“The government started to give up control”

BY AMAN MALIK| IN Media Business | 24/02/2016
Twenty five years after the 1991 liberalisation The Hoot interviews leading media business players on how it shaped India’s media explosion.
AMAN MALIK interviews VIKRAM CHANDRA

 Vikram Chandra, CEO NDTV

 

LIBERALISATION AND THE MEDIA SECTOR

 

Vikram Chandra began his career as an anchor and reporter with ‘Newstrack,’  and joined NDTV in 1994.  Today, he is the Chief Executive Officer of the NDTV Group, even as he continues to anchor shows like ‘The Big Fight’ and ‘Gadget Guru’. Chandra spoke to The Hoot about how the media in general and NDTV in particular have transitioned in the two decades and a half since the economy was liberalised. Edited excerpts.

 

What were you doing around 1991-92, when the process of liberalisation began?

Chandra: Well actually I started in 1991. It was a rather landmark moment in my life at this time exactly in 1991, I was still at Oxford University, and I had this rather stark choice before me, I had got offers at Morgan Stanley and other such places and I was looking at a job there as a financial analyst, staying on abroad, getting into those, sort of things, or I could come back to India to do journalism, which is something I had been tempted to do because it sounded like an exciting career, because my mom had been a journalist, but, obviously at that time India was in a complete mess.

If you think back at February-March or even later in May 1991, the country was bankrupt, Rajiv Gandhi got assassinated, Kashmir was in flames, Punjab was in flames, Assam was looking not very good, there were really serious questions whether the country was going to survive, the Sri Lanka war was just about ending. And, there was absolutely no broadcasting sector in the country to come back to. So, it seemed like a reasonably crazy thing to do, to chuck it up and to return. But very interestingly, I didn’t think for more than 5-10 minutes. I wanted to come back home.

 

Overarchingly, what stands out for you in the way the media has transformed since then?

Chandra: Linked to that (the previous question) I remember, as a student, I think I met Pronnoy and I asked him that question, I said, I want your advice as a student. I am in Oxford, and am facing this dilemma, should I come back to India and do media, or should I look at a job in banking or something. So, he said, you know, you could be a banker, fine, you could make a lot of money, or you could join the World Bank, or if you come back to media, you will certainly have a very exciting and interesting life. It sounded good, so I took the decision, came back to India, and it was really quite funny because at that time, there was really no vacancy in NDTV. At that time TV journalism didn’t really exist. NDTV was doing ‘The World This Week,’ for  Doordarshan, and other than that there was no broadcast journalism, and I wanted to be a broadcast journalist. The only thing that existed other than ‘The World This Week’ at that time, was Madhu Trehan’s  ‘Newstrack,’ (distributed via video cassettes).  Today, people will find it strange to believe that that’s what broadcast journalism in India was- just 25 years ago.

 

Do you think, but for liberalisation, this explosive growth in the media would not have happened, or would some sort of a growth trajectory have panned out over time? Or was liberalisation an inflection point?

Chandra: No, I think there was a different reason that’s led to the expansion of the media. Liberalisation was a factor, yes, liberalisation obviously unchained the Indian economy and there’s lots more activity, there’s lots more money, which is always good for the media sector. But I think the real factor, at least to my mind was that the government decided to let go when it came to broadcast television. They decided to end control. Even at those times, with Newstrack, we had to get a censor certificate.

The real inflection points, I think, came when we in NDTV started to do a programme (by that time I had moved across to NDTV), when we did the first proper news broadcast on Indian news, in India. That’s, if you ask me, the real inflection point. While we were covering ‘The World This Week,’ it was outside news, outside the country. Newstrack was on a video cassette. So, when we first did that domestic news broadcast, that, in many ways, to my mind, was the real inflection point. That means, the government started to give up control.

 

Which year was this?

Chandra: This was 1996, I think.

 

Was it tough to start off at that point, considering there would have been a lot of political control?

Chandra: Yeah, but it wasn’t quite as bad as you might have thought. There were, of course, radical moments, but there was a period at that time when for us, there used to have to be a 10 minute delay, for starters, then it became a five minute delay. So, we could record the show, but you couldn’t go live. So, somebody could theoretically say “oh my God, look what they are doing?” if you suddenly started to shout, you know, seditious slogans, you know, some JNU type slogans. So, they wanted that time. But we used to still ‘record to live.’ There used to be all over this building (Archana Complex, New Delhi), big clocks, saying ‘NDTV time’ and ‘IST (Indian Standard Time),’ because we would just record the thing to tape, I mean, to a hard disk, where it would spin around, like for ten minutes and then spew itself off. So, actually, we were doing it as if it was live. And then, along the way, suddenly they realised, who’s going to actually be sitting and watching this, and then they stopped that. Then, you know, how it happens, once the doors open, they just start opening. Then, before you know, we did a 24-hour news channel, then a second 24-hour news channel came in, and then, before you knew it, there were 500 news channels.

