The major concern today is how will the future hold: Kartikeya Sharma
News has become very vital during the Covid-19 crisis, which has the world in its grip. Every news channel in the country is working overtime to deliver credible news on the go to their viewers. Adgully took this opportunity to talk to Kartikeya Sharma, Founder, iTV Network, and find out how his organisation is handling the situation during these uncertain times, the different strategies that they are deploying to give complete coverage, as well as advertiser sentiment and news viewership, and much more.
PM Narendra Modi has called media an essential service in times of a national emergency like Covid-19. What, according to you, are the primary roles of news media in such a crisis situation?
I think it is pretty apparent that the major source of information that is reaching out to people at a large scale is media, and within that subset, I think television media has turned out to be a much larger entity compared to, say, a traditional newspaper or radio or OOH medium, because TV is something which is still very personal and meant for the individual and family. And in times like these one is genuinely looking for validation as people want a credible source for information.
How is iTV Network working towards increasing awareness among the public on the one hand, and fighting fake news on the other hand?
We verify and very closely monitor the emergence of fake news. Today, we have programmes across channels in English, Hindi and regional languages, which call out fake news after verifying and authenticating them and then putting them on the screen. We have taken several initiatives like social distancing. Besides, through our channel we are creating awareness about how people are fighting on the frontline, police workforce, medical workers, emergency services and media people. On the social media front, we have created a hashtag, called #CoronaWarriors, on Twitter to further spread the awareness. And a campaign on this has been orchestrated, where we are posting stories of people who are being troubled. A number of people, starting from doctors, airline crew and other people who are staying is housing societies, are being troubled by the authorities who are saying if you will bring Corona into our society, we will have to take tough action. So, we are stepping in from the media and advising them not to take such diabolical steps.
Secondly, we have taken the Prime Minister’s message very seriously. When we met the PM along with other media owners, we assured the PM and gave our commitment that all the news channel will promote #StayAtHome and create content around that to drive home the message forcefully. This was also extended to the Hindi channels where we called it #GharpeRahen has the hashtag. To further boost the social distancing message at our end we split our logos of NewsX and India News and promoted that message 24x7 on the screen. Information-based campaigns with helpline numbers are being run with FAQS to sort out the confusion and communicate to the people on the do’s and don’ts.
How did you prepare your helpline team?
We have been working 24x7 on the helpline to help people who got stuck and stranded. For instance, when the first testing kits consignment of an Indian company got stuck, we connected them to the PMO’s office and got the shipment cleared. This was a Pune-based company called MyLabs whose goods got cleared immediately. This is the kind of role that media needs to play and that is precisely what we are doing at ITV Network.
Yes, homesickness will be the new definition and we will observe a new variant at the end. I personally think we will pass through some tectonic changes in our life after this is over. At this point of time it is difficult to measure the impact, but one can only imagine that life is not going to be the same.
Could you tell us about your Covid-19 coverage strategy? How differently are you approaching the coverage vis-a-vis other news channels?
Our strategy here has been largely on sharing information and reportage that is helpful. We have also ensured that our people and our own reporters are not put in harm’s way. We have trimmed our reporting staff on the streets and kept it bare minimum so that we can protect them and at the same time take precautions. Our offices and vehicles are sanitised several times a day. We kept our staff to the lowest count so as to not expose them to the risk of infection. We have not compromised on our work ethics and content information, Our prime goal has been to find out what people want to watch, what they want to know, what should they know and how do we get that to them.
Keeping this thought in mind, we have kept our work flow around that and have reached out to the people. This is the differentiation that we are providing vis-a-vis other channels.
As per you, how has the news channel viewership fared in these times, when people are looking for more and more information and updates? How has iTV Network’s news viewership been impacted? What kind of growth have your channels seen ever since the Covid-19 crisis surfaced in the country?
