CNN, IBN unlikely to renew deal on branding; Zee could step in

The 10-year brand licensing agreement between CNN-IBN and Turner Broadcasting's CNN, which is set to expire in January, will not be renewed

New Delhi: CNN-IBN, the English news television channel of billionaire Mukesh Ambani-controlled Network18 Media and Investments Ltd, may soon lose its prefix. The 10-year brand licensing agreement between the Indian company and Turner Broadcasting System Inc.’s CNN, which is set to expire in January, will not be renewed.

Subhash Chandra’s Zee Group is in talks with the US broadcaster for a tie-up to launch an English news channel, according to two people familiar with the development.

Currently, Network18’s brand licensing accord with CNN, the US news channel founded in 1980, allows the Indian TV channel to pick reports from CNN’s extensive global news network. However, Turner Broadcasting does not own equity in the Indian company.

The initial branding deal was signed between CNN Turner International and TV18 group company Global Broadcast News (GBN), which was then headed by journalist Rajdeep Sardesai. Later, GBN became IBN18 Broadcast Ltd and then TV18 Broadcast Ltd, which currently operates CNN-IBN, the Hindi news channel IBN7 and the Marathi news channel IBN Lokmat. CNN-IBN was launched in December 2005.

“It is not a break-up. Both the companies may mutually agree not to renew the brand licensing agreement. It is coming up for renewal only in January 2016," said one of the two people cited above. “CNN has had a successful 10-year run with the Network18 group for its English news channel. There is no misunderstanding either."

Turner’s India spokesperson declined comment. “It is business as usual with our affiliate in India for now," the spokesperson said. 

Meanwhile, a CNN team visited the Zee News facilities in Noida recently, sparking speculation that the two news broadcasting companies are in talks. “A conversation is on. But Zee is a very strong brand in its own right. It has to see what the American partner can bring to the table," said the second person close to the development.

It is not clear if Zee and CNN are looking only at a branding tie-up or are exploring a deeper partnership involving equity. The talks between the two companies come at a time when the Indian government is examining the possibility of raising the cap on foreign direct investment in news media from 26% to 49%.

Currently, Zee operates a clutch of Hindi and regional language news channels under Zee Media Corp. Ltd (formerly Zee News Ltd).

According to the company’s website, Zee Media Corp. operates 10 television news channels, the Mumbai edition of the DNA newspaper and digital properties including zeenews.com and dnaindia.com.

The network comprises two national channels—Zee News, a general news channel in Hindi, and Zee Business, a Hindi business news channel. Other channels include Zee 24 Taas (Maharashtra), Zee Sangam (Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand), Zee Madhya Pradesh Chhattisgarh, Zee Marudhara (Rajasthan), Zee Punjab Haryana Himachal, and Zee Kalinga (Odisha).

It is not clear if Zee will launch an English news channel only for India or for a global news audience. “Zee will not do run-of-the mill English news channel," said one of the two people familiar with the matter. Although the news genre in the country generates an estimated 2,000 crore in advertising revenue, the viewership share of English news at less than 0.5% is insignificant. Currently, Times Now, from the Times Group, is the market leader in English news. Others include India Today (formerly Headlines Today), NDTV 24X7 and NewsX in general news and ET NOW and CNBC-TV18 in business news.

Network18 Media, founded by Raghav Bahl in 1993, was acquired by Reliance Industries Ltd on 29 May 2014, when it took complete control of the company. In early 2012, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries had bought debentures in Network18’s promoter group companies, convertible into shares at any time within 10 years of putting in the cash into Network18 (TV18 Broadcast, which operates the news channels, is a subsidiary of Network18). Reliance exercised the option barely two-and-a-half years later, leading to Bahl’s exit.

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