Who Owns Your Media: Network18’s journey from a production house to a broadcast behemoth

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

WrittenBy:Pooja Bhula
Date:
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What is known today as the Network18 group, started out as TV18 in the early ‘90s.

“Media was always a parallel love along with business.”

When Raghav Bahl said this in 2016, he was walking down memory lane during a promotion of the book on his legacy – Network18: The Audacious Story of a Start-up That Became a Media Empire by Indira Kannan.

Bahl began leaning towards business early on. He got a bachelor’s degree in economics from St Stephen’s College, Delhi, followed by a master’s degree in business administration from the Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi. Even his career kickstarted as a management consultant with the British Indian accounting firm AF Ferguson & Company, followed by American Express.

Media was a hobby that Bahl began exploring while in college; he regularly anchored shows like Youth Forum on Doordarshan. When Vinod Dua invited him to anchor Newstrack, India’s first video magazine, Bahl was still with American Express. But he did it part-time anyway, working on evenings and weekends. By 1987, he joined India Today full-time, co-anchoring Newstrack with Madhu Trehan.

The birth of TV18

A health crisis in 1989 forced Bahl to take a break. As the book recounts, he bounced back a few months later and landed an opportunity with Business India magazine’s owner Ashok Advani, who wanted a business version of Newstrack. Advani wanted a pilot and had a generous budget for the shoot – they could go up to Rs 5 lakh.

The first people onboarded for this new project were Sanjay Ray Chaudhari, or Ray C, then a freelancer who also contributed to Doordarshan, and CB Arun Kumar, or CB, a video editor, who eventually formed the core of TV18 with Bahl. Ritu Kumar, who later became Bahl’s life partner, joined soon after.

The pilot was ready in a few months but, as per the book, nothing took off for a year. In fact, satellite television came in and changed the game. Advani decided to put the video-zine on hold and start a channel instead; he even got a slot on Doordarshan for a show called Business AM.

This was a blow to Bahl and company, but they continued working as consultants. Bahl was also approached to develop the pilot of a lifestyle show for Indians living in the US. Yet, the book noted, work was sporadic.

“This was the early 1990s,” Bahl recounted during the same promo. “We were sitting in the edit suite that evening and were pretty glum with ourselves. And we said, this is not going anywhere. We might as well just cut all the contractual work we were doing for others, launch our own ship...There was Ray C, CB and I.”

Thus TV18 was born on May 21, 1991 – the day Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated.

For the partnership, Bahl proposed he would get 51 percent and Ray C and CB the remaining. 

Regarding the obsession with “18”, Bahl added, “It’s just a superstition. Like all human beings, we have our moments of weakness. Like I said, we were going through a very workless patch in the early ’90s. And when we had to choose a name, we said, well, if 18 brings luck, why not call it TV18? Channel 9 was a very well-known media company in the world. Television companies do get named by channel numbers. Numbers work very well in television companies – so TV18.”

They decided to use the extra footage from the pilots to create two more: one for a business show, another for a lifestyle show. These pilots would go on to become India Business Report on the BBC and India Show on Star Plus, firmly putting TV18 on the map.

In 2019, as a guest on Ashutosh Garg’s podcast, Ray C recalled, “The shows ran for a good eight to 10 years, every week. That became the sort of fount for a whole lot of other programming because all the channels started looking to us...They said okay, TV19, that means it will be good quality.”

Scaling – from production to broadcasting

Then, as Ray C told Garg, came the “big problem” that all entrepreneurs face.

“How do you scale and keep up the quality? So, for a period of about five-six years, we grew by 2x, 3x every year…”

In September 1993, TV18 was incorporated as Television Eighteen India Private Ltd (TEIPL), getting its first investment from Consortium Finance & Leasing, a company run by Bahl’s friends. Investors were given 49 percent equity which, experience later taught Bahl, was too much.

At the time, Bahl was opposed to entering broadcasting but CB was excited about Advani’s idea of a channel. So, they parted ways in 1994. The same year, TEIL became a public limited company and set up a subsidiary in Mauritius – Television Eight Mauritius Ltd, or TEML – to market the software they were developing in India and hedge its overseas debt. 

During this growth phase, a defining moment was TV18’s tie-up in 1995 with Asia Business News, promoted by Dow Jones and Wall Street Journal, to produce business news and feature stories. Soon, a tripartite joint venture was formed. ABN holding 51 percent equity brought in the Asia feed, the Hinduja Group holding 25 percent oversaw marketing and distribution, and TV18, which did the local programming, held 24 percent.

As Peter Church wrote in his book Added Value: The Life Stories of Indian Business Leaders, by the late 1990s, TV18 was the market leader in business news as well as English features programming, producing shows for Zee, Sony, and even MTV. With series like Bhanwar, they dabbled in fiction and drama too. They had expanded operations, rented offices, equipment and cabs. The team grew from 10 to 60 to 100, and revenues from $10,000 a month to $100,000 a month. They also set up Academy18, a commercial training school.

Though ABNi had been a big step, costs escalated due to increase in production and also because, rather than being frugal and using inhouse talent, TV18 hired big names from the industry, sometimes even doubling their salaries. But their margins were only 10 percent; ABNi was not delivering anticipated revenues. Disagreements ensued, especially on funding. Hinduja exited the partnership in 1997.

