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Vikram Chandra

CEO-NDTV.com | 27 May 2003

When people are at home they have their television sets on and watch NDTV. When outside somewhere, they have their mobile handset and SMS 6388 for news. And when away from television, they log on to NDTV.com on their computers.

Worldwide, news websites are gaining more and more popularity. In India, media companies, which are heavily into news-based content disseminated through print and TV, are beginning to realize the importance of new media as an alternate channel of reaching out to news seekers. NDTV, which has been in the news off late with the simultaneous launch of 2 news channels, is one of them.

And the man who is leading NDTV's new media team is none other than the soft-spoken star journalist of NDTV, Vikram Chandra. Besides being the senior editor of NDTV, Chandra serves as the CEO of NDTV.com too. Known as a reporter par excellence with more than a decade of experience in TV journalism, Chandra has been named "Global Leader for Tomorrow" by the World Economic Forum in Davos. He studied at Oxford University on an Inlaks Scholarship, followed by a course in Mass Media at Stanford University and graduated from St Stephen's in Economics Honours.

In an exclusive interview with Akshay Bhatnagar and Luvleena Walia of exchange4media, Vikram shared his views on the changing dotcom scenario in the country, the reachability of news through SMS and future plans of NDTV.com after becoming an independent channel.

Q. To begin with, when and how NDTV.com make a start?

Looking back into the history of NDTV.com, the site was set up together with MSNBC in 2000 during the peak of the dotcom era. Honestly speaking, we did not fully put our weight behind it at that time. We started pushing the site aggressively only a little later, once the bubble had bust.

But from the very first day, we offered live video catering to an International market like USA. Once we got more serious about the site, we moved away from MSNBC and set ourselves up independently.

Q. How does the website add value to your news offering through TV channels?

See, we have tried to make the website a place where you can get little more than the TV for the simple reason that it is interactive. So, one can watch a news story on either of the NDTV channels. But if one wants to know the details like what happened six days back or even four years ago, NDTV.com will give the kind of information one is looking for. On the net, one can have things like read more, backgrounders and timelines. For example, if there is a Samajvadi party or Mayawati problem right now, one can give the basic story, but on the net you can give in timeline, and every single detail can be given. There can be opinion, views, further linking them with discussions. As a result, all this has started attracting lots of people to our website.

We applied the same approach with our cricket site and got absolutely phenomenon volumes. We have got a cookery site, which is the leading cookery site in the country. There is the entertainment site along with other things, which NDTV does. As a result, we get immense blooming traffic. Many times, NDTV.com emerges as the site with maximum traffic in a single day among all Indian sites. In terms of bandwidth utilization, the sort of bandwidth we have come out with on individual days is shockingly high. If there is some big news, everyone wants to know more about it and the traffic really soars high.

Q. So, what kind of traffic is coming in at NDTV.com?

What's happening is, in the absence of any uniformly accepted online traffic measurement mechanism, anybody can quote any number. So I would prefer not to get into this number game. What I can say is that we are among the top sites in India in terms of traffic generation and bandwidth utilization. Our traffic has grown up by 200 times over the last 2 years. We are running at a bandwidth of 100 mbps. I can give the bandwidth figure as I have a documented evidence for it. I think our traffic is split into 50% NRI's and 50% from India. We have now started a video subscription service. The video part of the site is meant for the paid subscribers whereas rest of the site is free.

Q. How much does one pay for the service?

It is Rs.250 or $4.9 dollar a month. One can take a yearly subscription also costing Rs.2400 or $49. Which is not a bad deal, considering the fact we have a live video 24 hours a day. That's one reason why people here from India also want to be subscribers because if one has missed something a discussion or some news, then logging to NDTV.com will get them a bank of information on whatever issue they want to know about.

The real game has started now. Whereas earlier, we were restricted to some extent as we were aired on Star. Though NDTV brand name was promoted on Star News but there was a limitation on how much and to what extend we could do. Now with two channels of our own, we can have lot more. NDTV.com is all about new media so its website, mobile phones, SMS and some others area also which we are planning to explore.

Q. NDTV was off the air for almost two week, from 1st April to 14th April, so what was the response on the site during that time? More people were coming to the site for news than usually?

Yes, lots of them were coming. A part of the problem that we faced during those fourteen days was that our live video was not there. So what we did for the subscribers was that we extended their membership. We feel that there is a large segment of NDTV watching section who in any case comes to us on a daily basis to catch up with the news.

Our message code has also been our key strength. People like expressing their views and messaging give them lot of strength to articulate their views on whatever they are doing. Now we have a more direct way like programmes, which are saying 'send us your questions to NDTV.com or SMS your queries at 6388.

Q. Talking of 6388, how is the SMS service doing? And why have you opted for number 6388 only?

The response is very well from the mobile users. We have got a logic behind our 6388 number, which stands for NDTV on people's keyboard. This will surely take time for people to sink in. People do ask why 6388, so that's the reason our promos say 6388 stand for NDTV. Its also got a couple of very interesting innovations in it. Like one can without having to type all sorts of other stuff, get all the news. We have developed a system where even if one doesn't type and send it to 6388, he will get all the main headlines. One can also send for more detailed news. Apart from this, you can also get the stock and other details.

Q. How important is the role of your website in NDTV's overall game plan?

Fact of the matter is that I have to divide my time between NDTV.com and NDTV. The website plays an important role for us. See, the Internet phase has not gone. Its still very much here though the dotcom boom is over. But look at the way Internet is growing! NDTV.com is among the top 3-4 sites in India. And among the news sites, we are clearly on the top. So this has also become an area of dominance for us. This is certainly an area, which we'll be tapping, as the net is not going to go away. And as the years will pass, more and more people will realize that its here to stay. Add mobile phones to the website and I think the new media reach becomes phenomenally amazing.

Q. What has been the source of revenue for NDTV.com?

We see lots of possible source of revenue. Mobile phones, advertising on the site, video subscriptions and e-commerce. The revenue figures we can't disclose as part of our company policy.

Q. But why NDTV.com needs to look out for e-commerce?

For us, e-commerce is an area of making money. For example, our video service is being used a lot outside the country. We have got partners outside the country. Our e-commerce channels are powered by some other organization too. NDTV has a history that we always like to walk first, before we run. If we do something, we want to do it well.

Q. But are you getting enough orders?

Yes, we are getting a decent number of orders. Though they are not the single most important part on the site, they are doing well. Travel for example. We feel travel has lot of potential as we have got some of the best partners in the travel business. The potential is more in some area than the other areas.

Q. Do we see NDTV becoming a horizontal portal as you are adding new dimensions to the channel, say e-commerce, video subscriptions…?

Well, the process has already begun. I think one gets lot more stuff on NDTV.com than just hard-core news. The news is there for sure but there are people who are more interested in the cookery site. People are planning their day's meals through the NDTV cookery site; there are some who surf on to the travel site to plan their holiday trip; we have a doctor's section, which has a huge traffic. Our cricket site has been our biggest traffic site in the recent times

Q. What more can we see from NDTV.com in the future?

Well, for the next few months you will find very interesting innovations on the mobile front from us. Because this is a phase where one can watch television with your eyes and have your mobile handsets in your hand. There is lot that one can do with this. On the site itself, there are a lot of packages, as we work in a very close connection with NDTV.com and NDTV.

We believe in building on our strengths to make sure when people are at home they have their television sets on and watch NDTV. When outside somewhere, they have their mobile handset and SMS 6388 for news. And when away from television, they log on to NDTV.com on their computers. This is what ideally NDTV should be.

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