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India’s Triple Play

What do feature phones, regional newspapers, and smartphones have in common? They’re all vehicles for the country’s remarkable move to digital broadband.

A version of this article appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of strategy+business.

The tiny commuter kiosk at the train station in Andheri, a working-class suburb of Mumbai, is a hub of activity most afternoons. The proprietor, Shyam, sells dozens of prepaid mobile phone recharges each day, and he comes highly recommended for another service. “Bhaiya, ready hai?” (Brother, is it ready?) asks a 14-year-old boy. The kiosk owner nods and pulls out an SD memory card from an aluminum box. The card contains some Hollywood and Bollywood films, a playlist full of popular songs, and some episodes of Aap ki Adalat, a popular TV show featuring hardball interviews with leading public figures.

The boy hands over Rs150 (about US$2.25), and happily inserts the card into his mobile device. That mobile, known widely as a “feature phone,” doesn’t have a global brand name like Apple or Samsung. And it’s not as versatile as a smartphone. But it shows videos, and, unlike the shared TV in the boy’s home, it belongs entirely to him.

Although this sale would be labeled piracy in many quarters, Shyam sees himself as performing a necessary service for the young people living in his community — just a few members of a vast and underserved market that could be called infotainment followers, after the new media they prefer. A year or two from now, many of them may replace their feature phones with smartphones, especially if the much-anticipated high-speed 4G mobile Internet service is launched throughout India. In the meantime, they depend on their 2G connections and memory cards.

About 30 miles away, a group of young creative professionals — writers, filmmakers, and a chef — are having brunch at one of Mumbai’s many international cafes. They are representative of today’s full-fledged smartphone-based media market. Over shaksouka (a poached-egg dish from North African Jewish cuisine) and masala tea, their conversation flows freely from the Panama Papers to the new Captain America film to the local motion picture investment scene. Everyone at the table is well informed. But when asked if they read newspapers, only one says yes. “I always read news at breakfast — but only peruse the headlines,” she says.

This group is representative of India’s global sophisticates. In media terms, they are digital self-aggregators; they get their information through Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp, following links to particular stories on the Times of India, NDTV, or New York Times websites. A few of them regularly scan aggregator apps like Flipboard, Inshorts, or Google News. What they consider “news” is highly varied, is easily shareable, and has an extremely short life span. And they’re reading just about all of it on their mobile phones, connected wherever possible to high-speed Internet service from urban providers.

India’s global sophisticates get their information through Twitter, Facebook, and links to news sites.

Meanwhile, rural communities throughout India constitute the largest and fastest-growing media market of all: regional print readers. India is one of the few parts of the world where newspapers enjoy rapid circulation growth. With free delivery, and a business model driven by advertising, newspapers cost only 5 to 10 cents per copy. For people who are largely first- or second-generation literate, the print newspaper is still a mark of status and a newly discovered window on the world. Families buy several papers daily and read them together at breakfast. Commuters read them on trains and buses, and discuss the contents during lunch and tea breaks.

In India, for those who are first-generation literate, the newspaper is still a mark of status.

In this world, Hindi and English remain the two most popular newspaper languages — Hindi is ahead by far — but regional papers published in vernacular languages such as Malayalam, Tamil, Marathi, Bengali, Telugu, and Gujarati are growing at a faster pace. In total, consumer print revenue from newspapers and magazines in all languages rose by an estimated 3 percent in 2015, and regional publications’ revenues are expected to grow 12 to 14 percent annually for the next several years. At the same time, broadcast television remains popular, and the smartphone is increasingly prevalent. Some observers expect the heyday of English-language print in India to last only a few more years.

These three vignettes are typical of the way the India media market is evolving. While newspapers and magazines are thriving, especially in India’s villages and in their non-English editions, hundreds of millions of people are moving to the smartphone as their main source of information and entertainment.

