One year on: Arnab Goswami Unplugged

07 May,2018

 

 

On May 6 last year, Arnab Goswami launched Republic TV, decidedly the most high profile media launch that we’ve seen in the last decade, post-Colors in the general entertainment space and in 2005 with the launch of the now-beleaguered DNA newspaper. The channel has been dominating the ratings roster from Week 1 and reports a big success in terms of ratings and revenues. But the year-long journey has seen its share of controversies, which in fact started a few months before launch. The launch of Republic got at least two competitors to lead a boycott of BARC television ratings, and then there were court cases which of course Goswami’s legal advisors defended with success. However, there are charges of a BJP bias that have been raised by many (including by MxMIndia columnists) and that the promoter and editor-in-chief of the channel doesn’t allow his guests to speak much.

On Saturday, the day Republic TV completed a year of operations, Arnab Goswami took some time off to have a freewheeling conversation with Pradyuman Maheshwari. Read on… (Editor’s Alert: this interview is extra-long. Some 6000 words. So perhaps you should get yourself a coffee or chai, sit back and enjoy!)

 

One year on, how has the Republic TV journey been?

It’s been a very good journey. We achieved everything we set out to achieve. Viewership is high, revenues are good, people are happy. We are on the verge of expanding more.  We feel happy because we are ready to do new things and that’s what keeps any organisation going. About three to four months back, we realised that we have achieved what we would have wanted to achieve in two years, and so we sat down and discussed ourselves and realised that we are now ready to do new things. As we finished our first year, we are ready to do more.  Now the question is to identify what is that?

Are you satisfied as a businessman? Are you satisfied as an editor?

See, I am not a businessman, I run a business but I am not a businessman. I am the editor-in-chief of Republic. I have a titular title of managing director which I don’t use.

Okay, so are you happy as a promoter?

As a promoter, I am supremely happy. Our shareholders are supremely happy. We have added value to this business. We have got the highest viewership in our genre and continue to do so, and we are innovating and getting into new areas, building new verticals. So, yes, as a promoter I have no reason to be unhappy in fact I have every reason to be happy.

How’s the financial bottomline?

I think Vikas [Khanchandani, the CEO] will tell you more, but on a cash flow basis, we broke even in the first month. And we’ve done better every month after that.

To be the No 1 News channel as per BARC through the year is phenomenal. Did it require pots of money to be invested?

No, I think we were much smarter and we had experience and knowledge of the television news business and my own learning has been that you win by being smart and playing the game well rather than trying push your way through and that’s where we did well.

We were pirouetting around in the first few weeks before our launch and we were pirouetting around for the first few months later and even today we are pirouetting around the sense that nobody can quite predict what we will do next. And that unpredictability of our approach which is not just restricted to our editorial stance, the stories you suddenly break at 6 o’clock or the debate you throw out at them  but it’s also got to do much with our approach on business and our approach on distribution and our approach on going into international markets . The great thing is that in Republic decisions are taken in seconds. You ask any of the Top 20 or 30 people in the organisation when was the last time they have emailed anyone, they will look at you with their jaws dropping. We don’t email anyone. So, our ability to take fast decisions, quickly take calculated risks both on the editorial and business side and every side, makes us a smart operator. I think that is one of the greatest reasons for our success.

I know it’s an unfair thing to ask, but if you have to score Republic TV’s launch year from 1 to 10, what would you say it is? In terms of how the channel has done?

Well, I think I will put us at an 8 on 10. Because anyone who gives themselves 10 on 10 is stupid. Either the person is stupid or the person  is trying to make himself or herself happy by giving a 10 on 10

So I never  give myself a 10 on 10. I give myself 8 on 10 because I would still say there are some areas in news that I will like to do. Some formats I have not been able to do. I watch and consume a lot of television I’m aware of stuff I can do if I get a little bit of time and that is what I want to do now.

Even in terms of business we did fantastically well. Vikas and I both agree that there areas were we need to get into not just because we want to throw more money but because we feel we need to be there. So, we have opened up two three verticals from the last few months and there is the whole digital thing throw up again. So there are certain incomplete areas but you can look at it this way: we have done so much in one year but we got a lot more to do ,if I had done that maybe I’d give  myself two extra points.

What would you say would be your highest and lowest points of the year?

