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Sunil Lulla

MD & CEO, Times Television Grp | 07 Jan 2011

The current ratings system is the biggest disservice that broadcasters have done to themselves. I don’t believe our rating system is universal; it is focussed around a few large pivots and the niche channels suffer as a consequence. The parameter of our rating system is based on the Chief Wage Earner who may not necessarily be the target audience. There is no language or genre preference. Our concepts of measurement in this country are limited. They need to be challenged. They need to expand into many more markets and recognise the size of the television industry.

With his vast experience in the Indian broadcasting industry combined with the unusual way of tackling questions in an interview, Sunil Lulla makes any job look easy. In 2009, he had made a comeback to the Times group as the MD and CEO of Times Television Network – a new role, given the unifying of the Times television brands. As Zoom reengineered its positioning and ET Now continued towards finding some footing in the Indian business news sector, Times Now stayed on top in English general news domain and now the group has brought Movies Now that has already challenged status quo in the English movies genre.

In this conversation with exchange4media’s Noor Warsia and Fatema Rajkotwala, Lulla speaks on the dynamics of the industry and some expectations from the year ahead.

Q. It has been more than a year since you’re back on this side – how has it been?

You come back and it is the same chair, it doesn’t bite you. There is a lot more work and energy. When I left, Zoom and Times Now were both successful channels while ET Now was in the planning deck. I now put my efforts across the network but we have a good set of senior colleagues and the editors are independent and good players in their field. There are enough people in the system; I only entertain them.

Q. But in your earlier avatar, there was a clear distinction between Times Global Broadcasting and Zoom Entertainment, but now there is an umbrella in Times Television Network

It is a branding device. There are two services – news and entertainment, as the nature is different on the frontend. The brand, content teams and sales arms are separate while the backend, which includes services like Human Resources, technology, finance, legal, distribution are integrated. There is spill over in the sales arms but we intend to integrate the ad sales teams and marketing efforts in time to come. At this point, the separation helps build the business as they are small and they need the focus.

Q. With specialist niche channels coming up like food channels that target a similar audience, do you think they pose as competition, given it is a similar up market audience one is talking about?

For television as a medium, anything on TV is competition to something else, because can take away attention. Over a period of time, things get finer and people filter out. There are people who like Hollywood, Bollywood, news or stocks, and they are each four different kinds of people, so, you start building your channel’s loyalty accordingly. For those who can be cross-pollinated, you do. An English news viewer’s affinity lies with Movies Now, while an ET Now viewer can be suited to Zoom as well. For the more sophisticated viewer, there is probably a synergy between Times Now and ET Now. Our focus is on the metro markets. To leverage the strength of being a part of Bennett, Coleman & Company Ltd, we must exploit these markets. But nothing prevents us to look at other things in the long term.

Q. Would you consider ratings as the benchmark to measure the success of these channels?

No. I think it is the biggest disservice that broadcasters have done to themselves. I don’t believe our rating system is universal; it is focussed around a few large pivots and the niche channels suffer as a consequence. The parameter of our rating system is based on the Chief Wage Earner who may not necessarily be the target audience. SEC A is a guy who is a graduate, may not know English and who may or may not be working. There is no language or genre preference. Our concepts of measurement in this country are limited. They need to be challenged. They need to expand into many more markets and recognise the size of the television industry.

We need to recognise that people choose genres and choices within the genre. There are many broadcasters who are unhappy with the status quo in the Indian measurement system. It is not about TAM; it is the measurement system collectively for the television industry. TAM is the one service provider apart from aMap and there is no point in getting upset about it every Wednesday, as it is a sure way to reach the ICU faster than expected. The data findings should be trend-based with a referencing and companies need to invest in their research and in understanding their viewers. Ratings are not important. You should run your business at the pace that you want to and not allow these factors to change its course. Ratings are one important measure – they tell you where you are available, how you are watched, where you get chosen. We need to get more sophisticated about packaging. Everywhere else in the world, they tell you, for example, 750,000 people watched this show. Only in India, do we talk in terms of percentages. Are you a percentage statistic or are you a person? It is the biggest mistake to put up the percentage and not the audience size. It is a poor habit that we have in the broadcasting business to let the percentage choose us. Print does not do that statistically.

Q. You mentioned that one should develop internal measurement system, so how do you get advertisers on board if not via ratings?

Evangelisation is every brand’s challenge and what you evangelise must be done with confidence so you build systems that you can go and convince the market about. Ratings will also be used but that is just one aspect of measurement. I challenge the status quo of our current measurement system. We have an ostrich-like approach, and we are unwilling to challenge.

Q. Do you think bodies such as BARC help?

That is the reason they are coming up and are being institutionalised. The reason why IBF is pushing the envelope is because it is pushing the status quo and I am glad it is. We need to count the number of television sets. We need to measure the true power of television. As an industry, we have suffered as we yet do not understand the exponential value that television brings. It frustrates me that we are unable to employ superior statisticians in this industry and lure them to migrate from media planning agencies. The industry has grown and I hope these pain-points become introspection lessons for us. The smarter ones will change.

Q. We see Times Now putting up ratings week after week about showing good numbers... does it make sense from the current rating system?

