there is potential for many more news channels. And in that space, I think the newcomers also have done a great job. Thirdly, every year we have one or two major elections, which are key news events for people to watch.
Q] You said newcomers have done well in this space. Republic Bharat claimed to have toppled the heavyweight Aaj Tak from the number 1 spot and then the BARC controversy shook the industry. Was that in any way a vote of confidence that a newcomer can dethrone the traditionally strong players in the Hindi news space?
Until and unless we have clarity about the veracity of their processes at BARC, I will not honestly take any of their numbers seriously. And this is with all due respect, I mean they’re all friends, they’re really trying hard to do a good job. Also, there is documentary evidence of our channel’s numbers having been brought down, in comparison with a competitor and allegedly by collusion in 2017-18. Therefore, how can I believe that the News numbers in which the same player and BARC are also involved are good or not. So, I wouldn’t honestly comment on those numbers. And yet being pragmatic, one needs to know - are these players available across all the networks, has their distribution been ubiquitous, are they being talked about, do they come across in brand tracks? Yes, from that point of view, I think both the new players have done pretty well. I think during the pandemic, TV9’s programming was quite commendable and so was the strategy that they had adopted. About three-four years ago, TV18 did well and when it happened the numbers of Aaj Tak, Zee News, India TV, ABP, which were the original top four players, did not come down. Which means the News market expanded. Now that is what I meant by saying that it is good that two new players have done very well, because absolute reach, minutes spent-- basically gross impressions of the leading four channels have not come down, while that of the new channels have gone up. The viewership is growing and so is the overall number of homes under television. Also, the number of minutes for which people are watching news at home is on the rise and that growth is not financially impacting GECs. The universe is expanding and the advertisers are getting better served, which is great.
Q] Because of the absence of TRPs, many channels, especially the small and newer ones claimed to have lost money, because of lack of historical data on ratings to back their pitch to advertisers, what has it been revenue wise for an established company like the Times Network?
I don’t think channels have lost money because of the TRP blackout. If news companies are complaining about it, then yes, they can about the initial six- eight pandemic months because that was a period when everybody got hit. But post that there was a rebound and the News genre should be thankful for it. We are back to pre-pandemic levels in the news business, at least for the last six to eight months now.
Q] If you look at your print counterpart, they’ve started paywalls, subscriptions for superior content. Do you think the monetization model of TV news channels also needs an overhaul?
I completely agree. While Aaj Tak, ABP, NDTV have already got a pay model, I think a pay model cannot be vigorously pursued unless every player in the market understands that. So, to that extent, we’re a little away from the critical mass of competitors who need to move away from FTA. In the English space, we are happy that we managed to do that without a so called ‘rider’ channel (generally you need to have a GEC to go to the operators and negotiate). In English as a whole, the operators have seen a lot of merit in striking a deal with movie and news channels which the customers want to buy together and watch. And they have been able to pay for it. In fact, after NTO we are happy that our partners really helped us, I’m not saying that we are making money hand over fist, but we as a principle want to be a ‘pay’ channel in news.
Having said that, Times Now Navbharat SD has been launched as free-to-air but as soon as we feel that the brand is able to get people hooked on to it, we would over the years start pursuing a pay model for it. The Times of India and Economic Times have a paywall and in about 12 to 15 months, we would be getting our content on the digital side ready to experiment with a paywall. Philosophically, we are very subscription driven.
Q] Many advertisers like Amul last year threatened to pull the plug on advertising on news channels claiming that they produce toxic content, many viewers too are not happy with the polarising nature of news, how are you setting that right?
I do not agree with your point that people are not happy with the News on TV, although that is a felt comment in our trade circles. I would say that’s an echo chamber that we are listening to because absolute impressions have gone up, and they keep going up. The market is accommodating new, big players. So how can we say that it has gone down? Over the past 20 years, transparency has only improved, and I think the trigger for that was private news channels, late 90s onwards. If you don’t like the shrillness of Indian news channels then you don’t like India because our democracy, bazaars, voting system, leaders, movies are as colourful, noisy and loud as they are. As a consumer product designer, I can tell you, that is what the viewer wants. Many of us urban people are anglicised, westernized in our tastes, preferences. We may have a personal value judgment but I don’t think that is what is reflected in the real world of TV news. I think the functional utility of news channels is verification, validation, and authentication. I think that comes from the brand. And that brand can be built only if you stand there live, give a name, face, office and address to yourself and then say what you have to say out loud and it may sometimes be in a shrill manner. That is how we get heard. And that’s why news channels have an edge over other mediums.
Q] You went from English to Hindi, is regional next?
Going regional and going digital is the only way to keep brands like Times Now, Mirror Now and ET Now alive in the next five to 10 years, otherwise we will become ‘have-beens’.