Setting up the iTV Network was a leap of faith for Kartikeya Sharma. Taking every challenge in his stride, the network’s Founder & Promoter Kartikeya Sharma talks about right decisions made at the right time, power of ‘differentiated content’ and what makes iTV grow at a time when the news genre bleeds. He is also upbeat about iTV’s soon-to-be-launched integrated social media platform, which he expects to be a key differentiator
By Simran Sabherwal and Henna Achhpal
Television news is a genre that always manages to make ‘news’ both on-air and off-air. While critics complain that personality driven news and on screen debates are anything but news, off screen this genre has seen its share of action. At a time when news broadcasters are grabbing headlines for being up in arms about the 10+2 ad cap (potentially hurting earnings), lay-offs and the genre as a whole bleeding, the Information TV Pvt Ltd (iTV Network) has slowly and steadily crept up the TRP ladder. Kartikeya Sharma, Founder, iTV Network tells us that the media company’s focus on ‘News Not Noise’ has aided this growth. “It’s been a good journey, but a tough one. The initial four years were not very fruitful for the company but the last two years have helped us grow considerably in the segments where we are present,” he observes.
Sharma’s story is one of grit and determination, his entire entrepreneurial journey a studied and step-by-step process, one that combines immense ambition with measured but determined execution.
Turning Challenges into Opportunities
“Wherever the industry has thrown a challenge, I’ve tried to convert it into an opportunity,” says Sharma, recounting the journey of ITV which started in 2007. Sharma’s initial goal was to launch a national channel. However, the economic downturn forced him to re-strategize. His new game plan was the regional news channel, India News. Sharma says, “This model worked out well for us and three years later, it evolved into a regional network.” Today, ITV operates five regional channels under the brand name India News across Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and Bihar and Jharkhand.
The next big challenge for ITV and the industry as a whole was digitization. Sharma believed this was the right time to enter the English news space. Subsequently, in 2012, ITV acquired NewsX (the channel’s third owner since its inception in 2008), an English news channel which had a market-share of less than 1% at the time. A business move that raised eyebrows of many, Sharma says even here the company saw the challenge as an opportunity to turn around a crisis. Since then, NewsX has managed to create a space in the market and build a viewership base for itself in the crowded English News genre. “We have gained considerable market-share in the last two years since we took over. We are happy with the performance and the way the channel has grown. Obviously, there can always be improvements in many areas but overall we are fairly happy as a management team to achieve the targets we have set up for ourselves,” says Sharma.
Resonating with ‘desh ki dhadkan’
India News, a Hindi news channel, managed to enter the top five within a span of seven months since its re-launch in a genre which sees ‘the fiercest fight in the entire news space’. Sharma says a robust plan was put in place for India News based on an understanding of the industry. He adds, “We did a couple of things right. We came out at the right time, just on the cusp of digitization and about a year-and-a-half before the elections. This gave us ample time to build up our viewership and put out what India News as a brand stands for.” With every percentage of viewership being important, Sharma sees content as being the biggest differentiator: “We have grown from 1% to 9-9.5% in terms of market-share. It was unprecedented and one of the major reasons is differentiated content. If you have clarity in what you want to achieve in editorial content, the ideology and the line, it is still possible to get ahead of the competition. An optimal combination of distribution versus editorial content and the right mix has led to the channel’s growth.”
A Face for Every News Channel
One of the key reasons attributed to the success of India News is Deepak Chaurasia (Editor-in-Chief, India News), a well-known face in the Hindi News genre. However, the same cannot be said about NewsX which operates in a space that has come to be associated with cult TV personalities across channels. Sharma has his own take on the subject. He says, “I personally don’t agree with the concept of a cult figure in the news segment. An organization is bigger than the individual and that’s always the case. Undoubtedly Deepak Chaurasia’s role has been extremely important but it is also a team effort and the same is true for NewsX.”
Elaborating on NewsX’s strategy, Sharma says that NewsX cannot be compared with others as it has a different positioning and is a different product. He emphasizes that all the products within the group have been allowed to grow organically on their own, thus ensuring that no product appears to be a clone of another product. The youngest channel in the genre, NewsX’s growth in viewership is attributed to its targeted focus on the younger audience. The channel is now looking to replicate its success with a broader audience. Sharma elaborates, “If you look at our viewership, we focused on SEC A, B, 25-44 segment and have been market leaders, ahead of the entire competition including Times Now, CNN IBN, for more than a year. This year, we have shifted our focus to the main market, the main segment and the viewership numbers are quite encouraging which means that there is room for differentiated content.”
Building New, Young Leaders
The company is also focused on building a new breed of journalists, reporters and editors, with the potential to lead teams. The belief behind this being that a young team helps connect with the viewer and this is reflected in the content, in how the team thinks about issues and approaches, questions and responds to it. NewsX also recently revamped its look to make the channel synonymous with its content which Sharma describes as ‘fresh, young and not very opinionated’, just like the tagline, ‘News Not Noise’. Keeping true to its tagline, NewsX set up processes to stay away from sensationalism with the objective to cater to an audience which is put off by yellow journalism and is looking for news. This strategy has worked for the channel and Sharma believes that there is enough potential to build viewership in this segment based on these fundamentals. He says, “Sensationalism might work for some, it could be an integral part of their strategy but it does not work for us.”
While an integrated news room and synergy is what most networks look at, ITV’s focus lies in bridging the gap between the human resources right at the top of the organization. The group believes in integrating its editorial staff at very fundamental points. Sharma states, “We have ensured that the editors of both the channels communicate with each other, which, according to me, makes a lot of difference. The synergies and the co-ordination come as a result of people talking to each other. It’s a people issue, not a systems issue. If you can sort that out, there are huge efficiencies to be gained for the business.”
Integration: The New Buzzword
The next big focus area for ITV is conquering the social media space. Up his sleeve is a new initiative which Sharma calls a ‘revolutionary’ way of integrating social media and Television, making the medium truly interactive. He explains, “We are coming up with a first of its kind integrated social media platform which we will launch by the end of August this year. There will be a new line of programming and a new line of integration of social media for each product in the mainstream news which hasn’t been done before, either in India or internationally.”
This he says can only be done if Television gets rid of its mindset of defeating social media and embraces the medium instead. He adds, “This would be a good example of how the industry needs to think out of the box to generate alternative revenues. We have worked hard on this concept and it will definitely be a very big differentiator for us. This will set us apart from the competition and allow us to further strengthen our brands and create our niche in a much stronger way.”
Mapping The Future
ITV, which recently ended its ad sales agreement with Cent Percent Media, has now set up its sales team and notched up three-digit growth. The company is optimistic about maintaining this growth by grabbing a sizeable pie of the revenue available for the news market in the next financial year.
Looking ahead, the group is planning to introduce a number of regional and national products in the news space over the next two years. Also on the cards is the long-awaited business news channel which is expected to be launched soon. On a parting note, Sharma says, “I am not a strong believer of the idea that news business needs to be cross-subsidized with other channels and other businesses. There is merit in the case that money can be made in the news business provided we have a business model laid out correctly and understand our business correctly. We intend to create India’s largest television news network and the most profitable one over the next two years.”