Going by its past, Times Now makes an unlikely leader. For a channel that was dismissed by many, it has beaten rivals and stayed at the top successively for six of the past seven months (up to April 25, 2009). In April 2009, it reached its peak with a 35 per cent market share among the English news channels, (TAM Media Research, C&S, 15+ years, All India).
But then, the television news genre is unlike any other. According to Divya Radhakrishnan, president of the media agency, TME, "At about Rs 1,200-1,300 crore, news channels get a disproportionate share of the TV ad pie of Rs 8,300 crore." Their revenue share is about 15 per cent even though the viewership is less than 9 per cent. Within the news genre, eight English channels get a much bigger slice, about Rs 650-700 crore. This is almost the same as about 15 Hindi and 25 regional news channels put together. (Ad revenue from the English news genre is split equally between five general English channels and three business channels.)
According to Nandini Dias, chief operating officer, Lodestar Universal, "For almost all male targeted products the first irreplaceable genre is news. Within that if we are targeting businessmen, corporates executives and professionals, English and business channels become extremely relevant. A lot of urban working women also now watch these channels with equal zeal." Which is why an advertiser - especially from BFSI (banking, financial services and insurance), telecom and automobile segments - is ready to pay a premium for spot rates on English news.
THE ENGLISH NEWS GENRE
Among the general English news channels, one of the first to monetise the premium profile of audience was NDTV 24x7. Launched in 2003, the channel was an instant hit and lured a growing number of viewers as well as advertisers. For three years, it had a great run of the market and completely dominated the space (with Headlines Today as a weak No 2).
Times Now started with a whimper but CNN-IBN hit the ground running: the latter bit off 34 per cent and 33 per cent market share in January and February 2006 (TAM data for C&S 15+). Times Now got a 2 per cent and 6 per cent share. For the next three years, while CNN-IBN fought to maintain its initial momentum, Times Now kept moving up slowly. The shares of the three were often close while another new player, NewsX (currently awaiting rejuvenation) kept Headlines Today company.
With BCCL, India's largest media company, backing it and a TV veteran like Sunil Lulla at the helm, Times Now had a strong tail wind to propel it forward. The early belief was that a combination of business and lifestyle news would appeal to an increasingly global and aspiring audience in India. In hindsight, that thinking was flawed. According to Lulla (he now spearheads Alva Brothers' Real Global Broadcasting), "The channel faltered as it packed too much of business news and lifestyle update. It fell short of positioning itself as a pure news channel." That is why the channel had a content tie-up with Reuters. As the channel changed focus, the Reuters tie-up was broken off in early 2008, which also enabled easier cross-promotion of Times Now among the Group's other properties.
Besides failing to get the content mix right initially, Times Now also suffered in distribution. The channel made itself available in different markets through the cable operators in a step-by-step, phased manner rather than take a big-bang approach. This meant that many important markets for English news (Bengaluru for instance) didn't get exposed to the channel early on.
Nevertheless, in spite of the hiccups, before he quit in January 2008, Lulla had seen the channel through many highs (for a five-month period from November 2007 to March 2008, Times Now was the leader but then lost that lead. The channel first broke into the top slot in April 2007. These fluctuations emphasise how difficult it is to secure and maintain a lead in the English news genre.) Besides others, Lulla's efforts were buttressed greatly by Goswami, who has been the 'face of the channel' since launch and worked ceaselessly to build editorial equity for Times Now (News Hour is a case in point). Goswami also focussed on hard news as opposed to studio-based or discussion-oriented content (which is NDTV 24x7's forte).
Explaining Times Now's content philosophy, Rao says, "We do not throw news at the audience, rather, we pick up things that will be of interest to them. Also, we do not tie ourselves down with formats or genres, instead, we give priority to news happening throughout the day."
This philosophy seems to be working just fine. Realising that news was supreme, Times Now, under Goswami's editorial direction, reinvented itself as a no-nonsense news channel that connected with viewers through hard news delivered quickly rather than dishing up 'intellectualised' fare. The channel also worked harder at marketing itself better - for instance, through events such as Emvies and Abby Awards.
There was no single success formula for Times Now, but it did a series of things that catapulted the channel into the big league. Apart from the sheer focus on news, the bright look and feel of the channel helped. The logo and look were designed by Giant Octopus, a Florida-based specialist firm. Packaging for a channel is critical. This involves look-and-feel in terms of logo, colours, signature tune that appears during bulletins, design of the news studio and other presentation devices that give it its distinct appearance.
But the tipping point for Times Now seems to have been the Mumbai terror attack of November 26-29, 2008 - when the channel's coverage improved its credibility and perception. Acknowledging this, Sandeep Sharma, senior vice-president, sales and marketing, Times Now, says that the terror attack "has done to Times Now what the Gulf War did to CNN".
THE BUSINESS SIDE
But fighting for eyeballs is only one part in the war amongst news channels. The other, equally tricky part is turning hard news into hard cash. Do higher audience ratings necessarily or immediately convert into ad revenue?
However, a growing top line does not guarantee a healthy bottom line and there are several reasons why making money from a news channel is a tough proposition. Nikhil Vora, managing director, IDFC SSKI Securities, says, "First of all, high distribution cost is putting a lot of stress on everyone's operating costs. Secondly, the English general news genre has three players commanding a market share of 22-30 per cent each. This is unlike other genres where we have a distinct No 1 player followed by a big tail of secondary players. With more or less identical market share, the revenue pick for each player is marginal."
As Vora says, a channel must pay a very high carriage or placement fee to cable operators if it wants to ensure that more viewers are able to receive it on their limited-channel TV sets. As per industry estimates, the annual cost of distributing a channel went up from Rs 15 crore in 2006 to about Rs 25 crore currently. Together with manpower (the cost of which has also been rising due to limited availability of broadcast journalists), distribution accounts for 60-70 per cent of the operating costs of a news channel. The rest is made up by equipment maintenance, marketing and other expenses. While costs have been going up, ad revenue - which accounts for a high 90 per cent of overall revenues - has not been commensurate (with DTH, subscription revenue will grow, but this will take time).
Rao is cautious in dismissing such concerns. "Had the cost of operations been unviable, why would one be in the business in the first place?" he argues. All the same, he goes on to say: "We are a tight running ship, with constant monitoring parameters keeping track of operating efficiency. Money, technology and infrastructure are critical but what's more important is what you do with it."
Sharma says that the sales strategy of the channel has been to prioritise yields over volumes. Essentially, what this means is that Times Now goes for big premium brands emphasising its better hold on SEC A and B viewers.
Of course, each company or group will weigh its own options. Some say that BCCL has an advantage over others, as being family-owned, it can take quick decisions on where to put its money and doesn't have public shareholders breathing down its neck. The industry is eagerly awaiting the launch of ET Now, which is supposed to build on the huge lead of Times Group's business paper and encash this brand equity into 'electronic rupees'. There could also be some resource-sharing with Times Now, besides bundled deals to advertisers.
The bottomline: Times Now can hardly rest on its laurels. The current elections, which will see extensive coverage and high-voltage debates by almost all players in the news genre, are likely to see upsets and heartburns in the pecking order of channels. Unlike in the GEC genre where major shifts in ranking of top players occur only once in several years, news players see their fortunes swing month-by-month, week-by-week, breaking-news-by-breaking news. The next couple of months will really test the mettle of Times Now. Watch that space.