 

"We know video algorithms better than we know our own names. If you try the NDTV feed on a bad connection, it works. "

 

What about coming of the Internet?

Chandra: See, from my point of view, by 1999-2000, I had personally become reasonably convinced that, though the Internet was a bubble at that time, that this is the way the entire industry is going to move. I think Pronnoy saw that I was very passionate about it so my first management position (in 1999), was when I was appointed the CEO of NDTV Convergence or NDTV.Com.

The Internet is actually a massive opportunity andit’s not going to be necessarily the case that new guys are going to come in and dominate the Internet. Actually us old media fossils may well be the winners on the Internet provided you approach it correctly. And most people, did not, have not and still are not approaching it correctly. Because what it takes to be successful on the Internet is not the same thing which it takes to be successful on television or in print.

There are certain ground rules,there are certain principles, there are certain things that will generate success for you on the Internet, which are very different to the way you think.  In our case, for example, some of the things that we started to do very early, was in 1999, we were streaming video live, and that was considered an insane thing to do. There was not enough bandwidth in India to get a text message. But the benefits of all of that are being felt now. So today, when everyone is saying video is the next big thing, we at NDTV have 16 years of experience. We know video algorithms better than we know our own names. If you try the NDTV feed on a bad connection, it works.

How do you do distributed Internet loads, so that you can take a big peak, we were playing around with that in 2001-02. In the news business, you are going to spike. How are you going to deal with the spike. So, we, in 2001-02 were trying to find the solutions, how would we handle the spike, and we came up with some of the answers. But again, for a news business those spikes are a major issue and that took a massive amount of dealing with. Now, our systems are such that on election counting day (16 May, 2014), would you like to take a guess as to how many hits we got that day?

 

Around 100 million?

Chandra: 13 billion.

 

That’s more ten times India’s population…

Chandra: Yes. That was an all time Indian record, as far as I know. We had set up the system to be able to deal with it, so our site never went down for a second. But, the whole global infrastructure was, almost, sort of, brought in. The planning started in 2001. I remember the day in 2002-03 when we did 30,000 page views. So, basically, like with television, these 25 years have seen a tremendous amount of learning in both those industries. I consider myself privileged that I have been involved from the very beginning in two separate industries.

 

Was there a downside to this whole process of liberalisation?

Chandra: Look, liberalisation is never bad, liberalisation is never wrong. I think the process was left somewhat incomplete. The regulation and the setting of the rules of how the media business should function needed to be and needs to be completed. You need to have effective, correct set of rules, as to how, for example, we will deal with subscription revenue and carriage fees. Liberalisation doesn’t mean necessarily that okay we’re going to throw it completely open, because then you have partial regulation, like, for example, the TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) broke up broadcaster’s monopolies but didn’t break up cable operator monopolies. Either you regulate or you don’t regulate. You can’t say I’ll regulate on one side. Broadcasters can’t get together but MSOs can get together, but the LCOs can get together. What does that mean? That’s not correct or fair.

 

Are you also effectively saying that what part of the pie has to be shared with the broadcaster should be determined by the regulator?

Chandra: Either you determine it by a regulator, or you say I will not determine it by a regulator, it should be left entirely to market forces, with absolutely no controls on any party. But you can’t say, I am going to leave this to market controls, leave it for market discovery and market negotiations, but by the way, on one side of the table I want to tie people’s hands and on the other side I am not. That’s unfair.

 

NDTV has recently had a deal with Paytm. Can you share a few details? 

Chandra: Paytm is a simple advertising-branding deal. They are coming on as a partner, and that’s the way it’s happening.

 

Since you are a listed company, can you reveal for what sort of a consideration are they coming on board?

Chandra: We haven’t disclosed it. We don’t have to disclose the amounts for one particular branding and association deal that we do. But you know, the thing is, for the last 6-7 years now the TV news business has been actually going through a crisis. It’s been a very prolonged crisis. It was a really short golden age that we all went through. The crisis is coming from the fact that the business model has been broken for a period of time, substantially because in distribution, you don’t get subscription money, but you’re paying carriage fees. That made sense during the analog days because every channel or cable operator only had 30 channels to put their things on. It makes no sense in a digitised world when you have 500 channels.

But, for various historical legacies, the carriage fees are continuing, and the subscription money is not going to the broadcasters. Now, the government and the regulators had repeatedly assured us that digitisation is happening and this is going to change. There will be a new economic model and channels will be able to base themselves on subscription revenue and not purely on advertising revenue. That has major bearings on the news business. Obviously, if you are a subscription based medium, news in particular, then that means you don’t have to be dependent entirely on chasing TRPs, right. You can do good quality (news)... I want to watch these channels… and I know people will pay money.

