In May this year, Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries owned media network announced the elevation of Avinash Kaul as the chief executive officer, Network18 and managing director, A+E Networks | TV18. Kaul is now the custodian of the news bouquet which comprises 21 channels and the factual entertainment business - History TV18 and FYI 18.
The factual entertainment space in India has always been a challenging one. The market dynamics do not permit broadcasters to commission expensive India centric shows and the international content does not appeal to the large Indian audience. Despite global giants like Discovery, National Geographic Channel, BBC Earth (in partnership with Sony) operating in the country with thousands of hours of rich infotainment content, the genre has failed to scale up. Kaul believes it is due to the lack of Indian content while BBC Studios' Myleeta Aga once said in an interview with afaqs! that the real reason is the country's economic condition. "People will only care about the environment once they have fed their families..." she said.
To expand its India content pool, History TV18, a joint venture between A+E Networks and TV18, has released "India Inked", a documentary on the recently concluded General Elections to the 17th Lok Sabha. Kaul believes that the piece on "History's biggest elections" can be a hit in India and overseas.
In an interview with afaqs! he talks about the challenges and opportunities in the factual entertainment and news businesses.
When you commission such content, do you keep the international audience in mind?
When you are a part of a large ecosystem as we are, because of our joint venture with A+E Networks, there is always a possibility of your content traveling to other parts of the world. It stays at the back of the mind but the overseas audience is not our primary one. The primary audience is the viewers in India and that is what we focus on.
But given the number of viewers in India, does it make economic sense to commission an expensive series?
It is a tough decision to make. We were among the first ones to do it in India on a large scale. While there are a few one-offs from the competition, we have made continuous attempts to ramp up our original content slate on History TV in India in the last four years. Today, we have many hours of original content. The only reason we do that is because this genre has got a sizeable amount of audience. But there is a limit to how far international content can travel. As long as it is related to wildlife and nature, the Indian audience might still watch it, but when it comes to human stories, the Indian context is always something that works better.
What makes you say that there is a sizeable audience, do you mean audience beyond the TV space?
Our show OMG Yeh Mera India travels all across the digital medium and has actually helped us grow the social media assets of History TV. It rakes in billions of views, which tell you that there is an audience for sure. This online traction tells us that commissioning such content makes sense, but only so long as there is a business model around it.
News broadcasting is a hyper-competitive world which is controlled by ratings.Avinash Kaul, Network18
What, according to you, is a good business model?
According to me, it is about people being able to pay for content directly. To some extent, this has started with the implementation of the New Tariff Order. Going forward, we might see the business models changing too. They could get more skewed towards subscription revenue and less dependent on advertising. There is income coming in from syndication and from digital rights. All of that put together makes a project viable.
Do you think we have enough talent in India to create factual entertainment content which viewers would pay to watch?
There were certain challenges many years ago but now we see global blockbusters being made in India. Be it movies, factual entertainment or live events, the best technicians are based out of India. It is not a question of the availability of talent, the question actually is how much money we are willing to spend. If you look at globally successful factual entertainment shows, the budgets are humongous, way higher than what we end up spending. Why they are able to spend? Because there is an established business model through which you monetise the content all across the world. We are yet to figure out a business model to monetise original factual entertainment content. We have done it with movies. From being an undiscovered market a few years ago, China is now a significant contributor to Indian cinema.
It took a Dangal for Indian cinema to understand the potential of China as a market. What do you think will be the tipping point for factual entertainment?
The tipping point for factual entertainment content in India will be when we manage to produce a hugely successful series that will travel the world.
What are your digital aspirations? Are you planning to license 'India Inked' and other originals to OTT platforms?
Those are all currently ongoing conversations. We are exploring such opportunities but you need a certain number of hours of content for those deals to make economic sense. We are trying to figure out the best way to showcase our content on OTT platforms.
Moving from infotainment to news, you were part of the team that launched NDTV as a broadcaster in 2001. What has changed from then to now?
Back then, there were fewer news channels in India. Today, there are over 200 satellite news channels in India. Earlier, since there were fewer channels, the focus was more on quality. There was a limited number of people and limited avenues so you were obviously putting a premium on those. But when the number expands to more than 200, probably there aren't enough journalism schools to feed the 200 broadcast news networks in India! The investment in talent hasn't really kept pace when it comes to news.
The quality of content on these channels is often questioned. What is your take on that?
News broadcasting is a hyper-competitive world which is controlled by ratings. And in such a scenario, you have to try different formats to stay afloat and profitable and to return value to shareholders. Some of them could be right while some could go wrong. But at the end of the day, what matters most is what is getting captured in the people-meters. That tells you what works and what is not working. One cannot stand on individual judgment of what is good and what is not. There are audiences for all kinds of content.
What made you expand all across the country by launching regional news channels one after another?
We have 21 news channels. Except in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, we have a channel catering to each state. We did this because we believe news is primarily local in nature. The only reason why we couldn't do it earlier is that the economics were not that supportive. The technology cost in the era of bulky and expensive OB vans was too much to go regional. Today, we are in an era of mobile journalism. You can actually go live from your phone, which brings down the cost. The costs have come down and advertising has started supporting regionalisation, making it a viable proposition.
Do you see the possibility of further expansion?
If some day, there is a viable business case which means enough audience for advertisers to be interested, there could be separate channels in each district of India. If you live in a particular area, you are more interested in that area. People are first interested in hyperlocal news, then local news (which is the state), followed by national news and then international news. That is how consumer behaviour works.
Who advertises on the regional news channels? Is it the same big brands or do you get new ones?
It is a mix of both. There are local retail advertisers of that particular market and then there are the national advertisers, targeting audience in those markets.
What about the future of news broadcasting, with digital rising thick and fast?
As a news broadcaster, we produce audio-visual news and text news which people consume on television, online or wherever they want. For us, it does not matter which screen they are consuming news on, as long as they consume the news curated by us.