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Home / Industry / Media /  We need tough defamation laws: NDTV’s Prannoy Roy

News broadcaster NDTV Ltd re-launched its business channel NDTV Profit as India’s first dual channel on 17 March. During market hours, the channel will broadcast as NDTV Profit but after 5pm it will be on air with entertainment programming as NDTV Prime. Prannoy Roy, the company’s executive co-chairperson, talks about the revamp, the state of affairs in news broadcasting and the need for “harsh and swift defamation laws" to impose discipline in journalism. Edited excerpts:

Why the need to re-launch NDTV Profit?

There isn’t much of a space for so many business channels. Only CNBC (TV18) does well. But our market section does well. Business is very exciting when it is live markets, but they (viewers) don’t watch business channels in the evening. It is like watching a live cricket match and then watching the replay or highlights in the evening. Nobody wants to see that. So we looked at channels around the world. CNBC Turkey has business during the day and entertainment in the evening. Even CNBC America is moving towards lighter programming in the evening. We thought we would do what the young male audience wants. Why ask them to shift elsewhere because they have stopped trading? So, 9(am) to 5pm is markets and between 6pm and 9pm are shows on jobs, careers, property, technology and automobiles. We are getting into movie production and spending the next four months looking for male and female actors through a reality show.

In 2012-13, NDTV made a marginal profit after a big loss in the previous year. How did you manage that as advertising had dipped?

No, advertising rates did not drop. In fact, the ad rates went up. People have realized that what (audience measurement agency) TAM (Media Research) says about NDTV is totally wrong. When they (advertisers) come to paying our rates, they do not go by TAM numbers. We have just done a huge survey—for Indian polls and in that we just slipped in one question: Do you watch English news channel and which one do you watch? We are way ahead of everyone else in that survey. In one of its own surveys, Nielsen put us at 60% (market share). In TAM we are 25%. And Nielsen owns TAM.

What else helped improve performance?

The complete change of NDTV Profit. It was losing money. Now it will make a profit. Plus our dotcom (NDTV.com) is doing very well. Extremely well. Our apps are doing very well and advertiser money flows in.

Haven’t news channels cut back on their news gathering costs?

Not us. We have not taken any conscious decision on that. We do a lot of out-in-the-field work and like to get out of the studio. But if the viewer likes a debate we have a debate. It is a trend that has picked up. You get so much news from online now that you want a little more debate. I think it started with Fox (News) then MSNBC did it. The only difference between them and us is we have non-partisan debates. But Fox and MSNBC will have partisan debates. They are predictable. MSNBC is left-of-centre by American standards and Fox is right-of-centre.

But, for the first time in these elections, even the Indian news channels are clearly politically aligned.

I haven’t watched enough television and I really wouldn’t know. I’d like to say we are equidistance from all main three parties—both in likes and dislikes.

After so many years, the news television industry is still largely unprofitable. What went wrong?

Two or three basic things. Across the world, most news channels get 50% revenue from advertising and 50% from subscription. In India, because of analogue-based distribution system, you ended up paying carriage fee instead of getting subscription revenue. After digitization has started, the carriage fee has come down but it is nowhere near converting into huge revenues. Five years from now, without doubt, we will hit world norms where 50% revenue will some from subscription.

Second, TAM completely under-represented news so it did not get as much advertising revenue as it should have. It had too small a sample size. In a country as heterogeneous as India to pick up niche channels or moods, you have to have very large sample sizes.

Third, barriers to entry have gone down. It used to cost 10 times more to start a news channel even 10 years ago. Satellite cost was $3 million; now it is $300,000, camera used to cost 20 lakh, now it costs 2 lakh. So news channels proliferated and though ad revenue increased, it was divided among too many channels.

Your views on the quality of television journalism.

The journalistic talent in India is outstanding. We are more lively, hungry and vibrant. We have just one simple problem and I have been fighting to change that for the credibility and future of news. We just have no punishment for defamation. We have defamation laws but they take 20 years. So there is no discipline on journalists. You just can’t get up and accuse somebody. You will have to do more research to make sure that you are not hit with a defamation case and your company has to pay huge amounts of money. I am fighting for harsh and swift defamation laws. A lot of people don’t agree with me in my industry. They say “you are hitting us".

But that’s a short-term view. If you don’t do it you will lose credibility, and this will be another institution that will decay over time.

But the government should not enter this. It must be defamation imposed by the judiciary. If the government intervenes, I will fight it tooth and nail. I would love to have self-regulation, but self-regulation is a pipe dream. Frankly, you need the courts to move in. You need them to implement their existing defamation laws and get to world standards.

How are you building a consensus?

Everywhere I go, I talk about it. It is a punishment-free, discipline-free situation right now.

What is the future of television with corporate houses getting into this space?

If a corporate house does interfere, that media company will die. Corporates own media all over the world and they impose strong editorial guidelines so that the business retains credibility. So I am not terrified by it because, in the short run, if somebody tries and meddles, word gets around in India in particular. Corporates that interfere will kill the golden goose.

Is there a future for independent media in India?

Very much, with subscription money coming in. But the real future is the Internet. With 4G...the global reach.

Why have you not responded to reports published on your company’s money laundering controversy?

Because that is all they want us to do—to respond—and I will not dignify that rubbish with any response. I am not talking about this.

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