The early days of Raghav Bahl

20 January, 2015

With the launch of, a mobile news service, by Raghav Bahl’s new company, Quintillion Media Pvt. Ltd., we revisit Rahul Bhatia’s profile of Bahl and TV18 (a quintillion, incidentally, is 1018), ‘The Network Effect.’ In this extract, we take a look at Bahl’s earlier enterprises and the ambition behind them.

Raghav Bahl is a former management consultant who entered the media industry when he became a correspondent for Doordarshan in the 1980s, while he was still in his twenties. Soon, he was anchoring Newstrack, the monthly television newsmagazine made by Aroon Purie’s sister, Madhu Trehan. “He was a really dynamic young anchor then,” CB Arun Kumar, who met Bahl on the Newstrack sets in 1989, said. “He was full of good ideas. People were more into politics and general news, but he was into business.”

In 1991, Bahl joined Business India, a publishing house, to create a business version of Newstrack for television. The programme was called The Business India Show. They had produced exactly one edition when, on 21 May 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. “You have to imagine how the whole country was in turmoil. It made a lot of business people very jittery. We put the programme on hold because we wanted to wait and see what would happen,” Arun Kumar said.

Sanjay Ray Chaudhuri, one of Network18’s founders, described the ensuing upheaval in an essay he wrote for Mint. “There followed a frustrating time when we were drawing salaries and doing no work. We were young, hungry, ambitious, impatient and at the prime of our working lives. The Gulf War had already shown us the future. The satellite revolution was at our doorstep.” In the meantime, Bahl, Chaudhuri, and Arun Kumar started a new production company, Television Eighteen, in Delhi. (Chaudhuri is now executive director in the Network18 group; Arun is the academic director of a film school in Mumbai.)

With nothing happening, Bahl pitched for work everywhere. “The mood was depressing at the time,” Arun Kumar said. He lucked out when the BBC saw the work Television Eighteen had done. They signed Bahl up to produce and anchor a show called India Business Report. To train the staff, the BBC sent down a retired veteran who went out on shoots with Television Eighteen’s young staff for a few months. His mandate was to bring them up to the BBC’s standards. This wasn’t difficult. Bahl’s video editors and cameramen were graduates of Jamia Millia Islamia, whose mass communications programme produced skilled technicians. Their methods seeped through the organisation, as did the experience of Television Eighteen’s founders.

Between 1993 and the following year, Ashok Advani, the founder of Business India, decided to start a television channel called Business India TV (BITV). He told Bahl that the channel would be transmitted off a Russian satellite. Transmission fees cost $1.5 million, far below than the $5 million cost of using the satellite that broadcast the Star Network and Zee into Indian homes. Advani believed that the money they saved could be used to improve production values. Bahl disagreed on two vital counts. He told Advani it was premature to start a channel, Arun Kumar said. He also thought the Russian satellite was a mistake. For Bahl, “being seen was more important than transmission fees,” Arun Kumar told me. “If your programming is being seen, the quality isn’t important.” Around August 2004, he left BITV, taking a number of his colleagues with him.

Arun Kumar decided to stay back, but Bahl tried convincing him to leave. “He said, ‘Look, we’ll start our channel in due course. This one’s never going to work.’ He was right.” Cable operators decided very quickly that recalibrating their receivers regularly to pick up a beam from a Russian satellite was too much work. Eventually BITV switched to the Star satellite, but it was too late. “They ran out of money, and other channels had traction by then,” Arun Kumar said. “It was a classic business strategy mistake. It brought Advani’s empire tumbling down. They saved money on the satellite, but they lost the whole thing. Raghav knew it was a mistake. He knew all along.”

Meanwhile, Bahl found an opportunity to exploit. Indian television had little business journalism. This presented an allied problem—there were no television business journalists either. He decided to contact reporters and editors at the Economic Times and India Today, and won them over, if not with the promise of a brand new medium, then with offers to double their pay cheques. “After the economic reforms, journalists began to get better salaries across the board, but he was offering raises of 100 percent,” S Srinivasan, whom Bahl hired as an editor in the 1990s, and who now runs the Tamil channel Puthiya Thalaimurai, told me.

Previously, Bahl had produced India Business Report for the BBC and a lifestyle programme, the Amul India Show, for Star TV. The BBC’s methods seeped through the organisation, as did the experience of Television Eighteen’s founders. When Bahl hired journalists to make three programmes that would run on the channel Asia Business News (ABN)—a joint venture between Dow Jones, and the Hinduja family—the new hires were made to learn those ways.

His modus operandi with ABN carried all the hallmarks of his ambition. He hired more than 60 people for one programme alone. “His entire objective was to get the best editorial team,” Srinivasan said. “When he’s on a high, I don’t think he looks at money.” Between themselves, reporters jockeyed to have their stories chosen to fill limited slots. Many of Bahl’s former editors told me that his insistence on good production values set him apart from others in the field.

He shaped their own appreciation for well-produced stories, over long hours in editing rooms, and also by issuing frequent debriefs—voluminous documents critiquing particular programmes and stories, and containing, some former employees said, hidden criticisms of reporters. It was an expensive way to work, but the money from ABN was generous—the company paid Television Eighteen $2,000 (approximately Rs 70,000 in 1996) for each two-minute story.

Bahl told his senior editors that he wanted to sustain quality, even as he was spending more and more time growing the business. Hardev Sanotra, whom Bahl had lured from India Today, was one of those editors. He watched the company’s editorial philosophy form as it produced (and Bahl anchored) India Business Report and the Amul India Show, as well as its daily 90 minutes of programming for ABN. Sanotra told me, “He said, ‘We’ll do ethical journalism, we must do quality journalism, and we’ll pay well.’” Bahl was true to his word. He resisted pressure to drop inconvenient stories. In one particular instance, an interview with the industrialist BK Modi took an unexpected turn when he “said lots of things against the Hindujas,” Sanotra said. “Somehow the Hindujas came to know the interview was running that evening.” He said he received calls from Bombay and London, where the Hindujas were based, but none from Bahl. The story ran untouched.

Soon there were unforeseen troubles, not helped along by the fact that a large chunk of the business’s funds came from overseas. “Whatever money came in had to come through the Reserve Bank of India. In 9–10 months the money began to be delayed,” Sanotra, now with the soon-to-be-launched television channel New Generation (Puthiya Thalaimurai’s English counterpart), recalled. Salaries and allowances were constantly deferred, and even though people were eventually paid their due, the delays “started having an impact on morale”. In 1997, Bahl shut down the programme for which he had hired so extravagantly, because it consumed large resources. “Almost 60–70 people were asked to leave,” Srinivasan said. “It was surprising, because even as he was laying them off, he said it was a temporary blip, and that he would start a channel. It was clear to him. But to me, it looked too far away.”

An extract from ‘The Network Effect,’ published in The Caravan’s December 2013 issue. Read the story in full here.

Rahul Bhatia  is a reporter. He has worked for The Caravan, Mint and ESPN Cricinfo