Seven years back, India TV was launched with the tag line, ‘Badle Bharat Ki Tasveer’. Whether the tasveer of Bharat changed or not is a matter of debate. However, India TV did change the scenario of Indian news television drastically and undoubtedly. Now, India TV is all set to do two things this year – launch an English news channel, and start its own media training institute. Rajat Sharma, while taking us on the guided tour of his media house looks back with disbelief at his empire which he built brick by brick and says, “Just don’t believe this! Is it a dream or is it really the truth? Once, I did not have money even to pay salaries to my people. I had to sell my property to do that!”
India TV came into the limelight when it came up with the first video of Dawood Ibrahim, partying with prominent Bollywood stars in Dubai. It created a sensation in the country. Across the nation, India TV had put up hoardings displaying ‘Breaking News’ to announce the show that was to come on the screen that night. With this began the concept of ‘breaking news’ on Indian television. Also, incidentally, most of the present day Hindi news channel heads have worked with Rajat. “Uday Shankar, the CEO of Star Plus (once the head of Aaj Tak and Star News), Shazi Zaman of Star News, Satish K Singh of Zee News and Vinod Kapri, presently, Managing Editor, India TV had all worked with me in their initial days,” says Rajat. That is Rajat’s contribution to the Hindi news industry in this country. Being on the top 19 times out of more than 30 weeks this year, India TV is giving a hard run to other leaders of this industry.
The journey to the top for India TV however has not been an easy one, and it has had to face a lot of criticism on its way to the coveted position.
In 2004, when India TV was established, Rajat Sharma – its proprietor – already was established and probably the only face of the Hindi news media then. India TV had a successful programme like Aap Ki Adalat and a determination to be better than the best in the field of Indian news media. When it all began, India TV had people like Maneka Gandhi, Tarun Tejpal and Madhu Kishwar on board to do programmes in the field of their expertise. But the challenge was big. ‘Sabse Tez’ Aaj Tak was already well engrained into the mindset of the people. Zee News, in whose start Rajat was involved earlier, was a well established news channel, and Star and NDTV had a news channel of their own. In such a given situation, it was a Herculean task to establish oneself in a noticeable position.
“We wanted to create something that would bring respect to Indian news... We did it with the bank loans, I did not have money of my own. In one year’s time, we realised that this was not working. Funds were vanishing, we were bleeding, no one was watching India TV. Amongst the 9 channels, we were number 8. Everyone said, excellent job, you are doing a great service to the nation, but we can’t give you ads. It came as a shocker to me, really shook me from inside. Options were two – either close it, shut down, or go for what market wants.” And Rajat Sharma went by the diktats of the market, doing more of what others did less! And today, the channel is worth more than a 1000 crore rupees. Its inventories are full! And he has no qualms about it. He says he can now afford to show news only.
Rajat considers his people his biggest strength and says chance and circumstances have played a major role in his life. “I never aspired to be big in business, circumstances forced me to take big risks and I am happy it worked well” Without any delay, we present the man and his interview...
MW: You are one of the few in the industry to have reported, anchored and then owned a channel. How has the journey been this far?
I feel the people of this country have been very kind to me. They have supported me for the last 18 years. I had never imagined I would own a channel of my own.
But these developments have been gradual: from Aap Ki Adalat, a single show, to the news & current affairs division of Zee and the first private news bulletin, to my own production house and then to India TV as it stands today. I must say, I feel satisfied when I look behind but when I look ahead I feel that there is a long way to go.
MW: You are not anchoring bulletins anymore, except for your own show, Aap Ki Adalat. Don’t you miss your daily shows?
I do. They are very exciting. But they also tie me down. When I used to present the daily live show, I had no time to work on expansion or even fulfill my social commitments. I could not attend weddings or dinners, and some people thought I was being arrogant.
MW: How hands-on are you in running your channel?
I have left most of the day-to-day running of the channel to my team. My role now is mainly that of a guiding force. But I am in touch with my Managing Editor on a minute to minute basis. I can’t be away from news.
