Excerpts from the book 'Network 18: The audacious story of a start-up that became a media empire.'

With Times Group against its launch how I and B Ministers sound bite helped CNN IBN go liveFacebook/ Raghav Bahl
Features Books Monday, September 19, 2016 - 20:01

By Indira Kannan

There had been no master plan, no blueprint or roadmap guiding TV18’s spectacular growth over the years. There had simply been no time to devise one—you can’t go on a roller-coaster ride with a detailed strategy, either to enjoy it or to tamp down the panic, at least not for the first time. ‘If at all there was a mantra, it was just “Grow, Grow, Grow”,’ recalls RayC. ‘We were just to grow and become bigger and bigger and keep the quality up. Same standard problem with all businesses but at the same time the debt was rising. Raghav being the mad guy that he is, we were scrambling to raise more and more capital,’ he says.

The company also attracted and accumulated a sizeable cache of human capital. For Senthil, this was the recipe of TV18’s success, and Raghav was the chef of this kitchen. ‘I think the main thing that allowed him to do so well is that he was able to create an enabling environment for good talent, which is very difficult for an entrepreneur.’ Vivian, already a seasoned reporter when he joined TV18, says he ‘idolized Raghav’: ‘He was like a god to me, I was obsessed with him.

He has that kind of personality.’ That may be an exceptional overreaction, but there’s no doubt Raghav inspired intense admiration and loyalty among those at TV18.

Anusha Shrivastava says she learnt a valuable lesson from him early in her career. She had accompanied Raghav, her boss, for an interview with a senior company official for IBR, and while he was introducing them she heard Raghav say, ‘My colleague Anusha and I will conduct the interview together.’ ‘I was really touched,’ Anusha recalls. ‘Here I was, a rookie reporter, and instead of saying that I was an employee, he called me a colleague. It taught me that you should always respect the people you work with and treat them like team-members, not juniors.’

Raghav’s approach went beyond good manners, generous salaries, ESOPs or other perks. It was much more fundamental; in the midst of the worst crises, TV18 did not skip or withhold salaries to employees. In the month that TV18 split from BiTV, the salaries of those who had made the switch was supposed to be paid by BiTV according to an agreement between the two companies. Raghav wasn’t sure whether BiTV would meet that obligation, and didn’t want to take the chance. Senthil remembers that Raghav ‘begged and borrowed a quarter from whoever, and that month all of us got two salaries’. BiTV had paid up, but Raghav had also credited salaries into their accounts. The employees went without salaries the following month.

‘The important thing was that he had nothing,’ says Senthil. ‘We had no business, nothing. He made sure all of us got cash in our accounts. That was good throughout, through his worst of times.’ It was also a change from BiTV, which, Senthil recalled, had often delayed salaries despite being a much bigger company.

*****

Finally, CNN-IBN was ready to launch in mid-December.

But, once again, the I&B ministry put up a last-minute roadblock. Just when TV18 had outsmarted one rival, NDTV, it faced a challenge from another. When the Times of India group, which was planning to launch its own news channel Times Now, got wind of IBN’s deal with CNN, it protested loudly to the government, describing CNN-IBN as a means of ‘back-door entry of foreign capital’ in a news channel.

Until now, Raghav had stuck to his promise of acting as an investor in GBN, content to watch in admiration the exploits of Haresh, Sameer and their team in pulling off a fantastic deal with CNN. Now he swung back into action, returning to his old haunt, the I&B ministry. Raghav laid out his case to the ministry’s top bureaucrat, Secretary S.K. Arora, arguing the government had approved the exact same arrangement for CNBC-TV18 a few years ago, so why should they have a problem now with CNN-IBN? But the secretary would not buy it. ‘Why? If something wrong was done in the past, doesn’t mean we’ll allow something wrong to happen now. We need to have a policy for these foreign franchises. When you launched CNBC-TV18 the policy was dark. Now the policy is not dark; therefore, with your channel, we need to examine the issue.’

Raghav had seen this movie before and had no desire to watch a sequel. He was apprehensive CNN-IBN would become a bureaucratic football, being passed endlessly among the mandarins. Any appeals to reason or logic would fall on deaf ears and the launch could be held up indefinitely as their file careened through the government. They needed a way out, and fast.

Only a fait accompli, Raghav decided, could trump the looming déjà vu.

CNN-IBN had an ace up its sleeve, or rather, on tape. Rajdeep had requested I&B minister, Dasmunshi to record a congratulatory message for the new channel. The minister had obliged, saying how happy he was about the launch, and how the new addition would help lift Indian television standards and so on.

Raghav called Rajdeep and Sameer and laid out his plan, telling them, ‘Listen guys, either we should be prepared for a delay, because if we go into this loop, then we could go into a six-month delay until the government gets the policy in place. Or let’s just launch! And let’s launch with Priyaranjan Dasmunshi’s message.’

On 18 December 2005, without a formal announcement of a launch, CNN-IBN’s ‘test’ signals were broadcast on air, featuring Dasmunshi’s message. Cleverly, the other group channels CNBC-TV18 and CNBC Awaaz also splashed his message welcoming the launch of CNN-IBN across their telecasts.

I&B Secretary Arora was furious. He called Raghav, demanding, ‘How dare you?’ Raghav played innocent, claiming, ‘Why, we only switched on the test signals.’ The Secretary knew he had been boxed into a corner. Meanwhile, Dasmunshi called Rajdeep to say, ‘I don’t know what’s happened, but you guys have launched, with my message. I can’t now take you off because I’ll look like a fool.’

The minister called a breakfast meeting at his residence, where he told Arora and the TV18 team, ‘Gentlemen, this problem has to be sorted out. If the channel is launched, it’s launched with my blessings, and, therefore, we have to fix this problem.’

Arora was still smarting. He turned to Raghav and said, ‘You can’t just pull wool over our eyes. It can’t be just a sham transaction, a back-door entry.’ Raghav assured him it wasn’t. ‘Who has told you it’s a back-door entry? We are in control, the editor is ours. Twenty-three out of twenty-four hours will be our content. One hour only we may use CNN, even that they can’t dictate. It’s completely under our control, we are completely compliant with Indian laws,’ he said.

The secretary wanted it in writing. Raghav agreed readily. ‘I’m happy to submit our entire joint venture agreement to you. We are not hiding anything. We’ll submit the original copy for you to see.’ Dasmunshi was satisfied. ‘Oh, if you can submit the agreement, that’s wonderful,’ he said. The next day, TV18 sent the full agreement to the ministry, and the matter was settled. Arora eventually became a friend of Raghav’s.

CNN-IBN had arrived in style. 

Excerpted with permission from ‘Network 18: The audacious story of a start-up that became a media empire’ by Indira Kannan and published by Penguin Books

You can buy the book here

 

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