Big Tent Activate Summit Interview: Raghav Bahl, managing director, Network 18

Ahead of the Big Tent Activate Summit, Raghav Bahl, managing director of Network 18 discusses the lessons Indian media companies can learn from the pitfalls of the West
Engineer in Internet IT Server area
The internet is shaping India's media future Photograph: Alamy
The internet is shaping India's media future Photograph: Alamy
Fri 15 Mar 2013 13.52 EDT

Raghav Bahl, is the founder and managing director of Network18, the fastest growing media group in India with interests in television, films, magazines, internet and mobile. In advance of next week's Big Tent Activate Summit in Delhi, we caught up with him to discuss the future of India's media industry.

Tell us about yourself and your company TV18.

We are a fairly diversified media company with very large interests in news. I would say we are the leaders in India as far as electronic news is concerned both on TV and on the internet. We don't have any significant press presence. We don't run any newspapers, we do have a couple of magazines, but other than that we are very largely television and the internet. We also have large interests in entertainment and children's / youth channels but that is in a separate venture with the US company Viacom. In electronic news we are by far the largest in India. We've got about 13 television channels and about 4 news portals and all of them are in the top one or two in the country.

The panel session you'll be joining at the Big Tent Activate Summit asks the question whether the internet is killing the media industry in India. What side of that argument do you sit on?

We need to understand what we mean when we say "the media industry"; my sense is the internet is acting as a huge force multiplier for India's media industry, and when I say media here I certainly mean news and entertainment and I certainly mean the evolving space around user generated content, blogging and the interactive social media information exchange. So I don't believe the internet is killing the media industry if we define media as this. At all. And the primary reason for that is; unlike the West where media evolved sequentially, where there was first newspapers, then radio, then television and then the internet and each industry had some 10-15 years to itself to become an industry leader before it got disrupted by a new technology, in India all of this is happening not sequentially but in parallel. In India we've opened our television business just as we opened our radio business and just as we've opened our internet industry - and print is really the only old media in the truest sense which exists in India. So all intelligent media players in India - be it owners or editors - have kept a very close eye on how things have evolved in the West. They have seen how a sequential media giant got a bit complacent and did not look at the new disruptive technology early on and did not adapt and ended up in trouble, so we have had examples to learn from. In my world view, clearly the internet is a huge force multiplier for Indian media because it has not crept up on us like something invisible, we've seen it all play out in the West.

If indeed there is a battle going on, what, if anything, can the incumbents do to survive?

The incumbents have to do exactly what's happening in the West, it's just that our incumbents have the great example of having seen the movie play out already, so if they have become complacent monopolists then they only have themselves to blame. The incumbents have got a very early warning and therefore they've got to adapt their product, they've got to do brand extensions, they've got to do product extensions in the digital world, and make a lot of interactive user generated material. And essentially that is it - they've got an early warning and they only have themselves to blame if they don't make that digital migration.

With Alan Rusbridger and Jeff Jarvis joining you on the panel (alongside Siddharth Varadarajan from the Hindu), you've got two eminent figures in UK and US media respectively and two ardent proponents of the principles of an open media underpinned by an open internet. What lessons do you think Indian media can learn from those territories and those standpoints?

The lesson is to not to resist change but rather to embrace it and actually use it and therefore be for open internet and be for open access, but also be for the ability to monetise content on the internet. Open access is good, but we have to have ways and means where content that has been generated with a lot of effort and cost also gets the chance to monetise itself as is now beginning to happen in the West where some publications are really beginning to make their internet revenue lines and subscription revenue lines quite significant. Open access is brilliant but monetisation is fundamental also.

And in return, what lessons does India have to teach to the world in terms of its media industry?

I'm not sure whether India can teach the world something that the world doesn't already know. If we mean the liberal, democratic western world then I think we've got very little to teach. But if it comes to the developing world and the world where democracy has not taken as strong a root as it has in India and they are not as free as in India, then I certainly think the Indian model is a very good model for those developing territories to look at and ensure that there is genuine freedom and there is a genuine right to redress any excess on either side, either from the readers or the publishers point of view. Developing countries can look upon India as a very effective, very viable transitional free democracy compared to a Western democracy that has already transitioned and evolved, but I don't think we can teach the liberal world too much. I think we have plenty to learn from them.

It's predicted that by 2020 India will have more than 600 million people online - what does a connected society of that size and scale look like? Where are the opportunities and what are the challenges?

Yes, so this is a revolution. What we're going through now, with the internet, is revolutionary. Traditional media, and I include print, radio and television in that definition, has been a one-to-many, linear medium. And that will completely explode into a sort of matrix like media where one-to-many will just disappear in a black hole and the black hole will be full of connected points between millions of people. The media industry has to learn that it has to become one-to-many, one-to-one, and that the user of the content could be a very effective partner in the creation and life of the content. So we go from this linear transmission to a totally matrix-orientated news media which uses social channels very powerfully, which uses interactive blogging, user feedback very powerfully, and yet is able to generate enough publically sourced news content or entertainment content which is professionally produced. But to think that we can stay in a world where it will be linearly transmitted to a waiting audience? I think that mindset will have to be changed and I think that is a revolution in the making frankly.

And finally, what are you most looking forward to at the Big Tent Activate Summit on the 21st?

For India it's a great opportunity for us to have all the years and years of media and tech experience present in this one forum and as I've already said, successful Indian media companies will have to keep an eye on the West, because by doing so we can avoid a large number of pitfalls. We are at an evolutionary point where we are maybe three steps behind and therefore you can really have the wisdom of hindsight and you have that and there's going to be a lot of wisdom on display at the event and we need to soak it up.

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