"You will see us relooking at the entire IBN7 proposition in 3-4 months": Avinash Kaul

MUMBAI: A visionary who has entered into the foray of vernacular journalism to make it recognised globally. He is a broadcast professional with a career spanning more than 17 years with an immense pool of knowledge in the large variety of roles in sales, marketing, finance, legal and general management.

Geared up to provide a refreshing outlook to the channels under him, it is the chief executive officer at IBN News Network (CNN-IBN, IBN7, IBNLokmat) Avinash Kaul. He has worked across various genres including news, general entertainment, kids, movies and lifestyle in India. 

From being a board member of the Media Research Users Council to a part of the technical committee for Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), he has witnessed every chapter of the broadcast industry. With many a feather in his cap, Kaul is now poised to take IBN Networks to newer heights with a prominent footprint in digital with the launch of various properties.

In conversation with’s Megha Parmar, Kaul sheds light on the revamps in the pipeline, importance of the ratings body, the tug of war between digital and linear television, DAS III roll out effects, and the way ahead for the entire IBN News Network. 

Read on for excerpts:

You are revamping CNN-IBN to CNN-News18 from 18th April onwards. What is the idea behind the change? 

We are infusing a lot of energy and resources behind this relaunch. We have been in talks about this for 2 years and now we are finally ready. This is the first attempt of launching the entire channel. To give a sense of what we are looking at is that news channels over a decade or more have come under pressure. We are mainly focusing on two things - We are stationing more resources on-ground in terms of news gathering, making it far better to what we are terming as immersive journalism. 

We are putting up a team of reporters who will go and cover in-depth all the multiple angles of each story and be far more immersive into every story that we pick. Reporters have always been the biggest strength of CNN-IBN as compared to all other networks. We are investing more and more into that strength which gives us far more ground presence not only in terms of the number of stories that we are able to collect but we will also follow the mantra of doing it efficiently. We will do justice to each story by putting the sources on ground to cover those stories very comprehensively. This will be a one of the major changes that will be a part of the revamp. 

The second aspect is the way the discussion and debate space is shaping up. At present, the space has become purely slanging action. We have figured out how we can improve the quality of debates. The people who are in the panel and are discussing should be in order to what we are seeing across various other channels. We have got experts with Swapan Dasgupta, Vir Sanghvi, Ajay Bose, etc., to be our exclusive panellists and we will gradually add more as time passes by. 

What other changes will we see in the channel? 

There is a lot of emphasis in terms of change; there is a new news studio, new upgrade of all the back end technologies that we are using, etc. We had the opportunity of revamping and changing our product and making it ready for digital and we are trying to do it in the best way - from the workflow to how will we be available to cater to the digital ecosystem or the second screen. 

From the people perspective, we have a team of anchors and reporters and we are looking at investing on them and building them over a period of years. Over time, you will also see us invest quite significantly over the weekends in addition to weekdays, something which has traditionally not been seen over a long time on news channels. We are looking at feature programming, some high quality content on weekends. In our new avatar we will be leveraging a lot more CNN content than earlier. A lot of CNN shows will be seen on CNN-News18 like the Fareed Zakharia show. We are also going to get trainers from CNN to our team in terms of news gathering, editorial staff, comprehensive training with the CNN experts.

Will there be a change in terms of the editorial structure? Are you planning to strengthen the team with a more popular anchor?

No, there is no significant change in the editorial structure. We now have people driving various aspects. We have hired Anuradha Sen Gupta and she will look after the entire news on weekends. We have Sudeep Mukhia who has joined us as editor for prime time specifically. We are putting more and more resources in each and every time band to improve our quality which you will not typically see in any other news channels where their resources are in short supply. We are looking at filling all those gaps. We have a different team of reporters, anchors, producers only focused on the primetime band. All of them will report to our managing editor Radhakrishnan Nair. The structure won’t change, but the emphasis on each and every aspect will be significantly better. 

You already have an application for IBNLive. Will it also be revamped or will we see one more application being launched? 

Yes. In its new avatar, IBNLive app will now be renamed as News18 and the website as You will see a completely new layout and approach. We have this app which is going to get upgraded. We are trying to do everything one by one. What you will see on 18th is a completely new packaging for the channel, new music, logo, website, app, new prime-time, new faces, new formats, that’s what is going to happen. In a month’s time you will see a bigger upgrade, one which will be a radical shift from what we are doing now. It’s just a start. We will have lot more things coming in the next few months. Every month you will see some new launches unlike any other channel. 

Is the logo designed internally or did you hire an agency? 

It has been done in-house. 

How do you plan to promote the re-branding? What is your marketing strategy?

We have a lot of teasers and promos already on-air. Apart from that, you will see heavy promotions on social, network channels, outdoors, print, lot more trade activities, TV, radio, everything will be covered. Yes, there will be a significant focus on digital. 

What are your plans for IBN7 and IBNLokmat? Will you revamp them? When will we see that happening? 

We are currently working on CNN’s revamp. You will see us relooking at the entire IBN7 proposition in 3-4 months. That is also on the cards but we are looking at one thing at a time. 

Is digital a revenue generating proposition for you at this stage or is it too early?

It has started but it’s not really up there. The growth is picking up very significantly, which is good. We were among the first partners with Facebook when it started with videos. So we are also seeing monetisation having a good growth rate. A lot more interaction is happening and we are keeping a lot of content for such platforms. It’s not the same content that moves from television to digital. We will create separately new content for these platforms. 

CNN-IBN is having a tough time when it comes to viewership. Are you revamping to change that?

