Mark Hoffman, president and CEO, CNBC was in Mumbai to celebrate the network’s ten year success story in India. Hoffman is delighted at CNBC TV18’s home run over the past decade and in this exclusive chat with Campaign India, he shares what he thinks of the impact of digital media on business news, what makes CNBC popular but not populist, and how fundamentally strong content can tackle competition from various quarters. Excerpts:
How do you see the impact of digital on television as a whole?
It depends on what kind of television. Clearly, digital media has and will continue to change the way consumers use content, there’s no question about it. As related to business content, particularly CNBC, which is a real-time focused content delivery system, I think the transition is consistent with where the brand has been. In 2-3 years from now, people are going to consume content in ways in which we’ve not seen and CNBC is becoming aligned to deliver content the way people want it - when they want it, where they want it and most importantly, how they want it. So certainly we’re aligned, we're profitable and functionable. We’re making sure we’re ready against any eventuality.
We’ve seen that the moment the Internet became more robust in terms of bandwidth, there was a dip in advertising revenues for print media. When Internet viewing of television content increases, do you see a similar dip in television revenues?
We just finished our fourth record profit year in a row, with double digit growth figures. A lot of it has to do with how people used our content – part of that growth has been because of digital, besides television which serves as our main medium. So CNBC is being consumed in a way that is widespread and it continues to grow.
But internet sometimes acts as great leveller. So for content to reach audiences, television companies need not spend much on distribution costs, which earlier acted as barrier. Will the growth of digital help weaker competitors become stronger simply because they don’t need to spend the same amount of money to reach audiences?
You know, a lot of these arguments are accurate, if the content is seen to be easily replicated. If CNBC was only about data, then that data would be a commodity. But thankfully, CNBC is about a lot of things. Certainly, real-time data is a part of it – as is instant analysis, hundreds and hundreds of interviews around the world every week with the best minds in the business, besides a culture of enterprise that is critical for any journalistic organization. And it really doesn’t matter what the medium is. The winners will be fundamentally strong doing the best stories, covering them better than others.
And if there is such a strong differentiation, would there be a temptation to charge for content on the Internet? As a matter of argument, CNBC is in the best position to do, being the leader in the business...
Well, we have one subscription product on the web right now at a nominal sum of $10 per month, where CNBC US, CNBC Europe and CNBC Asia can be streamed. Our internet business is ad-supported. We’re watching with interest as some of the others have decided to go for subscription or ad-based revenue models. So we’re studying that. At this point, we think we have the right mix for us.
What about India...would you be tempted to go pay for digital?
(thinks) I don’t know, I think I need to study the market a little more before I can give you the right answer.
It’s been 10 years for CNBC in India. The past decade has seen you comfortable at the number one spot, despite competition...
TV18 has done an extra-ordinary job. That’s reflected in their market share. In terms of viewership, they’ve never been stronger. If you look at the success of the English language product and the Hindi language product, it’s been a spectacular success story. I couldn’t be more pleased.
What are we likely to see in the next few years, considering the competition here? Will there be a need to refresh the product to make it younger?
I think from the content point of view, there’s a common denominator that will stand the test of time. It is about the inherent conflict of business – someone wants to buy something, someone wants to sell something - this is played out on CNBC in English and Hindi and that continues to be essential going forward. I’m convinced this will help us be a dominant player in this space. I've studied the content, I’ve studied the power of our brand in context of how TV18 has approached the content. I’m very pleased that we’re with them because I wouldn’t want to compete with them.
Who do you see as competition here?
I think everybody is. There’s competition around every corner and that emboldens an organisation like TV18...they are stronger for it. But there’s a lot of technology as a competitor. And it's about making sure you're up-to-date on what the viewer wants and what the advertiser wants. So it is about keeping one's eye on the ball and another on what's essential.
Are you happy with the advertising yields you’re getting?
I think here and around the world, the decision to opt for quality over quantity - which is the affluent, well-educated viewer - has year after year, proven to be the right strategy. I'll give you an example of CNBC in the US when I got there a few years ago. It was over-bought in a way that the audience profile didn't show it to be an investor friendly channel nor a luxury channel or a business channel – it was a mish-mash. A combination of all of that and then we slowly began narrowing the focus on the content on the investor, focusing on the biggest news stories of the day. And keeping the eye on the high-end viewer or user has put us in a position to deliver such audiences to advertisers. And that’s an audience that is very difficult to aggregate...
Will you focus here in India, because India also has the same issues that you discussed...
I think that’s been a real benefit for TV18, they’ve performed well and that’s the way CNBC across the world wants to be popular. That doesn’t mean we have to be populist. I think that particularly in cable television, narrower and deeper is the way to be effective, than broader and shallower. The focussed content of TV18 and the depth of their knowledge and business journalists is the best in the country.