After a year’s lull, when Network18 put its head down and staved off worries of a financial collapse, the company is back in the news again, announcing tie-ups with AETN (US-based A&E Television Networks) for launching its channels in India, as well as a distribution venture with the Sun Group. Raghav Bahl, founder and editor of Network18, tells us more. Edited excerpts from an interview:
With all your acquisitions and investments in the last five years, Network18 watchers believe you may have bitten off more than you can chew.
That’s something they have said about us since 1991, you just have to watch our performance. Very few people know of any of our moves, they know of it only after we announce them. I would say watch this space. We are well on our way to squeezing out solid amounts of cash and profitability from all these channels. I am more than convinced that we have overcome the difficulties entirely.
The magazine and online businesses haven’t met with the quick successes that your TV channels managed.
Online broke even last year. Magazine business makes money but not too much. At the height of 2007 we wanted to get into the newspaper space. We clearly wanted to be in the financial paper business.
You were then rumoured to be buying ‘Business Standard’.
The rumours about buying Business Standard weren’t true, but that space was something we were clearly interested in. All our magazines came from the Infomedia acquisition, the only magazine we launched ourselves is Forbes which we believe is a very snug fit and sits very well within the ecosystem of news and information that we have built up. So Forbes we would have done anyway. It is yet to fully break even, but it’s doing well. We are happy about Forbes, it brings a lot of editorial weight to the organization. The newspaper we are not pursuing any more. I may be wrong but I believe that the national newspaper business has peaked. The vernacular newspaper still has plenty of fuel to run on because of the demographic change in the countryside. We realize that the business is now best left alone but we will continue to invest much more in the online space. Are we doing the right thing? People believe that we are not because we are too heavily invested in the online space. I believe we will be proved right. It’s a function of broadband penetration. The reason online hasn’t taken off in India is because broadband penetration is only one million households. I believe we will now see the broadband growth in India; as cellular did in 2000, as DTH did in 2005, broadband will do in 2011.
What are your reactions to the state of the Indian electronic media that was depicted in ‘Peepli (Live)’?
First of all, I thought it was a brilliant film. It was one of the most controlled satires I have seen in a long time. Are we saying that TV news creates excesses? Of course it does. Do our channels also sometimes create excesses? Of course they do. It’s a process of evolution. But that’s also the nature of the medium. By virtue of the fact that TV is quick and makes an impact, it brings with it temptation. You have got people who are just cutting their teeth in the medium. If you compare to a CNN or a BBC, where a reporter on the field has as much experience as an editor in our news channels, that guy has probably put in 25 years—that’s as many years as I have put in, his experience is at another level and he is reporting on the story. You see some of the reports done by experienced editors and reporters in India—most of them are very balanced. Some are excessive.
Is the line between entertainment and news blurring? Your own news channels have been accused of plugging shows of your general entertainment shows.
The lines can’t blur. All of this happens in the entertainment portions of news channels. The announcement that Salman Khan is going to do a Bigg Boss, Headlines Today carried that live, so did CNN-IBN. We could not influence Headlines Today—they took their own editorial calls. So we take editorial calls in the entertainment part of our news channels and if our entertainment channels are making news—say, if Priyanka Chopra is doing Khatron ke Khiladi and this is big news that front pages of white papers are carrying it, then our channels will also cover it. That’s not blurring the line.
Does that then suggest that the audience has dumbed down?
Audiences are more intelligent than they were. They are bigger, they are broader, the demographic of India today is not the demographic of 1991. Now there is a lot of suburban English-speaking people—who are larger in number and who may not speak grammatically perfect English but their aspirations are the same, it’s a larger constituency. That larger constituency also wants to know what Salman Khan is doing, not just what Matt Damon is doing. It’s not dumbing down, it’s evolution and we should celebrate it. Peepli (Live) comes out and becomes a success in India today. In 1991, would Peepli (Live) have been made? It’s a larger India now and media is the first to be moulded by it.
You analysed the Indian polity and economy while writing your book ‘Super Power’. What worries you about the Indian economy now?
The pace of decision making worries me. We are getting too satisfied with our success too quickly. I don’t see the restlessness of the entrepreneur or the professionals reflecting in our policymakers. We are very happy that we are a trillion-dollar economy—but we have only covered 10% of the track. There is 90% of that track left. The sense of restlessness, the sense of crisis that should grip us in good times—I don’t see that. I would be far happier to see policymakers gripped by a sense of crisis than a sense of celebrations. They are very good guys but they are trained to think incrementally. They have grown up in the 1970s and 1980s when India was incremental. Today India is not incremental, it is quantum. There is a whole generation now who are born after 1991 and they haven’t seen incrementalism. They are confident. They take on any Westerner as an equal in everything they do. I think our policymakers are not fully synchronized with the aspirations of this India. Our media has exaggerated emotions, everything is either crashing or soaring—nothing in between.
Do you see any change in the FDI policy in media?
This is one more manifestation of incrementalism. Why is India diffident about the growth of its media companies? Why are we not enabled and empowered to build companies outside? What is this clause that says 51% should be owned by an Indian? There are far better ways to ensure that material control stays in Indian hands. Why are you constricting our balance sheets? Our policymakers have no answer. If the issue is control—and there is a legitimate issue there—FDI cap is not the answer. You can’t use a sledgehammer to swat an ant.
You have partnerships with a large number of media companies. Are you talking to others?
Not right now. Our latest partnership was with AETN for the history and geography channels. Our focus immediately will be in distribution, we have tied up with the Sun Group. We are today equal to Zee when you look at ad sales, but they are Rs800 crore more than us in distribution. If Rs.800 crore is too ambitious, at least Rs300 crore should be within our cast.
Everyone in the media is on Twitter now. You have been a late and rather quiet entrant.
I am so intensely private. I joined Twitter as part of the book launch. I am too personal and private to be comfortable on Twitter.