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Ratings are a reflection of preferences of viewers: News18 India’s Karan Abhishek Singh

“As a programming philosophy, we do not ascribe to sensationalism as the approach because sensationalism can bring you eyeballs for a day or two, or for a week or couple of weeks, but eventually viewers also get tired of that. I think viewers appreciate consistency, balanced news, and the ability to differentiate between trying to sensationalise something or to cover a sensational event,” says Karan Abhishek Singh, CEO - Hindi Cluster, Network18. In this interview with Adgully, Singh dwells at length on what makes the channel stay ahead of the competition, news ratings, the future of TV news, etc.

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Excerpts:

The channel has been able to be a top performer despite stiff competition in the market. What are the factors that have kept the channel ahead of its competitors?

There are various factors that go into a channel attaining leadership position. It’s important to note that this has not happened overnight, because of something that has happened in the last few weeks. I think this is the outcome of the efforts by that our editorial teams and all other teams have been putting into the content on News 18 India. It’s also important to understand that in today’s times, where the viewers have many choices, there is always value that will be ascribed by a viewer to news content that is balanced, that gives them the best storytelling, and the best analytics of any situation. And also, the range and breadth of content.

So, we have a significant advantage over the news genre players by sheer virtue of our number of reporters that we have. We have at least one reporter in every single district of the country. A lot of the districts have a lot more than that number. Those are the things that our viewers, who have been watching us over the years, have come to appreciate. We dish out balanced content, line up of our faces on the key shows; it’s pretty much the strongest in the industry and all those factors that play a big role in us being rated like this by the viewers.

When the BARC ratings returned, more than one channel claimed top position in the ratings. So, what you have to say about this mad rush for TV ratings by news channels?

When the ratings started, obviously I would say that the BARC took its own time to kind of establish what they were reporting. They did their roadshows across different parts of the business and the industry to familiarise people, help everybody understand how they are coming up with the ratings that they are. So, the four-week data that they are now dishing out can be interpreted by the stakeholders accordingly. It would have taken few weeks for data, and the reporting to settle down to settle down. From where I look at it, I think there has not been too much upheaval. What has definitely happened is that the gap at the top has kind of minimised. So, there have been instances where one player or the other player has move ahead in a particular week’s reporting.

Having said that, eventually quality will always overcome everything else. The ratings are a reflection of the preferences of the viewers and I think what is important to understand is that since the ratings started, News18 India has been absolutely consistent in how we have been rated by the viewers. We have not seen any dramatic ups and downs; we have not really shot up in a week, gone down the next week, or vice versa, which has been seen with some other players. I think it is a testament to the work that we have done, across both building our reach as well as the quality of content that we offer, which has held us in good stead. So, I would not want to get into different people claiming different stages of leadership, but the data was there for everybody to see.

There was a period of time, where player A was rated No. 1, then No. 2 and then another player. In all of these, if you look at the data, since the 17th of March, which is when the ratings started, we have held our own, we have held steady and we have kept climbing steadily across all cuts of the viewership data, whether it is urban or rural or look at different age cuts. So, there is work which we are doing, which is being appreciated by the viewers and is reflecting in the ratings that we are getting.

How important is it to maintain the leadership position in prime-time news?

Our philosophy is that if we have to dish out content for our viewers, it should be absolutely top-notch across every single time. So that’s the goal and that’s the motivation with which we work on. I think prime-time obviously becomes a lot more critical because of the weightage of viewership that these time bands carry. We have been leading the prime time ratings for a while now. We left Aaj Tak behind quite a few weeks back and we have not really painted the town about it, but we did that on the back of very strong programming and the biggest faces, and the number of team of anchors in this industry. The various other time bands on which we are the market leaders, across the morning and afternoon, and the effort is to keep looking at data, keep looking at viewer preferences, any  shifts that are happening, to keep fine tuning our content and offering so that we can establish the same loyalty with our viewers across every single time band.

How is the market now after the pandemic? Have you onboarded advertisers as you have planned and will there be a hike in ad rates?

We have had a robust last fiscal, as was declared in our company results. And we have done really well, which is a reflection also of the strong partnership that we have with our advertisers and agency partners. So, that has worked well for us. As part of the larger economic environment, we are also not completely immune to the winds in this economy. We do understand the inflationary pressures that have impacted various industries in many ways. And that will obviously have an impact on advertising spends. We have seen some of it over the last couple of weeks. But I’m reasonably confident because this also happens to be the period after the big news frenzy around, first the four state elections and then big sporting action of IPL. Every year, we see some kind of a breather happening in this time period. So, I’m reasonably confident basis our discussions in the markets and what we engage with our partners. As we head into the festive season, we should see the market completely back with a bang.

Do you think the Hindi news genre is getting matured?

As a programming philosophy, we do not ascribe to sensationalism as the approach because sensationalism can bring you eyeballs for a day or two, or for a week or couple of weeks, but eventually viewers also get tired of that. I think viewers appreciate consistency, balanced news, and the ability to differentiate between trying to sensationalise something or to cover a sensational event. That’s very important and viewers are smart enough to understand that who is sensationalising regular news or who is covering news of a sensational event that may have happened. That’s the difference that all news channels need to understand, because the viewers obviously do and that is how they decide who they like more. Anyone can believe that they are bringing the most sensational news, sensationalising everything, but the fact is let us not discredit our viewers. Our viewers are extremely smart; they have a variety of choices, so if we don’t cater to their intellectual capabilities, then they will move onto something else. Sensationalism can take you thus far and no further.

How is News18 performing on the connected TV front? Do you think Connected TV will replace Linear TV in the long run?

Today, we do not have concurrent data on connected TV. So, that obviously is something that the industry is working on or needs to work on. All broadcasters are aware of the fact that there is a significant chunk of people who watch content on connected TVs and OTTs and that’s a reality. What exactly is the size and scale of it? We will get to know once a metric to measure that is developed. But that is a reality and while the current TV ratings are essentially looking at linear ratings, eventually there will also have to be a metric which measures connected TV. Like all broadcasters, we are accurately aware of this significant chunk of viewers who are watching content on connected TV and we will be working towards briefing up our own offerings on that. Over the next few months, I will be in a better position to share more details with you, as our approach and offerings crystalises and matures a lot more.

What does the future of TV News India look like? Will we see news shifting to streaming platforms?

India as a market has traditionally bucked the trend on a lot of these trends that we hear are happening in the US or Western developed world. We saw the shift in content consumption from the big screens to the mobiles. Mobile content consumption as a percentage in most of these countries is still not as big as it is in India. In India, we are looking forward to 5G taking shape. Content consumption in India has defied established templates. I have no doubt that India will set some new trends in how content will be consumed and it’s not just about TV news consumption.

At Network18, we look at ourselves as news content creators. As of now, that’s our core domain area, and our content is our product. Eventually, our product needs to be in a shape and design that the consumer can opt to consume it, across different screens. That is our responsibility and that is not a choice that we can influence too much, because our viewers are extremely discerning. They will decide when and what to watch. It is incumbent upon us to fire up content which is amenable to the screen of choice of the viewers. So, we continue to remain content creators, which is our expertise area.

Look at the success of News18.com, our digital platform. We have so many geographies where we completely lead any kind of competition that is there. It’s doing very well for us. It not only tells us that we are not only leading on linear television; there is also an incremental set of viewers who are watching us, and giving us thumbs up.

It is difficult to rightly predict where it will go, whether to the streaming route. People have been talking video is the future, and whether text will completely die away. I don’t think anybody has the exact answer to this, because in India, there is space for all these formats to exist. And that is what I believe would continue to happen. Each of these formats will continue to exist.

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