From 100-odd people to a team of 6,000; from under Rs 3 million to over Rs 600 million in revenues; from a single channel to multi-brands and multi-platforms --- Network18 has lived an eventful decade. As Haresh Chawla, virtually the parent of this brand, bids adieu, he looks back at the moments that taught him more about creating value brands, and made Network18 the media behemoth that it is today...
Haresh Chawla’s career graph has been dotted with start-ups – right from HCL Comnet in 1994 to ABCL’s film business in 1996 to launching Times Music in 1998 and even TV18 in 1999. The Network18 experience saw Haresh work with 25 media brands, most of which were start-ups. Each of his earlier stints - be it selling computers to corporates or winding down company assets at ABCL - left with him a learning that makes him the professional and the leader that he is today. As he goes down memory lane with IMPACT, he cannot help but mention the days when TV18 was operating from a bunch of huts in the Recondo compound in Mumbai. The company had a rundown studio in Delhi, with cracked windows and water leaking from the ceiling. “It was an absolute start-up,” recalls Haresh. TV18 then was a place devoid of hierarchy. As CEO, Haresh shared his room with four other colleagues and would step out for a smoke or a walk when his colleagues had to have a meeting. “We hadn’t seen money. We only had a belief, backed by pure passion, that if we set out and launched CNBC TV18, it would work,” says Haresh.
Every day was about survival then, and the phase lasted for almost three years. Around that time, TV18 was faced with its first hard decision. “I remember chatting with Raghav (Bahl) one evening, when we were not sure how we would pay the next month’s salaries. We had just launched CNBC TV18 and that used up a lot of money. We were also investing in the production company we had then. It was early 2000, and we were contemplating a salary cut for everyone. I remember arguing that we would still run into a block if we kept putting money into both businesses. Eventually, we decided that we would wind down the production part, and focus on broadcast,” recalls Haresh.
Thus, TV18 was born as a broadcaster. “We have been through many ups and downs since, but that was perhaps the toughest decision,” remembers Haresh.
Network18 has come a long way since then. It is perhaps the only Indian company apart from the Zee Group that has built assets and then bought further, as in the case of Viacom18, Infomedia18, IBN7 or other media assets.
News – The First Frontier
TV18’s first accomplishment came in the successful launch of CNBC TV18. Initially, TV18 had contracted its sales and distribution to Sony Entertainment Television (now Multi Screen Media). But soon after, TV18 took charge of its sales too. Around the same time, the company bought Moneycontrol.com and invested to build the brand. Haresh remarks, “If we were betting on the future of financial news on television, we had to bet on it on internet as well. The first real use of internet was happening in the financial market space.” Even as both Moneycontrol and CNBC TV18 did well, they were burning cash. It was only in 2003-2004 that the brands started making money.
“CNBC had become as big as the leading English general news channel in terms of revenues, despite being only a business news brand,” says Haresh. And TV18 was faced with its next big question – to remain small or expand. “We had all the requisites to expand, and we took the call to get into general news. Everyone thought we were crazy, given the dominance of a single player in that space.”
Network18 convinced NDTV’s Rajdeep Sardesai and Sameer Manchanda to join them. The company then approached CNN, which despite being in advanced discussions with NDTV, decided to partner TV18 in the English news space. “Our business is not about selling, it is about buying consumer attention. From there, we have to try and create a habitual relationship. We realised we would get one shot to try and shift audiences. One of my favourite dialogues, from a movie called ‘Untouchables’ is ‘You don’t take a knife to a gun fight’. At a team meeting, we discussed that we needed to have everything that the competition would have, and then more. On launch day, we had a full-fledged channel. In four weeks, we had hit number one position. Our agency was still working on the launch campaign and I had to scrap the whole thing because we realised that we didn’t have to say anything. So our campaign said, ‘The new leader has arrived’. It was a fairytale experience.”
Even when Viacom18 was launching Colors, the guiding principle was to have a complete channel from Day 1 itself. “Everyone else at that time did two hours and four hours of content, but we launched with full prime-time programming. We had the same distribution as our peers, and more than 130 days of blockbuster programming,” says Haresh.
Creating a Blueprint
Nine months later, CNN IBN was listed. TV18 then acquired IBN7, launched CNBC Awaaz and later added IBN Lokmat. Haresh explains, “The Indian media market leaves you no choice but to be a player of scale and size. In the span of a year, we became India’s largest news network. But the carriage fee phenomenon had kicked in and started eating into profits. Given the level of competition, one had no choice but to play that game. Around 2005-06, we were talking to an investor who wanted a blueprint. That was the first time we decided to do some formal thinking. Before then, it was pretty much an entrepreneurial setup – we took decisions on the phone and executed them. The blueprint had the elements that defined our vision -- that we become the leader in news, get into entertainment, make bigger investments in internet, get into the print space and then into radio as well.”
Despite the lag against its competitors, Network18 became one of the top four TV networks by market share. “Network18 still has to catch up in the regional space. But we were the fastest growing and the only ones who had invested in other assets. We are the largest Indian internet destination – in.com, bookmyshow.com and so on. We are the largest home shopping network. We took a call to diversify our revenues. We wanted news to become less than 25 per cent of our revenues, and that happened,” says Haresh.
Network18’s plans to diversify included print too, but the company’s attempts to launch a financial daily did not succeed. “Recession had kicked in completely and we realised it was prudent to wait and, if we were not likely to catch up on the print front, increase our investments in internet. But we still launched Forbes in a big way.” Infomedia allowed Network18 a larger play in print and the subsequent acquisition of askme.com in voice information services.
Of Value & Virtuous Cycle
For Network18, the significance of a network had set in five years back. “Unless you are a network, launching a single channel brand is difficult. Therefore, we go into what I call a virtuous cycle. Networks like STAR, Zee, Sony or us have nearly 60 per cent of television audiences passing through us every day. We have bouquets for broadcasting, and hence our ability to launch a channel and put a network behind it, is higher. Look at the launch of History, and we are launching two more channels in the next two weeks. It is because we have a certain size of audience consuming our network on a daily basis, and we are able to lead this audience to new brands. Even as everyone talks about how media is under-indexed in India, it is very difficult to get the viewer’s attention and it is becoming expensive by the day. If you have a network, you are able to add new brands to it; you can give it much more momentum at launch.”
But according to Haresh, luck has not favoured the company on the financial side. He says, “There have been various restrictions and news broadcasters are on top of all kinds of regulatory issues. For two to three years, there was no regulatory clarity. The environment was very complex and constraining. It wasn’t easy to raise capital and many of our plans were delayed due to this.”
But the run has been good, and the company now stands on a firm footing, despite what the market presumes at times. Haresh quips, “People love to hate Network18. Remember, we were nobodies in the business. In each segment, we have challenged traditional leaders and were written off. But we ended up dominating the space. I would say the thrill of battle, and the victory from it, has been the biggest pleasure.”