TV9 Network is the largest news network in India in terms of viewership numbers. The Hindi news channel TV9 Bharatvarsh’s viewership growth in the last few weeks reached the No. 2 position in the Hindi News genre in Week 25 as per BARC data. This has caused ripples in the industry. As per BARC data for Week 26, in 22 out of 30 markets in HSM, TV9 Bharatvarsh holds the Top 3 positions. An incredible feat, considering that the channel is just over a year old and is already way ahead of most of the legacy news channels in these markets.
Medianews4u in conversation with Barun Das, CEO, TV9 Network, on the TV9 Bharatvarsh’s viewership spike in the last few weeks, the content strategy and the issues raised by NBA and NBF against not just the channel but the TV9 Group as well.
TV9 Bharatvarsh hit the No 2 spot in week 25. How do you view this growth and what were the growth drivers?
All three had happened for us together. We were planning a relaunch of the channel in the month of January. For certain reasons that got pushed, eventually we relaunched on the 16th of March, post which the country went into a lockdown. We had already done our promotion plans by then, aggressive marketing on regional local television channels and digital platforms, we also did distribution betterment across the country. All three of them has worked in tandem and genuinely helped by this lockdown where news consumption has gone up many fold. While people were watching more news, more sampling happened. We had a relaunch, new colourful sets, swanky graphics, a new FPC content, promotions which brought people on to the channel and even more people coming onto the channel because of the lockdown, and some improvement in the distribution. All three worked in our favour.
What has been the content strategy which led to this traction?
The content strategy, obviously what the viewers wanted to know about the Corona Virus. We had several fast news and updates on COVID, which kept on changing and the graphics were really world-class. That brought viewers onto the channel. Then we were the first to identify the common enemy of the world, which is China. Then from China we moved on to other global phenomena, the world has one common viruses and everybody was pointing fingers to China and some were pointing fingers at WHO, the world content along with excessive focus on China was our focus in the beginning and that was our main content strategy, along with COVID updates in a very smart but speedy way. The entire FPC was reworked. We started our primetime from Six o’clock with a debate. For the first time in Hindi news television we had a debate which was completely formatted. People were allotted a specific time and ‘Adi’ was the name of the debate. Then there is a standard fast bulletin News Topline which is our flagship program across our network, then super prime time which is at Eight which is mostly China, Korea, US and WHO which is a global phenomenon. That is now the number one in that slot from 8 to 9 pm. We have another landmark show at 9 called ‘Fikar’ and at 10 we have ‘Farman’. There is a very formatted super primetime, one coming in after another, focus on Covid, focus on China and then focus on Korea, US etc. you would have noticed that there is an appetite for news and viewers want to know about what is happening across the world. Then there are other stuff like we were the first to be amongst the national news channels, we were the first to look at what was happening in Bengal and we picked it up in a big way. That made us number one channel in Bengal for the last four or five weeks. That has been our content strategy overall. I think it is all about packaging. We have one of the best, if not the best output team in our company. Our editor who I call a magician and his team is very good. So that is the content picture in our favour.
Which are the markets that TV9 Bharatvarsh is seeing a spike in viewership?
Across the country, our growth is not restricted to any one market. Rural &urban across the country. We are a little weak in Delhi and Bombay. But I am sure that in time to come you will see some improvements, some of the distribution platforms our position has improved, were we were far behind. But it is growing steadily, the growth has come across the country Bengal and Eastern India nearly we are stronger, but it is not restricted to any of the markets.
Now, lockdown is being slowly lifted, do you think people who watch news or the news channels will continue? What will be your programming content to retain your viewers?
As it is, India is a high news consumption country. As the largest democracy there is something or the other happening every day across the country, 1.3 billion population, diverse, 28 – 29 different languages, for instance, news consumption in India and the source of news in India is very large. Then till the time you have this uncertainty looming over us, which is Covid, I think the appetite for news would continue to be above pre covid level, and we will have more viewers coming to news channels. As far as content strategy is concerned, content is one simple thing. You got to get the pulse of viewer and then give them content well packaged, well researched, what they would like to see. We would continue to think ahead and see that what is going to be the pulse of the nation and I am trying to occupy that position before somebody else does. That is the standard for anybody who in the content business would go ahead.
