Benita Chacko
Interviews

"TV business is like a 100 metre race; don't look at competition, just run": Avinash Pandey, CEO, ABP Network

In the first session of the Languages Week 2021, Pandey speaks about ABP's regional audience profile and their future plans.

The inaugural session of Languages Week 2021 looked at how news is increasingly getting more local. Sreekant Khandekar, co-founder of afaqs!, interviewed Avinash Pandey, CEO, ABP Network, about the growth of news content in regional languages. The Languages Week 2021 will be held daily from August 23-27, 4 p.m. onwards. Please click here to register for the conference.

After having channels in Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Punjabi, Gujarati, they recently launched in the Southern market with ABP Nadu in Tamil and live streaming ABP Desam for Andhra Pradesh and Telangana market.

Pandey shares insights on their content creation, their audience profile and their future plans.

Edited excerpts.

Khandekar: You've been in the business of news for 25 years and in TV for 20 years. If you were to look at it in a very broad sense, how have expectations from news channels changed?

Pandey: So when we started the TV business, our idea was that we cater to an audience which reads English newspapers, but dances on Bollywood songs and largely speaks English. When we went into this business a lot of new channels got launched, which did not have the same philosophy for coming into this business. But the expectations of people changed dramatically. Because the same box was delivering a plethora of entertainment, and advertisers were measuring based on the time spent. So news channels started competing for the time spent, rather than the credibility of the news. People were consuming more stories rather than facts, and television media organisations were not able to do so because of the rating. Unfortunately, our measurement system is not ready. The measurement has to help us reach the original objective of television that we came into existence.

Khandekar: Are the people who watch national news the same or different people from those who watch local or regional news?

Pandey: In Bengal, the primary viewing language is Bengali. So the first port of landing is a Bengali channel. And Bengali news today has got a lot of national news, but it's from the perspective of Bengal. A subset of that audience will also watch national channels but these are largely people who are non-Bengali audience-they don't read or write Bengali but they understand and speak it. This is a factor of how strong the language is a part of the culture.

Khandekar: In general entertainment channels, much of the growth in the last few years has come from non-Hindi. Is the same thing happening in the case of news?

Pandey: Of course, yes. For example, I know all the politicians of Punjab have watched the streaming of ABP Sanjha, which is currently not on cable and satellite, but produced for the Canadian audience and streamed on Zee5. The political class is more worried about Sanjha’s content than Hindi content and nobody understands the consumer better than politicians. The growth opportunity is very high, because the audience there relates with the language channel and considers it their own. Many people consider it as an opportunity to say things that they will never get a chance to say on a national channel.

Khandekar: Could you list down the factors to consider before getting into a state?

Pandey: For a television channel it is very important to see the competitive landscape. We see how many players are considered credible in the market. We see the entry barriers- whether there's one guy controlling the cable. So that means at the distribution end they have better bargaining power. We see whether good talent is available for the consumer. And more importantly, we understand the consumer mindset. So we go into deep research as to what kind of content they like, and what is missing in their life right now that they would like to get served from us. Finally, the news channel has to do a job for you.

And more importantly, we understand the consumer mindset. So we go into deep research as to what kind of content they like, and what is missing in their life right now that they would like to get served from us.

Khandekar: Is having a vernacular news channel a sound business decision in terms of ad revenues as the markets are small. Is it guided by the compulsion of competition?

Pandey: Television businesses are a 100 metre race. If you look at competition, you won't be able to compete. Just look at your target and run. Advertising in the regional market is very big. Our newspapers have always survived in the local market.

Khandekar: Print publications are urging customers to pay online, should TV news rethink the way they monetise?

Pandey: Of course yes. There is certain content which should be free. We create content to disseminate information. The headline should not be chargeable, we should distribute COVID information freely. But we can charge for series like Pradhanmantri, Bharatvarsh or Bharat ka Yug, which is a very strongly invested curated content. So news channels have to work on a model where the part which is in larger public interest is free and the rest is behind the paywall for people to pay and consume. We are very seriously considering putting everything behind the paywall. You will be able to see the headlines.

So news channels have to work on a model where the part which is in larger public interest is free and the rest is behind the paywall for people to pay and consume. We are very seriously considering putting everything behind the paywall.

Khandekar: A chunk of revenues for non-Hindi print or GECs come from local advertising. Now, that is the bedrock of their growth. Does that hold true for language news too and if it does, then does aggregating a handful of language channels help, since selling to local advertisers has to be utilised?

Pandey: Getting together does not make sense, because it will be cartelisation. When we enter the market, the ratio of national versus local is about 80:20, 80 being the national advertiser. But the very second year the dynamics changes, becoming 60:40, because by that time, our salespeople have to convince them. Largely for all successful networks, it is about 60:40 or 50:50.

Khandekar: How similar and different are people in different states, in terms of the content they like and in terms of the challenge of getting advertising?

Pandey: As far as ABP Network is concerned, our operational efficiency is more like a bank in Dutch country called Hans Bank. It's a global company, but it's a local company, the banks are only local, they don't serve consumers more than 50 kilometer radius. So our channels, everything is decided locally. The corporate department is an overarching thing helping them do their best. But all the decisions are taken locally. For example there is no interference from Noida in a channel in Gujarat. From the advertising and selling side, we have a model in which we first support the local channel through the national network. And then the local channel grows on its own. And over a three or five years period it stabilises. All the channels are absolutely independent in editorial decision making.

