Who Owns Your Media: The highs and lows of the India Today Group

A Newslaundry series that deciphers the ownership of India's major news organisations.

WrittenBy:Pooja Bhula
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Forty seven years ago, in 1975, Madhu Trehan founded India Today magazine, although her father Vidya Vilas Purie had originally envisioned it as a tabloid. Trehan had returned from the United States, where she studied journalism at Columbia University and worked with the UN and India Abroad, among other organisations.

While Trehan shepherded the team as founding editor, her elder brother Aroon Purie looked at the business side of things. This heralded the birth of the India Today Group, or ITG, now a media behemoth encompassing TV, radio, digital media, and more.

A year or so later, Trehan returned to the US, passing the reins to other editors, but the group continued to grow, publishing magazines in almost every sphere, from business to automobile, health to tech, travel to news.

It also ventured into regional languages, printing Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam editions of its flagship magazine, India Today. Of these, only its Hindi edition seems to have survived, going by the last issues published on Magzter, an online catalogue of magazines and newspapers. According to Magzter, several of the group’s magazines other than India Today, Business Today, Auto Today, and Bride Today have stopped printing. The tabloid newspaper Mail Today exists but only in digital.

The group also publishes Indian editions of several international brands, such as Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, and Reader’s Digest. On Magzter, the publication of Discovery Channel Magazine and Good Housekeeping has stopped.

Trehan returned in 1986 and led the group into the TV space with another gamechanger, Newstrack, which offered investigative news stories on VHS cassettes that viewers could rent or buy, at a time when vanilla Doordarshan news bulletins were the only form of video news available in India. So spectacular was its success it’s said the 30-minute Newstrack show had to expand to 90 minutes to accommodate advertisements.

Abhinandan Sekhri, co-founder of Newslaundry, joined Newstrack in 1995 when it was on its last legs as a VHS tape product and making a transition to a bulletin on Doordarshan. He recalls, “Newstrack completely transformed how news was approached and looked at, in a way...I don’t think today’s generation will even understand. It’s only around the Gulf War in 1991 that we got cable TV and soon after that, as VHS players became relics, Newstrack mutated into a weekly, English news show on Doordarshan. In the same year, the group also launched Aaj Tak as a daily Hindi news show on DD.”

Unlike Newstrack’s stories that ranged from five to 20 minutes, Aaj Tak’s were 90-second TV reports. Sekhri remembers how “Aaj Tak did amazingly well from day one. But lots of our veteran journalists left the field altogether as they couldn’t adapt to this drastic change and by 1996, the market for long-format news, for Newstrack, died. Arun Shourie later coined the phrase ‘sound-bite journalism’ to describe this phase.”

In 1999, Aaj Tak became an independent channel, for which ITG’s holding company, Living Media India Limited, or LMIL, promoted the TV Today Network as a limited liability company. A few years later, in 2003, TV Today also launched an English news channel, Headlines Today, which was rebranded and renamed India Today, after the group’s flagship magazine, in 2015.

Today, the group has four 24x7 channels – Aaj Tak, Aaj Tak HD, Good News Today and India Today – and around 18 digital channels viewable through YouTube and its Tak app, covering a range of topics such as astrology, food, sports and news. Lallantop also belongs to this group. ITG also runs two educational institutions – Vasant Valley School in Delhi and the India Today Media Institute in Noida.

Ownership insights

ITG’s flagship company, World Media Private Limited, or WMPL, was incorporated in 1949. At the time, the name was Kishore Lal Sham Lal and Company Private Limited. The name was then changed to LM Distributors Limited, and eventually to World Media Private Limited in 1991.

WMPL is fully owned by the Purie family, with Aroon Purie holding a 52.98 percent stake, Rekha Purie 24.18 percent, Kalli Purie Bhandal 7.61 percent, Koel Purie Rinchet 7.61 percent, and Ankoor Purie 7.62 percent.

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Filings with the ministry of corporate affairs indicate that WMPL provides editorial and distribution services for a variety of publications published by its subsidiaries. It also provides job work services in printing, binding as well as management support and outsourcing services to its group companies.

WMPL’s main subsidiaries include Thomson Press India Ltd (93 percent stake), a printing company, and Dimple Pvt Ltd (99.99 percent stake), which has no business but earns revenue from interest on fixed deposits.