MW: India TV has been No. 1, 19 times out of over 30 weeks. But would you agree if I say that your channel does not get along within your own fraternity?
I disagree with you. We are the market leaders, we have the trust and support of our viewers which ensure that fraternity or anyone else has to respect our leadership. Our revenues have been growing, all top brands are on the channel. If you are referring to the criticism that we were getting for our popular news till early last year then that was the market demand and at that time viewers wanted it. But fortunately for us, this year there has been a lot of interest in hard news and politics so we are back to hard news. Content tracking shows that today there is more news on India TV than on any other top news channels.
MW: When you launched India TV, you had said, “Badle Bharat ki tasveer.”
Right. When we launched, we wanted to create something that would bring respect to Indian news media. We did it with all sincerity. But we had no business house backing us. I did not have any money of my own. We did it with bank loans. But in one year, we realised this was not working.
Funds were vanishing, we were bleeding, and very few were watching the channel. We were No. 8 among nine channels. Media planners, social activists and decision makers said we were doing an excellent job, but that they couldn’t give us ads. That really shook me. I had two options – either shut down, or go for what the market wants. I had 400 people working for the channel, and their families were dependent on me.
So, I decided we will go for popular programming. I asked my editorial team to make a list of the top shows on rival channels. The highest rated show at that time was Kal Kapal Mahakal on Zee; Aaj Tak’s Khauf, a show on ghosts, was No.2; and Sansani on Star News was No. 3. That’s when I told my team, if all of them are doing these shows, why should we refrain from this.
MW: So it was a calculated move, with your eye on the market?
Yes, I realised that that was the need of the hour. From No. 8 we became No. 3 and then ultimately No. 1. The inventories are full, overflowing rather. We are getting support from the top brands, MNCs and media planners.
MW: That makes you happy as the owner of a company. But how does the journalist in you react?
I am happy that popular content was a temporary phase. Now that we have reached the top, we have toned down the popular content. I must say that viewers demand has also changed. Issues related to terrorism, black money, price rise and corruption have given birth to a new India which is raising its voice. Tiranga and ‘Vandematram’ are back in fashion. Anna Hazare, the non-English speaking crusader has caught the imagination of the people. This flavour is seen in the news content. In fact, in the last one year, we are focusing on hard news content and we are still maintaining the top position. That has made the journalist inside me very happy.
MW: What if you changed the content to pure news and your ratings started falling?
We did it almost a year ago. It was a calculated risk. It has worked for us. I told my team that we should get ratings with respect. We can feel the pulse of the people of this country. It’s a nation with news hungry people. And news channels have to play the role of a watchdog. At the same time we can’t afford to be rigid. We have to be practical in our approach. I have learnt that there is no freedom of expression without strong financial support in this business. Financial strength has given me muscle to experiment. It has given me the power to take risk.
MW: And if you falter, will you go back?
Now there is no chance of going wrong. We have learnt it the hard way. Now we have our hand on the pulse of the people. Now our rivals follow our content, our style of promotion and presentation. But our programming will always be tailor-made for the viewers and we will always respect the opinion of our critics.
MW: Now for Rajat Sharma, the person. Can we have some autobiographical details?
I was born in Old Delhi’s Sabzi Mandi. We lived in a 10x10 room on a dirty lane. There were 10 of us – seven brothers, one sister, and ailing parents. My father had lost all his money. No one had a job. My brother had to drop out of school to work for All India Radio as a casual announcer and he earned Rs 50 a month. That was all that we had.
There were long periods when we went without food. I remember the Americans used to send powdered milk in sachets to India. We used to queue up for it, and for days that’s all we would have. I went to a municipal school, and in the night, I used to study under a lamppost at the railway station. But despite the hardships, I never felt dejected. My father was my inspiration. Even in those trying circumstances he used to say, don’t worry, you will do well.
There was a time when the only family to have a TV (black and white) in our neighbourhood shut its doors on us. Ever optimistic, my father said: “Rather than watching TV in someone else’s place, why can’t you do something that comes on TV, and everyone watches you instead?” That had a huge impact on me.