It does not mean that more cannot be done. TAM Media Research does a great job of what it does but the problem with the current system is that it is unable to invest. It believes that if everybody will invest, it will move forward. And specialty and niche channel are paying the price.

Q. Speaking of Times channels, ET Now is not doing well as per ratings right now...

I would not agree with that claim. An average year performance of 25 per cent over nine per cent of last year is significantly ahead of NDTV Profit and Bloomberg. Yes, it is significantly behind CNBC-TV 18. But we are one-and-a-half year old channel, while CNBC TV18 has had 10 years of global run, where they have shaped it to be a good product. From the feedback that we have received from our viewers, the new augmentations that we have brought about in terms of technical analysis, graphic presentation and relatable tips on purchase or sale stocks, is working.

Q. CNN IBN is also looking good in competition...

I’ll put it this way – it alarms me that 80 per cent of CNN IBN’s viewership comes from two cities – Mumbai and Delhi. If I was an advertiser, I’d be worried. I am dumbfounded about the statistical play there.

Q. How important are ratings for Movies Now...

We will look at it and compare, as it is the only system in place currently. I am not shunning the rating system but for speciality channels, we need to change. Broadcasters need to change their attitude, only then will measurement systems change.

Q. Are you excited about the digital household’s growth in India?

It is clear to me that the growth in digital household is much more in the cable dark areas, as it is DTH-driven at the moment. We don’t have channels to go there unless there are English speaking audiences there or there are people who want Zoom and Bollywood. If I was a channel that spoke Oriya or perhaps even general entertainment, that may excite me.

Q. What are your future plans for the network?

In perspective, outside of the recent spate in GECs in the past two years, where 2010 has benefitted the top three GEC players, there has been volume separation in the television industry. Man minutes of viewing have gone up but every time we do the mistake of referencing percentages, the market picture does not look healthy. There is volume stagnation. Today, if you would take language, in most languages, there are about 7-15 players which bring about the spectrum of 500 plus channels. The North East, which has had many successes in the past, is not measured at all. So, you see inventory volumes being virtually flat.

In terms of expansion, in 2010, we got the channels into more markets. We are now in Australia, New Zealand, parts of Malaysia, Africa, in the USA and by February we will be in China. So, are expanding into the international markets step by step.

Q. To your point of volumes being flat, television advertising revenues are said to have grown by 25 per cent last year...

And they will grow further. Leaders in each genre, or each offering, are pushing the envelope and as they do so, new entrants are starting to bring volumes down. Also, content and go-to-market costs, like distribution, have grown phenomenally. If you take the overall industry, two entities have grown – Zee Group and Star India; the news space has been flat in terms of valuation. There is a lot of trading investment coming in and gone out but profitability is becoming very important for this business. Those who are profitable and will sustain their cash will survive for a longer term. In the next five years, companies will become acutely conscious of this phenomenon and those who can’t make it, will pack it. Luckily for us, two of our channels – Times Now and Zoom have passed their cost-investment cycles and turned into sustainable channels. ET Now and Movies Now are relatively new, so my focus is on making the network profitable. Expansion is important but it will be done at the right price.

Q. ET Now and ET have also experimented on the content side of things, where ET Now, Economic Times and the website teams converge for content...

It has been a brilliant experiment to have one Editor and Brand Director, right across. They have editors and brand people below them for the channel, newspaper and website. However, a nuance to appreciate is that ET is a business-driven paper, which also has news on stocks, while ET Now is a stocks-driven channel, which also has business news. It has worked and the changes that we have incorporated in our content have been great success. The Times of India and Times Now, while they come from the same stable, are two different products. Television cannot follow stories the way print does. That is why print exists, and exists very successfully.

Q. But you did it differently for Times Now and The Times of India

In the case of Times Now and Times of India, there are many synergy moments where we do big things together like during IPL, 2G, Adarsh and the Commonwealth Games where both the paper and the channel combined strengths with great affinity.

Q. It is one thing to combine strengths when required and quite another to work together on a day-to-day basis...

ET Now and ET don’t work together; they share a lot of things. It depends on the ability of the leader and the able teams we have in place; I look after four channels myself. What we bring is the idea of conversion, sharing and the experience and learning. With ET Now, we deliberately created the Now brand name, as it is not The Economic Times on television.

The challenge with Zoom is that it is the only strong Bollywood oriented channel. Other youth channels like MTV, Channel V and Bindaas are all Bollywood content but they rely on a reality content to drive that. For Zoom, our constitution is – of Bollywood, for Bollywood, by Bollywood. With 70 lakh viewers and more than 150 movies each year that chose it as a platform to showcase their content and a huge amount of exclusives by the stars, it is a go-to destination to break the news. It brings Bollywood closer to its audiences. We have many plans for the year but Zoom does not have an equitable reference set. Our challenge is to bring this to our advertisers, where we can see more than 250 brands being a natural fit because it is the environment for movie stars. Today, only 70 per cent are advertising-oriented, which may reach a 50-50 ratio in the next two years.

Q. Movies Now is looking very exciting and interesting at the moment...

These are the early days. I am sure we will go through our own joys and pain patches.

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