WMPL is also a direct and indirect shareholder in eight companies – Thomson Digital India Ltd, Thomson Digital Mauritius, Living Media International Ltd, Radio Today Broadcasting Ltd (also 0.09 percent direct holding), World Media Trading Ltd (also 6.98 percent direct holding), Premier Security Printers Ltd, NSD Printers Pvt. Ltd, and Digiscape Tech Solutions Ltd – as they are fully owned subsidiaries of Thomson Press India Ltd.

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Living Media India Ltd, a major holding company of ITG, was incorporated in 1962 and is an associate company of WMPL. Primarily engaged in publishing ITG’s magazines, it can be considered the group’s print arm.

Publishing makes for 80 percent of Living Media’s turnover and its revenues primarily come from advertisements and subscriptions as well as advertisements on digital platforms such as websites and mobile apps. WMPL provides Living Media business promotion services.

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Living Media is also the main promoter of ITG’s publicly listed company – TV Today Network, with 56.9 percent shareholding. The other promoters are WMPL (0.0028 percent), Aroon Purie (1.54 percent), and Koel Purie Rinchet (0.0022 percent).

The rest of TV Today Network is publicly owned through various mutual funds, foreign portfolio investors, financial institutions, banks and other individuals. Through TVTN, Living Media also has indirect ownership of TVTN Business, Vibgyor Broadcasting Pvt Ltd, and Mail Today Newspapers Pvt Ltd – all of which are the TV company’s fully owned subsidiaries.

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Living Media’s other subsidiaries include Universal Learn Today Pvt Ltd (100 percent) and Uphil Media Pvt Ltd (100 percent).

TV Today Network is Living Media’s only profit-making subsidiary. Among its associate companies, Integrated Databases India Ltd has been making an average profit of Rs 3 crore for the past four years and although Today Retail Network Pvt Ltd has begun making profits – Rs 7 lakh in FY 2021 – they’re still marginal.

Two of Living Media’s previous subsidiaries – Today Merchandise Pvt Ltd (51 percent) and Today Retail Network Pvt Ltd (51 percent) – became associate companies after Living Media entered into an agreement with Zee Media Corporation Ltd in 2017. Zee obtained the rights to nominate key managerial personnel like the CEO and CFO, and also acquired control over the operations and management of both companies.

Zee has also committed to invest in Today Merchandise Pvt Ltd and Today Retail Network Pvt Ltd to acquire 80 percent stake in such investee companies. Eventually, Zee, Living Media and TV Today Network will hold shares in the ratio of 80:15:5 in such investee companies.

The revenues of the print arm, Living Media, have significantly declined from Rs 295.37 crore in 2017 to Rs 80.25 crore in FY 2021. Although it made a profit of Rs 69.62 crore in FY 2020, Living Media has been incurring losses for years; its loss in FY 2021 stood at Rs 3.17 crore.

In financial statements filed with the ministry of corporate affairs, Living Media meditates over the downfall in the print media industry over the past decade due to a drastic fall in time spent on reading. This was further exacerbated by the pandemic, especially in the first quarter of 2020-21.

However, with the pandemic easing it has seen an improvement, and the company is pinning its hopes on rising literacy levels in India giving a push to both its readership and the growth of print media.

It’s interesting to note that Living Media’s shares are largely split between two companies – WMPL (48.15 percent) and IGH Holdings Pvt Ltd (41.5 percent) – and the Purie family – Aroon Purie (5.44 percent), Rekha Purie (1.64 percent), Ankoor Purie (1.09 percent), Koel Purie Rinchet (1.09 percent), and Kalli Purie Bhandal (1.09 percent).

As WMPL is fully owned by the Purie family, the family’s total shareholding in Living Media adds up to 58.5 percent. Kalli Purie Bhandal, Radhika Purie, Anil Kumar Mehra, and Dinesh Bhatia also own single shares of Living Media as nominees of WPML.

Additionally, IGH Holdings, which is an NBFC and Living Media’s second-largest shareholder, is a fully-owned subsidiary of Essel Mining & Industries Ltd that belongs to the Aditya Birla Group. Previously called Telecom Birla Holdings Pvt Ltd, its directors include Rajashree and Neerja Birla.

Essel Mining, in turn, is owned by 34 entities, including companies and individuals. Of the companies, Surya Abha Investments Pvt Ltd is the biggest shareholder (49 percent) followed by Birla Group Holdings Pvt Ltd (19.95 percent). The latter is also a major holding company of the Aditya Birla Group.