Both NBF and NBA have accused you of manipulating data & anomaly in Time Spent Trends, they also say it defers BARC’s Bio News Analysis, how have you addressed this issue?
The thing is that, you know, those complaints which are pretty, not in very good taste. One of the complaints NBF purportedly is based on certain videos which anyway the authenticity and veracity has been denied by BARC and those complaints are unsigned complaints, if you have seen which is going around in the market, and some of the media sites have taken them and have reported as if they are endorsing it. We have written to NBF and NBA, requesting them to confirm if the letters are written by them. The complaints were based on some videos and the WhatsApp messages they were going around so we have taken legal steps against that circulation of unauthorized, unclaimed videos and, messages.
The third and the most important is that we are sticking to our basics and continuing with the business and there is more business left to be done. There could be more surprises going forward, we are not taking an eye off. It is an effort to possibly destabilize us to pressure us in a way and also not authentically ask questions thru unsigned things going around in the media. We are not being destabilised anyway and that is only driving us to be more focused.
If you talk about NBA factor, I would like share that, I was the one who wrote to NBA just before lockdown on 22nd of March, that we should suspend news ratings during the lockdown. I was concerned for the reporters who have gone out and reporting, as the quest of competition and numbers they would have risked their lives. My primary concern was the health and security of the people, we are in essential service, we cannot shut down shop and go. We had to work, their safety and security was my primary concern. I had written to them not as a fringe player with a 4% market share. We are number one, in Kannada, Telugu and we are the top leaders in Marathi and Gujrati. My request was not accepted by NBA. It is fundamental anybody can see through that and anybody who is looking at it objectively, they will know that TV9 Bharatvarsh cannot go across the country after writing a letter on 22nd March to suspend rating, what we did during the lockdown that we went around in the country and to every household and tampered the meters. That is a fairy tale, we have lodged a complaint. We will share the details with you.
As we are discussing, I just saw a copy of the letter being sent to BARC by NBA in which they have pinpointed one particular thing that week 12 -25, Use Time, Time spent has declined by 36% for almost the entire genre while it has increased by 59% in TV9 Bharatvarsh?
Since when has individual businesses have started following the industry trend. You do not have individual businesses define the industry trend, you just have to do your job better. Any business can defy the industry trend to do their job better we have been number one in time spent even before this relaunch often, number 1 or 2, our time spent has been reasonable amongst the top players before that, what has happened, is that our reach has gone up and subsequently the time spent. There is no big gap between any other players and our time spent whatever the percentages are even if you go through the data, you will see that there is nothing of that sort in the time spent. I can share those data with you, if we are at 19 – 20 minutes per day and they are at 17-18 minutes, there is no great anomaly. Again, is the time spent in a particular market, which often happens in amongst some of these channels that in a particular market you have an abnormal surge of viewership, in Bharatvarsh is that the case? No, it is uniform. So again, I am saying that if I could go and tamper all those meters during the lockdown to get my Time Spent, is that a realistic thing?
Would you like to go for a Subscription model for News Channels and not depend wholly on Advertising revenue, so that you have level playing field?
Fundamentally, I believe that news channels driven by advertising revenue there is something wrong with this concept. Ideally, new channels should be I mean, you have the proof of pudding is if I charge something, how many people subscribe to it which should be a good enough indication about my content. I do not have to depend on any rating agencies. I think finally you have to remember that in a democracy, the kind of government you get is the kind of government that you choose and deserve and that also is true to some extent for news channels.
