Anirban Roy Choudhury

"I'm personally involved in each and every part of our marketing": MK Anand, Times Network

An interview with the MD and CEO of Times Network for whom channels are brands.

The broadcast arm of media conglomerate Bennett and Coleman, Times Network, which runs 11 English and one Hindi youth channel, started 2017 with several pain points to address. The network's market leader, Times Now, was without an editor after Arnab Goswami decided to move on. More challenging was the fact that the face of the channel was also setting up a channel of his own. The slowdown in revenue due to demonetisation and the implementation of the goods and service tax only added fuel to this fire.

Unfazed, MK Anand, managing director and CEO, went ahead and roped in an editor from a rival channel, empowered his existing employees, made new launches and tweaked existing properties as he readied himself to tackle a big wave. Anand expanded the existing portfolio of English Movies and re-shaped the Hindi youth product Zoom. The network now has Movies Now, Romedy Now, MNX, Times Now (all in high definition - HD, and standard definition - SD), Zoom, Mirror Now, ET Now (in just SD), and MN+ (only HD) in its portfolio.

In this interview, Anand shares his experience of dealing with the challenges.

Edited Excerpts

A year after demonetisation, have you overcome the slowdown?

Other than Digital, everything has dropped. If we compare April-October 2016 to April-October 2017, my estimate is that TV has seen a decline of two percent, which is the least compared to other businesses. In the same period, advertising has seen a drop of three percent. So we have seen growth, but obviously, it's not the 20 percent plus we are used to.

Has distribution reduced the ad sales slowdown? After phase III and IV, it is now a digitised market...

Between 2012 and now there has been substantial growth, but not between phase III and phase IV particularly. The momentum, set since 2012-13, will move at the right pace till 2020.

How has the slowdown impacted businesses like yours?

It has not. Broadcast today is about riding distribution to bring in more audiences from the same content factory. I have attempted to launch two more channels in this period - Times Now HD and Mirror Now. We have grown our English Movies portfolio to seven channels. The idea behind this expansion is to have more brands so that we can capture more audiences than the competition.

What changed for us is that from an operational point of view, we have optimised. Mirror Now is a great example of optimization and sharing of internal resources. There are only 21 people running it and they are using the infrastructure of two other channels - Times Now and ET Now. Normally, we would have done a headcount, made an estimate of the equipment, bought them and started the channel. The revenue slowdown has brought in a lot of operational optimization.

Talking about the news genre, we have seen a major shakeup in the industry with the launch of Republic TV. How has that changed the dynamics?

The launch of a new channel has increased the overall reach in terms of numbers which is a great sign for the genre. Last year, after 52 weeks, the total reach of English news was two million per week. This year it is 3.6 million per week!

This year's growth happened on the back of aggressive marketing from the new player and counter-marketing from the existing. Of the 2 million in viewership we had 1 million last year. This year, we have grown to 2.2 million of 3.6 million, based on collective data which includes all English News channels.

Has the entry of Republic eaten into your revenue pie?

There has been a slight drop, which to me, is because of demonetisation. I say this because there is a drop in English Business News too (Republic does not exist here).

You had once said that if you have a Salman Khan you would rather have him on your team than competing against you. Was it a strategic decision not to replace one high-profile anchor with another?

The option of replacing one high profile with another was not available for us. But in the last one year, we have shown that we are capable of replicating what we did with that high profile anchor. Remember, we created the high profile anchor over here out of the inputs of positioning, branding, content, liberty, and resources.

The one-man show situation is not something that I created - I inherited that situation. Now that I have an option, we would rather make a franchise instead of a one hero company. Having said that, the team we have now gets us 40 percent market share. Think of a situation when one of them or all of them attains stardom. Remember, today, we are without the star and with a monster competitor in the market.

How personally involved do you get with your agency to discuss creative aspects?

Famous Innovation is our creative agency, but Vivek (Srivastava, EVP and head of Entertainment Cluster) and I get personally involved in each and every aspect of marketing. We devote time to ensure the right colour, the right line, right feel or right look. I have never done this with such rigour, until now.

You have rebranded real estate-based news channel Magicbricks Now to Mirror Now which covers general news. ET Now also moves in that direction. Won't one eat into the other? Are you also making a portfolio to start bundled selling?

Honestly, I would want to be in a scenario where we are eating into each other instead of others eating into us. Yes, the plan is to sell news in bundles. We already sell English Movies as part of a bundle and it has brought us great success.

How has the growth of the English Movies genre been?

In a market that is dropping, English Movies has actually seen a slight growth and that is because of the hockey stick growth in HD revenue, which is an encouraging sign.

How is the profile of an HD viewer different from an SD viewer's?

