I am early for my meeting with Raghav Bahl, founder and editor of Network18. The three television sets at the reception of the company’s office in Noida are tuned to three different news channels—all owned by Bahl—and I get a mild headache watching the hyper-dynamic images and primary colours. Which is why when I walk up to Bahl’s corner office on the first floor, I am stunned to see that the wall he faces has a dozen television sets, all tuned to different channels, and though his eyes constantly flicker over my head to the wall, he doesn’t seem to be discomfited by them.
There is, of course, no such thing as too much TV in Bahl’s world.
With 11 channels, 13 websites, 18 magazines and gross revenue of Rs3,000 crore, Bahl’s Network18 is now “standing abreast” (his words) with the big boys of Indian media. In the course of the 90 minutes that I spend with him, I get the feeling that though his media empire was built on a set of propitious circumstances and some very adventurous decisions, Bahl, 49, is probably mildly surprised at how quickly it has all happened.
“I was always interested in television and even though I started working with AF Ferguson as a consultant after my MBA, I continued to make small news-based programmes for Doordarshan. Then in 1991, when cable TV came to India, we thought this was a great opportunity,” Bahl says. He invested all the money he had, Rs50,000, and made the pilots for two shows. One, a business show titled India Business Report, and the other, a current affairs show called The India Show. India Business Report was picked up by BBC World and telecast over six years across the world and the The India Show became the iconic Amul India Show on Star. That set the ball rolling. “Then when Zee was launching, I got on a plane and met them—they were a two-desk organization then—and we started making content for them. Then Sony came along and the same thing happened,” he says.
The real game changer, however, happened towards the end of the decade. TV18, as the company was called then, decided to tie up with CNBC and start a business news channel. It was a giant leap from being a content provider to a broadcaster. “Business news in India was a huge opportunity. And with our experience of India Business Report, I knew that we had several advantages,” he says. Then the government changed the regulation and insisted that any news broadcaster uplinking from India could only have foreign ownership of up to 26%. CNBC had 51% and it had no interest in trimming down to 26%. So it asked TV18 if they would like to buy them out. “During the market frenzy of late 1999, we said let’s do an IPO. That’s the first time we got lucky. We raised close to Rs70 crore as capital. So when the regulation changed and CNBC decided to sell, we had the capital to buy them out,” he says.
Bahl talks much like he does on TV. He has an intense gaze and his answers are quick, yet comprehensive, chronological and constructed in visual, graphic words—“the markets were on fire”, “we were on song”, “strong doses of profitability”. And he is such an excellent conversationalist that he tends to ask questions and answer them himself, all rather animatedly. “Are we saying that TV news creates excesses? Of course it does. Do our channels also sometimes create excesses? Of course they do!”
CNBC TV18 became successful and Bahl and his team focused solely on that until 2005. Then they thought they should try and play with the big boys. Aaj Tak was the leader in Hindi news and NDTV 24x7 had the English news monopoly. “So we thought this was a good time to scale up, let’s go for broke. We did a lot of things in very rapid succession; we launched the Hindi CNBC Awaaz, then we met up with Rajdeep Sardesai and Sameer Manchanda and launched CNN-IBN. In 2006, we acquired Channel 7 and made that our Hindi language service,” he says. The company also started investing heavily on the Web and when the opportunity came to partner Viacom and launch the entertainment channel Colors, they grabbed it. “Those were the days of taking big debts—markets were wild, we were successful and everything we touched was turning into gold,” he says. The acquisition spree continued and Network18 stumbled into magazine publisher Infomedia and bought that too. “We all made mistakes,” he laughs, “Tatas bought Corus and Jaguar and we bought Infomedia!”
Then suddenly in 2008 the party ended, abruptly. “Risk” became a bad word and no one was willing to lend. Loaded with debts from all its new partnerships and acquisitions, Network18 hit crisis point. “For us, 2008 was a tough year. Our problem was that we were victims of our own success. All our channels were successful. If they weren’t doing well, it would have been an easy decision to walk out. We could have sold them or shut them down. So we borrowed. I was leveraged. We had to borrow to keep the ship going,” he says.
When the markets turned in 2009, Bahl and his team quickly got in the game and raised some Rs1,200 crore of equity, using the money to reduce debt load. “The fact that we went through that valley of death and came out alive is the reason why we are where we are. Because of the crisis, we are now in a place where we are ready to change gears and take Network18 into its next phase,” he says.
Crises by definition have long tails. “There is a point when you know the worst is over but you have to give time before the world settles down and you can afford to be adventurous again,” he says. Bahl used that time to write his debut book—Super Power? The Amazing Race between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise. “I am quite illiterate about literature, I don’t read fiction. So my book had to be about current affairs. China was fascinating but I didn’t know much beyond the headlines. India I knew well—it was a story I had reported on since 1991. As I went deeper, I realized there was a fascinating interplay between these two countries. So I thought I have this one year and let me see if I can tell a story,” he says.
He is busy promoting the book now and has no plans to write another in the immediate future. Now that the crisis is well and truly over, his focus is on squeezing profitability from all the investments. Though Network18 grew an average of 100% every year from 2005 to 2010, it has not been profitable during the time.
“Now we not only have successful brands, we have a deleveraged balance sheet and we have cash. We are in the pink of health. The next two years can be a true bend in the river or true take-off for us. People who think we have bitten off more than we can chew should watch us closely now,” he says, eyes firmly on the multiple TV screens on the wall.