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In the past three months, at least three national news channels have been launched in the country, which is already home to 400 plus news and current affairs TV channels across languages.

The latest to join the bandwagon is the Hindi business news channel from Times Network. The channel, ET NOW Swadesh, was launched on 4 October, and will compete with existing brands in the genre such as Zee Business Hindi and CNBC Awaaz. In August, the broadcaster launched Times Now Navbharat, a general news channel in HD. Again, it came with the claim of transcending noise in its relentless pursuit of fact-based reportage with incisive journalism.

In September, the India Today group, which owns the popular Hindi news channel Aaj Tak, rolled out Good News Today, a channel with an “affirmative leaning" and the motto of “acchi khabar, sacchi khabar".

What is truly interesting is the fact that these new launches have come at a time when the genre is devoid of any viewership data. TV news ratings were suspended in October 2020 when the alleged TRP manipulation scam surfaced.

Yet, broadcasters find it fit to expand their news offerings right before the festival season, when advertisers loosen their purse strings.

The move may be puzzling, but not entirely inexplicable.

Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India’s annual ‘What India Watched’ report for 2020 said since news viewership is driven by events, it wasn’t surprising to see it jump by 27% in 2020, the year of the pandemic, over 2019. From a 7% share pre-covid, the genre picked up 21% of total TV viewership during peak covid (week starting 21 March 2020). Although the viewership declined once the unlock started, news accounted for 10.4% of total TV viewership for the year.

Besides, according to TAM AdEx data for January to June 2021, the ad volume share of the news genre was equal to that of general entertainment channels (GECs) at 28%.

Broadcasters are betting on news as the genre will continue to expand in double digits for the next few years before the growth tapers off in 10 years, explained Barun Das, CEO of TV9 Network, which is operated by Associated Broadcasting Company Pvt. Ltd and owns six news channels in Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, Bengali, Gujarati and Marathi.

Das said the top three news channels in a market will make money. “Whether the next three make money or not depends on the size of the market. So, the Hindi market may be large enough for six players, but a regional language segment may not be," he added.

Yet, India has seen its appetite for news grow, with the changing political climate in the country. Much has been written about majoritarianism and political polarization, which is also feeding news channels’ viewership.

Besides, news also reaches influencers—policymakers and top corporate leadership—making a case for brands to buy spots, said another TV industry veteran.

Above all, the stiff competition has kept news channel ad rates very low. “The news genre is good to build reach and frequency. Entertainment viewership is very fragmented unless you buy a property like Indian Premier League or Bigg Boss, which is very, very pricey," explained L.V. Krishnan, CEO of TAM Media Research that monitors advertising volumes on TV. “News offers better return on investment," he added.

News content is also being monetized by broadcasters on digital platforms, adding to subscription revenue in addition to advertising.

Yet, the genre may not benefit as much from the uptick in festival advertising as it deserves, owing to lack of data. “It is a crucial period for news TV as 30-35% of its annual business comes from these two-and-a-half months. Unfortunately, advertisers have no choice but to use legacy data and do guesswork for deploying ad budgets," said TV9’s Das.

Krishnan, however, said that while not all advertisers have given up on news channels or cut down on spends on the genre, the real loser is BARC for not being able to monetize its data.

“Advertisers, meanwhile, are relying on informal research, data from Tata Sky set-top boxes, from Jio platform apps and even a technology firm like Zapr, which uses audio content recognition to detect the media consumption behaviour," he added.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pre-ssing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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