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Sudhir Chaudhary

Editor & CEO | 28 Aug 2009

I believe nobody is against content regulation, but the difference of opinion is on the mechanism. I am against the view that the Government should have the key for it. I think news broadcasters are capable enough to chalk out a self-control mechanism. In fact, News Broadcasters Association has already made a body under the chairmanship of Justice JS Verma, which keeps guiding the member channels and also has a redressal mechanism. I am also a supporter of clean and responsible journalism, and believe me, the people of this country are mature. The way they oust their leaders in elections, they can also do the same with channels with objectionable content.

Sudhir Chaudhary, Editor & CEO, Live India & Mi Marathi, has been in the TV news industry for more than 15 years and is a ‘seen it all’ journalist. As a TV professional, he belongs to the first generation of television journalists and has been associated with the television news industry since its inception.

After spending almost a decade with Zee News as a senior editorial person and prime time anchor, Chaudhary moved on to Sahara Samay National as part of the core team which launched the channel and senior anchor, where he played a major role in creating human resource and content to establish the channel. Following this, he joined India TV as an Executive Editor, where he was hosting their prime time shows apart from carrying out key editorial responsibilities.

From the political battle fields of different Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha Elections, to the heights of Kargil or the terrorist attack on Parliament, he has covered every big story of Indian television news from the spot.

As an anchor, Chaudhary has fired questions at almost every Big Shot of the country, from Sonia Gandhi to former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee to LK Advani, Narendra Modi, Lalu Prasad Yadav, and Bollywood icons like Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan, or cricket stars like Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly for different TV shows.

Chaudhary is currently running a news channel and a regional GEC, which is an unusual combination for a journalist and anchor, wearing the hat of a CEO as well. He re-branded Sri Adhikari Brothers’ current affairs channel ‘Janmat’ in a new avatar of a 24-hour news channel, Live India, which has made it successful venture in terms of viewership and revenues.

In conversation with exchange4media’s Puneet Bedi Bahri, Chaudhary talks at length about Live India, its growth path, the way ahead, as well as hot topics like content regulation, surviving the slowdown, etc.

Q. Live India is two and a half years old. How do you see the channel’s positioning in a highly fragmented and fiercely competitive Hindi news market?

When we launched Live India in 2007, Hindi news market was equally competitive and tough as it is today. Today, the number of Hindi news channels is more compared to 2007 and are still increasing. But, I believe it is content and strategy to survive in the market that decides who will stay and who will perish. Since its inception, Live India has been a thought-provoking channel, and we wanted to brand it as a channel that has a point of view and is serious in its approach. I am happy Live India could achieve that positioning in the market and today has its own dedicated viewership, which likes our style of presenting news. As a result, Live India has penetrated a pan-India market across all sections.

During weeks 31 and 32, Live India was at No. 4 position in Mumbai market with 8.5 per cent market share, beating old players like Zee, NDTV India, and IBN7, among others. Similarly, we’ve had our peaks in other markets as well and now people consider us as a serious player in Hindi news market, which is here not only to stay but also to compete with the best and biggest channels. During the last two years, Live India reporters broke a lot of hard stories, we had some of the biggest newsmakers on our shows and we played a key role in getting justice for innocent and needy people who needed help through media.

There have been numerous occasions when in different time bands Live India has led all the news channels or has achieved a place in the first three. I think our next challenge is to make such peaks more frequent and play a decisive role when it comes to paying back to the society. I think any news channel should have a clear vision and should be innovating constantly. At Live India, we have it.

Commercially also Live India has been doing well and we had some of the best brands on the channel, and most importantly, they stayed with us. One of the main reasons for this is that the average time spent on Live India is exceptionally high. During last one month in Mumbai market, Live India had a higher time spent ratio than players like NDTV, Zee and IBN7. As far as the competition is concerned, I believe fierce competition should inspire everyone to pull up their socks and come out with better content and strategies, which will improve the benchmark of the news industry and also benefit the viewers.

