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Building a multi-media empire

Bipin Chandran | November 22, 2003

It was a big moment for publishing giant Aroon Purie. Back in 1998 Purie's Living Media teamed up with Doordarshan to produce a marathon three-day election programme that analysed poll results as they came in from around the country.

The 100-strong team worked frantically to stay on air round the clock and Purie was jubilant at the end of it.

"We have marked our entry in the television broadcasting industry. We have shown that even we can do live 24-hour broadcasting," he said triumphantly.

Cut to 2003: Purie's broadcasting business has come an awfully long way since then. His Hindi news channel Aaj Tak has emerged as the high-profile market leader in its segment.

For the week ending September 27 it had around a 41 per cent share of the viewership for Hindi news. Off screen, TV Today, the company that runs Aaj Tak, is putting all the figures together as it readies for an initial public offer.

  • TV Today is holding an IPO and Purie may launch a bouquet of new channels
  • Living Media will launch two magazines in the next 12 months and will try to carve out a niche in specialist magazines
  • Thomson Press has big expansion plans and will put up small printing centres in places like the Middle East and South Africa
  • Reader's Digest's advertising will get a new focus

Purie is clearly on a roll. His TV business is going great guns. And he's also making giant plans both in the printing industry where the family first made its fortune, and in print and radio.

Of course, he's planning more television channels. The India Today Group's revenues for 2002-03 were Rs 506 crore (Rs 5.06 billion) but Purie is aiming to boost that substantially in the coming years.

Purie's mega plans cut across the media spectrum. He wants to expand Thomson Press and introduce new magazines through licensing agreements.

Besides that, he's looking for ways to make Reader's Digest -- which he bought recently -- a more profitable venture. He believes all these ventures could become giant moneyspinners.

Take Thomson Press. For a start, it's entering new areas like packaging and specialised printing. The company has a turnover of Rs 157.9 crore (Rs 1.58 billion).

But that's not all. Purie aims to turn Thomson Press into a global printing house with small printing centres in different corners of the globe. He's looking at setting up printing facilities in places like the Middle East, Mauritius and South Africa.

Says Purie: "This has two advantages, one from a risk-mitigation perspective. If one of the printing centres goes down, work can be moved to another. Besides, it will help us tap the local market more effectively."

Thomson Press hopes to attract international publishers to India by offering cheaper printing. The company's export revenue jumped to Rs 47 crore (Rs 470 million) in 2002-03 compared to Rs 37 crore (Rs 370 million) in the previous year.

Purie is also drafting a plan to take Thomson Press public. "We need additional resources to fund the growth plans. We are looking at a listing plan for Thomson Press," he says.

In the print media Purie plans to introduce at least two magazines in the next 12 months. He plans to make use of the recently opened foreign direct investment policy for non-news and current affairs publications.

Revenues in print too have leapt smartly in the last year. Living Media, which publishes various magazines of the group, turned in revenues of Rs 215.8 crore (Rs 2.16 billion) in 2002-03 compared to Rs 159.7 crore (Rs 1.6 billion) in the previous year.

The group's flagship magazine India Today has a readership of 14.4 million across all Indian editions according to NRS 2002.

Besides that, the group has just introduced Golf Digest and it clearly believes that specialist magazines are the way forward. Purie is in talks with a number of international publishers to introduce a slew of magazines in India.

"In the first stage we will enter into a licensing agreement, which will later be converted into a joint venture. There's a great demand for special interest magazines in the country," he says.

He's also betting heavily on the recently acquired Reader's Digest. His immediate priority is to return the magazine to its past glory.

"With half a million subscribers, it is a perfect fit into our strategy. The magazine has kept a low profile in the last few years for some reason. We have to give a new focus to its advertising. There is a great demand amongst advertisers for such a magazine here," Purie says.

He's even considering language editions of Reader's Digest and he believes that this would attract non-metro audiences. But he won't move immediately on this.

"This is something that we have to get back to the original publishers about, as we do not have the rights for local-language editions," Purie says.

One of Purie's big moves in recent years has been the launch of an afternoon newspaper in Delhi. But the group still hasn't mastered this one.

"Circulation is a key in the case of an afternoon publication. Here in Delhi we have run into problems with the law that prevents roadside hawkers," he says.

To overcome this hurdle, Purie and his team has worked out a subscription-based distribution system for Today, the afternoon paper. The plan even includes roping in housewives to distribute the paper in their locality.

The India Today team is hoping that an evening newspaper will be in demand once the new segments of the Delhi Metro come into operation.

Once the Metro is fully built Purie may also test the waters with a Hindi eveninger. "Hindi is a good option for us. But this will happen after the success of English and the full-fledged run of Metro," he says.

FM Radio is another business that has stumbled. But that's because of the licensing conditions, which have tripped up all the players. Purie is waiting for the second round of liberalisation in radio licensing to strike gold.

"We are waiting for the recommendations of the FM radio committee. The first round of licensing had conditions that made business difficult in the FM radio business. We will look at FDI, if government permits it in the radio business," Purie says.

Television is, of course, a key area for the future. Encouraged by the success of the television broadcasting business, the group plans to invest over Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion) to upgrade its present infrastructure.

Purie says that the rollout of the conditional access system will make it possible to offer a bouquet of new channels.

But the key question is whether the expansion gamble will work. Or, are the mega plans too ambitious and fraught with financial dangers? Replicating Aaj Tak's success and turning the radio business into a money-spinner could be tough propositions.

The group has had occasion missteps in recent years. For instance, it had a rough run in the Internet portal business.

Says Purie: "The Net was a great business. But the launch timing was wrong. We expected the market to turn pay when it wasn't ready. We could look at the Net business once the market becomes conducive."

Executives at rival publications also express doubts about some of Purie's plans. "Some of his plans seem to be little ahead of time. Delhi does not have an afternoon publication culture, which he is trying to build. In the case of specialty magazines too, we do not know whether there is enough space for such magazines. Besides, he may not be able to repeat the success that Aaj Tak had in other television channels," say a competitor.

But Purie is confident about the future. And, he points out that he's in business for the long run. Says Purie: "I am in a business because I am sure that it has the potential to make money. Some businesses may be less profitable now, but I'm there because I believe they have a great future."

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