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Vikram Chandra

CEO | 26 Aug 2011

The entire media structure in our country is built up in such a manner that we don’t have subscription revenue and then there is high carriage fee that has to be paid. With the coming of digitisation and the Government’s new policies and plans, hopefully those things will start to change… We also need to focus on the entire TRP measurement system. Everyone knows that our sample size needs to go up. Advertisers will benefit from data that is completely trustworthy. I think certain amount of structural change has to be come to the broadcast industry. Steps are underway.

Vikram Chandra has recently been made CEO of NDTV Group. As CEO, he has overall authority and responsibility for all aspects of the company – corporate, operational and channel performance. He has also become a member of the NDTV Board. He had headed NDTV Profit from its creation and led it to become India’s leading business channel. Chandra then became CEO of NDTV Networks, supervising NDTV’s Lifestyle, Internet, Outsourcing and Technology businesses.

Chandra has about 19 years of experience in television journalism. During these years, he switched with ease from the prime time 9 o’clock News to the cult favourite ‘Gadget Guru’, where he slips into a more comfortable avatar to discuss and review all the latest gizmos. But he is perhaps best associated with NDTV’s flagship show, ‘The Big Fight’, which has been one of India’s top rated current affairs shows for more than a decade.

Chandra did his Bachelors in Economics from St Stephen’s College in Delhi and went on to study at Oxford on an Inlaks Scholarship. He honed his media skills at Stanford University, where he did a course in Mass Media. As a reporter, Kashmir and Terrorism have been areas of special interest. Chandra was the first and only TV correspondent to film the Army camps at the Saltoro Heights in Siachen; and to enter Chrar-e-Sharief just before it was burnt down by the militants.

He has interviewed a number of global figures – including Bill Gates, Shimon Peres, Rupert Murdoch and the King of Saudi Arabia. He has written a fiction thriller set in Kashmir ‘The Srinagar Conspiracy’, which became the number one best seller in the country. Chandra has been named the Global Leader for Tomorrow and Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in Davos. He has won the Hero Honda Award for Best Anchorperson, Teacher’s Achievement Award for Communication, Indian Television Academy Award for Best Anchor for a Talk Show, among other coveted recognitions. He has been one of the pioneers in special programming for public interest. He anchored three Greenathon’s that raised money for solar lanterns; and is now involved with the ‘Save our Tigers’ campaign.

In conversation with exchange4media’s Nitin Pandey and Shree Lahiri, Chandra speaks at length about his long career with the NDTV group, the social initiatives like Greenathon and Save Our Tigers, the recently financial results, the road ahead and more…

Q. You have been associated with NDTV for the last 17 years and during this period, as a reporter, you covered Kashmir and Terrorism, as a Tech Guru you reviewed latest gadgets and as an anchor you got into The Big Fight and now you get the responsibilities of CEO of the group. How do you view your journey with the NDTV Group?

It’s been a long journey of 17 years with NDTV. There is obviously a kind of attraction in being at one place for so long, it feels like home, and the environment becomes such that it gives you a lot of comfort. It has been home for me for almost half of my life.

I joined NDTV as a reporter, then I started anchoring, doing ‘The Big Fight’ and ‘Gadget Guru’. I have also been doing certain corporate functions, primarily for NDTV Convergence. Now, obviously I will have to make some choices. I can’t do anchoring every day while doing this job (of CEO). I am certainly keen on doing ‘The Big Fight’, but I would not be doing news in the near future.

Q. You have been associated with NDTV’s social welfare initiatives like Greenathon and Save our Tigers campaign. Will you continue doing this now?

Those are very close to my heart and I have been involved in it since the beginning. Those are kind of programmes that can actually make a difference. Through both the shows, I think we have been able to change people’s lives. Through Greenathon millions of people could light up their homes. And I feel that is something I can look back in life and talk about with pride when I am 70 years old.

Similarly, the Save Our Tigers campaign also had a major impact. Chief Ministers of several states have pledged their support, tiger reserves across the country have been notified, there have been crackdowns on poaching gangs and the forest protection forces are being strengthened. These programmes are very close to my heart and I would like to continue doing them.

Q. How do these campaigns help in branding of a channel like NDTV?

These campaigns have helped us a lot. Everyone gets into journalism to do something good. And if you are in the news business, apart from reporting on news, we also like to try and be a factor for good, to make changes around us. But we need to understand that it is very difficult to make changes in 30 different areas. Therefore, we decided to find out three or four areas where we could have brand NDTV making a difference.

Q. What are some of the social welfare initiatives that you are targeting in the coming days?

Greenathon and Tiger campaigns will certainly continue, Mark For Sports and Support Our School are two more campaigns that we will be doing.

Many people do not know that several girls drop out of schools because of lack of proper facilities; Support Our School campaign will work towards that. We are also looking at some other campaigns, which we will do in partnership with corporate houses, who also want to be part of the change.

We are really proud that through Greenathon we have been able to light up 500 villages. We have been to these villages and we saw the change that has come in people’s lives. I think these are the areas where we should leverage the power of a credible media brand. We should try and use this to do good things that can make a difference.

