Apart from everything else that it turned to be, the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 was also a platform that saw innovations and clutter-breaking efforts. Not only advertisers and brand builders, but also the likes of news channels attempted to reach viewers in different ways. Leading the charge for English news channels in that was Times Now with its sub-brand Times Now Cricket and its effort to connect with Pakistan-based Geo TV in order to take viewers inside a Pakistani news channel studio and a simulcast that allowed a feel of the pulse of Pakistan on the eve of the big match.
In a conversation with exchange4media, Times Now’s Editor-in-Chief, Arnab Goswami, speaks on why cricket is important for a channel like Times Now and what has been the channel’s approach for the biggest cricket event of them all - ICC Cricket World Cup 2011.
Let us begin with why is cricket so important for Times Now?
The reason is simple really. Since January 2008 till now, that is April 2011, in cricket news, we have been leaders. The story that started it all was the India-Australia tour and the allegation of unfair treatment to Indian players. That, followed by other stories, established us as leaders in this space. We have been on top of cricket for a long time and the objective is to be the number one channel in cricket news, which is besides the actual match. In fact, the only thing that we are not number one in, is showing the match. But if you had to take the example of IPL, our pre- and post-match analyses numbers were competitive even to a channel like Max.
Indians have an unmatched passion for cricket. Indian audiences spend significant time talking, debating and watching cricket and any news related to cricket. So it makes sense for a channel like Times Now to be on top of the game when it comes to cricket news. Our approach is clear - we are aggressive, we ask the hard questions that sports channels do not ask. We were number one in IPL gate, which was a huge sports story; in the India-Australia series or if you had to see the comments made by Shahid Afridi after the World Cup - that too was a story broken and followed on Times Now.
Tell us more about Times Now Cricket?
It was the right time for us to experiment with something like this, a sub-brand, as we see it. Times Now is a very big and established Indian news brand. For the last three and a half years, it has been the number one news channel and it has huge resonance across audiences. This allowed us to create a powerful sub-brand that had its own logo, own positioning and its own identity. In fact, this is the first time that something like this has been done. Our simulcast with Geo TV was done under this sub-brand.
The simulcast with Geo TV was a very interesting idea. What was the genesis of the idea?
There had to be a stronger connect than what we were seeing. We were seeing one or two Pakistani players or experts on channels - you had to feel the pulse of the people of Pakistan on the eve of the match. Is an India-Pakistan match only about cricket or is it much more? Is it about sentiments and emotions; of our different world views or of our shared history? You cannot capture the true feel of a match like that with just a Pakistani former captain sitting in your studio. We had a great expert like Aamir Sohail, but we needed something more. So we had a chat with Azhar Abbas at Geo TV, who is a great friend. They are the number one channel in their country and we are the number one channel in our country. We discussed let’s cut through the bureaucracy, connect studios and put it on air. Between the thinking and getting it done, it took us all about 12 hours.
The simulcast was on Geo’s news and sports channels. They promoted this there, we were promoting the show here; they showed our studio, we showed their studio. The episode was shown thrice before the match. It did fantastic in terms of ratings, but more than that in terms of perception and the experience.
The format itself opens new opportunities?
Absolutely. I am a great believer in content innovation and clutter breaking formats and you will see us experimenting all the time. Unlike other channels, we had the Power Play format, in which you put percentages or a Burning Question, where we asked the most controversial questions to our panel.
But imagine the potential of connecting studios like this, beyond cricket. We have done it with Pakistan today and we had connected with Fox with Australia to get a comparative perspective from Australia. But tomorrow we can connect with other studios to discuss issues of global significance – we can connect with the US, England, Singapore... As India becomes more global, we want to do more of these things. Indian media must go international, and this is one of the first steps in making that happen.
Is this kind the exercise for which ratings should be seen as a gauge at all? How would you map the success of this initiative?
We got people to talk about it. Many have been asking why something like this was not done before. We have been leaders for over three and a half years, and it is important for us to do things that set us apart from the smaller players.
On another note, Times Now has been one of the more aggressive voices on India-Pak relations. How would you say this effort took forward that proposition?
We separate cricket from politics. They don’t relate to each other. When it comes to India, we put our issues forth and we ask the tough questions, but we are not anti-Pakistan. Doing something like this does not mean we will stop asking these questions.
We have to ask your views on the ICC ban on coverage. News channels were flouting footage telecast rules – was ICC right in doing something like that?
ICC had overdone it. You have to be able to prove that there was some serious transgression before taking any action. There is no way you can stop a news channel from covering a news event. It is not a matter of footage – they got it very wrong. The manner they did it was also not right. I thought it was rude and I think they have learnt some lessons from it. News channels make the likes of IPL and World Cup what they are. You cannot be confrontationist.
Your most satisfying moment from the ICC Cricket World?
Being the backend person. This was entirely what my team had done. I loved being the backend person, just doing the strategy or the thinking role – the execution was completely done by others, and that was my biggest satisfaction from this.