As citizens, we get the kind of news channels that we want and we deserve. We Indians have a natural antipathy for not paying for content consumption. If you charge 10 rupees per month, what can you buy? I don’t know if those who smoke will get a premium cigarette at 10 rupees or whatever. So 10 rupees approximately you do the calculation it is 1 paise per hour of content. How many people will subscribe? People will spend 10X times more on many other things. We go to a multiplex for a weekend with a family, you will spend 2000- 2500 bucks in one outing but we do not want to pay 10 rupees for quality news.
That is natural, we are fighting it and therefore we are advertising dependent due to which we become populist at times. But I know that I am not the leader as yet. But it is there in the back of our mind that if the industry comes together, if all the relevant and the big players come together, I think we should move towards it. It will be directed less towards lessening our dependence over advertising, but more towards getting a real pull of your content from the viewers. I could charge 500 bucks or 200 bucks or even 2 bucks, how many of my viewers are willing to pay for my content is a right gauge for my performance of my content.
With the entire COVID scenario, we saw a huge uptick in the news consumption and ratings were blowing through the roof. Now, with the recent last week, the announcement of GEC coming back with original content originally content. How do you see the news consumption? And how do you see content strategy going ahead?
Even Post Covid, I think till the time the vaccine comes out, you are adapting to new normal, uncertainty remains, you would not come away from COVID anyway, even today Covid would be the one of the most searched subject. Content strategy will always be the packaging, something which the viewers want to see, try and identify what the trends ahead of competition that is one way of content strategy. I mean, strategy is a word used by all. In all management jargon, strategy is nothing but how do you differentiate yourself in the market in the long run? It is a simple one line, strategy should never run beyond two lines. So that is the strategy and obviously it will change as I said that during the lockdown Covid used to be one of the highest search words, now it has come down in the rankings.
GEC coming back, will take a few viewers away, if IPL comes back the same would happen, life will come back to normal but I think newspapers will not come back to normal to that extent, because we are giving up this habit. I have given up the habit, I am not going to subscribe to newspapers. It will possibly be able to recover some ground. But overall, I think that would remain, anyway, newspapers were dying across the world. We were sustaining it a little more but that will go down.
Entertainment Television will come back but similar thing has happened. Entertainment Television is also where the bandwidth is there like in metros, lot of people were averse to technology and have now got used to OTT. As there is no fresh content, they started watching OTT. The key is if you can watch what you want, and when you want, you are never going back to watching television on a schedule to that extent, but in India, it will continue to be and now with fresh programming, it will eat away some of the shares, but in absolute terms, I do not think the news viewership will dip to the level of pre covid, till the time we are going through this new normal and life comes back to normalcy.
What are the growth plans for the next two years?
Our growth plan is that we had an expansion plan in the traditional TV domain, the two markets that we were eyeing was Bengal and Tamil Nadu.We had to withdraw this plan for the time being, but obviously that it is there in the scheme of things.
But our biggest expansion plan is in the digital side. That is something which the organization was not that aggressive. It was there as a maintenance thing, but that is the focus, the owners and management have been looking at Digital and that is the new thing going forward. We are expanding very rapidly. We had an English news channel called News Nine which is Bangalore based, which is being reincarnated as a national offering, but completely on digital because we were evaluating whether we will make it a national English channel or not, but given the way, English news channels viewership and revenue has shrunk over the last two to three years. It was not a very prudent decision and we stayed away from that. But we are reincarnating the new slide which was a local English offering to a national English offering, but on the digital side so there will be more such expansions on the digital side.
Do you see any consolidation opportunities happening in the News genre?
Very good question, I think post-Covid, the reality would be that the word team would come into play even more and together everyone achieves more, I believe that the scope of consolidation is there. I think eventually the single-channel players or not having a bouquet will suffer a little. A new entrant, if it comes from an existing network, well and good, but a standalone new entrant that, I would doubt to see that foray in the near future. Even if the competition increases, you know, the top 5, 6,7 channels will be able to make significant business out of it. People will have to constantly look at their cost structure. You need to drive cost efficiency, even if the revenue plateau is down but I think in the Hindi news genre, revenue is not yet showing any plateauing down.