Highest point of the year was yesterday [Friday, May 4[, because when I saw the ratings, we saw that we had a 11% lead over the No 2 channel. And that’s incredible. On an all-India all-time slots basis and when you look  at a primetime, my slots , like when you are looking at 9 o’clock , there is a 30% gap. That for me is very satisfying. So, we were actually very kicked yesterday in the newsroom when we saw those numbers, big smiles all around because people have realised that as we are entering Week 52, we are becoming stronger than ever. This was a resounding answer for all those who were stunned with our first two-three weeks and  fought us saying flash in the pan.

And your lowest point?

I don’t have low points because my low points don’t last.

Something you felt sad about in the last year?

I don’t feel low about it, so I won’t use the word low point. But I must say that the point when I was baffled was the way in which some news organisations and some old media, legacy media organisations fought me. They ganged up, they used industry bodies. They got together; they tried to throw us out. They tried to tell us: why are you here? And they came together may be out of their insecurity or just the inability to react or may be because simply they underestimated us.

Yeah, but…

So, let me complete. When they did that for a period of time, I was trying to study their thinking and I did not get a clear answer beyond the fact that they did not want us there. Now that made us sure that want to be there even more… that gave us greater resolve. But it is a lesson for the industry… that you can’t form a cozy club especially not in the news industry and try and throw someone who wants to enter with a new team into the business. So I was baffled at that time, but I did not respond beyond a week or two, because I have been in this business long enough to know that negativity is a self-destructive emotion. And there is so much negativity about us when we started, it’s not a …

So the offensive from competitors helped build your resolve to counter them despite all odds?

Oh, yes, I mean how foolish can you be. That you go and file cases on me and pay tons of money to lawyers to file stupid cases on me, you take our biggest exclusive which we have broken on stories like cry babies, go out there and say no that story was mine and then foolishly in an act of complete desperation, go to Azad Maidan police station and file a police case against me.

When you see mature adults behave like this, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. My resolve does not have to be propelled by these things but it baffled me. It was so utterly childish, that it just baffled me. It continues to baffle me even today. Whatever may have been their motivation or reasons, it baffles me even now why they behaved like that.

But on that specific expose about Shashi Tharoor, some of the data you were sitting on from Times Now. I remember tweeting about it when you broke the story. So since the info was with the reporter from the organisation that she worked for previously, she shouldn’t have used it, right?

No, that was completely wrong because this was a private conversation that the reporter had with the source and the news was never archived with the organisation.

The private conversation was recorded?

Reporters keep private conversations. It was a damn good story.

Yes, it was.

Let me tell you this: it was a damn good story, Lalu was a damn good story , the expose on the ISIS terrorists was a damn good story. All of these were damn good stories. And it’s also cry baby, going around saying no, these stories are ours, they should stop crying. In fact I think they really stop crying now. They have been crying for a year!

Okay, let’s move on. There is a sense that a fair amount of money has been put into distribution in order to generate your high viewership numbers. Don’t you think the money should actually go into content rather than distribution?

But we don’t have a choice. We follow the trend that is there in the market. But we are not spending anything abnormally, more than anyone else. We are just spending what is there in the market. But now whether distribution should take that kind of spend is the question which we all have to ask ourselves. But right now Republic does not have a choice or nobody does.

I remember hearing that you would track BARC numbers even before you launched the channel. How influenced are you by ratings? Do you check if the numbers go up every time there is a discussion on Pakistan or on Nationalism… how much are you influenced by viewership data?

Not to that specific degree you are mentioning today but may be five years or six years earlier in my career, I would do the level of micro analysis on subjects etc.  But now the new Bio-News data which BARC has brought out is interesting but frankly I haven’t gone through the detail of that yet. But I think it’s a good move by BARC.

I have historically been known to study data more than other editors because I understand numbers better than any other editor. My entire background in sociology and socio-anthropology and statistics makes me obsessed with numbers. So I micro-analyse numbers and segments and I have my own numerical methods of collating data and my method of collating data are of taking different time parts indexing it in my own way and drawing some coefficients which I can use editorially.

I have been doing this for a long time and therefore I take a lot of raw data from our people, they present me their analysis and then I do my own analysis out of it. I can safely predict to some extent the impact of certain kinds of programming on ratings.  I believe that my team and I understand numbers better and understanding the arithmetic of ratings and viewership is actually a good thing.

