Star News' tightrope walk

By , agencyfaqs! | In | July 20, 2001
In the crowding news-channel scenario, Star News is walking the tightrope between its mass designs and an elitist image

Around this time last year, Star News at Nine, a half-hour English news bulletin produced by New Delhi Television (NDTV) was moved from Star Plus to Star World. It was a step towards lending a total Hindi feel to Star Plus, and a more local feel to its estranged cousin Star World. While the first channel has rewritten success in Indian television history, Star World, which was targeted at the Indian Diaspora abroad, has again been witness to a similar change. Early this month, Star moved the 9.00 pm English news bulletin from Star World to Star News. Additionally, it knocked out some programmes and brought in some new ones, particularly on the crucial 5.30 pm-9.00 pm Hindi band. Most importantly, the Hindi anchor closing the 8.30 pm bulletin on Star News reminds you to watch the News in English (9.00 pm) with "Prannoy Roy", one of India's more likeable news anchors.

What explains all the action on Star News lately? In two words, Aaj Tak. But that would be avoiding the bigger issue: a more competitive news-channel market, and Star's aim to capture the Hindi hinterland. "It is a conscious decision on our part on whether we want Star News to compete with Aaj Tak and Zee News or should we maintain our share of the English market," reasons L S Nayak, executive vice-president, Star India. "For now, we have divided the Hindi and English content on Star News equally: 50:50."

Fact is, Star cannot remain oblivious of the pickings from the bigger pie. Its biggest success to date, Star Plus, owes it to the masses. Nayak assures that neither ratings nor revenues have been a problem for Star News to date. But tomorrow? If current perceptions are an indication, ratings and revenues may very soon become a sore point for Star News.

"Star News has been too niche," believes Sandip Tarkas, associate vice-president and manager, MindShare. "You can feel that they are spending less and less on programming. Most programmes are done in studios, while Aaj Tak is spending more and more. It is reporting more from the field." While that may be discounted as a subjective consumer perception, Tarkas also offers a more crucial reason that calls for some proactive efforts on the part of Star News. "Aaj Tak has really opened up the Hindi audience to a new level of reportage. Zee is beefing up its act. And that is taking even some English audiences to Hindi news channels," reasons Tarkas. "Star News has been too elite and in such a scenario, there is a danger of losing relevance."

A TAM study of February 10 (2001), published in the media, reported Aaj Tak's viewership rating as five times that of Star News and more than three times that of Zee News. Its weekly viewership jumped to 114 minutes from 64 minutes reported in January. Zee and Star's stood at 33 and 22 minutes respectively. It is not just the number of people, but also the time spent per person. According to a TAM report of the week ending May 19, Star News did not fare too well on stickiness either. It reported that the viewers spent about 44 minutes in a full day watching Aaj Tak. Zee News was watched for 28 minutes and Star News for 18 minutes of actual time spent per viewer on a daily basis.

In the SEC A households, the prime target for Star News' English newscasts, CNBC has begun hotting up the market. Though a business-news channel, it was still making its presence felt. Sure, CNBC's business news angle does lend it an unfair advantage: it is seen in the workplace during daytime, unlike any other channel in India, perhaps. In a release issued to the press in April 2001, CNBC trumpeted its channel share (25 plus; nine cities; weekday viewing between 6.00 am-midnight) in SEC A households: 0.7 against Star News' 0.4 (TAM).

Not surprisingly, the media reported last month about Star asking NDTV to take remedial action. Journalists went ahead to even question James Murdoch, on his recent visit to India, about Star's position on its agreement with NDTV which expires in 2003. Soon, Star announced the launch of a few properties like Barkha Dutt-anchored Reality Bites which replaced 'Assignment' (9.30 pm, Saturdays). Further introductions rolled in early this month in the form of Hindi properties like Star Bazaar, Saat Baje and Star Khel.

Sensing the rural Indian's early sleeping habit, the 5.30-9.00 pm Hindi fits neatly. The 9.00 pm News slot opens to the urban audiences just when most of them walk back from offices. Though Nayak does not spell it in so many words, what's evident is that the channel is treading a more cautious path. No major promotions are being undertaken immediately. On the flip side, that is also to avoid diluting the image Star News carries.

So even while Star News recognises its strength in the English market, it is trying a fine act between its elitist image and mass reach (and availability). "What we need to do is a tightrope between class and mass," as Nayak calls it. Promos talking of 'shaam ki chai, din bhar ki baatein' (the evening tea and the day's news) are being aired on Star channels only. It is learnt that Star may also be reviewing its distribution strategy for the Hindi hinterland. Without disclosing anything further, Nayak adds, "With the Hindi band, we expect to now figure in the Hindi audience viewership charts."

Going by Star's achievement on Star Plus, there is no reason why it won't go all out to woo the Hindi audience for Star News too - that is, once the tightrope-walk is mastered.

© 2001 agencyfaqs!