The revamping has to happen any which ways. It’s not a reflection of if we are going up or down. If you look at the data in the last two weeks, we were at the number 2 position. But that is not something which we looked at when it came to revamping. The work has been on since quite a few months and from that we are launching it all together. We had to get ready with all the pieces of editorial, packaging, etc., in place. It’s not reacting to any number that keeps changing from week to week. Yes, we will always be happy to be at the number one position, or if not that, at least securing ourselves at the second position.

How important are ratings in the larger scheme of things for a news channel?

It’s not about absolute weightage on numbers but it’s usually the relative position which holds some value. In the general scheme of things, the numbers are extremely small. It’s more to do with what’s your imagery and perception, what is the quality that you bring to the table. These are usually more important, especially in the case of English news channels. In the case of Hindi news, the ratings play a far more important role than just the imagery or good quality content.  

Do you plan to strengthen your distribution?

Of course we will strengthen distribution! We are launching our distribution footprint as well with this revamp. There are lot more activities that we are working on with rebranding and rebuilding a product. Distribution is a part of it.  

What is the advertisers’ reaction to the revamp?

The advertisers so far have been pretty enthusiastic about the entire thing. At the end of it, you are investing in a product today, not just for the first screen but also for the second screen. As I mentioned, we are doing so much not just for TV, but also for digital. All of these are opportunities that we now have. We are content for a news company and we deliver our content on both the screens depending where the people are and in what point of time. So if you are on your Facebook timeline, you will get to see news content there as well. It's only a matter of time. You would see that once BARC starts rolling out digital data in 6-7 months from now, you will see all these efforts being fruitful. Soon you will realise that a lot more consumption will not happen on the first screen, but will happen on second screen from now onwards. 

How is the advertising revenue shaping up? Is having only advertising a profitable proposition?  

Advertising revenue keeps growing in phases, because at the end of the day, advertising revenue especially for an English news channel keeps increasing. Earlier, we had lot of banking financial institutions wherein a lot of advertising was happening. Then came in the wave of mobile operators and later came the wave of e-commerce companies. So there is something or other always happening in that particular phase. But until the economy revives fully, you will always see lot more stress coming in the business front. 

On the other hand if you look at Hindi news, you will see lot more local advertisers, lot more FMCG products coming in, which typically you will not see on English news channels. Despite these transitions, you will have a great year. It’s a cyclical movement; until the general economy starts picking up, many of these things will continue to be ranged down in certain ways. The bulk of the growth that we are seeing today is happening on the entertainment space because no matter the economy, the FMCG space will continue to grow with a lot more advertising. 

The reason for getting heavily into digital and second screens is one of the key reasons why we want to make sure that we are tapping into all forms of opportunities. It’s not only a question about advertising sales. We are trying to diversify as much as possible with multiple dimensions.

Is digital gradually taking over the TV when it comes to news? What should the TV players be doing to keep the audience intact?

No, so far digital has not taken over TV in the case of news. These are two types of media that we are talking about. One is the type of people that are already on the second screen but there are people who still have not bought a TV set. So, out of 240 odd million (24 crore) households in India, only 155 million (15.5 crore) have televisions. As a broadcaster, one cannot abandon one medium for the other. We will continue to do what we are doing on linear TV, and we will also look into investing into something which that is yet to explode, which is digital consumption. Currently, digital consumption is a small percentage of the overall base. It is TV which reaches out to 155 million (15.5 crore) households. Yes, there are 1 billion plus (100 crore) phones in the market, but only 15 per cent of these are smartphones. They cannot get a great quality of video content on them and replace linear TV. That is still few a years away. We are ready for whenever that happens.  

What can we expect from you and your network? 

You will see new enhanced high quality products for which we are trying to rope in the best global expertise to make a product of which all of us will be proud of. We will leave no stone unturned to deliver a high quality product for the consumers.  

Viewership for Hindi News has declined from 3.7 per cent to 3 per cent as per the FICCI-KPMG 2016 report? Is it because of the change in ratings body?

From the perspective of someone who has been very closely involved with TAM and someone who has been in the technical committee of BARC, what happens is when a body for measurement changes, it definitely leads to various other changes. BARC has included rural data, which is happening for the first time. All of this creates a substantially different way of looking at things. Many channels which earlier were not getting consumed, or did not have a clear focus towards rural, are now changing their operations. It’s too early to say whether things are declining or are going up. 

At the end of the day, the number of people in absolute numbers consuming news is significantly high. It means today we are talking about 153 million (15.3 crore) households, all being measured by BARC. Till about week 40 of last year, we were only talking about 55 million (5.5 crore) households. So we have added 100 million (10 crore). They will obviously not be watching TV at the same level as earlier. But all the broadcasters are now working towards reaching out to more and more people daily and are changing content for more audiences that are coming up. The news genre overall has not seen a decline, whether it is TAM or BARC. What has happened is that the relative position has moved up or down. Once you get into rural, hyperlocal content plays an important role when it comes to audience measurement in the large sense. This can be seen in GECs where channels like Zee Anmol, Rishtey or Star Utsav that are coming up very significantly. And obviously since they are free to air in that zone, they will get that number of viewership. 

After DAS phase III, do you think there can be an increase in subscription revenue?

Subscription revenue has been on an upstream for us quite like for the other players. As the recognitions keep going higher, everything will fall in place, but then, currently digitisation has not completely happened. You do not have perfect addressability because tiering has not clearly happened. Once that happens, you will be able to access more people. The number of players has also got consolidated with every phase of digitization. But the true benefits are yet to come wherein the bulk of money that is coming from the ground is passed on to the hands of a broadcaster. Obviously this will provide a good balance between advertising and subscription money. But that still has not happened to such an extent as what was envisaged earlier.

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