Do you think if there would have been no ratings or advertising wasn’t so dependent on ratings, your content mix would’ve been different?

No.

Would your news selection be different?

No. Absolutely not. We are in the business of relevance and I know where that question is coming from where there are certain channels which don’t get viewership and then they go around saying but we are still relevant and the question is nobody is watching. How are you relevant? Are you relevant only to yourself? So I think, I would always want to be relevant and to be relevant I must be watched.

What you are asking is if your commercials are not indexed to your viewership, would you be relevant in any different way? No, because I will still be targeting the same audience… the same x, y, z. So if I need you to watch me and whether or not you got a Peoplemeter in your house, I will do the same See, there are two things which work in our business: one is your need to be relevant and watched and the other is to make impactful change in the way that you think the change should be done. It’s a mix of these. I don’t think there would be any difference in our approach to our news. We would have the same values and the same principles.

You mentioned earlier that you are now ready to look at two or three things going forward. As you complete your 52nd week and embark on your second year, what are the few things that you are plan on doing? Are you looking at Hindi at all? You have a sub-brand called Republic Bharat?

Yes.

Is Hindi channel on the cards?

Well, you know, you can ask Vikas this and others, but every week, every day, we get calls from the leading Hindi channels, top business executives calling our office to find out when Republic is launching a Hindi channel. I think they anticipate the kind of tsunami that we did in English or at least a mini-tsunami when we enter in Hindi and therefore the thought of Hindi is in our mind but when, how, to what extent etc is something, that we have to work out. We are in no hurry to do anything in Hindi as of now and I see no need no immediate imperative on my side to get into Hindi immediately.  This is the normal talk that happens in the market…

Would you like it to happen before the elections?

No. I wouldn’t predicate or link anything to an election at all. Everything has to be driven by the logic of entering into that genre. You can’t link logic to an election. Anybody in our industry who does things based on political highs and lows is playing a very short-term game. I am appalled at the manner in which people decide to launch channels in the states that are going to the elections, because I find that utterly opportunistic because you expect a certain amount of cash flow during elections to launch a channel. You should launch a channel when you feel you can do something good for the people, when you have stories, when you feel convinced that you can bring in a difference in the market. Why should you launch a channel when there is an election? It makes no sense to me.

What about digital? Your digital foray was announced a few months back, but some how that has not taken off in the big way as you may have wanted to?

Yes, we are testing waters on digital. If you look at the pure numbers, we have done well. We have a very numbers million uniques and we have a very good number of page views. I agree with you that, that’s not the only index in digital.

Let me put it in this way, our exact strategy, what we want to do, cannot be driven by the old ways of measuring the business because the old ways of measuring the business will die very soon. When we want to do video, how we want to get content, how content is going to differentiate and how you carve it out into unique identity is something that we have done some serious work on. So, while it may appear to you that we did a mega-launch around January and February and then sort of, we have gone slower in last couple of months, that’s not the case. In the last couple of months, we have been finishing the financial year and Vikas and me are working on multiple things.

I also want to tell you, we have got a very large digital team, we have got a full tech hub that we have set up that is working independently in Bengaluru. We have opened a brand new office in Bengaluru so there’s work happening, We’ve expanded our product teams. We hired about 10 new people, pure tech guys… when you are doing something for the long-term, you can’t depend on somebody else’s technology. So we have taken the move, we’re not trying to circumvent that process, we are trying to build our own tech base. That takes time. Along with it, we have expanded our content team, we have expanded our product teams and we have opened sales offices on digital in three cities. And we have a new sales head.

New Sales Head overall?

For digital. Varun [Mohan] came in.

Jay, the person who  was heading digital has moved on?

Jay was more for the broadcast tech business.

One of the things said is that while over the last one year the channel has done well in terms of numbers and salience and is a force to reckon with, there have been a quiet few people who have moved on – anchors, some of  the faces who have on camera? Would you say that attrition has been high?

I would disagree with you. Our attrition overall is the lowest in the industry. Attrition in the organisation and editorial and business is lowest in the industry. We have fantastic retention rates.  When we launched, as it happens, people come from different channels.

You mean they couldn’t adjust to your work requirements?