Q. Would you agree that Hindi news channels lag behind English channels when it comes to bagging premium brands?

Yes, I agree with it to some extent, but the reason behind it is the difference between the viewership profiles of Hindi and English news channels. English news channels have far lesser number of viewers as compared to Hindi channels, but their niche target audience makes them more favourable for premium brands. Hindi channels are basically mass based in their approach, treatment of news and selection of news, whereas English news channels are class based and that is the reason that at times we see different approach towards different news events within English and Hindi news channels. Advertiser also follows this profiling. But things are changing now and premium brands are coming to Hindi news channels as well because of their reach and pan-India penetration power.

Purchasing power of people in smaller cities and towns has increased and here Hindi channels are far more effective than English channels. I guess things will change in the near future and you will see a lot more new advertisers on Hindi channels, which were niche clients till now. In fact, it has already started happening with the bigger Hindi channels, but it might take some more time to reach B-segment channels. But yes, Hindi channels are definitely getting newer clients now, which is different from the earlier chaddi-baniyan, pan masala and ghutka ads.

Q. How easy or difficult is it to manage a single brand media company these days when consolidation is happening? Don’t you think when news channel groups are evolving, it will get increasingly difficult to manage single brand companies?

Apart from Live India, which is a 24-hour Hindi news channel, we also run Mi Marathi, a Marathi GEC, which is quite popular in Maharashtra. Very shortly, we are also in a process of launching our new Bhojpuri channel, which will make it a bouquet of three channels. Having more channels from the same kitty makes it cost effective in content generation and sharing, reduces distribution costs and also gives the sales team more leverage and space. At the same time, the advertiser also gets better value for his money. I don’t agree completely with the fact that single brand media companies cannot or will not survive, because if the content is sticky and the placement of the channel is good, then there is still some space for such channels, but yes, it definitely makes your job easier if you have co-brands to support the main brand. It consolidates the business activities and the cliental.

Q. How does it feel to be a CEO of the company, where you need to deal with advertisers and media planners and drive the television channel’s revenues?

I have been a journalist and anchor throughout my career of more than 15 years, before I wore the hat of a CEO. I believe the CEO is basically the guardian of the organisation and its activities, be it content or revenue-based initiatives. I realised there is a lot of difference between the editorial responsibilities and the business responsibilities. Earlier, in my career as an editor, I have seen a lot boardroom battles between the editorial and sales teams. In fact, the two never agree on a lot of points because at times content takes a different direction and its financial viability speaks something else. That’s the reason that at times we see disagreements between editors and sales teams. But I believe the most important part of the channel management is that the whole project should be a financially viable model.

Good content is fine, but it must get you a price in the market. In fact, it was a double-edged sword for me because I had to balance both the sides. I had to be an editor and at the same time had to convince advertisers and media planners as well. I believe I got the advantage of being an editor, because I could understand the nuances of news gathering and its packaging and gradually learnt how to sell it as well. If the same person is doing it, that makes a lot of things easier and smooth. In our organisation, we have regular interactions between the sales and editorial teams and both understand each other’s requirements and limitations as well. I also experienced that if you know your content inside out, you attain better convincing powers to sell your product and to agree or disagree to media planners’ demands.

My experience till now has been of a very hands-on CEO, and believe me, it’s a great experience. But yes, a CEO is always sitting in a pressure cooker with boiling temperature. Here, I would also like to mention our Chairman, Rakesh Kumar Wadhawan, and Director, Ashok Gupta, who gave me a free hand to function. Though both are pioneers in infrastructure and come from a non-media sector, their understanding of media is astonishing and under their guidance, Live India and Mi Marathi have achieved new milestones and so have I.

Q. What would you say about the market, do you think we are still in a slowdown or do you see the market bouncing back?

News channels are basically event-based advertising vehicles. When the recession hit Indian markets, definitely there was a lull. We did not realise it initially because we had some long term and annual deals with media planners and advertisers. But, I think everyone felt the pinch when the financial year was ending and the major spenders drastically cut down their media spending. In the case of news channels, fortunately the Lok Sabha elections were round the corner and there was a lot of political advertising floating in the market, especially in the regional markets. I think that was a big booster for news channels and channels could hold on because of this additional spending in the television media universe.

