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Guest Column <br>Retrofit: Crest is welcome, but the question is of commitment

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Guest Column <br>Retrofit:  Crest is welcome, but the question is of commitment

The Crest Edition from the Times of India Group seems like a good idea. The question is whether it is sustainable or merely a passing fad and fancy? I am saying this because Bennett, always known for innovation, has attempted such things in the past as well. Readers in Mumbai will remember Metropolis, a weekend paper that was launched with much fanfare in the early 1990s. Actually the Metropolis came after Independent folded up. Partly because it had served its purpose of killing the Indian Post and perhaps it had outlived its uselessness or usefulness, whichever prism one was using to view the situation.

The Independent was never a flanking device for the Times of India, which pretty much had the city to itself, as Indian Express had begun to lose its crusading edge by then.

This was also the time when the Gravure machine was being removed from Bennett's ground floor, which meant innumerable experiments with the shape and format of the Illustrated Weekly. I was at the Weekly those days when it underwent repeated changes to turn into a broadsheet, which we used to jocularly call 'bedsheet' to finally turn into a tabloid avatar which used to be sold in 1990 in a transparent polythene bag with toothpaste and shampoo sachets for company. Rings a bell? Yes, everyone, including my aunt, has attempted to do a variation of that 20 years later. The Weekly that meant so much to all of us had gone into free fall, leaving the staff in a state of despair. I quit the Weekly to join the Sunday Observer where Pritish Nandy had taken over. In any case, a few years later, the Weekly was wound up.

But, I remember that among the many innovations that the management, foisted on us at the Weekly when it was a broadsheet was something called Elan, which Pritish asked me to launch. Small correction, management wanted a colour product, Pritish thought up the name and content. Colour GNP, it was completely featurish with large pictures.

We tried to replicate the old Life magazine model, which had worked so well for the Weekly for many years. Since the B&W broadsheet was newsier, Elan catered to the softer featurish element. Now when I see Crest, I am reminded so much of Elan. Electronic news peddlers have compelled newspapers to dumb down. I don't know why this has happened, but unfortunately it has worked to the detriment of the four-letter word ‘news’. The Times of India though has not trivialised news and stuck to the knitting. In fact, it has done the more obvious thing, which is to get closer to local news so that the newspaper in the morning is more representative of the people's problems and woes.

At the same time, the Sunday Times is such a disjointed product, there is no thread of continuity running through. It is a curious amalgam of news and strange features bunged in for flavour. It has no substance and no flair. Some of the features are there just because somebody has written them. Against that backdrop, a differentiated content product like Crest is welcome.

By segmenting features and offering a specialised product for the same, Bennett is looking at plugging and playing into a new reading habit -- that of a weekend newspaper. Not since the Sunday Observer in its salad days has there been a specialised weekend paper in India. It is also a need based gap, which Bennett is tapping into -- a need for slightly higher brow content and a vehicle for top of the line advertisers. Did I hear someone say aloud - vehicle to attract top of the line advertising - is perhaps the buzz phrase. Maybe. Fact of the matter is that while newspaper houses have tried to rejig their weekend papers by changing the content goalposts, most of them haven't succeeded. The exception may be Mint Lounge, but you cannot have a daily paper riding piggyback on a weekend edition. At the Sunday Observer, we would start thinking and working on Monday, most Sunday papers start thinking Wednesday and executing Friday.

Yes, the Metropolis was attempted as did Business India's Ashok Advani with a complete turkey. Then there is Tehelka, but nobody has tried a weekend newspaper in a long time. Bennett needs to be given credit for thinking up Crest Edition and attempting a crossover between Life and the old Weekly. I might not agree with some of the content or the dull green colour but some of the visuals like the Tendya centrespread were a delight. Or for that matter Pandit Nehru's pix lighting up Edwina left me breathless. Simply because, I have a picture on my wall where a cross-legged Panditji is puffing at a cigarette after enjoying a Kashmiri meal along with my grandfather (he was his OSD till Panditji's death).

As a concept, Crest is wonderful. Some more colour will make it even smarter for the masthead dull green makes it look even duller. The washed green is a damper.

The question is of commitment.

How long will Bennett persist with this product offering? It attempts these innovations and then loses interest quickly. The reality is that Bennett's flagships - Times of India and Economic Times - remain the bulwark of the business. The first real success since then has been Times Now. ET Now after its initial bluster is flat. Its colours and anchors remain moribund.

If one looks at the stable of magazines that existed on the fourth floor of Bori Bunder, then only Filmfare and Femina survive. I know, it probably didn't make economic sense to continue with several of them, but to shut down something like the Weekly was criminal. After all, doesn't India Today still survive. Yeah, people might have stopped reading it and continue to subscribe to it, but its relevance has diminished considerably over time.

I wonder if Crest is also an attempt by Bennett to bring in a different brand of high end product advertising. I remember when Peter Mukerjea, then heading Star India, was kick-starting the launch of Star One. He had told me then that there was a category of advertisers who were not happy advertising on the K Factory saas bahu soaps on Star Plus, and so wanted differentiated content.

That is when Star One was launched. Peter had given me the example of the Hyundai Sonata, a premium sedan at that point in time. He had said Hyundai might want Santro to be advertised on saas bahu, but for the Sonata they were looking for a completely different audience with a different type of programming. Sadly both Sonata and Star One have practically gone belly up. The Sonata definitely, Star One still limps along. And not with differentiated content, but the same old song and the same old story as on other channels.

So, Bennett's attempt at differentiated content with a shelf life is a sound business proposition. Sustainability though is another matter. And at the end of the day, the media economy runs on advertising support. News emanating from BSZM is that the print run has been scaled up considerably in recent weeks, which could mean that it is working. What Crest will also do is force Hindustan Times to think of reorienting its weekend offerings since they are quite sad. Already one can see HT trying to beef up its features on Saturday. But it ain't working, so they will have to fix it.

Bottomline, I hope Bennett doesn't lose interest in this new toy. Improve it, don't wind it down.


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