New Delhi: Aroon Purie, editor-in-chief of India Today and chairman of the India Today group, has added CurtCo Media Labs Llc’s best known luxury magazine Robb Report to his group’s portfolio of licensed lifestyle magazines. Robb Report India is the eighth international edition of the American publication headquartered in California. Purie, who runs a media empire straddling print, broadcasting, radio and book publishing, spoke to Mint on the new magazine and challenges in the magazine and news television business in India. Edited excerpts:
Does ‘Robb Report India’ complete your lifestyle magazines portfolio?
There can always be different genres within the luxury segment. This (Robb Report) is a broader one. Tomorrow you may have separate ones on luxury cars or yachts. I can’t say this completes our portfolio. I don’t know what the Indian market may need tomorrow and we may get into that too.
Is India ready for an ultra luxury product like this?
Well, I think so. It is limited circulation magazine—only 35,000 copies. It is going to be mailed out free to these selected people...what we call “affluentials”.
Is it free in other markets?
No. Everybody has a different model. In America, they sell on the news-stands. India Today has a very finely developed database. This would allow us to reach the kind of people advertisers want.
It’s a late launch as the tie-up happened more than two years ago.
Yes, because there was a downturn. Now the economy has come back; advertising is growing. Lot of luxury companies want to advertise in India. This was an appropriate time for us to come in.
You had plans to bring in ‘Esquire’.
Esquire is still on the drawing board. We have a good relationship with Hearst. So Esquire is a possibility; I am not saying we have signed anything. But it is something we have considered.
How does the economics of licensing work? Circulation is limited and advertising isn’t growing to match the number of products...
All the international publishers look at India as a growing market. So they are willing to take lower returns in the beginning. Basically, it works on a percentage of royalty and, perhaps, a minimum guarantee. Initially, they may make little money; but as advertising and circulation builds up, their revenue share increases. I think they also look at it as an opportunity to test the Indian market. So tomorrow if these publications do well, they can come in as a joint venture.
What is in it for an Indian partner like you? Is it a viable business?
We get good content. We will not be able to access this kind of content on our own. It is not immediately viable because it takes time to build up advertising. But, I think, this (Robb Report) will be viable pretty soon. We have Men’s Health, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping. Normally, a licensed magazine would take three years to break even. Some may take longer.
The Indian Readership Surveys show readership in English language publications is not growing.
One of the issues with English magazines is readership surveys. They are designed for newspapers and don’t capture the small circulation magazines as well as they should. I won’t rely that much purely on readership data. Otherwise, so many magazines would not launch in this country. People identify certain market and advertising needs and launch magazines.
How does the readership survey reflect on your flagship product ‘India Today’? Is there a need to overhaul the magazine?
In general interest magazines, one big trend is that we have had to increase cover prices to become less dependent on advertising. Advertising went through such a bad time for two years. Increased cover price has had some effect on circulation.
How do the advertisers view this?
Well, the growth (in advertising) has not been there to that degree. The cover price has increased; so you are not getting the kind of growth that you probably see in newspapers.
Will you raise cover prices again?
There is a limit to it. Newspapers, unfortunately, set the benchmark for pricing that has got no relation to the cost of the newspaper. It may be Rs 2.50 for 64 pages. You get more for it in raddi (waste paper) than you pay for it. People are used to cheap media, and that is a big issue.
What happened to your regional media plans announced last year?
Our plans are to expand in the regional space because advertising is growing in those markets. We could have many more magazines in Hindi, for example. It could be women’s magazines, luxury or car magazines. A lot of our existing products translated into are adapted for the Hindi market.
What about the Hindi newspaper? Will it be under the ‘Mail Today’ or Aaj Tak brand name?
We are thinking about it. It is something we are contemplating.
You were a pioneer in the broadcasting space with the Hindi news channel Aaj Tak. But you did not leverage the first mover advantage in terms of network expansion, more channels.
You have seen what happened to people who went into GECs (general entertainment channels). I think we were very wise we didn’t go into it.
The big problem in broadcasting is distribution. You have to pay carriage fee in order to get your channel carried because the distribution system is analogue and there’s a huge bottleneck. In fact, the biggest ticket item on our profit and loss account is distribution fee. If you want to launch a channel, you have to be able to bear this cost. The distribution guy does not care if you are a news channel whose ad revenue base is much smaller than a GEC. For him it is real estate, whether you build a mall or a hospital or a school; he doesn’t care. He will charge you; so that makes it unproductive for new channels to be launched. Once distribution gets digitized, the whole model changes… Then you will see a lot of channels being launched. We are the only company, I think, besides Zee, that actually makes money. We look at future projects from a very bottomline oriented view.
Your earlier attempt to launch a channel with Bloomberg did not succeed. Now there are constant murmurs about TV Today buying out NDTV Profit. Is there some truth in that?
Not at all. I have had no conversations (with them).
But does a business news channel interest you?
Distribution is key. My vision has always been—create in television what you have created in magazines.
Shouldn’t Indian news television mature and move away from the breathless reporting it does today?
Firstly, TV is an infant industry. It is still not that old. New people are coming in, still learning the ropes. They have to mature before television matures. Number two: one of the biggest things in India, which does not happen in any other country of the world, is the degree of competition. Which place in the world, including America or England, do you have six or seven English news channels, four business channels, a dozen Hindi channels? The total number of news channels—regional and city—comes to 80.
They are competing with each other to be louder to catch the viewer’s attention. And, therefore, you find this hectic breathless work. America has CNN, Fox and MSNBC. That’s it. The rest are networks which have newscasts. They are not 24 hour news channels. Britain has Sky News and BBC. India is a very unique situation.
How long will print continue to grow in India?
I think it will grow for many years. Decades. Growth is coming from regional markets; therefore, you see new newspapers, editions being launched. People see a prospect of revenue.
What’s your view on the crisis in media credibility whether it is paid news or the industry-politics-media nexus?
There may be questions about the credibility of certain individuals. The credibility of media should not be in question. Media, especially television, has played a great role. It has been a force for the good. If you go back to the time when 24X7 news channels did not exist and (compare it to) now, you see the accountability in the political system … How politicians are coming on TV to explain themselves. You may not agree with the way people are asking questions and what they are asking or who comes on air, but that’s irrelevant. The point is that they are up there. And the public is watching. By and large, the Indian media has played a very responsible role.
You are moving your entire group to a new address in Noida film city. Have you invested in real estate to make money like some other media houses?
No, no. In the custom-made 200,000 sq. ft of space, everything is occupied. All editorial (people) will be sitting together—all newspaper, magazine, television (people). So on one floor you’ll have 450 journalists.
Retirement age in media companies is in news. Is there a retirement age at ‘India Today’?
We are a professionally-run company. And, no, there is no retirement age. As long as you are coherent, sensible, and doing good work, you can continue to do so.