TV18 would pick up its share and then also control sales and distribution. This meant a conflict of interest with the BBC, which had given TV18 an identity. But they were ambitious and decided to take a risk and somehow raise capital.

But soon, ABN merged with CNBC, which already had an India company producing content. This could have rendered TV18 redundant but thanks to goodwill, good fortune and a good lawyer, they remained the India partner while CNBC folded its operations here. TEML and Business News (Asia) Private Ltd, the owner of CNBC Asia, formed a joint venture to launch CNBC India.

This was just the kind of move Bahl was looking for. Star and the BBC were migrating to NDTV for production, and several new players had entered. Although the CNBC affair had ended in relief, TV18 had to tighten its belt and rather unceremoniously let go of about one-fifth of its workforce across departments and bureaus. Ray C would later regret that. Academy18 shut down too.

An NBC joint venture, for which TV18 had invested Rs 3-4 crore, also fell through. While NBC promptly covered the investment and cost figures, Bahl wasn’t legally savvy enough to ask for foregone profits.

Now, all set to become a broadcaster and aspiring to get listed, Bahl wanted a CEO. Haresh Chawla, who was with the Times group then, was the answer.

Chawla led a second round of layoffs. He felt production needed trimming, and business news and CNBC India needed greater focus. Moving away from features and entertainment, they – as per the Network18 book – lost some great talent. Ritu Kapur took a break from the company too. 

By the end of 1999, TV18 filed for an IPO to raise Rs 53 crore, pricing shares at Rs 180. The IPO was oversubscribed by 51 times. TV18 collected Rs 16 crore just as interest from oversubscription. When it opened to trading, prices hit Rs 1,990 within 15 minutes – a 1,006 percent gain for investors in the IPO. As per Peter Church’s book, the world economy at the time was booming and media companies were getting fantastic valuations. It also helped that the previous day – mentions the Network18 book – Bombay Stock Exchange had closed at an all-time high of 6,006.

TV18 became the first company to offer stock options to a select group of employees, especially journalists, claims the Network18 book. Although around then, in a rare scenario, Indian Express too under Viveck Goenka had given editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta equity.

After the IPO’s success, with Bahl and Chawla aligned on ambition, TV18 seemed more emboldened – to risk, build and shop.

Rupeemaker.com was built as a companion site to CNBC India. But, as per the book and an exchange4media report, as it was underwhelming and bug-ridden, around mid-2000, TV18 acquired Moneycontrol from Sangeeta and Victor Fernandes through a subsidiary, e-Eighteen.com Ltd. At the time, Moneycontrol had a stock game, basic portfolio, and the entire stock database.

In a bid to cater to the Indian diaspora abroad, they also bought Mantram, a New Jersey-based magazine, in the early 2000s. And by 2003, they started a channel called South Asia World. Both died early.

Soon, owing to a new government regulation that made uplinking mandatory from India and capped foreign equity at 26 percent, CNBC moved out of the equity relationship and agreed to a brand and content franchise. The joint venture dissolved, TV18 turned broadcaster from content producer. And CNBC India was rebranded CNBC-TV18.

Making it big, selling the baby to Reliance

2005 was a busy year. TV18 launched India’s first Hindi business channel, CNBC Awaaz. Sanjay Pugalia, presently the Adani Media Network’s first editor-in-chief, was its first editor.

Next, it dished NDTV a triple whammy. Aiming to disrupt the English news market, as per the book, TV18 set out to launch IBN under a new subsidiary, Global Broadcast News. For it, TV18 lured not only NDTV’s financial advisor Sameer Manchanda, but also star anchor Rajdeep Sardesai. The deal was Rs 75 crore upfront investment and 25 percent sweat equity, of which Manchanda would get 10 percent, Sardesai and Chawla five percent each, and five percent would go to the employees’ trust. 

Finally, it also snatched a CNN deal from NDTV, when talks were in final stages, resulting in CNN-IBN.

Around 2006, Channel 7 was acquired when an ex-TV18 hand, Piyush Jain, approached Bahl about its then owner, Jagran, seeking a strategic partner. The channel was rebranded IBN7. The group also acquired business news agency Crisil Market Wire, first rechristened Livewire Motion Pictures Private Ltd, then NewsWire18 India, and eventually NewsWire18.

A new uplinking rider – mandating the largest Indian shareholder to have at least 51 percent equity in broadcasting companies – led TV18 and others like Zee to restructure. The resultant ‘scheme of arrangement’ between TEIL, Network18 and SGA News Ltd, which had the Awaaz business, resulted in Network18 Media and Investments becoming the group’s holding company. 

Network18 was originally incorporated as SGA Finance Private Ltd in 1996, promoted early on by the Anil Jindal family. Ritu Kapur had taken management control in 2002 after acquiring 100 percent paid-up capital. In 2003, Bahl became the new promoter after acquiring 91 percent of the new shares issued. SGA was renamed Network18 Fincap Private Ltd in 2006 – and finally to its current name in 2007. The group was now rebranded as Network18

Having aced broadcast and covered digital, Network18 wanted a print presence. After it failed at wooing Business Standard, it planned a tie-up with Pearson PLC – the British publishing company behind Financial Times and a minority stakeholder in Business Standard – to start a venture. But it fell through, thanks to the 2008 financial crisis. 

