The MD and CEO of Times Network, shares his plans for the network, the recent complaint by ET Now against CNBC TV18 over multiple feeds to boost ratings, how they are dealing with ‘de-Arnabisation' and the impending launch of Republic
Raushni Bhagia | Mumbai | February 27, 2017
Times Network has been in the limelight for quite some time now – first for the exit of its star anchor Arnab Goswami, and more recently for its initiative ‘Remonetise India’ as well as new channel launches. BestMediaInfo.com caught up with Times Network’s MD and CEO, MK Anand, to talk about remonetisation, demonetisation and de-Arnabisation (as he puts it).
Though he did not reveal all his cards about MagicBricks Now, he said certain plans are afoot for the channel which has seen some revamp in content and approach. Even the 9 PM show, Urban Debate, has started focussing on civic issues and not just real estate.
Anand also spoke about preparations for next year and his thoughts on the recent ET Now-CNBC TV18 tussle on multiple feeds to boost ratings during Budget week. As always, Anand did not pull his punches.
Recently, there was a rift between Times Network and Network 18 over advertisements put out by CNBC TV18 on budget coverage ratings. What further action have you planned?
The legal aspect is a little fuzzy and that’s what we are challenging in the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), requesting them to intervene. The television rating points (TRPs), television viewership in thousands (TVTs) and the rating system may not be technically governed by legal regulations but in the real world ratings drive revenue allocation. That’s why it is extremely important that you don’t manipulate even if there’s no written rule about it. They had merrily taken all ETV News and Colors regional feeds off the distribution and put CNBC TV18. To top it all, ads were placed promoting the growth!
I am not saying that it is the first time that someone has done this but as the market progresses, certain practices become illegal as you grow. Honestly, if this is going to be allowed, then people can have 200 feeds with so much muscle to invest, but where will that lead to? How can you fool the advertisers? We just wanted clarity whether this is permissible. I am not sure whether it is legal or illegal but it is definitely a malpractice – it is like cheating the advertiser. Because if you really believe that those markets are watching you, then why not put these feeds round the year? It is because you’re sure that viewership won’t increase as people have not come to watch you but the regional channel, and they by mistake stepped into your channel. They must have seen it for a minute and it’s recorded as reach.
Let’s talk about Times Now -- the flagship channel. Have things settled down now after over 100 days of Arnab Goswami’s exit?
Have you seen a change? I think it’s only in social media where people are talking about it and it is all being engineered. Even the way he left was being engineered because we parted in the most amicable possible manner. On the day he left, I was having lunch with him. The ‘staged’ separation was such that people talked about it. Even the team has not had any disturbance, either editorially, cost or performance-wise. We had an appraisal in the exit phase and even there I mentioned ‘demonstrates excellence’ just as I had been doing for the past three years.
Who’s the injured partner in this separation?
If you ask me, we are the injured partner as we gave him unhindered freedom. Now, when I am handling the team directly, I didn’t even know the names of people in the editorial team. He was always handling things on his own and he was doing it so well. I never disturbed him. He was one of the most cooperative managers. He was a good manager, anchor and editorial person. We probably gave him too much freedom and we allowed him to become the third element to the brand – Times Now, Newshour and Arnab. Even when he announced his departure on November 1 last year, he was very much the face of Newshour till November 16. If there was any animosity, why would we have done that? With all due respect, I think it was very well marketed by him.
Arnab Goswami’s long stint, his dominance of the channel and Newshour’s dominance in the genre and then the separation… What is the internal assessment and learning from his exit?
The proof of the pudding is in its taste. At 43 per cent market share from Week 1-45 when he was running the channel and now, Week 46 to date, we are still 43 per cent. His contribution to the company was in taking the channel to the No.1 position and creating frenzy around Times Now. The positive part for me was that the aggression and noise levels in the newsroom have not been allowed to go down. I was handling the team for those few weeks till Rahul Shivshankar came in mid-December. This, coupled with other things like distribution where we are in a formidable position, have helped.
How well prepared were you for Arnab Goswami’s exit?
There was always this possibility. I saw this when I joined here in 2014. At that point of time, Times Now was No. 1, ET Now was No. 2, Movies Now was No. 5 and Romedy Now was just launched. Zoom was the same as it is now.
I realised that if this key person left, there could be loss of business for the entire network, not just Times Now. Hence we put in efforts in strengthening the portfolio. By January 2015, Movies Now was the No.1 English Movie Channel. So my first mitigation to Times Now was Movies Now. Second was changes to Times Now itself. We launched the brand campaign for Times Now, ‘Action Begins Here’. We also worked on taking Times Now shares higher. When I entered, Times Now was at 35 per cent market share. From a one-hour show, we made NewsHour a four-hour property. This took us to 45 per cent share. Dropping from 45 is better than dropping from 35. Then the focus was on the new Times Network brand identity so that the sales team had a focused pitch. Till then it was always Times Now as the reference point. That has now changed.
Then I started suggesting to develop more intellectual properties (IPs) with other anchors which clearly did not happen. He kept insisting that Newshour is more than enough. That is where I think his integrity was questionable because he did not allow any other anchor or IP to develop on the channel. We give great freedom to our Editors and somewhere that has been taken advantage of.
