Kartikeya Sharma of iTV network doesn’t play by the book. In a chat with Noor Fathima Warsia, he shares how he likes to seize a growth opportunity no matter how crazy and create a robust business with full conviction
At first glance, there is nothing conventional about the iTV Network or its evolutionary graph. Having started with a national news channel and a newspaper as lead products, iTV Network is now eyeing infotainment and kids entertainment. It also creates targeted regional offerings for the West and North East markets in India. Simultaneously, iTV’s promoter has invested in sports through Pro Wrestling League. iTV even has a media infrastructure division within the company that it is building as an independent profit centre. By next year, iTV will also create international partnerships and grow into newer markets including South India.
The mix of inorganic and acquisitions, or business-to-consumer and business-to-business or the jump from chic and English to the grassroots level of Haryanvi and Bhojpuri may not conform to usual norms, but it is this kind of out-of-the-box thinking that has seen businessman Kartikeya Sharma take loss-making brands and turn them into profitable media assets. As per the company, the network is already reaching out to 120 million people through its brands.
Sharma’s mantra — seize growth opportunities no matter how crazy, create a robust business plan and back it up with conviction.
“Our track record shows that we have turned around products that were otherwise seen as sick businesses with their erstwhile owners. Our strategy positioned us among the largest news networks in just two years,” says Sharma, managing director of iTV Network. His family business has largely been in the hospitality industry, but he found a calling in media, which in today’s environment is not an easy business to be in.
Recalling the journey that began as an organic company with a bulk of home-grown products, Sharma says, “India News is an example of assets we created. We shot to 10 per cent market share within four months of launch and finally made it to the top three. We don’t pass up growth opportunities. NewsX is an example. Television in India is significantly under-leveraged implying immense potential. For me, as a businessman, all businesses have to be profitable, and that is our primary objective.”
iTV’s significant move beyond the news genre came when it acquired controlling stake in Trilogic Digital earlier this year that runs Hindi movie channel FILMY and fashion & lifestyle channel FTV. The group is now gearing up to launch infotainment channel Insight and kids entertainment channel Mum Mum TV. “We are diverse as a network and every brand is individual. Nothing is by accident. We look to grow organically in different divisions. Our investment in sports is on similar lines. Pro Wrestling League is the second highest watched property in sports, higher than even the Indian Soccer League and in some markets as high as the IPL.”
Sharma points out that the basis of all the businesses of iTV is broadcast, content management and logistics, each of which is its area of strength. “Our size and scale allows us to tap into growth areas. The drawing board even has plans for luxury, music and general entertainment. We have to roll out successful products by the barometers created in the industry, and make moneyfor our investors without making compromises. This is possible when you know where you are headed and you understand your business,” says Sharma.
Like most media companies, digital is an area of great focus for iTV. “Digital is the way to augment the business and lay the foundation for future. We don’t expect short-term RoI. It has taken years for the likes of Facebook and Google to monetise their presence — we have to be careful in our business assumptions,” says Sharma.
iTV is creating products that can be monetised in the long run, a feat that has been difficult even for the very mature western markets. iTV’s focus on monetisation has seen it create digital products for satellite using the data available to it in terms of viewership habits. Sharma says, “We are experimenting with third screen on our HD channel, which will be subscription based. Sunday Guardian is again a differentiated proposition. We trebled the cover price on acquisition and doubled again a year later. We will create a paid website around it. We will also have non-paid news content but like all our plans, it will be rooted in insight and strategy.”
Three Qs to Sharma on Indian Media Biz
Which one of your two businesses — hospitality or media — attracts more of your time?
One is my inheritance and the other I have built from scratch. Hospitality is well established — it was my first official assignment. I understand the business and I am passionate about it. But my first love is media. In a tough industry, we have defied trends to attain growth in market share, revenue and profitability, and that gives me some satisfaction.
India is a tough media market right now. How’s your experience been?
We are a by-product of circumstances, but I am excited to see the upside. At a fundamental level, TV will grow. It is the best way to build a brand, and news television is highly underleveraged. Areas such as measurement need correction in certain genres. I welcome BARC for its transparency and ambition for a larger sample size but it needs to measure all segments equitably.
Is the investment in sports delivering?
Non-cricketing sports will evolve with digitization. We have a rich and cultural heritage in wrestling and hence it was an obvious choice to begin with but we are committed to growing non-cricketing properties. For this to be successful, it is important to have a business plan that works for every stakeholder. Pro Wrestling has already delivered for us, and we expect this to grow.
(This article was published in BW Businessworld issue dated 'July 11, 2016' with cover story titled ' I-Banking Special - Dealmakers')