When we see this kind of aggression in news gathering or I would say the fast-paced newsroom, if someone were to come from a CNN-IBN or NDTV or India Today or Times Now after I left and say that you need to respond to a story in five minutes for which you have half an hour there , that you need to get graphics in three seconds, when you got 30 minutes there and then you need to relate in a different way to  promos and graphics and everyone. So people can get stumped with the pace but having accepted that only the fittest survive in every business. In the early one or two months when we launched, a lot of people said I will work in slightly slower-paced way, and hence we had one or two people and one or two anchors going back to the legacy organisations but most of them stayed on. By the way, there’s been almost no top -level attrition, which is also fantastic.

One of the charges, as Rajat Sharma would say on ‘Aap Ki Adalat’: aap pe ilzaam hai ki Republic TV is too biased towards the BJP? Would you like to respond to that charge?

I think I should. While Kathua happened or Unnao happened, none of the sort of pro-Congress channels, let me put it this way…

Yes, you did go after the Haryana Chief Minister too…

Ram Rahim, I will give you a straight answer to this question: there is no substance in that allegation at all. If there has been someone who has been tremendously tough on the BJP on issues, it has been Republic. We have gone after the BJP government, whether it is Yogi Adityanath, whether it is the central government, whether it is the top BJP leadership in case of Unnao and Kathua to the extent to that there was a clip which went viral that there was a big BJP rally and they kept taking our name with ministers who quit and they said if you think you are some kind of a wrestler come and wrestle with us and they were taking my name and were attacking us. Our reporters have been attacked by people from all political parties in the last one year.  This accusation is completely false and I think over the last few months when people have seen our coverage they have seen that this is false propaganda started by some of those who would not compete with us in first couple of months. Now I know that the news we do and when Yogi Adityanath recently, I think this was last week in…

When he trivialized…

When he took on the people who had been the victims of a train accident… We did entire shows on it. Therefore we shoot from the hip, we don’t compromise, our essential rule is no Congi, no Sanghi , no compromise.  I can share with you our line which we have for our one-year campaign: No Left, No Right, No Compromise.

Hmmm

Allow me to complete. We have taken each political party on for whatever it needs to be taken on for issues. Now, there cannot be any permanent position a news organisation can have. I know now there are certain organisations in this country which say let’s have two channels. Let one channel be pro-BJP and another be pro-Congress. It is a crying shame that leading media organisations of this country are falsifying news in this manner. By having one channel say we will be pro-BJP and another channel will bash BJP. That’s complete falsehood. To try and maintain that kind of editorial line is a shame. Which means you are essentially instructing editors on what line they have to take. Are you playing a game?  Is it a game you are playing or you are presenting the news? I have problems with permanent positioning.  I think a news organisation should take on people depending on issues and therefore recently when we did an interview with Amit Shah.

Yes.

We were the only people who asked even Mr Amit Shah straight questions, we don’t do candyfloss interviews. If you look at all the interviews that have been done with Mr Amit Shah or Mr Modi or the others, we have never done a candyfloss interview. I have never done a candyfloss interview in my life. But you will have seen other people do that. We are above board and we will be very straight on our interviews.

But you don’t take on Narendra Modi as much as you take on others… say Rahul Gandhi? For instance, Narendra Modi has been quiet on quite a a few things.

I think that’s also completely incorrect because when Kathua happened, I started my show by saying that if Mr Narendra Modi does not respond to this, he will have a problem. He should pick up the phone and tell Mehbooba Mufti that these two ministers should be sacked and that was said two days before the resignations happened.  Not that we are taking any credit for it. We are the only channel that has questioned Mr Modi, Mr Amit Shah and Mr Rahul Gandhi. I am not responsible if Mr Rahul Gandhi regularly goes and makes a fool of himself on many public platforms. We are not responsible for Rahul Gandhi’s public behaviour. So, I think this is all a figment of someone’s imagination.

So are you happy to take on the BJP whenever needed?

Of course, whenever or wherever it is required on issues.

And even Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

Whenever and wherever it is required on issues. I am not among those people who wake up in the morning and say okay for the next six months I will be anti-Narendra Modi, and after two months I will be pro-Narendra Modi depending on which side my bread is buttered.  I can’t do that.