First, the HD viewer needs to have an HD set. Second, he has to live in an area with an HD distributor and he needs to pay a premium to subscribe to HD channels. The viewer needs to tune in to a particular channel to watch a particular movie/program. The difference between the SD viewer and the HD viewer is that the HD viewer has subscribed to watch the channel specifically. Also, the HD viewer is a decision maker.

Are you getting a premium rate for the top of the pyramid audience?

We don't have much of a difference in our SD and HD ad rates. We have seen others under-pricing HD, but we have not done that and are still getting good numbers.

Has the emergence of streaming platforms and price-cuts in data affected your English entertainment business?

Digital growing and eating broadcast audiences and viewership is more of a negotiation tool than reality. Distributors try and put this argument across to get better deals, which is their job. I don't see any decline in either the English Movies business or English News business.

Digital is just another distribution tool for broadcasters and not a threat. Now, there are giant distributors like Facebook and Google, which are a concern for the entire media business, Disney downward. It has nothing to do with English broadcast specifically. In 2015, which was the TAM-to-BARC changeover period, GTVT (gross television viewership in thousands) for English Movie channels was 15,000 per week. It is 16,270 per week now in 1 million plus markets. Where is the drop?

With respect to the shift from TAM-to-BARC, initially, English broadcasters took issue with the variance in data. What's your take on the same?

When it comes to TAM-to-BARC migration, I think they have done a decent job. With reference to English data variance, you cannot put the onus on BARC; smaller categories will always have more variation. However, reconciliation between these smaller categories and other mega categories like GECs, on certain policies, the outlier policy, for instance, is causing some heartburn. In such cases, there is margin to improve... they could kill the data for such weeks.

Speaking of killing data, let's talk about the time English news broadcasters collectively requested BARC not to publish the ratings of Republic TV...

That's because in that week we got information that a particular channel (Republic TV) was blatantly flouting TRAI guidelines and industry practices by using multiple LCNs. That's an old trick many have indulged in, pre-digitisation. So we decided to call for an NBA (News Broadcasters Association) meeting and India Today went to the Delhi High Court. When we realised nothing was happening, we went to BARC and told them about this, but BARC put their hands up and said, 'We cannot do anything unless we get a notice from TRAI or MIB; this is not our area, this is TRAI's area...' Ignoring a request from the entire category was insensitive... IBF (Indian Broadcasting Foundation), which is a part of BARC, was also unavailable so we had no option and we had to black out our watermarks.

Several networks have shut down Music channels. What is your stand on Zoom?

I treat Zoom as a brand and not as a channel. Zoom outruns everybody including the GECs when it comes to social media performance. We are expecting a big launch of our digital arm in the next two months. The web or lack of linear presence was a problem and now that part is taken care of.

Starting next year, you will see a lot of original shows on Zoom. We have already greenlit a few of them. The target group of this channel is youth between 20 and 30 years. Zoom will reach out to this audience either through TV, web or mobile - I don't see any reason for the reach and growth of youth content not to grow.

What drives your energy?

Ha Ha (laughs). In the past, I was a part of a big company. Suddenly, I was put in a new company which I had to build brick by brick. That is when I realised how difficult it is to create a Rs 1500-2000 crore company. I would like to achieve such a feat and that is what energises me.

The original version of this interview was published in afaqs! Reporter, December 1, 2017 issue.

A Note From the Editor

MK Anand, managing director and CEO of Times Network, is fearless, ambitious, and doesn't mince his words. Each time we've interviewed him, we've come away with some bold statements.

The last time we interviewed him, in February this year, it had been around three months since Arnab Goswami's much talked about and overly analysed exit from the network. He said at the time, "Let's accept it, Arnab made Times Now what it is today..." As Anand puts it, he would rather have a Salman Khan in his team than against him.

He also famously said, "We will not allow Arnab to run past us..." (Oh, of course that was our headline!) Back then, the focus of the chat was understanding how life had changed for him and the network. He conceded then that holding the team together was the biggest challenge at the time.

Before that, we spoke to him in April 2015, when he was little over a year old in the network (he'd come in from Disney UTV Media Networks, where he worked closely with Ronnie Screwvala); back then, he spoke to us about his desire to make Times Network a Rs.1,000 crore brand, something he reiterated this time around as well.

"In the past, I was part of a big company. Suddenly, I was put in a new company which I had to build brick by brick. That is when I realised how difficult it is to create a Rs.1,500-2,000 crore company. I would like to achieve such a feat and that is what energises me," Anand told us this time.

Interestingly, Anand works very closely with the network's creative team; he's personally involved in each and every part of the marketing and advertising process, down to the "right colour, right line, right look, right feel...", something he never did with this sort of rigour in the past. He treats his channels as brands, he insists.

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