With mobile and Internet being the fastest growing segments in today’s world, and new technology becoming cheaper and easier to access in the near future, it isn’t surprising that some of India’s biggest news organisations are at the forefront of change. Taking the lead is NDTV, who has recently launched the beta version of NDTV Play software, which allows people to stream video content from NDTV, set up their playlists, share them across social networks, and even interact directly with NDTV anchors. The company has also launched apps on various mobile platforms that offer similar functions.
Vikram Chandra, CEO of NDTV Convergence, which focuses on the expansion of NDTV’s presence in the Internet and mobile domains, spoke to exchange4media about these new developments.
Chandra said that one indication of how serious he was about the Internet was that from a business point of view, digital was the only area he was now working on. He felt that we were on the tipping point to a new Internet revolution in India, which would be even more significant than the one that took place in the mid-90s. He remarked, “We’re in the process of seeing an inflection point. We’ve been talking about an inflection point that is coming for the last 10 years. I think we’re at that point, and that in the next 3-4 years, even the skeptics will realise that the Internet is a tsunami wave which is going to shake up all of the media. I’m happy to debate this with anyone who doesn’t agree.”
He went on to explain, “Broadband penetration in India is only 4 million homes, which is no big deal. What you’re now going to see is that as 3G phones are coming as mass products – some estimates say 90 million 3G phones in three years – things will change quickly. There are 700 million mobile handsets in every part of the country, more than the number of televisions and certainly more than the people reading newspapers.”
“What we’ll see in the next two to three years in India is more people getting their news and information through digital means, whether they are PCs, tablets, mobiles, and other devices that we don’t even know about right now,” he said.
Apps lead the way
One of the problems that has been holding back growth, aside from the lack of broadband and device penetration, is lack of accessibility of news online. Chandra believes that NDTV’s strategy of rolling out apps for a variety of devices is the key to overcoming this.
According to him, “If it’s a struggle to get content, people will not bother. You don’t chase content on a day-to-day basis. Television is a passive form of consumption, you switch it on and then you’re done. Newspapers are delivered to your doorstep. Apps also work in a similar way. You don’t have to visit a website, remember and address and search for what you want. It’s not difficult, but apps make it simpler, with one-touch solutions.”
NDTV has released apps for the iPhone and iPad and versions are also available for Android and Blackberry, with plans for Symbian and J2ME platforms as well. With faster Internet connections and the expected growth of 3G, Chandra felt that the growth which could be expected was going to be huge. He said, “In fiscal 2010-11, we are going to do around 1 billion minutes of video streamed, and 1 billion pageviews. This is from around the world, before the real Internet boom in India.”
The next step for NDTV is the PC app, NDTV Play. Essentially a more sophisticated version of the mobile apps, the program can track various details of the programming you watch the most and serve up content to suit your interests. Aside from this, through a sidebar on the left, you can select between shows, channels and live programming, and even create your own play lists, which can be shared with other users of NDTV Play, or through social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
Not only was the iPhone app the most downloaded app from India, but NDTV Play had also gained good traction according to Chandra, with 50,000 downloads in 10 days. One roadblock in the growth of digital that he felt needed to be overcome through greater interaction was that the advertising community did not fully realise the potential and reach of online media.
100 million minutes of video
He says, “We are getting seven to nine million unique visitors every month. And here we are, before the Internet revolution has hit India! But the advertisers still haven’t understood it. In November, I’m streaming almost 100 million minutes of video, video watched not in a passive sense, but by someone who chooses to watch it and then will stop watching it the moment he is bored, because it’s not like leaving a television on and going away.”
The online space had changed in the last 10 years, but people still thought in terms of banner ads, he said, adding that the understanding that video on demand on the Internet was easy and widespread had not permeated yet.
“We are streaming 100 million minutes that people are definitely watching. We have to put ads in the middle of that because it is a live news format,” Chandra said, adding, “and since the people are actively watching, the quality of the ad is a lot higher.”