Since no fresh content is being created by the entertainment side, the news channels will fare better on viewership, and that is a foregone conclusion. Also, the level of interest and the enthusiasm shown by the people is very low to actually watch that kind of content, especially in times like these. While a lot of people have shifted gears to watch on OTT platforms when they want to watch entertainment and whenever they need a break, but a major chunk is tuning in to news. People want credible source of information, which is giving them the news fix and this has helped the viewership to surge. That has been the change in the viewership pattern. What we are discussing is all relative, like I said 9 O’clock is no longer the primetime, people want the news on the go.
How has iTV Network’s news viewership been impacted?
Our viewership has certainly increased, and this was expected. Especially, the news viewership. What I think is more important for us right now is to see how we continue to keep ourselves more informed and more relative in these difficult times. Because after this crisis gets over, we will not have any major news that will grab so much attention and more viewership.
And what kind of growth has your channel seen ever since the Covid-19 crisis surfaced in the country?
The real growth will come out in the coming weeks. The data has come as of today and the news channels’ consumption has climbed. The real data and the correct numbers will come in the following weeks, which would be the period when actually Covid-19 hit in and that will get us to know the impact. While the climb in viewership would be phenomenal, but I am not sure whether we can be joyous about it at this point of time. The major concern today is how will the future hold.
Could you elaborate on the use of AI algorithmic projections of transmission rates of Coronavirus? How does this technology work? How accurate are the projections?
We are not looking at any form of projections deploying AI. To be frank, we are discouraging people from estimating any numbers. Also, one does not know where the data is culled out from and the science behind those data is questionable. To be honest, this is not the time to focus on data and this is where I subscribe to the Prime Minister’s thought, where he made a very relevant point. He said look at the developed world and the kind of resources, assets, and the bandwidth that they are armed with and they have still not fixed the problem nor they have found a solution.
India is not even close to them and we do not have that kind of resources and assets. If we have to win this war and come out of it, then only discipline and sheer discipline will be the answer. The power of self-discipline is what will work and a case in example is Japan and Korea. It is the whole attitude and the aptitude that our people should imbibe and follow which will help in throwing the virus out.
The News Broadcasters Federation has sought Government intervention to overcome the larger economic, social, financial and business impact arising out of the combat measures and lockdown initiatives. What is your wishlist for the Government under the current circumstances?
From NBF we have approached the Government and I am one of the office bearers as Vice-President of the Federation. We are heading towards very uncertain times and there will be tectonic and catastrophic impact and only time will tell us how big and when will this happen. What I can say is that in the immediate run news channels, which are part of the essential services, are not making profit and all of them will face a huge amount of stress. Looking at this we feel the Government should do something that is within their control and help us. For instance, one suggestion that was presented was to defer the payments on the DD Freedish, which is a huge amount. This year, the auction amounts were higher and one could have never envisaged by any stretch of imagination on the steep fees. While the news viewership is swelling for sure, but one is not sure if the number of advertisers will grow more or come down as there is uncertainty prevailing. And this is where the Government should look at other aspects to ensure the continuity and use of information services and channels.
How has your advertiser response been in these challenging times? Are you seeing some cutback in ad spends?
I strongly feel a week is too short a time to take any informed decision. It is too early to conclude whether advertisers will cut back their ad spends. If you look around due to the lockdown, today there are no cars on the road, so I don’t see why a car manufacturer would advertise. There are many more such examples. We need to view the impact from a long term perspective, and at iTV Network we don’t have major reactions on this nor are we against the weekly data that keeps changing. Personally, I feel it is not a smart or prudent thing to do. I think we have to look at a holistic view, which is on the long term. It is unfortunate that we feel that in the long term it will adversely impact advertising revenue.
What kind of a scenario do you think the news media is faced with post the lockdown time, as well in the months ahead, since a long-term impact is seen on the economy?
What I can tell you is that things will change dramatically – in how we make our news or how newsflow works or how we put our business models. I am firm believer that there will be a new definition of normal. And we in the news industry will have to get used to it. I think in the long term there will not only be changes, but we will have to adjust to it as well. And business models that will evolve out of this will be the ones that will engage out under the circumstances.