Arnab Goswami vs India Today: A see-saw battle ensues for top spot in TV news

Arnab Goswami is happy. Within a week of losing leadership to India Today Television, Times Now is number one in the English news genre again, going by the Broadcast Audience Research Council, or BARC, data released last week.

“Four smaller channels (India Today, NDTV 24X7, CNN-IBN and NewsX) don’t match up to Times Now. I think it is time for the smaller channels to realise that spending a lot of money mocking the leader is futile. My experience has been that leadership is built by doing the news, not by negative marketing campaigns. Each time someone mocks or apes us, our viewership grows,” says Goswami, president (news) and editor-in chief for ET Now and Times Now.

Goswami is reacting to advertisements that mocked both Times Now and his confrontationist style that has spawned a host of memes, video spoofs, online jokes and discussions. One ad from India Today TV alludes to Goswami’s popular, albeit noisy, show, The Newshour, and asks, “Has your news channel become a circus?”

“The principles of journalism at the India Today Group are in sharp contrast to the loud, interrupting, anchor-opinionated debates that dominate the genre’s current programming. We want to turn this tide back to news,” says Ashish Bagga, CEO, India Today Group. “The business model doesn’t really require a lead in viewership. The belief is that being perceived as (having) higher viewership would confer some sort of parity to the real gold standard content that drives the category,” says MK Anand, CEO, Times Global Broadcasting.

For now, Goswami’s style wins. Times Now has remained the most watched English news channel for seven years. On time spent, the most critical metric, it has been way ahead for long. The channel brings in more than 40 per cent of the topline for the Rs 450-crore Times Global Broadcasting, which is part of the Rs 7,000-crore Times Group, one of India’s largest media firms.

India Today TV comes from the Rs 476-crore (March 2015) TV Today Network that is part of the Rs 900-crore (March 2013) India Today Group. Aaj Tak has been the number one Hindi news channel and the only big success from TV Today in over a decade, while Headlines Today has struggled for relevance. In a bid to rejuvenate it, Headlines Today was rebranded as India Today TV on May 23 this year.

That is when two of India’s most powerful media groups locked horns for dominance over the influential English news market. This game, however, will have no winners.

The zero-sum game Both players are adopting a strategy used ever since news channels took off in 2003 – of buying reach and attacking the other guy with cherry-picked data. It will only give short-term results.

Take the example of distribution first Arnab Goswami. India Today TV used dual frequency, being in two places instead of one, on a single cable network to increase reach and, therefore, sampling. According to Chrome Data Analytics and Media figures in the week that it became number one, India Today TV was on a dual frequency on 70 cable networks, the highest by any channel, giving it an extra reach of 22 per cent across India’s 161 million TV homes. Times Now responded in kind. Last week, when it jumped back, it was dual on 53 networks or about 20.1 per cent of TV homes (against 29 networks when it slipped). “Our distribution increase isn’t in response to any channel’s push. It has been going on for the last 15 months as we work to bring our product to more viewers,” says Anand. “This (dual frequency) is a strategy used in partial fulfilment of the launch campaign,” says Bagga.

Whatever it is, being dual on such a scale can’t last for more than 2-3 weeks more, reckon analysts. It carries 50 per cent premium on the Rs 18-21 crore that a news channel pays cable operators as carriage fee every year.

The second is the ad war. “This (all the advertising directed at trade by the news channels) is just an input. The decision (to advertise or not) is based on a whole lot of other factors,” says CVL Srinivas, CEO, South Asia for (WPP-owned) GroupM, India’s largest media buying agency. Not everyone agrees. “In non-general entertainment categories (such as news or music), where there is room for interpretation of data, it (branding and loud posturing) creates a perception,” says Shailesh Kapoor, CEO, Ormax Media, a research and consulting firm. And English media more than any other in India is driven by perception. “The correlation between revenues and rating is the highest in English news,” says Pankaj Krishna, founder, Chrome. That explains why in spite of being a fraction of the total news consumption, it got a disproportionately high Rs 700 crore of the Rs 3,000 crore that advertisers spent on news TV last year. The battle then is for winning the war of perception.

LV Krishnan, CEO, TAM Media Research, is a veteran of such battles for more than a decade now. His analysis is telling. “Who is the rebranded channel targeting? If it is the regular core English news viewers who are already with the competition, then the messaging is strong but only compelling programming will shift them. If it is the non-core viewers who are regular readers of India Today (English), then I am not sure the messaging is addressing them. It doesn’t bring out the value of India Today. To sustain this one week growth, segmenting and targeting the essential audience will be crucial.”

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