Business channels spell business

IN Media Practice | 03/08/2004
Business channels spell business

 

Mannika Chopra

 

Competition and higher revenues is driving networks to start business channels 

 

In what appeared to be a calculated public announcement, last week, Subash Chandra, chairman of the Zee group announced that Zeebiz, the new Hindi business channel of Zee network, would be starting its soft launch this week. A subscription channel, it would, he said, be aired only on Dish TV, part of the Direct to Home service being promoted by the Essel group. When asked about the potential of its viewership, Chandra simply rolled his eyes heavenwards. Apparently Zee is not the only network that thinks that the business news segment has limitless possibilities.

 

October sees the launch of CNBC-TV 18’s Hindi business channel. Last month, a leading channel repositioned itself from being a solely general news and current affairs channel to one more focused on financial and business news. On July 4, NDTV 24 X 7, the English channel of the NDTV network started broadcasting a nine to four business band. With a 60:40 ratio, economic news officially overshadowed political news. Although the faces in front of the camera didn’t change, programme slots got re-labelled. Doctor NDTV made way for The 2.30 Factor and Business Weekend marginalized regular Sunday evening programming. 

 

Other maybes in this new genre include the Times of India group which has announced tentative plans to start three channels, spiritual, entertainment and business. It has already hired Arnab Goswami of NDTV to head its business channel and rumours that the Dhoots, owners of Videocon industries, are starting a niche business channel soon persist.

   

According to trade figures the news viewership segment in the cable and satellite universe adds up to a mere eight per cent. And though no accurate study has been done it would be safe to assume, says Uday Shankar, news director, Star News, that viewership for business channels could not be more than 2 per cent of that total amount. Given these dismal statistics why are existing news networks exploring new horizons?

   

For one, it is the era of niche channels. The more specialized the focus the more committed the eyeballs and the more honed in the advertising. When CNBC-TV 18 started its business channel at the end of 1999 nobody dreamed that it would be mopping up a substantial part of the afternoon and morning viewership on the basis of the stock market reports it was mechanically unreeling on its ticker tape.  And incredibly that viewership was not limited to number crunching investment analysts, corporate honchos or suited executives. The channel was successfully tapping into a hitherto undiscovered viewership ---the small investor. Typically, many housewives who preferred putting their savings in stocks and shares rather than bank deposits would plonk themselves in front of the small screen and then knowledgably call up their investment agents.

  

According to a senior CNBC TV executive, there are nearly 10 million investors in India today. As other traditional instruments of saving continue to give low returns this sector can only grow.  Many of the small investors view business channels as some sort of a get-rich-quick guide. Arguably, the promise of growth of this viewership was higher when the market was booming but even then it has not stagnated. Only consider, in America the profits that CNBC rakes in is far greater than that of NBC, its parent entertainment channel.

  

Tailing this cash surplus viewership closely is the advertiser always on the look out for more mileage for his product. The current ad spend---primarily by banks, financial institutions, automobiles, technology companies, the hospitality industry-- - on Indian business channels has been currently estimated at Rs 170 crore. The total amount of advertising revenue on all channels hovers around Rs 2000 crore. Three years ago CNBC TV 18 was able to mop of Rs 60 crore of this amount. The channel is not revealing how much that figure has increased currently but it is ‘"substantial" admits the CNBC executive.

   

Besides these vital statistics, lower overheads make business only channels more attractive to networks.  Unlike political news, gathering economic data, interpreting it, buttonholing CEOs in studios is far cheaper than sending two OB vans to troubled spots for days on end. A resurgent economy and globalisation, too, not only helped shift India’s centre of gravity from politics to economics but it also pressured news channels to refocus.

   

But there are inherent risks in an existing channel adopting a new persona. It runs the danger of distancing itself from its core competency and confusing its established viewership, explains G Krishnan, CEO, TV Today Network. A channel like Aaj Tak, says Krishnan, known for its USP of ‘breaking news’ can destroy its brand equity by suddenly offering stock market prices. Journalistically, then, how does such a channel react when on a given morning the Sensex dips by 200 pts at the same time there is a fire that kills 90-odd children?  Far better for networks then to start new business channels instead of fiddling around with existing ones.  

A far greater quandary exists for dedicated business channels which seem to have vastly disparate social and economic viewership. Traditionally, business reportage was been seen in terms of prices: gold, oil, commodity, currency--results from the stock exchange, interpreting arcane import/export data or giving superficial coverage of company results. Basically, boring, statistical stuff slanted towards the up market viewer.

  

But to include a more mass based viewership reporting strategies will necessarily have to change. Now such channels will have to attend to as much as to those seeking to make ends meet, as to the upwardly mobile, the economically well established as well as the economically troubled. 

 

Necessarily, coverage will have to be sharp enough to entice to the spiffy, elite investor and not so specific so that it bores the random, mass eyeball. It will have to include heavy doses of corporate chicanery  (a la the Priyamvada Birla will controversy) as well as the conventional rags to riches story.  From numbing statistical heavy data, reports will need to be brisk, chatty and penetrating. On the other hand this will be the era of super specialized economic reporting covering areas like biotechnology, IT, environment and health. Clearly, it’s a huge and in many ways an exciting challenge.

  

More important since such channels will be in the position of giving investor information to the professional and the novice investor, the credibility of such networks will need to be above board. And since it is very easy for corporate coverage to degenerate into cheerleading, safeguards will need to be put in place.

  

For the Hindi business channels the obstacles will be far greater. With far less purchasing power than the English viewer, business channels reaching to a Hindi viewership in smaller towns cannot be seen as complete free market enthusiasts at the cost of harming public interest. Moreover, not having had the advantage of having pink papers in Hindi, TV journalists used to political reporting, will need to start from scratch. Reaching and connecting to the Hindi belt, where local and Delhi politics has always reigned supreme will be a huge test. The trick, explains a TV news editor will  "flexibility and balance " and the ability to change the orientation of political reporters and viewers to appreciate linkages between the news event and its impact on the local economy and politics.

 

 

An abridged version of this report appeared in the Hindustan.

 

Mannika Chopra writes a media column for the Hindustan and The Statesman. She can be contacted at mannikachopra@yahoo.com

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