Like other emerging economies, India is condensing this evolution — which took more than a century in the West — into just a few years. The leap to digital, if it continues on its current trajectory, will divide the country’s media, in effect, into three business models, each targeting a different audience: infotainment followers on feature phones, digital self-aggregators on smartphones in the cities, and newspaper readers in villages and small towns. All of these audiences watch broadcast television, but they are moving to digital media for news and other entertainment — just at different speeds. Marketing, advertising, and media companies that want to win in emerging economies may find it useful to understand the differences.

As Sandeep Amar, CEO of Media, puts it: “The truly big opportunity right now lies in mobile, video, and vernacular languages.” The opportunities are huge, because not only are the audiences growing rapidly, but they’re also poised for change. To succeed, each media company needs to decide which segments it can reach, and then carve out a business model for reaching those target segments, especially in new digital forms.

The Growth Trajectory

A confluence of factors have led to India’s current media transition point. The first is accelerated access to technology. In December 2015, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India announced that the country had more than 1 billion mobile phone subscriptions — a number second only to China’s. India is also the third-largest smartphone market, after China and the U.S., with 239 million smartphone users. It is expected to overtake the United States in 2016.

The growth of mobile broadband is being promoted heavily by one of India’s most influential companies. At the April 2016 media business conference hosted by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (a major industry group), Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani referred to Jio, Reliance’s new $22 billion telecom venture, as “one of the largest transformational greenfield digital initiatives anywhere in the world.” His description of Jio was widely noted. It would be, he said, “a 4G broadband service, slated to provide 70 percent of India’s population with speeds 50 to 80 percent faster than the currently available Internet, with data prices well below current rates.”

The government is also promoting accelerated access to digital technology. Its Rs1.13 trillion ($17 billion) iDigital India initiative will provide biometrically based digital identification for all citizens. It is also dramatically increasing connectivity, particularly in rural areas. Digital India has promised to install broadband in 250,000 villages by 2017, free Wi-Fi in public schools and universities, and public Wi-Fi hot spots in all major Indian cities by 2019. In addition, the government is developing electronic healthcare, education, infrastructure, and banking services, all of which are already drawing people online.

India’s media habits are changing as a result. In her annual report on the Internet economy, Mary Meeker, partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, estimated that in 2016, 65 percent of all Internet traffic in India will take place on mobile phones. “The mobile is no longer the elitist screen, or the ‘second screen,’ as some used to refer to it,” says Paritosh Joshi, CEO of India TV (a Hindi news channel with 90 million subscribers). “It is the most personal, ubiquitous, democratized screen, and the majority of India is on it. We are a mobile-first country.”

Yet India’s tremendous growth in mobile content consumption has not come at the expense of print. That’s in part because of a second key factor in the nation’s digital transition point: increasing literacy, and the way it has expanded the audience for print media. The country has a literacy rate of 71 percent, up from 12 percent in the 1940s, and boasts one of the highest literacy growth rates, about 9 percent per year. Moreover, compared with the rest of the world, Indian residents pay very little for newspapers. Fifty years ago, newspapers had government subsidies; today, advertising revenues allow publishers to keep the price as low as about Rs3 (5 cents) per copy. This has made the newspaper into an aspirational commodity for newly literate low-income readers.

Siddharth Varadarajan, founder of (a news site) and former editor of the Hindu (a leading English-language newspaper in South India), says, “Indian newspapers are terrified of raising their prices. They believe that the phenomenal growth we have seen is because the papers are really cheap.”

A third major factor, India’s high-growth economy, has helped increase advertising revenues throughout the industry. India currently has the most vibrant economy of the BRIC nations. Millions of people in middle-tier cities and small towns are eagerly entering the consumer economy and building their personal wealth. In April 2016, the International Monetary Fund projected India’s GDP growth at 7.5 percent annually, which is higher than China’s. The entertainment and media industry directly benefits from the economy’s high growth; for example, entertainment and media advertising revenues grew more than 10 percent year-over-year in 2015, and are forecast to maintain a compound annual growth rate of 8.6 percent to 2020. As one might expect in a newly industrializing economy, the categories with the largest ad spending are consumer packaged goods (known as fast-moving consumer goods), retail, and e-commerce.