The print dream materialised with the acquisition of 43.38 percent stake in Infomedia, comprising the Yellow Pages directory, pre-press BPO services, and a printing press, in 2007. The Tatas had sold it off to ICICI Ventures, which also wanted to offload it.

Global Broadcast News was listed the same year, raising Rs 105 crore. Bahl also started two private ventures: The Indian Film Company and Capital18, a venture capital business that invested in startups like BookMyShow, Yatra and Web Chutney. As Bahl didn’t have the funds, TV18 invested 20 percent in them.

A year later, The Indian Film Company raised Rs 400 crore from London’s Alternative Investment Market. One of the investors, Lehman Brothers, also gave TV18 an overseas line of credit of $50 million. Part of the loan was used to launch Homeshop18, an on-air shopping channel. Part of it was also used to fund the 50:50 joint venture with Viacom Inc (owner of MTV, VH1 and Nickelodeon), where Network18 had to put down half a billion dollars, which was way beyond its financial strength. Network18 was not only to revive Viacom’s existing properties, but also launch a new Hindi GEC, Colors.

By 2008, the team realised Infomedia was a mistake. Most of the group’s web adventures under its internet arm Web18 were “hopeless”, barring a few like Moneycontrol and IBNLive, Vidya Kumaraswamy, Moneycontrol’s founding editor, said in the Network18 book. 

The hit taken by the film industry during the financial meltdown impacted TIFC too, though Bahl candidly admitted it wouldn’t have survived anyway. Eventually, as per the book, it morphed into Studio18, after the acquisition by Network18, to give AIM investors an exit. Ad revenues also slowed down, impacting CNBC-TV18, while Times Now’s aggressive coverage of 26/11 impacted CNN-IBN. This would later change how other news channels functioned too.

But in the midst of all this, Network18 didn’t slow down. In 2008, it launched a mail service In.com. In April 2009, it entered a joint venture with Forbes. And in 2011, it launched Firstpost with R Jaganathan as editor, and launched the History Channel through a joint venture with A&E Network.

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In June 2010, Moneylife reported that Network18’s “main business have been haemorrhaging cash for over two years now, following ill-timed expansion and diversification on a massive scale between 2006-08”. Colors, though, was still making money.

By 2011, Network18’s debt reached Rs 1,800 crore and Bahl would leverage himself 10 times over by the year’s end. Its share price tanked from Rs 160 to Rs 50. Even the Rs 1,000 crore it had raised – Rs 500 crore from TV18’s rights issue in 2009 and a similar figure from a private placement in 2011 – was used to expand further rather than minimise debt.

The group had undergone layoffs starting 2009 and restructuring in 2010. All the TV business – including CNBC-TV18, CNN-IBN, CNBC Awaaz, the Viacom18 channels and IBN Lokmat – were consolidated into IBN18 Broadcast Ltd, the new TV18. GBN was renamed IBN18 in 2008, and TV18 Broadcast Ltd in 2011. All websites, publishing and venture capital divisions, sports and event management businesses went under the new Network18.

But, as Moneylife had predicted, restructuring didn’t save the day. Bahl eventually approached Mukesh Ambani. As an alternative, Chawla, who had been instrumental to the group’s scale, had proposed to divest the Viacom stake to resolve the money woes. Following this difference, he parted ways, and Bahl inked a deal with Reliance in November 2011.

In January 2012, Network18 announced that, through the Independent Media Trust, Reliance would fund the group’s promoters to help them acquire shares in TV18 and Network18 via respective rights issues. It would raise Rs 4,000 crore, including promoter entities’ contributions of Rs 1,700 crore. TV18 would use the proceeds to repay the debt of about Rs1,300 crore, purchase ETV channels from Reliance for Rs 2,100 crore, and meet fund working capital needs. Bahl would retain 51 percent stake.

Bahl promised journalists there wouldn’t be editorial interference. But the Network18 book itself confirms they couldn’t report on Reliance in depth. Only news coverage was allowed, no editorial coverage. 

A year later, 300-400 employees were laid off. The new CEO, B Saikumar, saw it as efficiency boosting versus just cost-cutting and wanted to bring Viacom18, Disney, A&E18 and news operations under one distribution.

By 2014, Saikumar pulled off a turnaround. As per the book, annual revenues were up by 12 percent to Rs 2,692 crore, and 2013’s operating loss of Rs 39 crore had been transformed to Rs 89 crore operating profit. But in May 2014, Reliance decided to convert the ZOCDs. 

Group publication Forbes’ headline was most ominous: “Reliance Takes Over Network18: Is This The Death Of Media Independence?”

EPW’s headline read “What Future for the Media in India?” while e4m’s Impactonnet magazine asked “RIL Take-Over Of Network18: Why Does It Make The Media Nervous?”

Many stories delved into Ambani’s reasons for the sudden takeover. A common theme was Network18 channels giving a lot of space to the Aam Aadmi Party, which was attacking Ambani in the runup to the 2015 election. Many saw the takeover as a coup, especially since Bahl had set up the Think India Foundation the same year, also the 2012 agreement requiring the purchase of ETV.

But Bahl, at least publicly, denied it. 

Asserting also in the book that when they entered the agreement, it was disclosed that Reliance could convert the debentures at a moment’s notice. “The fact that no one expected them to do so is another matter.” 