All in all, in 2014 Times Now was 50 per cent of the company’s worth and now, that channel is only 32 per cent. I don’t believe that entertainment FPC planning is very different from news FPC. All these talks about editorial strength are good but ultimately it is also about a strong FPC and what to put where. So yes, we were prepared for the exit.
So, does that mean that you are preparing for Republic’s launch as well?
Whenever he comes, we are prepared that he’ll take some share from us because he was associated with us. I expect him to do about 20 per cent. I have considered this to be a 5 phase transition. And that is not just about the launch. It is also about getting our ops to stability. So phase 1 was four weeks after he quit, phase 2 was 13 weeks, phase 3 is till he launches, phase 4 would be two quarters after that, and phase 5, the future. We have done well in the first 2 phases. We are currently working on phase three. I think he is a fantastic anchor and a great news manager. He is a premium property in the English news space. If he gets everything right, eventually he could be amongst the top three players in the news space.
You had said that your first year at Times Network was for the organisation’s internal arrangements and 2016 will be about beefing up marketing and sales. What kind of difference has it made to the balance sheet?
Without demonetisation, I would have been happier from a sales point of view but otherwise we’re doing quite well. Remonetise India is also a marketing event. The network marketing of English entertainment is something we took up in 2016. However, the last five months were mostly captured by two things – demonetisation and ‘de-Arnabisation’. Our priority was to take immediate corrective measures. A lot of things had to be done on the operational front. I would actually like to go ahead with these kinds of activities in the area of nationalism, anti-corruption and Clean India from a very different point of view.
Speaking about Remonetise India, what triggered it?
Two things triggered it. One is our revenue drop in November. December was alarming and my personal estimation is that it will take at least a year to come back. I was looking at what can be done to improve the situation. I realised that the economy has gone down only because of the liquidity. If liquidity has gone down due to man-made reasons, then can we circumvent the liquidity? The new currency was being printed and was being diverted to cities first and villages were waiting in queue. Cash will come to all of us but we don’t really need it. That’s so sad and this was my first trigger.
Second was when I went to my farm in a rural area and I didn’t have cash to pay my employees and hence I went with my cheque book. Many said that they didn’t have an account. There were a few of them who didn’t have an I-card, not even birth proof – so opening an account was not possible. This was shocking for me.
That is when I realised that I should do something about it. We have always been saying that if we want we can make a movement since we have 4.5 crore viewers to our platform every week. The first time when I used this word ‘remonetise’ was on November 25 when Navika Kumar was on Newshour on a demonetisation-led debate. I texted her saying why don’t we use the word ‘remonetise’ as it is more positive.
Do you really think that the effects of demonetisation will remain for a long time? How does the genre get affected?
The effects of demonetisation are positive and will be realised only in a couple of years. About advertising, I think it will take about two more quarters to get back on track but to be honest February is better than January and January was better than December. But if you see how things were in October 2016, it will take at least a year. As for Times Network, we were growing at about 20 per cent; we will grow only by about 7-8 per cent this year. So that is a loss of growth for the whole year. The genre must have been impacted by the same percentage. Consider November-February, month on month we would be short by about 20 per cent. We may be slightly better than others in the genre because we have leader products.
Is the growth of Movies Now, Romedy Now, Zoom and ET Now on target in 2016-17?
Movies Now, Romedy Now, Zoom, ET Now and MN+ are all on target till November. Post that the impact of demonetisation has been felt. I would say all our brands and the English broadcast ad growth are in a healthy place and I hope the current economic slowdown fades away in the next two months.
How has one P&L (profit and loss) fared for Times Network?
We have grown steadily. More or less everything has been now uniformalised – people policies, designations, salaries and key responsibility areas (KRAs). Everything has gone into one company. Things have eased out, and with the same people and infrastructure we have still grown from five channels to 11 channels. Revenue was expected to go up by 80 per cent in three years; it has increased by 165 per cent.
There were plans that the network will be on an aggressive expansion spree and there would be about one to two channel launches every year. Where are you on this plan?
In 2016, we launched Movies Now 2, Movies Now HD and Romedy Now HD. We will be launching Times Now HD and Viceland in partnership with Vice. Some more channel launches were planned for the year but it had to take a backseat due to this business situation.
What is the status of expansion of the Hindi and regional genres which you have been quite keen on for some time now?
Actually that was my phase two work. Had demonetisation not happened, my phase one work would have been over by now. The financial targets that I had set were supposed to get over by March 31, 2017. Going regional will take a lot more money. I wanted to give a financially fantastic situation and then to enter the regional markets. The valuation of the company would have gone up by 2.5-3 times in the last three years. Going into Hindi and regional is something even the stakeholders are very keen on but it would be delayed by about six months now. We can expect something in 2018, not before.
There was a digital launch in the pipeline that you had mentioned in your previous interview with BestMediaInfo in March 2016. Where is it stuck?
Mobile applications have already been launched for Times Now, Zoom and ET Now though the marketing has not started. We are waiting for the content to reach a place where I can really start talking about it. Right now we are in recruiting phase, getting the right people for content. This too was a little bit of casualty of Arnab Goswami. He just hijacked it for some time. I really believe that just like print people don’t get broadcast, similarly broadcast people don’t get digital. Actually I should have kept it as a separate entity and got a proper digital head. I have a feeling that it would have been at a different place today. In the last three to four months of flux, we lost a lot of people and more from the digital field and I have not been able to find much time to recruit the right people.