However, advertising is still to pick up, and Chandra said that apart from some video ads for online, most slots were filled with promos for NDTV for now. He felt that there was more space for experimental content on the Internet, such as corporate films to educate people about a subject, which needed to be explored. “We can make television more creative,” he affirmed.
Another advantage of digital content distribution is a greater understanding of the audience. By tracking a person’s location, for instance, ads can be customised, so a viewer in the US does not see the same ad as a person in India. But the scope for contextual content is greater still, as a person who watches a lot of content on gadgets and technology, for instance, would be offered more content on those subjects and regular updates of shows like ‘Gadget Guru’. Similarly, if people watch more shows on sports, the sport content would be highlighted for them, and people can also take a few minutes, while using NDTV Play, to detail their preferences so that future versions will be able to recommend playlists based to their taste.
Custom experiences for all users
Chandra informed, “We’re already doing some contextual things, but we want to tailor your experience to you, and we can then also tell advertisers that your ads are going to the right place – like, for instance, we have niche sites within NDTV.com. They serve as watering holes for specific content. It’s a lovely way to get that niche demographic. So, for our gadget site, for an advertiser like Nokia or Samsung or whatever, it’s a way to get more quality on the advertisement.”
Possibly the biggest impact an app like Play could have though is not in the contextual building of information for producers and advertisers, but on us, as consumers. In many ways, the flexibility it offers could be used to democratise the way we see news. Chandra said that NDTV had been toying with the concept for 10 years now, but had only just launched it because till now the technology and bandwidth were not in place properly. Today though, NDTV Play is available for free downloads and brings the news somewhere midway between passive consumption of content and actively seeking content.
When you watched the news, you watched the bulletin I decided, the other editors and I had meetings and decided, and that’s what you watched, he said, adding, but you might not be interested in those subjects. “For instance, it was the Commonwealth Games and Delhi was a mess. You may have been in Bangalore, and you may not be interested. Why should that be half your bulletin? With Play, you are the editor. You can do it by going to other websites, select videos, watch, select the next one, but it’s cumbersome,” he further said.
With Play instead, you took a few minutes to drag and drop all stories you wanted, all the shows and stories NDTV had, “a buffet, as opposed to a plated dinner”, Chandra pointed out.
Play is also integrated with social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and also NDTV Social. Chandra stressed that digital content did not at present cannibalise from their television audience, but rather complemented it, which Play was also good at. He remarked, “There’s a lot of back and forth on social and suddenly everyone watches it – on ‘Big Fight’, for example, I can almost predict if the episode will get many viewers. If I have tweeted about it, people are talking about it and retweeting it, I know this show will get lots of traction.” Play also leverages this, with the ability to share playlists through Twitter, Facebook or email.
Chandra went on to say, “Everyone feels they can run NDTV better than NDTV. We are giving you access, these are all of NDTVs videos, so you can make your own bulletin. Tell your friends to come along, be the anchor, the editor.”
Where do we go from here?
For now at least, NDTV has not tried to make money by selling the application, leaving it instead as a free download. Chandra explained, “We haven’t thought of any pay model. It is an exciting new area that we want established. For now, we are not thinking of charging for it. I think it’s important and I want people to download it and send us feedback so that we can make it better.”
The big question is whether the mobile and Internet growth in India can continue at its current rate, or grow even further, and Chandra is bullish on that question. He said, “My view is that within six months, 3G enabled handsets will be available at around Rs 4,000. Devices such as the Galaxy Tab or iPad are niche. But the Internet is such that you can consume the highest level of content for an investment of Rs 5,000.”
The real growth for the Internet in India, he felt, lay in the immediate future. According to Chandra, India was following a growth path charted by China, with a lag of around five years. According to him, India was about to see an explosion of connections in the next few months.
“We’re nowhere now. But if the next 3-4 years go the way they did in China, we will suddenly be a very dominant force on the net,” he concluded on that positive note.