Tomorrow, if you give people a choice saying, we are now going to have NDTV, and would you pay ‘x’ amount of money to watch NDTV channels, people will pay cable operators, and they are paying cable operators money for a bundle that includes NDTV. But that money doesn’t flow up the system from the LCO (Local Cable Operator) to the MSO (Multi-System Operators) and from the MSO to the broadcaster. That’s been the basic problem that the whole industry is grappling with and to which there is no solution. They are tinkering on the sides, but there is no solution. And if that can’t be unlocked, it means that news channels are entirely dependent on advertising revenue.

 

How do you plan to get around that problem? Because you have faced a bit of a downturn in the last few years.

Chandra: We have been facing this downturn for a period of time, but the question is how do you deal with the present situation. It’s not that we’re not figuring out ways of how do you deal with this particular situation. There are increasingly a series of advertisers who are also beginning to recognise that they would rather be associated with quality channels or quality programming, and they are willing to pay a substantial premium on that, to look for that brand association or that partnership, as opposed to chasing what are the TRPs of this show. We have been able to, for example, get funding for all these campaigns that we have been doing.

You want to do journalism because you want to make a difference, you want to do something good, you want to be a force for change, you want to do all of those those things, right? So, our issue has been, how do we do that, if the only way you would be measured is by TRPs? Now, how do I get TRPs for a programme on toilets for girl children? Girls are dropping out of school because they don’t have toilets. How do I do a show on that and get TRPs for that? I can’t. How do I get TRPs for a show which is on saving the tiger? How do we get TRPs on the greenathon?

"I know what the programming is that we want to do. We are trying to save the damn tiger. Now, a corporate comes along to back us, that’s okay."

 

So, therefore are private treaties the solution?

Chandra: We haven’t done it, we’ve toiled with it in the past, but we didn’t do too much of it, because there were other issues that come into that. I mean there are issues that you have to grapple with, how will you insulate editorial form this? See, in the cases that I am outlining, you don’t really have a problem about ring-fencing editorial from it, because in most of these cases there’s no conflict. We know what the editorial is. We are wanting to promote toilets for girl children. Now, let’s say if Coca Cola is supporting it, there’s no conflict.

 

I had recently interviewed former Bennett Coleman chief Ravi Dhariwal, who said that private treaties actually ensured independent editorial control, in how Times Now, Times of India and Economic Times take different editorial views on the same story…

Chandra: What he says is largely not untrue. From our point of view, we solved for that problem a little bit by making sure that the programmes or campaigns that we are doing, the editorial is decided by us. I know what the programming is that we want to do. We are trying to save the damn tiger. Now, a corporate comes along to back us, that’s okay.

 

Do you think 100% or majority FDI should be allowed in the news media and should private radio stations be allowed to get into news?

Chandra: I don’t know what NDTV’s position on this is, but personally I don’t see what’s wrong with it. We are living in 2016. The Internet  is here, people can read the Washington Post sitting out here, if they want to. They can be reading ISIS publications sitting around here. They can watch Chinese and Pakistani channels if they want to. You can’t firewall it. No one’s been able to firewall it. So, I think on these issues, you might as well recognise that the genie is out of the bottle and you can’t put it back.

 

With the coming of 4G and other technology, the era of convergence is upon us. Going forward, how do you see the shape of the media emerging?

Chandra: I think there are major changes that are going to happen, You are already seeing a piece of it … Today, everyone’s talking about the mobile. In 2000-2001, we did our first service on mobile, where you could tap ‘NDTV 6388’ and send an SMS to get an alert. Now, that was considered crazy, because who is going to be giving you content on mobile? It’s a stupid idea, it will never happen (we were told). And for nine years, it was a stupid idea. But, nine years later, it suddenly stopped being a stupid idea and became a great idea. So today, there are other things that you are seeing right now--- news, content on your wrist. It’s a fringe thing right now, it’s not that big. I don’t know what it’s going to be like five years from now. Similarly, there are other things that are being spoken about right now or being worked on. We are, already, today sitting here, experimenting on two or three things that are today seeming insane. But I really want to pursue all of those options, because, who knows!

 

You were a journalist, who moved to the management side. Do more or more journalists want to make this transition now?

Chandra: If you ask me, do I enjoy running the business as opposed to doing what I used to do, the answer is probably no. I was actually much happier in my days as a simple journalist. I didn’t really come back to be a business manager, but I am now and so this is a strange situation. There are certain parts of running the business which I thoroughly enjoy, which I have always enjoyed. A lot of the new businesses we are setting up, we are incubating some wonderful new Internet platforms. There’s a lot of entrepreneurial zeal that comes from that, which is also great fun. Not that many people (want to transition). Journalists enjoy their jobs.

 

Aman Malik is an independent journalist

 

 

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