It was very similar to NDTV’s recent acquisition by Adani, with the difference being that Bahl didn’t cry foul like his rival when making good on agreed-upon terms. Instead, he was upfront that it was legal and that he wouldn’t go back on his word.

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After RIL takeover 

By June 2014, Capital18 Ltd and BK Holdings Ltd were amalgamated with Network18 Holdings Ltd. Soon, most of the top management quit. By July, the following ceased to be directors: Manoj Mohanka; Hari S Bhartia, founder of the Jubilant Bhartia group and husband of HT’s Shobhana Bhartia; Sanjay Raj Chaudhuri; and Bahl’s sister Vandana Malik and mother Subhash.

Bahl also resigned as managing director but continued to be a non-executive director until February 2016. As per Quartz’s report, IBN18’s editor-in-chief Rajdeep Sardesai, whose 1.5 percent stake in Network18 had fallen below one percent after more equity was issued, was to receive Rs 16.4 crore. 

Shereen Bhan, who had become managing editor of CNBC-TV18 in 2013, stayed on.

The new board had ex-McKinsey chairman Adil Zainulbhai, also a director at Reliance Industries, HDFC chairman Deepak Parekh, media veteran Rohit Bansal, and group chairman of Webdunia and Diaspark Inc Vinay Chhajlani.

The tinkering and scale that Bahl-Chawla were known for continued under the new management. Within a year of the takeover, ETV’s regional entertainment channels were rebranded to Viacom18’s Colors. Five regional ETV News channels were launched: Kannada, Bangla, Gujarati, Haryana/Himachal Pradesh and Odia. A business channel in Gujarati, CNBC Bajar, was launched too. 

The print business saw 13 loss-making publications shut down. Forbes India, Overdrive, Better Photography and Better Interiors were retained. The events business was discontinued and HomeShop18’s e-commerce operations were downsized to leverage its TV segment’s potential.

Just two months after Netflix India launched, in January 2016, Viacom18 launched Voot. New channel launches included Rishtey Cineplex for Hindi movies, MTV Beats for Bollywood music and FYI TV18 for lifestyle; Colors Super was the second Kannada GE channel. To integrate regional entertainment, Prism TV, an indirect subsidiary, was merged into Viacom18.

Jaideep Giridhar, Firstpost’s former editor, who joined in December, said, “The direction was a very Reliance one – of dominance, of scale. The kind of resources made available, not just to us, but to the entire network, were significant. Because the idea was to make it a brand, which would be in the top five, top three, in both television and digital. Also to achieve numbers. In digital, that meant aggressively creating strategies for traffic and so on. It’s also why we had so many desks. At the peak, we were doing about 300-400 stories per day.” 

In those early years, he also recalled, there was great freedom. 

“It was absolutely unfettered. There were no strictures, no stipulations, nothing. Both in terms of resources – money to commission articles or build a team – and even editorial positions. As long as we adhered to the fundamental principles of journalism, there were no restrictions on what we could cover or say.”

By March 2017, the group launched Firstpost Hindi. Then, to establish News18.com as a single digital news destination, the ibnlive portal was rebranded and regional news was merged too. CNN-IBN was rebranded CNN-News18 and IBN7 as News18 India. ETV’s regional news channels also transitioned to News18. Approvals were taken to merge the entity handling regional news into TV18. The group also launched News18 Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Assam/North-East, and News18 India launched in Canada. 

In the next fiscal year, the group took operational control in Viacom18, raising the stake to 51 percent. New launches included Tipping Point (as a digital companion for Viacom18 Studios), Colors Tamil, CNBC-TV18.com and CNBC-TV18 app as premium digital platforms for the brand’s content, and finally MC Pro (a paid app with premium, ad-free content) and MC Transact (for investments) to better monetise Moneycontrol’s readers.  

By June 2021, as per a story written by Pradeep Gairola, The Hindu’s business head (digital) and published by World Association of News Publishers, MC Pro reached 3,30,000 paid subscribers. In 2022, that number reached 5,00,000, as per a piece in Business Standard, categorised as sponsored content by the publication.

HomeShop18 acquired peer Shop CJ, and Network18 divested popular restaurant listing and recommendations site Burrp.com to Bigtree Entertainment Private Ltd. Viacom18 and IndiaCast’s subsidiaries, which were joint ventures, became subsidiaries. 

FY2019 saw News18 launching Malayalam and Telugu channels. 

Given its potential for quantity, especially thanks to its regional bouquet, Giridhar could appreciate the business shift to News18 as the primary digital destination. But said, “you have to commit resources to it – people, technology and so on. Firstpost was then relegated to the second tier in a sense, so resources dwindled and we had to reduce the team size. From the peak number of 125 or so, by 2019, the team halved to around 50.” 

As a consequence, he added, “There was a commensurate revision of targets. From 42-45 million unique views per month at the peak, the numbers halved and then reduced further to 12-15 million.”

Firstprint, which launched that year, folded in just six months.

2019 seemed to be about regrouping. CricketNext was relaunched with a dedicated app and In.com as India’s premier destination with opinionated content around celebrities. Key realignments included a scheme of absorption whereby Network18’s wholly-owned direct/indirect subsidiaries would be merged into the company. These included  Digital18 Media Ltd, Capital18 Fincap Private Ltd, RVT Finhold Private Ltd, RRK Finhold Private Ltd, RRB Investments Private Ltd, Setpro18 Distribution Ltd, Reed Infomedia India Private Ltd, Web18 Software Services Ltd, Television Eighteen Media and Investment Ltd, Television Eighteen Mauritius Ltd, Web18 Holdings Ltd, E-18 Ltd and Network18 Holdings Ltd.