One of the other charges against Republic and against you is that there is no second line that has been established?  That Brand Arnab is bigger than Brand Republic? I asked you this question when you launched and you had then said you were going to be on air through the year. And you have actually been on the air since you launched. But you are also a promoter now. Don’t you think the channel is too dependent on you?

Yes. You are correct. There is no denying it. Now, however let me present a counter-prospective. First of all I am not confronting you on this question. There are two or three aspects in running an organisation. Let me give you an organisational answer. There is a business side, there is a side of running a channel, there is distribution side and there is a finance side. Satisfaction number one as you can check this with Vikas, we have the most independent business team.

Okay

I feel very happy that the first thing I have done is that as a promoter of an organisation I have completely bequeathed the running of Republic, Republic World, Republic extension and business to Vikas.  And with Vikas and Mr Sundaram on the financial side and under Vikash to Priya on distribution and the international extension side. I speak to them only when necessary and I feel very happy they speak to me when only necessary. It is phenomenally satisfying for me to see that I have such a delightfully independent and nimble business team.  They give me lot of independence that I am very grateful to them for allowing me this space that I need on for my editorial. One part.

And now you got Dr Bhaskar Das?

Yes. Bhaskar will be helping us in extensions of our business. He is a great guy, I have known him for 20 years and I feel privileged that people like him are associated with us.  The second part is this that, I must say I am truly proud of Vikas. He is like a brother to me in this. We get along famously. You can’t run a business that grown to this size 400 people etc till you really have got that part sorted out. Now comes the editorial side. On the editorial side, with the entire sort of running of the channel, operations etc, the production side on the programming side, I have bequeathed it to Charu [Thakur], who is our chief executive producer and she has done a great job. So running of the channel will continue regardless of this. Now comes to the aspect and we have got a great editorial team.  Samya, Niranjan, Tanvi, Abhishek in Delhi. I don’t want to give individual names but we got a great team.

Rhythm, how can one forget a name like that.

Yes, Rhythm, Prema, Aishwarya so we built a strong line of editorial people with Samya and Niranjan and Tanvi playing a great role on the news desk and running the editorial operations here in Mumbai and in Delhi. I feel very happy about that. Now comes to your question on the perception part of the faces, so today if you look at it in terms of numbers you will find that we are ahead of Times Now cleanly on most weeks on the 8 o’clock slot.

Achcha

They’ve put their present editor on the 8 o’clock slot but my anchors – whether it is Shivani , Rhythm, Sakal would beat their editor hollow in the 8 o’clock slot and we thrash them in the 9 o’clock slot. So, we are way ahead of Times Now on most weeks at 8 o’clock. At 7 O’clock too, we are ahead, 6 o’clock most of the weeks, we are ahead… mornings we are ahead. This proves that in numbers, who they categorise as their top editors, anchors are all getting thrashed in their respective slots.

But…

Which means my anchors are more watched than their top-most anchors. Which means in terms of viewership, the audiences have already accepted our anchors as more credible, more watched, more interesting and more engaging than their topmost editors. This is across the board. If you were to put even the top anchor of India Today or any other channel vis-a-vis my anchor, our anchors are way ahead of them in terms of viewership and in terms of acceptance. Therefore, I have achieved Part Two, that our viewership of our anchors are better. Now in terms of perceptions, I think that there always be a comparison and I would want do things for our anchors and our reporters to be able to strengthen them and their presence in terms of branding opportunity and promotion in next six months which we are getting into. Having done this, therefore in the next two-three months I would have been able to become the strength and not the weakness of Republic.

But there is no clear second-in-command. What if you have a bad throat or are not able to come on air at 9 o’clock. Will it not impact your primetime performance and viewership numbers?

I will be taking a week’s holidays this summer and we will put up other anchors and I tell you they will do better than any other anchor at 9 pm.

If your competition comes to know that you are taking a week’s holiday…

(laughs) I once went to Orange County with my family in the hills and I won’t mention the name but one of the promoters of another media group, this is when I was with Times Now, called me and asked where I was for the last two days. I said I am at Orange County. Oh, you could have told me, we could have prepared a little better this week, the promoter said. But I think we will build a second line. See, I am confident today many of our reporters are better known than any other reporter. Our anchors will also be…

I carried a story a couple of years back when you were with Times Now that ratings fell when you were on leave and the channel got impacted more than, say, a Colors got impacted when Kapil Sharma was off for a few weeks.