So, I think the general elections made a lot of difference. I don’t think the market is back to pre-recession days and it is as usual again, but yes, it has definitely improved. Some new products and new advertisers have also entered, whereas the old spenders have reduced their budgets. I believe we can counter this situation through some new innovative revenue models and introducing some new value added packs to the advertisers and also by identifying new clients in smaller cities.

Q. Regulation for the broadcasters has been a touchy topic and has been in discussion for some time now. What is your view on content regulation? Do you think the Government should interfere? If yes, then how? If no, then how are you going to ensure that they stay at bay?

No doubt it is a touchy issue and a hot topic of discussion everywhere these days. But I believe people who are targeting media, especially news channels, don’t understand the positive role we have been playing since the inception of 24-hour news in this country. A lot has been written and spoken about content regulation, but the fact is that our news channels at large have been doing a commendable job towards the society, be it reporting the Kargil war, attack on Parliament or the Mumbai terror attacks or the latest swine flu episode. I think news channels have made people more aware and catered more knowledge about subjects on which general people were ignorant.

I will give you an example, today you know most of the Kargil martyrs by name, whereas it was not the case several years back. Media has played a key role in exposing corruption at the highest places, it has forced the judiciary to reopen several controversial cases that were manipulated by money or muscle power. So, a democracy like India will not be complete if you do not have a free media functioning. It’s a corrective mechanism. But, at the same time I also agree that there has to be a content regulation as well. Most of the news channels in India are not even 10 years old. It’s an industry which is still in its infancy and maturing with time. The big question here is, who will decide what content is right and what is wrong – the people of India, because they have the remote in their hands, or the broadcasters themselves, or the government?

I believe nobody is against content regulation, but the difference of opinion is on the mechanism. I am against the view that the Government should have the key for it. I think news broadcasters are capable enough to chalk out a self-control mechanism. In fact, News Broadcasters Association has already made a body under the chairmanship of Justice JS Verma, which keeps guiding the member channels and also has a redressal mechanism. I am also a supporter of clean and responsible journalism, and believe me, the people of this country are mature. The way they oust their leaders in elections, they can also do the same with channels with objectionable content.

Q. Is the outlook of the Government towards content regulation the same as it was 2-3 years back, or is it the same old controversy that has come in a new bottle this time?

I believe no government has ever liked a powerful media. What happened during the Emergency is a good case study. The Government has been blaming the media on different occasions on different pretexts. Media has also grown manifold and today it is much more powerful, reaching literally every home in one way or the other. Naturally, the risk for a spillover is also high and a small mistake is also highlighted with more intensity. But the Government should never curb media to hide its inefficiencies in the name national interest.

Q. What would be the two main priorities of your channels? What ideas or thought process would determine their content? What are the two biggest strengths or driving forces of Live India?

As a roadmap to success, Live India and Mi Marathi will try to make honest efforts to give their viewers unbiased information packaged in the highest creative models. We will also try to make it more and more innovative according to the needs of the viewers with changing times. I think all channels use more or less the same technology, same machines and equipment, but what make the difference are the people working behind those machines. Our biggest asset is the live wire super motivated team working for Live India and Mi Marathi. We have a small but dedicated team, which is behind the success of these channels. Because of this highly motivated team, we have been able to generate fabulous content at a very competitive pricing, giving us a financial edge over others. Second most important point here is the leadership and encouragement from the parent company, HDIL, which is an infrastructure giant.

Q. Where do you think is journalism, especially television journalism, is headed?

As I said earlier, television channels and TV journalism is still in infancy in our country. There is a cutthroat competition of getting the news first, which at times becomes fatal. We still need to improvise our human resource involved in news casting and this process should start right from screening the right candidates for journalism degrees to better equipped journalism institutes catering well-trained journalists. But otherwise, television journalism has changed the way we think and look over the last 10 years and it will grow more powerful and reach every household and touch every life. The only thing we should ensure is that this revolution should head towards the right direction and give us meaningful content to watch on our television screen.

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