Another sanctioned scheme allowed the amalgamation of Panorama Television Private Ltd, RVT Media Private Ltd, ibn18 (Mauritius) Ltd, and  Equator Trading Enterprises Private Ltd,  which owned the ETV business, with TV18 Broadcast Ltd. 

When RIL took over Network18, one of its aims was integrating telecom with web and digital commerce. Giridhar remembers talks of digital and television integration, which he points out was part of a larger trend worldwide. 

“Sixty-five percent of internet traffic in India is video. Standalone digital news services don't produce that kind of video because they don't have the resources in terms of people or talent or money,” he said. “But television networks do.” 

So, he said, Network18 assembled a team to focus on it. “They would study how television works, how digital works, and see how best the two could mesh. How best TV reporters or anchors could contribute to digital, and how digital could enhance what television was doing. They spent a lot of time talking to the many newsrooms we had, including [regional] language ones, across the country.”

A step further was bundling various TV18 channels and key digital properties with Reliance Jio Infocomm, mentioned in Care Ratings’ 2019 report. Since then, Voot, as per annual reports, has also been bundled with telco services, digital extensions of traditional distributors, and high-end non-media platforms. 

The board also approved a scheme to amalgamate Den Networks, Hathway and TV18 into Network18, and the cable, broadband and digital businesses with three separate wholly owned subsidiaries – Media18, Web18 and Digital18, respectively. But they later dropped it due to minimum public shareholding it would require for Den and Hathway.

Towards the end of the year, HomeShop18, as per a Times of India report, was sold off to Skyblue Buildwell amidst allegations of non-payment of dues worth Rs 150-200 crore by the HomeShop18 Vendors Association. 

Four years later, on May 12 this year, National Company Law Tribunal ordered the initiation of the Corporate Insolvency Resolution Process against Television Home Shopping Network Ltd , which operates as an e-commerce marketplace in India under the HomeShop18 brand name. This was following a petition by Treasure Retail Private Ltd seeking the same owing to unpaid dues of Rs 1.4 crore. The order found that default committed by THSNL “stood proved on record” and its findings add that “it has also not been controverted that the default took place on 25.09.2019”.

Back to 2020, Viacom18 launched Voot Select, a subscription offering with original and international content, and Voot Kids, an edutainment destination. Localisation was seen in Nickelodeon, for both subject and format, also for movies through the launch of Kannada, Gujarati and Bengali channels. Other launches included Rishtey Cineplex as an FTA channel and Colors Rishtey’s re-introduction on DD Freedish. 

As the pandemic accelerated digitisation, Network18’s magazines also developed digital initiatives. Forbes India transitioned to a digital-first model, Overdrive introduced digital editions, Instagram lives, weekly live-streamed shows, as well as e-commerce sales and social media events. Better Photography introduced Insta live sessions as well as online courses and workshops. Although Better Interiors seems to have folded. It no longer appears on the group website’s portfolio and the last news post on its website was in July 2021. 

Another evident shift was ideological, to the right – something Giridhar pointed out was catching on worldwide but especially in India after the 2019 elections. The atmosphere got stifling for him as polarisation in society began reflecting in the media and neutrality lost currency, and he left Firstpost in 2021. His and BV Rao’s vision and direction for Firstpost, Giridhar said, had been “for it to be inclusive, plural and in the classical sense, liberal. Which meant getting voices from everywhere, representing all sides (with intelligent voices from the right and left), and having that kind of reportage to tell the story. But when the decision is to cut out one side of the conversation entirely, and also remove the reporting component, you’re left with an entirely one-sided narrative that suits your purpose, or the mood of the day, rather than journalism.”

CNN-News18 though, reportedly, is trying to position itself as a ‘news over noise’ destination.

For the past two years, another area the group’s been big on is sports. Viacom18 acquired television and digital rights to marquee properties such as the FIFA World Cup 2022, NBA, three major football leagues and the IPL. It also launched three sports channels under Sports18.  

Most recently, Viacom18 has come to own JioCinema and seen a Rs15,000 crore infusion. As per Business Today, Reliance invested Rs 10,839 crore and the James Murdoch-backed Bodhi Tree Systems contributed about Rs 4,306 crore. The shareholding will see Reliance with 60.37 percent (TV18 another 13.54 percent), and Bodhi Tree and Paramount Global (formerly ViacomCBS) 13.08 percent and 13.01 percent, respectively. Originally, Bodhi Tree was to invest the bulk and get 40 percent shareholding. But a CNBC-TV18 report suggests that Reliance might have restructured the deal to avoid diluting its stake in Viacom18 in a rush, given JioCinema's strong showing recently. 

The report is also gung-ho about the group using the infusion to disrupt the market, especially given “a new seasoned team at the top, Uday Shankar (former President Walt Disney, APAC) and James Murdoch (former CEO, Century Fox), can help it do just that.”

Finally, efforts towards convergence seem to be gathering even more momentum. 