I did well in school and then joined the Sri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi University. Arun Jaitley was the first person I befriended there, when he loaned me Rs. 6 to pay for the deficit in my college fees. Later, when I told him I was a debater, he asked me to campaign for him.
We’ve remained friends ever since. College brought different dimensions to my thoughts altogether... But those days, my only ambition was to either become a lecturer, or work in a bank.
MW: Then how did you become a media person?
I joined print journalism by accident. After I had appeared for my Masters of Commerce exams – during the time between my exams and the results – I worked as a researcher for Janardan Thakur. He had started a feature syndicate of his own and had also written two highly acclaimed books – All the Prime Minister’s Men and All the Janata Men. He wanted me to meet people and collect information. With the information I collected, he would write his columns.
MW: You asked him to allow you to use the leftover information for your own writing...
Yes. I used to get a lot of information and he used only a part of it. After a week of being with him, I asked him if he would allow me to use the rest of the information for independent writing as a freelancer. He agreed. I wrote one article and sent it to the Onlooker magazine. The article got published and the money that I got for it was what Janardan Thakur paid me for a month’s work! After two articles were published, the editor of the magazine asked me to come on board. That’s how I landed my first job. A trainee reporter for Onlooker. I became its editor after three years.
It was a big break. After that, I edited Sunday Observer and The Daily.
MW: Then there was another turning point in your career when you had a chance meeting with Subhash Chandra of Zee News…
Yes. At that time the Indian Express Group was negotiating with me to become its editor for news service. I met Subhash Chandra on the same flight that my friend from college, Gulshan Grover (Bollywood actor) had boarded. He asked me to introduce him to Subhashji. I went up to Subhashji and asked him to feature my friend Gulshan on Zee TV. Subahshji asked me if I would like to interview Gulshan. I said: “Ye aaplog kaise interview karte hain? Do log baat kar rahe hain kaun dekhega? Interview hai to katghare mein khara kijiye. Unse safai mangiye, make politicians accountable to public.”
And I went on and on till the flight landed. After a few days, Subhashji persuaded me to mount a programme on the lines I had suggested to him. It changed my life overnight. ‘Adalat’ made me a celebrity. For five years after that, I remained with Zee. But somehow, Subhashji was made to believe that I was getting bigger than the channel. So on January 3, 1997, I quit.
MW: And then India TV happened?
After Zee, I set up my own production house: Independent News Service. I took up a two-room barsati in Defence Colony. I thought I would present and produce Aap ki Adlat and sell it to some big channel. But the day I resigned, 43 people from Zee left and came to my house. I told them I have no money, what will I do with you people? But they were adamant that they wanted to work with me. After much thought, I took up their offer as a challenge. I broke all my fixed deposits to pay their salary.
Meanwhile R. Basu, who was the CEO of Star, called me and said I should bring Adalat to Star Plus. We renamed it as Janata Ki Adalat. It continued to get popular support. Then they asked me to do a daily news show Aaj ki Baat. For four years we did these shows for Star, and they paid us handsomely. We also did some programmes for Doordarshan.
By then our production house was doing well. We had all the money and I had all the time in the world to be with my people.
Then there was another change. James Murdoch approached me and said that Star didn’t want to continue in a tie-up with NDTV. They wanted to be independent. He wanted me to be the face of Star News. When I brainstormed with E&Y about Murdoch’s proposal, they countered it by asking: “Why are you doing this for them? They are creating a channel using your name and goodwill. Why don’t you have a channel of your own instead?” When I said I don’t have the money for it, they said, just announce it and there will be investors queuing up. But not many came forward and we had to take loans to start India TV.
First five years were full of struggle. But now for the last two years we are in a comfort zone. India TV is the nation’s most watched and trusted news channel.
MW: Aap Ki Adalat is the longest running TV show, and you have been anchoring it for almost 18 years. Is there any guest you have wanted to bring on the show and have not been able to?
Dawood Ibrahim. I have been desperately trying to get him for the last 18 years, but have not been successful. But some day I will get him. I will get him before the Indian government does!