The relative ranking says it all. In every single of the first 30 weeks of 2012, Headlines Today was No 4 in a five-horse race in which the last, NewsX, has never been a serious contender. It followed in the wake of Times Now, NDTV 24X7 and CNN IBN, managing a market share of typically around 10 per cent (C&S 25+ All India 1mn+).
That seemed like a good show by a channel which had never really got off the ground ever since it was launched in 2003. In a two-horse race involving NDTV 24X7, Headlines Today had an annual share of 20-30 per cent during 2003-05. When CNN IBN and Times Now appeared on the scene, Headline Today's share slid to barely above single digits. Its share subsequently stayed - on an annual basis - broadly between 10-15 per cent.
No wonder then that Headlines Today has had to live all these years in the rather long shadow of Aaj Tak, its stable mate and leading Hindi news channel. No surprise again that the English channel was frequently bundled with the Hindi one when it came to ad sales. It really didn't have an identity of its own.
It was last year that Headlines Today underwent a change in the programming. It launched a new breakfast show, Wake Up India; introduced News Night with Rahul Shivshankar at 8 pm; changed the format of Centre Stage with Rahul Kanwal to focus less on talk and more on news; and introduced India Reports at 10 pm with Padmaja Joshi and Shiv Aroor.
The channel currently has an hour of entertainment-based content. There has been a clear shift in focus to hard news. As per the channel, what has helped it to grow is the increased emphasis on political news. Bagga says that the early prime time and late night slot saw an increase in viewership due to the news focus.
To add to the buzz, the channel created the 'Right to Be Heard' campaign. This integrated campaign, started at the beginning of 2012, across print, radio, digital - led by TV - made a common voice resound till it was heard. There is a separate website dedicated to the campaign to help raise the voices that have gone unheard till now. In the second outreach phase of the campaign, 'Right to be Heard' boxes have been placed in more than 100 Cafe Coffee Day outlets and a Quarterathon is planned around Women's Safety shortly.
Vivek Malhotra, vice-president, marketing and strategic planning and research, TV Today Network, says that the campaign has been one of the major driving forces behind the channel's growth in recent times. The channel has also fine-tuned its target group last year. Under the new attempt, the target group is male, 25+ AB who lives in one of the six metros.
All this effort is paying off. Headlines Today has been gathering fresh strength in 2013. It has done the unimaginable: it jostles for numbers with NDTV 24X7 and CNN IBN and, in the average share over the last four weeks (Week 14-17), it has actually nudged past both to take the second spot behind Times Now (C&S 25+ All India 1mn+). It will have to do more to show that it can sustain this performance.
Fame will be a little longer in coming. Shekhar Banerjee, senior vice-president, Madison Media, explains that for the news channels, the viewership numbers are so small that the buying completely depends on the market perception. And Headlines Today has a long way to go before it gets into the same league, in image terms, as its rivals. One media planner points out that though its viewership is rising, it doesn't have recognizable faces or programmes in league with the competition. And it is these that create positive perception about a news channel.
Meanwhile, the channel has upped marketing expenses sharply in the last two years. From almost nothing, marketing spends now stand at between 10-15 per cent of the topline. Malhotra says that the channel is in process of continuous re-invention, "We understand that what got us here won't keep us here. We'll have to continuously re-invent our strategies. We want to create uncontested space where the viewer is more important than anything else. Displacing the competitors from their positions isn't enough and we understand that. We need to maintain our position too."
Now that the channel is being independently of Aaj Tak, the trade is taking it more seriously too. Claiming that about 150 new advertisers have come on board in 2012-13, Bagga says that high-value categories such as fashion and jewellery, other than telecom, retail and FMCG brands are including Headlines Today. Corporate brands are opting in, too.
Now to see if the channel, which is making headlines, can complete the rest of its success story.