Vantage – an Indian take on global events – was launched as a digital-first show last year, reportedly to air on Firstpost and its YouTube channel, at 9 pm on weekdays and at 10 pm on CNN-News18. Former Wion host Palki Sharma was onboarded for it. 

To lead “the group’s convergence and digital technology initiatives, including tech architecture, content, data and monetisation management tools, software and product engineering for all general and business news brands under the group’s umbrella” is why Sunil Sharma, formerly from Amazon and Byju, was roped in last month as per Financial Express. As the group’s chief product and technology officer, the report added, Sharma “will focus on disruptive technologies such as generative AI to improve processes, develop audiences, localise stories and distribute content.” 

The appointment of Javed Sayed as Moneycontrol’s chief content and strategy officer earlier this month also reflects the flavour of the season given his pan-medium experience . Besides heading ET’s national news operations as the associate executive editor, as per e4m, he had been responsible for the print-digital integration and part of ET Now’s founding team.

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Moolah matters 

Now, what story do the numbers tell us? 

The group’s finally making profits. Network18 saw consolidated net profit of Rs 548 crore in FY2021, and an increase to Rs 841 crore in FY2022. Annual reports of FY2023 are still not available on the Bombay Stock Exchange. However, as mentioned in the Q1 FY24 Investor Update released yesterday, FY2023 has seen a loss of Rs12 crore.

After the takeover in 2014, the only other year it showed profit was 2016, of Rs 99 crore. The highest loss, Rs 1,060 crore, was incurred in 2015, and the lowest loss, Rs 5.81 crore, in the pandemic year of 2020. Losses in other years averaged around Rs 200 crore. 

As per CARE Rating’s 2022 report, Network18’s standalone business profile comprises revenues from the digital content (Firstpost and News18.com) and print (Forbes India, Overdrive and Better Photography) and allied business segments. With 39 percent stake, it’s the largest shareholder in BookMyShow, and has allied investments in Colosceum, Yatra, Ubona and other companies. The standalone balance sheet hasn’t shown a single year of profit.

After the various schemes of arrangement, absorption and amalgamation, especially when about 17 got merged in 2019, Network18 as of FY2022’s AOC-1 shows 18 subsidiaries, two joint ventures and one associate. 

The group’s biggest revenue generator is Viacom18 Media Private Ltd. Its revenues have grown 4.5 times and profits eight times since 2015 when they stood at Rs 940.45 crore and Rs 84.24 crore, respectively. The first revenue spike was in 2016, boasting Rs 1,206 crore, and doubled to Rs. 3,685 crore in 2018. The profits crossed the Rs 100 crore mark in 2020, reaching Rs 353 crore, and has consistently increased since. 

The next biggest money maker is TV18 Broadcast Ltd. Its revenues have doubled since 2015, reaching Rs 1,262 crore in 2022. It also had maximum profit in nine years – Rs 175.06 crore. Average profits in previous years, leaving 2022 aside, have been Rs 73.42 crore with the highest being Rs 123 crore in 2016, and lowest being Rs 14.8 crore in 2020 and Rs 14.63 crore in 2015. 

They’re the group’s key subsidiaries. 

Others making consistent profits include e-Eighteen.com Ltd, which owns Moneycontrol.  2015 to 2017 saw a gradual increase from Rs 58.63 crore to Rs 68.58 crore, then 2018 saw a 23 percent jump with Rs 84.23 crore, 2019 saw a 14 percent increase to Rs 96 crore, and 2021 again saw a big jump reaching Rs 126 crore. FY2022’s increase in profits was the highest reaching Rs 202 crore. 

Next in line is IndiaCast Media Distribution Private Ltd, a joint venture between Viacom18 and TV18, involved in content asset monetisation for the group across the globe. Its revenues have consistently ranged from Rs 200 crore to Rs 300 crore since 2017, before which they stood at Rs 75-95 crore. But profits were under Rs 1 crore till 2018. In fact, 2019 saw a Rs 1.64 crore loss. But in 2021, it picked up to Rs 3.51 crore, and 2022 saw Rs 2.33 crore. 

AETN18 Media Private Ltd, which owns History-TV18, doubled in revenue from 2014 (Rs 29 crore) to 2015 (Rs 52 crore) and gradually reached Rs 96 crore by 2019, making profits after years of incurring losses. Rs 14 crore in 2022 is its highest net profit, after 2019’s Rs 7.5 crore. 

The average revenues of Colosceum Media Private Ltd – a wholly owned Network18 subsidiary that produces TV shows and movies – from 2015 to 2022 have been around Rs 45.56 crore. Rs 1.5 crore has been the average net profit; 2022 saw a net loss of Rs 7.32 lakh. 

Revenues of Greycells18 Media Ltd – that provides education through TV and digital media and in which Network18 has 89.69 percent direct stake (Educomp Solutions holds the rest) – have doubled since 2015’s Rs 5 crore to Rs 10 crore in 2022. It began profiting with a meagre Rs 0.66 crore in 2021; the 2022 figure was Rs 1.02 crore.

IBN Lokmat News Private Ltd, a 50:50 joint venture between TV18 and Lokmat Media Pvt. Ltd, which owns IBN Lokmat, renamed News18 Lokmat in 2017, is seeing a gradual drop in revenue. The figure was Rs 18 crore with net profit of Rs 3.8 crore in 2015. Revenues mostly remained in the Rs 14-14.5 crore range since, but dropped to Rs 13.3 crore in 2020 and slipped further to Rs 9.17 crore in 2021. They’ve climbed back to Rs 11.43 crore in 2022. Since the drop, it’s also been incurring losses – Rs 1.2 crore in 2020, Rs 2.6 crore in 2021 and Rs 1.2 crore in 2022.

