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Prannoy Roy plans to take NDTV global

By Naazneen Karmali, Forbes
September 14, 2006 09:30 IST
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Three nights a week, Prannoy Roy anchors the main, 9 o'clock news on India's top-rated English-language news channel, NDTV 24x7. He's every bit the trusted, reassuring news presenter, right down to his trademark salt-and-pepper beard. "I would do it more often, but I'm a bit lazy," says the 56-year-old Roy.

Another spoiled media star, getting bigger and bigger bucks for less and less work? Hardly. Roy and his wife and business partner, Radhika, run the place. They started New Delhi Television and now own 54%.

Fueled by a surging economy, Indian television is booming. TV advertising revenue rose 11% to $1.2 billion last year, according to TAM Media Research India. That's propelling NDTV's stock price: Its shares have doubled since the company went public two years ago.

But investors are buying NDTV for its potential, not for its performance today. It's still small, just $43 million in revenue for the year ending March 31 and a $7 million operating profit. They're betting that when the fierce competition for Indian's viewers--some 316 terrestrial, cable and satellite channels vie for attention--settles down, NDTV will be among the winners.

NDTV now offers three channels on cable. NDTV 24x7 holds a commanding 31% share of the English news market. But Hindi news channel NDTV India trails market leader Aaj Tak, owned by the Living Media Group. There are some 38 news channels overall, up from two in 1998.

"News is one of the fastest-growing genres and has begun eating into the prime-time viewing of popular soaps," says L.V. Krishnan, TAM's chief executive. Last year NDTV launched NDTV Profit, a business-news channel that has gained enough traction to compete with CNBC-TV18, the category's long-entrenched leader. Together, NDTV's three channels reach 56 million viewers.

NDTV has plans for many more channels. Now serving a national audience from its headquarters in New Delhi, NDTV wants to offer local news in cities around the country in collaboration with local networks. And the company is mapping out a strategy for an entertainment channel that would go live next year.

The Roys' grand vision is to go global. "Our dream is to have an Indian version of a global channel that can take on CNN and the BBC," muses Prannoy Roy over a cup of tea in his office, which overlooks the main newsroom. This proximity to the thick of the action allows the Roys to easily switch "our management hats with our editorial hats," says Radhika Roy.

While Prannoy, NDTV's chairman, is the public face of the company, the low-profile Radhika, also 56, generally avoids giving interviews and runs the show behind the scenes as NDTV's managing director. Her most visible imprint is the red dot on NDTV's corporate logo, much like a bindi, the decorative adornment she and many Indian women wear on their foreheads.

And it was her idea to include the sound of the tabla, an Indian drum, in NDTV's signature tune before newscasts. These touches underscore the network's Indian identity. "It will always distinguish us," she says.

Prannoy did not have television in his genes--his mother was a teacher and his father the chief executive of the Indian unit of a British company--but since the age of 10 he had been fascinated by elections. Later, in school in India, he met Radhika, and soon they were both off to study in the U.K., where they got married.

He returned home in 1975 to earn a Ph.D. in economics at the Delhi School of Economics. He dabbled in teaching, consulting and election forecasting, then landed a prized assignment as an economic adviser in the finance ministry. "I was never so bored in my life," he remembers. Meantime, Radhika had become a journalist and completed a television-production course at New York University. The couple decided to start NDTV and break the government's stranglehold on television news.

India didn't even have TV until 1959 and didn't get color TV until 1982. With privately owned TV stations banned, a state-owned broadcaster had no rivals on the airwaves. Finally, as so often happens when governments try to censor and control, technology leapfrogged New Delhi's TV monopoly.

Satellite TV gave the government its first dose of competition, allowing Indian players, such as Zee TV, owned by billionaire Subhash Chandra, and then foreign entries, such as Rupert Murdoch's Star TV, to go after viewers.

NDTV started in 1988 as a television production house with two journalists--Radhika's former colleagues--three producers and a finance person. "It was a lean, mean, Indian team," laughs Prannoy. They began lobbying for a slot on the state broadcaster, Doordarshan, and their persistence paid off. NDTV debuted with The World This Week, an international news program.

The timing was perfect. NDTV's coverage of Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall was pathbreaking in Indian television reporting and gave it brand recognition. That got it a slot for a daily news bulletin and big-name sponsors, such as the Tata Group. What's more, as foreign broadcasters such as the BBC and Star TV looked to expand their India offerings, they turned to NDTV for content.

The Roys' big moment came in 1998, when they inked a five-year contract to produce all the programming for Star News, Star TV's new 24-hour news channel. "Prannoy was the obvious choice because he had the infrastructure and was well-recognized," says Peter Mukerjea, chief executive of Star Group India. "We had no intention of doing it on our own. So it was our brand and their editorial."

In 2003, Star TV was keen to renew NDTV's contract but was no longer willing to give it full editorial control. This didn't sit well with the Roys. "Editorial independence is what drives us," Radhika notes. "Parting with it was an intolerable idea." The Roys walked out.

What next? Converting NDTV into a broadcaster was the logical step. The infrastructure and people were in place, and with the Roys' well-known name, there was no shortage of financial backers. Still NDTV had to struggle to get its channels seen. As a newcomer, NDTV had no option but to cough up fees to the cable operators so its channels could get desirable spots on the dial. Finally, in April 2003, NDTV 24x7 and NDTV India were on the air.

Success may not come so easily from now on. Farokh Balsara, the head of Ernst & Young's media-and-entertainment practice, is skeptical of the entertainment channel. "Mass entertainment is an altogether different domain that doesn't play to NDTV's strengths," he says. And heavyweights, such as Star, Zee and Sony Entertainment Television, are spending lavishly to build their own Indian entertainment outlets, he notes. But Roy insists that "entertainment is mainstream and mass-market; we have to be there."

Taking NDTV global may be a better opportunity. The network's channels have a growing overseas audience among the Indian diaspora in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., the Middle East and South Africa, thanks to deals with satellite operators, such as BSkyB and DirecTV.

To accelerate the global push, NDTV formed a joint venture with a subsidiary of Kuala Lumpur's Astro All Asia Network, taking a 20% stake. It will offer 24-hour infotainment channels on satellite in different Southeast Asian countries. In June it launched its first one: Astro Awami, a Bahasa-language channel in Indonesia.

At the same time, NDTV must work hard to retain its talent. A collegial culture and generous benefits--six-months' paid maternity leaves and two weeks' paid paternity leaves, for example--have attracted some of the best and brightest in India's television industry. But new players have been raiding its 1,200-member staff and poaching key people.

A former NDTV managing editor cofounded CNN-IBN, a recently launched clone of NDTV 24x7, and appears as an anchor. Times Now, a joint venture between Reuters and the Times of India Group, has an ex-NDTV staffer as editor-in-chief.

The Roys are not unduly worried. Instead they're talking to private-equity investors to help finance their expansion plans. Before long, the tabla may be playing on many more channels and in many more countries.

Filling Airwaves

  • 112 million: The number of Indian homes owning TV sets.
  • 68 million: Number of homes connected to cable.
  • 230 million: Average number of people watching TV each week.
  • $3 billion: Total advertising revenue across all media.
    Sources: National Readership Study (2006); TAM Media Research India.
  • Slideshow: India's Tech Billionaires
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Naazneen Karmali, Forbes

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