I will just show you one line of my internal analysis (picks up a few sheets of papers from his desk). This is a weekly report I get. You will realise the level of details we go to. See this line of the content analysis: viewership without Arnab show. We create a hypothetical situation that should Arnab not be there, will Republic still be No 1? Please read it here and I am not making it up. In all combined terms, Republic TV is No 1 and without Arnab show’s market share, it is also at the No 1 position. So, this is with and without Arnab, we look at it both in terms of impression and market share.

This is for non-peak hours of other channels. What if you look at 9 o’clock minus you on air?

Listen: if you look at 9 o’clock of Times Now and others, we do much better. 9 o’clock on Times Now hardly gets a 10% share. So there is no comparison. Let me tell you: my 8 o’clock anchor will get three times the viewership of the Times Now 9 o’clock anchor. We feel we have the strongest anchors. We feel they put their weakest anchors at 9 o’clock or 10 o’clock with Times Now… India Today, they are putting their weakest anchor at 9 o’clock. If I would have been in their place, I would shuffle the team. They are giving us a walkover with their present bunch of anchors. They are giving us a walkover. The present bunch of anchors in all these channels – Times Now, NDTV, India Today and CNN-IBN are their weakest anchors.  May be they don’t want to come on at 9 o’clock.

Ah, well.

You can check it with the numbers. I think they are being unfair on their 7 o’clock anchors. They should put their 6 o’clock and 7 o’clock anchors at 9 o’clock.

One more charge against you: you don’t allow people to speak. You don’t allow your guests to talk for more than 10 seconds if they don’t agree with your views!

These people are so aggressive on my programme that in the last two weeks I have noticed that I have to beg to speak. They come with all guns blazing on my show and I think this is an unfair charge because the nature of the debate has become stronger and more polarised and it’s very difficult for me to compete with my guests sometimes.

Do you check your blood pressure (BP) often enough?

BP is fantastic. I had a health check-up three-four months back. Beautiful. I tell you, it’s like going to the spa.

You find it therapeutic! A lot of your viewers complain their BP goes up watching your show!

Therapeutic, it’s nice and it is like a work-out for me. After my show, I hang around the news desk for 20 minutes, generally gossip, talk to our people because I also feel that’s also therapeutic. The combination of the show plus chatting with my guests is the best time of the day from about 8 o’clock.  8 o’clock onwards I usually go into my zone. If I spend a little bit on my show I think I will do better.

So what about allowing people to speak?

I can’t let them speak more than what they do. They speak enough anyway. I feel I don’t have enough time to speak and what is this all business of letting people speak all about. The problem is also that very often other channel anchors have nothing to say. Have you thought about what their editorial contribution to the discussion is? No disrespect. But I believe here on Republic, we do more research, more ground work.  Our anchors are reporters. So they are better informed. You know the he-said-she-said thing does not work. I can keep saying ‘you speak, you speak’ and get along with it and say nothing but there would be no content in the show.

You are very animated in your discussions, you move around your chair… how often do you change it?

It has got no wheels. It’s fixed on the ground (smiles).  It’s great inside the studio. I have limited my appearances if you have noticed.  Going back to your charge: I am not breaking every big story myself anymore. So, when the last couple of big stories happened, I have not necessarily be in the studio and others have done phenomenally well. So I come on at 9 o’clock more often now and on my Sunday debate.

Thanks for being candid, as always. And congratulations on a year of Republic TV.

Thank you.

Post a Comment 

2 responses to “One year on: Arnab Goswami Unplugged”

  1. Surendra B Singh says:

    All success proclaimed is acceptable.
    Do you think your channel gives a complete comprehensive run down of that day news in any time frame? Only discussions on issues of the day that to as per your plan is channels priority. Channel slant is quite visible. Let it be balance and less provocative.
    Hope around 8 PM.have half and hour news slot. This will not affect negativity your channel rating. On the contrary it will improve your rating. For real news people have to change channels to regional media or government media.
    I know for you this is of no significant value but once scene in country changes you will realise the point.

  2. Vipul Bondal says:

    Awesome… Arnab shoots straight from the hip, as always!

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