Campaign India Team
May 09, 2013

Profile: With an agenda to write the future of History

Half of Ajay Chacko’s work life has been at the Network 18 group. And it’s been an exciting journey so far, learns Rishi Vora.

Profile: With an agenda to write the future of History

Ajay Chacko, president, A+E Networks, has completed a decade in the Network 18 group. In media circles, Chacko is recognised as the man behind the successful launch of Network 18’s two major brands – Forbes India in the financial print media space and History TV 18, a factual entertainment joint venture with US-based A+E Networks. However, these are the most recent launches that he has overseen. There are a many more milestones that he looks back on with rightful pride.

One such launch was that of CNBC Awaaz (along with former group CEO Haresh Chawla), where the mandate was to first create the genre for Hindi business news and then grow it over many years. “Launching CNBC Awaaz is one of the high points of my career,” he notes. Recalling the challenges of that launch, he says, “It was not easy primarily because the genre at that that point in time did not exist. So it wasn’t a smooth journey for us. When we launched, we ran a few shows that were not primarily news. But, if you look at the channel now, it’s grown tremendously well. We grew the genre. Today Hindi business news is five times the size of English news and is doing far better in revenue terms than any other news category - even Hindi general news.”

Forbes India happened when Network 18 was on expansion mode and that was the time when it was toying around with an entry into print financial media. The group was in talks with Forbes for almost two years. After the clauses that prevented foreign magazines from entering into India gave way with changes in regulation, the Forbes brand came in. Following the launch closely were events like the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. It was admittedly a challenging phase.

“We said we’re a premium magazine and we’re not going to compromise on editorial quality. That also helped in the long run. The magazine is doing well because nobody is talking about numbers and circulation – it’s more of an influencers’ product and Forbes is a brand that resonates well with a certain community,” Chacko explains.

Forbes India was launched at a slightly higher cover price as against industry norm. In six months, this was taken up to Rs 100. That cover price, reveals Chacko, became an area of experimentation in the industry. At the time, he was managing the CNBC business and the new JV discussion with A+E Networks was ongoing. And factual entertainment was a new space for Network 18. He took the plunge.

Writing History’s future

What’s keeping him busy these days? “We’re now in a consolidation phase, where at the group level, we’re not looking at increasing our properties and assets, but are focused on increasing profitability.”

Chacko admits that he gets bored too often, when asked about the number of roles he has essayed even within the Network 18 group. He explains his readiness to take on new roles thus: “If there is no action happening, I’d rather leave it to somebody who can manage and maintain it. Once the creative element goes away, it’s tough to kind of continue with it. So once the business is on a trajectory of revenue and profitability, I’d like to move out and move on. That’s what I’ve done for most of my life.”

On his agenda is the task of ensuring a favourable history for the History TV 18 channel. The vision for History TV 18 was to be in the top tier of the factual entertainment genre and grow the genre, because even now the genre has not seen its true potential in India, reveals Chacko. “The reason I entered this space is very simple – worldwide, GEC and factual entertainment is more or less the same. There’s hardly a three to four per cent gap. In India, one is 60 per cent and the other is 2 per cent. People get bored of fiction at some point in time and they start consuming non-fiction content,” he elaborates.

There are more reasons working for factual entertainment. To complete the distribution bouquet too, notes Chacko, one needs a factual entertainment channel.

And, Chacko predicts that distribution yields for the genre is going to disproportionately higher than advertising yields. The rationale is that while news gets a sixth of the viewership of History TV 18 or a Discovery, it gets five times the ad revenue. “If metrics was the most important buying parameter, then factual entertainment should be six times news in terms of revenue but it’s not. It’s comparable to Hindi news in terms of size of audience delivered, but where are the revenues coming from advertising? If you look at distribution side, Discovery makes disproportionate - two and a half times - ad revenues in distribution,” he reasons.

The channel is at Rs 50 crores of revenue, he reveals. Distribution revenues are prompting a much more aggressive set of projections for the coming year – a 30 to 40 per cent growth is expected.

No micro managing; micro analyses

His stated leadership style is that he does not unnecessarily control anything. Broadly, things are planned out. Then the task is to make sure there is leadership by example. “And then, people take on stuff far in advance of what they think they’re capable of.  Not too much micro managing. Micro analyses, yes,” adds Chacko.

Numbers and beyond

Chacko if he believes in numbers, . he explains, “As one of the things it’s very important. But numbers are not the only thing.”

Just as one begings to ponder, he adds, “You need to have a currency. Shooting the messenger is not a great idea beyond a point; having said that, if there are gaps in the measurement system, it’s important to address it. An alternative measurement issue will have its own huge learning curve issues. There could be a capability issue. If the capability issue is resolved, then there is a financial issue and that cannot be resolved because it’s about asking for more money from broadcasters. People are already raising issues on the kind of monies they’re paying. One needs to work together with TAM.”

Revisiting the talks on measurement, he surmises, “I worry about India that announcements always preclude reality. And the time taken for any such reality to happen… by then there will be different set of issues… and this one may become irrelevant.”

The Flip Side

Age Almost 40

Where do you live Bandra

What do you do to relax Read and have a quiet drink

Favourite hangout place Home and my farm

Gadget iPhone

Social media Not too regular

Favorite author Marquez

Favorite book The Outsider ( by Albert Camus)

Mantra for life...Do unto others as you would want others...

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