Q. How has the advertisers’ response been towards these campaigns?

We do these programmes together with one or two corporates. We don’t do them with a large number of advertisers. There are one or two companies that have come to us and said we would like to make a change. Like Toyota came up for the Greenathon; Aircel for the Tiger campaign; Coca-Cola for the Support Our School campaign. Corporates want to be part of these social initiatives. Advertisers propel the channel, but for these campaigns we tie up with one or two advertisers only. They come in and invest money because these are not cheap programmes to do. Imagine saving the tiger from extinction, maybe we have contributed only 1 per cent, but that 1 per cent impact is what we take tremendous pride on.

Q. Now, talking about the financial results of the Group, in last few quarter results, NDTV has been reporting loss in revenues. But for the first quarter ended June 30, 2011, NDTV has reported a net profit of Rs 10 crore, as against a loss of Rs 24 crore in the corresponding quarter of the previous fiscal. How do you view this development?

I don’t want to make an individual forward review comment at this stage. But yes, in media business there are challenges. And there have been challenges that we have gone through recently. There are a few things in our hands and there are many things that are not in our hands. The entire media structure in our country is built up in such a manner that we don’t have subscription revenue and then there is high carriage fee that has to be paid. With the coming of digitisation and the Government’s new policies and plans, hopefully those things will start to change. With these changes not only will broadcasters benefit, consumers too will benefit with better programming. Even the distribution industry will benefit as there will be a greater degree of order.

We also need to focus on the entire TRP measurement system. Everyone knows that our sample size needs to go up. Advertisers will benefit from data that is completely trustworthy. I think certain amount of structural change has to be come to the broadcast industry. Steps are underway. We have taken steps internally so that whatever we can do to try and give our shareholders profitability, we will do. Our priority will be to protect our brand, grow the business and show profitability to shareholders. But there are some environmental issues that also exist. The environment has to improve. I am happy to share with you that we have already taken steps and when things start to turn around, we will be in a good position to take advantage of it. We are seeing signs of a turnaround.

Q. Interestingly, in the area of news revenues for NDTV, it has gone up in the recent quarter results. Any comment?

I am hopeful that our revenue will continue to grow. We will avoid all wasteful expenses to try and control cost. We will not chase revenue at the cost of destroying our credibility and the brand – that we are very clear about. We have not done things that will give us short term return, but at the cost of long term expense to our brand.

Q. You talked about cost cutting measures, what will they be?

We will look at every wing, department and corner of the group. Where there is wasteful expense, it will be removed. We will not do cost cutting for the sake of cost cutting. We will indentify the waste and cut it.

Q. We have learnt that NDTV has given notice to some of its employees?

Not something in my knowledge. But you know, if there are people who are not performing, they should be asked to leave, and those who are performing should be rewarded. That is natural.

Q. As per the Q1 2011 financial results, revenues of NDTV Convergence – which you have been heading for quite some time, have nearly doubled compared to first quarter of 2010. You comment on this success...

I am very proud to talk about NDTV Convergence. In two and a half years the business has seen tremendous turnaround and growth. From making a loss of Rs 8 crore to now being a profitable business, it is great success. Growth of Convergence has been staggering, page views have gone up, our Apps are the most successful ones ever in the Indian news business. We are a very good team that is working with Convergence. This is an area of business that will become more and more important as we go forward.

Q. Talking about your hobbies now, you have written a fiction thriller set in Kashmir ‘The Srinagar Conspiracy’. Are you writing any other book? Please tell us more about your other hobbies as well.

I have been working on my second book for the last 10 years and I don’t know whether I will get a chance to work on it or not now. Apart from it, when I am not at work I try and spend more time with my family.

Q. NDTV has also increased its international footprint with the launch of its channels in Central Africa. NDTV 24x7 is already present in the rest of the African continent. Are there any other plans of expansion internationally?

Our global footprint is very strong and we have a consultancy working on it called NDTV Worldwide. We will continue to chase international footprint. There are 27 million Indians globally and most of them are very loyal NDTV viewers. We will see a potential market to move forward.

Q. Any new channel on the cards?

I am not saying no to anything. We have done a lot of expansion and restructuring in the last few years. However, we already have some very strong properties which need more focus and attention. Going forward, as the environment changes, we can look at all the options. In recent years, one of the major things that happened was that we forayed into the entertainment genre with NDTV Imagine. But we luckily realised very fast that as a news company we do not have deep pockets to fund the entertainment channel business. Hence, we sold that channel and we were able to do it very fast. We got the money and paid all our debts. So today, when we look at the global scenario, we need not worry about debts or paying any loans. From the balance sheet point of view we are very happy. Three or four years from now, when the environment changes and distribution settles down, we can look at more options.

Q. How has the response been to your lifestyle channel?

It has been very good, we have good partners and funding. The channel is back to being the No. 1. It has got good programmes and reputation. We have five strong properties today. We want to focus on all of that.

Q. Can we see any change in the programming strategy in coming days?

All good channels need to focus on their programming strategy and keep improving. We will keep strengthening our programming line-up.

Q. Can we see any further changes in the top leadership?

Not as of now.

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