Digital18 Media Ltd, Media18 Distribution Services Ltd and Web18 Digital Services Ltd haven’t shown any revenues. Since the takeover, neither has Infomedia Press Ltd, previously called Infomedia18 Ltd. 

Big Tree Entertainment Private Ltd, an associate company which owns BookMyShow, is seeing losses since 2015, except for 2016’s Rs 3 crore profit. The loss in 2015 was Rs 13.53 crore, reaching Rs 50 crore in 2017, further increasing to Rs 80 crore in 2020. Finally, a reduction to Rs 33 crore in 2022. 

Ubona Technologies Private  Ltd, a joint venture, which was declining in profit – from Rs 0.95 crore in 2015 to Rs 0.39 crore in 2018 – and made losses of Rs 1.5 crore and Rs 0.5 crore in the following two years, is looking up again. Net profits were Rs 1.95 crore and Rs 5.11 crore in 2021 and 2022, respectively.  

As per Screener.in, the market cap of Network18 as of July 18, 2023, is Rs 6,740 crore.

Ownership pattern 

Since the 2014 takeover, RIL continues to be Network18’s parent company with a 75 percent shareholding of the 1,04,69,48,519 shares, through various promoters. 

Of these, RB Mediasoft Private Ltd, RB Media Holdings Private Ltd, Adventure Marketing Private Ltd, Colorful Media Private Ltd and Watermark Infratech Private Ltd each have 12.18 percent shareholding as per the latest data on BSE. RRB Mediasoft Private Ltd holds 10.36 percent shares. IMT holds 1.88 percent shares (in the name of its trustee, Sanchar Content Private Ltd). RIL is disclosed as SBO (significant beneficial owner) for them all on BSE. 

RIL and RB Holdings Private Ltd are also disclosed as promoters, and Reliance Industrial Investments and Holdings Ltd as promoter group. Teesta Retail Private Ltd, a Gujarat-based private limited company, which has merged with Ahmedabad-based Siddhant Commercials Private Ltd, is also listed as promoter group for Network18 on BSE, and holds 1.85 percent. 

The last two directors of Teesta have strong linkages with Reliance. Hariharan Mahadevan, appointed in 2017, was the senior vice-president at Reliance till 2014 and became Network18’s group CFO after the takeover. Tapas Mitra, who took directorship in 2021, has been Reliance’s head of accounts for 19 years. 

Directors of Siddhant Commercial are also directors in Reliance. Shanker Natrajan is a director at several of its amalgamated companies and those related to the energy business. Vishal Kumar too is a director at several amalgamated companies, including Shinano Retail Private Ltd, the company from which Reliance Industrial Investments and Holdings Ltd had routed funds to VCPL back in 2009 to lend to NDTV, eventually taken over by Adani last year. 

The remaining 25 percent shares are held by public shareholders spread across different types of entities. 

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Among them, domestic institutional holders include banks, NBCFs with RBI, and most significantly mutual funds, which hold 0.58 percent. Also foreign institutions. Foreign banks have a nominal stake, but foreign portfolio holders own 5.62 percent shares. Of these, Government Pension Fund Global belonging to the Norwegian government has 1.9 percent stake and Acacia Banyan Partners, a private investment firm, holds 2.47 percent shares.  

Non institutional holders include Investor Education and Protection Fund (IEPF) that has a 0.01 percent stake. Approximately 1,28,173 resident individuals hold nominal share capital up to Rs 2 lakh, totaling 4.95 percent shares, while 179 resident individuals holding nominal share capital exceeding Rs 2 lakh total 3.03 percent. And 1,030 NRIs hold 0.21 percent. 

Among the 636 corporate bodies holding 8.93 percent shares, Delhi-based Arizona Global Services Private Ltd, which is into posts and telecommunications as per Tofler, holds 2.9 percent. Nexg Ventures India Private Ltd, a Haryana-based trading company, holds 4.5 percent. 

2,233 HUFs hold 0.54 percent shares, Network18 Media Trust (held in the name of its trustee) has 1.11 percent stake. Another 1.11 percent shares are held by five trusts and 0.01 percent by clearing members. While it’s not significant in terms of percentage, overseas corporate bodies hold a total of 1,564 shares, and shares totaling to 14,845 fall under unclaimed/suspense/escrow account.

All financial and ownership details are derived from financial statements and other company documents filed by the media house with the ministry of corporate affairs, the Bombay Stock Exchange, and the National Stock Exchange.

Infographics by Gobindh VB.

Citations

1. Revealed - The Secret Behind Raghav Bahl’s Obsession with 18 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10LZQrcbmR0 

2. Network18 2012 Red Herring Prospectus - About educational and basic background

3. Book - Added Value: The Life Stories Of Indian Business Leaders by Peter Church

https://books.google.co.in/books?id=48guEAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false 

4. Raghav Bahl bio on FMS Alumni Meet: https://www.facebook.com/FMSAlumniRelations/photos/a.627481113939080/4097122380308252/?type=3 

5. The early days of Raghav Bahl, Caravan magazine

https://caravanmagazine.in/vantage/early-days-raghav-bahl

6. Book - Network18: The Audacious Story of a Start-up That Became a Media Empire by Indira Kannan

A significant part of the story, up to RIL’s takeover of Network18, has references from the book.