Khandekar: Can you give me a sense of how much a state channel takes from the national network?

Pandey: In our network nobody takes anything from the national network. It's not that our national package story will be run as it is in local. It's absolutely to the taste of the local consumer. That's what ABP is known for. We make it locally for local people. So even if we're producing Afghanistan related news on the Punjabi channel, that will be from the mindset of the Punjabi population living all over the world. While Delhi will focus on the same news item for the larger national interest. The treatments are very different.

In our network nobody takes anything from the national network. It's not that our national package story will be run as it is in local. It's absolutely to the taste of the local consumer. That's what ABP is known for.

Khandekar: ABP dropped the word ‘News’ from its name last year. What was the purpose behind this change?

Pandey: We are diversifying into businesses which are non news. We have launched a brand studio. We have just produced a Marathi movie. We are working on almost two series, which we have just got from two large TV networks.

Khandekar: Print gets paid as per CPM whereas TVs sold on CPRP? Do you think if you move to CPM, money from print will start making it to TV?

Pandey: We're certainly not going to snatch any business from print. Print is very technical, local and on the face. Television is about brand building. The TV industry has been fighting for CPM for a long time. The internal evaluation in advertising agencies of print, digital and radio is on CPM. TV is the only one which is on CPRP. So it does not make sense.

Khandekar: What are the biggest challenges to the growth of language news?

Pandey: The biggest challenge today to start a regional channel is the strength of the distribution. If you started a cable channel, and the cable is owned by a politician who is currently ruling the state, knowing our history he will not allow us to be there. It's not in their interest. Also, the financial burden that is imposed on the channel from day one is a challenge. Even if we are not making any money we end up paying Rs 10 crore to the cable operator and that's larger than the salary cost.

Khandekar: When will you start a channel for Odisha?

Pandey: We were close to doing that twice. But in this country, the source of revenue for the news genre is only advertising. And it's still not a developed paid market for the news genre. From the advertising perspective Odisha is not a big market. And that's why many who launched there are finding it very hard. That's certainly one of our desires.

Khandekar: How would this conversation be different three years later?

Pandey: The conversation would be how we curate more video-on-demand. And how its viewership is higher than the live. And we'll talk about how much people have already paid for it.

Languages Week is presented by ABP News and powered by COLORS Bangla.

ABP NETWORK

ABP Network is a group entity of ABP Group, which was established almost a century ago and continues to reign as a leading Indian media company. As India’s most-trusted media organisation, since its incorporation in 2003, ABP Network has been the most credible voice in the broadcast and digital domain, with prominent presence in India and abroad. The organisation acquires, produces, markets and distributes broadcast network programming, reaching 535 million people across the country.

The network’s portfolio includes ABP News (national Hindi news channel) as well as regional channels like ABP Ananda (Bengali news), ABP Majha (Marathi news), ABP Asmita (Gujarati news), ABP Ganga (Hindi news channel for Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand viewers), ABP Sanjha (Punjabi news), ABP Bihar (digital news portal for Bihar-specific viewers), ABP Nadu (digital news portal for Tamil viewers), ABP Desam (digital news portal for Telugu viewers) and ABP Live, a digital news platform.

Additionally, in catering to content production needs, the network launched ABP Studios under the aegis of ABP Creations. ABP Studios offers path-breaking content that enlightens, entertains and engages national and international audiences with relatable and re-imagined pan-India stories.

Backed by its multilingual portfolio of news channels, the organisation enjoys considerable reach on digital platforms via news portals in Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati and Punjabi, as well as via platforms on cricket and Bollywood, and on ABP Live, the digital platform of ABP that has emerged as the preferred news destination for viewers across India.

ABP Network’s core purpose is to create an open and informed society.

The network is determined to create an informed, open and empowered society, one that harbours a moral obligation to deliver impartial information for the greater good of the nation. The brand is positioned as a bold storyteller, leading the way and engaging the public with ground-breaking content.

The brand adds drama to rationality and meaning to facts. Its daring spirit drives it to persevere and the team puts this spirit into everything it does. It is part of the team's heritage, something it continues to build on it.

COLORS BANGLA

COLORS Bangla is Viacom18’s flagship Bengali General Entertainment Channel. With a tagline of Natun Sopner Rong (the power of your dreams), COLORS Bangla weaves in rich Bangla culture in its contemporary content. Drawing inspiration from everyday stories, and from the intellect and values that define Bengalis, Colors Bangla epitomises characters who are inspirational and aspirational but are rooted in Bengal’s culture and tradition – a combination of today’s emotions and tomorrow’s aspirations. An eclectic mix of fiction and non- fiction shows, COLORS Bangla’s content offering contains different hues of life - Mou er Bari, Mon Mane Na, Teen Shaktir Aadhar Trishul, Dutta and Bouma and Sangeet er Mohajuddho.

COLORS Bangla is available on local cable networks, TATA Sky (channel 1303), Dish TV (channel 1411), Airtel DTH (channel 705) and digitally on VOOT, Jio, Tata Sky Binge, Airtel Xtreme.