The Birla family’s direct stake in Essel Mining is 1.08 percent – Kumar Mangalam Birla (0.38 percent), Neerja Birla (0.35 percent), Rajashree Birla (0.34 percent), and Manjushree Khaitan (0.01 percent). Khaitan is Aditya Vikram Birla’s sister and Kumar Mangalam Birla’s aunt. There’s also shareholding through Aditya Vikram Kumar Mangalam Birla HUF (0.33 percent) and Birla Family Investments Pvt. Ltd (0.19 percent). As Hindustan Times’s Shobhana Bhartia and Aditya Vikram Birla were first cousins, Kumar Mangalam Birla is also Bhartia’s nephew.

Back in 2012, IGH’s initial stake in Living Media was 27.5 percent. At the time, Kumar Mangalam Birla, chairman of the Aditya Birla Group, had said: “The media sector is a sunrise sector from an investment point of view. I believe that Living Media India offers one of the best opportunities for growth and value creation.”

The move was seen by the news media as Kumar Mangalam Birla rekindling his dream to partake in the media pie after the Aditya Birla Group’s previous entry in the space in 2003. At the time, it had launched Applause Entertainment which went on to produce the critically acclaimed film Black. But the company, according to reports, went dormant after the economic downturn of 2009 hit the entertainment industry. In 2017, Birla hired former Balaji Group CEO, Sameer Nair, to revive Applause.

By 2014, news was full of speculation about Birla looking to exit Living Media. But by 2018, the group instead increased its shareholding to 41.5 percent. As the company holds more than 20 percent equity in Living Media, significant influence is assumed.

The moolah metre

If Living Media is ITG’s print arm, TV Today Network can be considered its multimedia arm, making steady profits which were not impacted even by the pandemic Covid. Financial records filed with the ministry of corporate affairs show that TV Today Network’s standalone net profit more than doubled in six years – from Rs 61 crore in 2016 to Rs 131 crore in 2021.

The bulk of TVTN’s revenue comes from its TV vertical, which has seen a consistent increase – from Rs 564 crore in FY 2017 to Rs 699 crore in FY 2020, and Rs 646 crore in FY 2021.

On the other hand, its radio business has been bleeding for years – its loss in FY 2021 stood at Rs 18.60 crore. Since 2018, TV Today Network has been paving the way to sell its radio business to Entertainment Network India Limited, which operates in the radio segment under the brand Mirchi and is a subsidiary of Times Infotainment Media Ltd, the holding company promoted by Bennett, Coleman and Company Limited.

In 2017, TV Today Network also took over the operative part of Living Media’s digital business. Furthermore, from eight percent shareholding of Mail Today Newspapers Private Limited in its early days, TV Today Network went ahead and acquired the remaining 92 percent as “gifts” – without any money considerations or for free – from Living Media and AN (Mauritius).

Although it’s making a loss, as mentioned in financial statements, Mail Today is perceived by TV Today Network to be of “strategic importance” and “great value” because it is a “differentiated newspaper published in Delhi” with a network of journalists that generates original content. TV Today Network has a direct stake of 48.99 percent in the now wholly owned subsidiary and 51.01 percent through the investment company India Today Online Private Limited, which is a holding company of Mail Today and a wholly owned subsidiary of TV Today Network.

Post the purchase, Mail Today’s valuation saw a decline of Rs 7 crore in 2018 and Rs 4 crore in 2019 – deemed to be exceptional in financial statements. In 2019, an arrangement was sanctioned to amalgamate Mail Today, India Today Online Private Limited, and TV Today Network. In this arrangement, Mail Today would be demerged and vested into TV Today Network, whereas India Today Online Private Limited would be merged. Since then, publishing of the newspaper in print has been suspended, although content continues to be published digitally.

In the process, TV Today Network’s digital business, which bore revenue of only Rs 3.22 crore in 2016, has become its second-largest revenue generator – starting with revenues from operations of Rs 45 crore in 2017 and turning three-fold to Rs 130 crore in 2021. In fact, revenues in the nine months from March to December 2021 exceeded what it made in FY 2020-21 by three percent.

At the time of publishing, the market cap of TV Today Network was Rs 1,619.41 crore.

This report has been updated with more details on WMPL's incorporation in 1949.

Infographics by Gobindh VB.

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