7. Podcast - Sanjay Ray Chaudhuri in conversation with Ashutosh Garg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8NzUtxmhS8

8. Television Eighteen India Limited (TEIL), Company History – The Economic Times

https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/television-eighteen-india-ltd/infocompanyhistory/companyid-4254.cms

9. TV18 implements cross programming between CNBC, moneycontrol.com

https://www.exchange4media.com/advertising-news/tv18-implements-cross-programming-between-cnbcmoneycontrol.com-1936.html

10. Television Eighteen India Limited, Letter of Offer, 2009

11. Raghav Bahl: The digital ball game

https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/HY1h1x5IXmLBCkPZFV7J1J/Raghav-Bahl-The-digital-ball-game.html

12. Network18 Rights Issue 2008

13. India’s TV18 undergoes name change

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/indias-tv18-undergoes-name-change-149856/

14. Network18 group restructuring won’t mend cracks in the business model

https://www.moneylife.in/article/network18-group-restructuring-wont-mend-cracks-in-the-business-model/6955.html

15. Registration of agreement with Competition Commission of India

16. Reliance Takes Over Network18: Is This The Death Of Media Independence?

https://www.forbes.com/sites/meghabahree/2014/05/30/reliance-takes-over-network18-is-this-the-death-of-media-independence/?sh=2997a0a65c18 

17. RIL Take-Over Of Network18: Why Does It Make The Media Nervous?

https://www.impactonnet.com/amp/impact-feature/ril-take-over-of-network18-why-does-it-make-the-media-nervous-2957.html 

18. What Future for the Media in India?

https://www.epw.in/journal/2014/24/web-exclusives/what-future-media-india.html 

19. https://www.facebook.com/superpowerthebook/

20. Only a fraction of what Reliance pays for Network 18 will go to its founders

https://qz.com/215047/network-18s-founders-wont-make-as-much-as-you-think-make-when-reliance-industries-buys-them-out 

21. Shereen Bhan takes charge as Managing Editor of CNBC-TV18

https://www.exchange4media.com/media-others-news/shereen-bhan-takes-charge-as-managing-editor-of-cnbc-tv18-51868.html

22. Network18 has decided to rebrand CNN-IBN as CNN-News18

https://brandequity.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/media/network18-has-decided-to-rebrand-cnn-ibn-as-cnn-news18/51906083

23. The dawn of reader revenue in Indian digital publishing

https://wan-ifra.org/2021/09/the-dawn-of-reader-revenue-in-indian-digital-publishing/

24. Moneycontrol Pro gains 500,000 paying subscribers in 36 months

https://www.business-standard.com/content/press-releases-ani/moneycontrol-pro-gains-500-000-paying-subscribers-in-36-months-122021001076_1.html 

25. Firstpost to launch a weekly newspaper in Delhi NCR and Mumbai on 26 January

https://www.medianama.com/2019/01/223-firstpost-print-newspaper/

26. Vendors accuse HomeShop18 of Rs 200-crore fraud by not paying dues

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/71340830.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst 

27. National Company Law Tribunal: C.P. 984/IB/MB/2020

https://nclt.gov.in/gen_pdf.php?filepath=/Efile_Document/ncltdoc/casedoc/2709138064092020/04/Order-Challenge/04_order-Challange_004_1683886436334354024645e1164bc4b3.pdf 

28. ‘News beats noise’: On front page of Hindustan Times, CNN-News18 announces it’s trumped Times Now

https://www.newslaundry.com/2022/05/10/news-beats-noise-on-front-page-of-hindustan-times-cnn-news18-announces-its-trumped-times-now

29. Bodhi Tree-Viacom18 deal: Why the new deal points towards Reliance's aggressive push in broadcasting

https://www.businesstoday.in/latest/corporate/story/bodhi-tree-viacom18-deal-why-the-new-deal-points-towards-reliances-aggressive-push-in-broadcasting-business-377624-2023-04-17

30. Bottomline | What Reliance's new Viacom18 deal spells 

https://www.cnbctv18.com/business/companies/bottomline-what-reliances-new-viacom18-deal-spells-16408041.htm

31.  Palki Sharma to host ‘Vantage’ on Firstpost from Jan 26

https://www.exchange4media.com/industry-briefing-news/palki-sharma-to-host-vantage-on-firstpost-from-jan-26-124943.html

32. Network18 ropes in Sunil Sharma to lead tech transformation

https://www.financialexpress.com/business/brandwagon-network18-ropes-in-sunil-sharma-to-lead-tech-transformation-3111522/

33. ET’s Associate Executive Editor Javed Sayed joins Network18 Group

https://www.exchange4media.com/people-movement-news/ets-associate-executive-editor-javed-sayed-joins-network18-group-128462.html

34. Shareholding documents and annual reports of Network18 from BSE (2014 – 2022). Q1 FY24 Investor Update Earning Release.

35. Grey Cells Media financial statement, FY2022

36. Care Ratings Reports

37. Tofler, Zaubacorp, Instafinancials

38. LinkedIn

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