“India is the fastest-growing ad market among all the major markets of the world,” declares C.V.L. Srinivas, group chief executive of Southeast Asia for Group M, a global media investment group. He adds, “2015 was the best year for ad spend growth we’ve had in the last five years. While digital will remain the fastest-growing platform, India is one of the few large markets where all traditional media platforms will show positive growth.”

Only one category of print publication appears to be headed for quicker decline in India: English-language newspapers and magazines.

Only one category of print publication appears to be headed for decline: English-language newspapers. Although they continue to post strong circulation and revenue numbers, their readers tend to be younger, more educated, and more urban than the readers of other newspapers — and thus they are expected to migrate more quickly to digital content.

This finding reflects a fourth major factor: India’s enormous youth population with its digitally oriented culture. Not surprisingly, millennials are forsaking the print newspapers that were the staple of their parents’ generation. “More of our audiences [are] consuming content on their mobile phones,” says Pankaj Mishra, former technology editor of the Economic Times, who left to cofound Factor Daily, a technology-oriented digital media startup. “We realized we had to move with them.”

India’s Media Ecologies

The audience for each of India’s media subsectors is larger than the total population of many countries. Each sector is thus attracting its own unique group of entertainment and media providers — its own interrelated media ecology, consisting of the creators, the publishers and channel owners (on the Web and elsewhere), the advertisers and marketers, and those who track results.

Consider, for example, the digital self-aggregators. Like the habitués of that Mumbai restaurant, they are globally oriented, open to new ideas, and highly partial to peer curation over traditional news and entertainment channels. They use Twitter; Facebook; and DailyHunt, an Indian news aggregator app with editions in 10 languages, which have a total of 6.5 million monthly active users.

“We’ve been very clear from the beginning that we cater to this group,” says Samir Patil, founder of Scroll, a digital news startup, which he describes as a “destination site for thinking India.” He adds, “We did not lower the quality bar to chase audiences. We trusted instead that our audience would find us.” Indeed, Scroll grew to a million readers in its first four months. Patil attributes that success to its social media–style ambiance. Almost 80 percent of its traffic comes from Facebook and Twitter.

Many other startups are trying to reach this market, some with venture capital. Youth Ki Awaaz, a crowdsourced news and opinion site with the slogan “Public opinion is the new superpower,” has 35,000 contributors and 2 million monthly visitors; it is funded by Quintillion Media, a digital content venture founded by Raghav Bahl, founder and former managing director of Network18, and his wife, Ritu Kapur. Another site aimed at young people, ScoopWhoop, raised $4 million from Kalaari Capital, which it intends to invest in ScoopWhoop Talkies, a video production unit. Inshorts, which limits the news stories it publishes to 60 words, is the fourth-most-popular Indian news app and has raised $24 million in funding from Tiger Global.

When designed to foster community (for example, when anonymity is discouraged and people post comments with their real identity), these digital efforts have social network–like qualities that actually raise the level of discourse. “There’s a human psychology effect,” says Patil, “where readers will share stories that make them look good.”

The infotainment followers are very different. On their feature phones, they tend to follow sites that keep their articles and videos short and full of hooks. Most of these media sites offer a combination of popular headlines; film information; and sports, lifestyle, auto, and market news.

India’s traditional media houses, which display a deep knowledge of their varied audience, have tapped into this market with digital offerings. For example,, the most successful English news website, belongs to the Times Group, the publishers of the Times of India, the world’s largest-selling English daily. The site has 19 million unique visitors per month. NDTV’s English and Hindi sites as well as Zee’s are among the largest digital crowd pullers in this market. Anant Goenka, head of new media at another major newspaper, the Indian Express (IE), celebrates the paper’s digital experience by saying, “I’m very happy with the reach and revenue of the last two years.”

Many publishers are focused on the regional print readers, who generally favor languages other than English. The Times Group is expanding to 12 regional-language editions. The Hindustan Times, the Hindu, and the IE are making similar transitions. As in the U.K., a person’s choice of newspaper often reflects his or her political stance, religion, and profession as much as geographic location. For example, Hindustan, the flagship Hindi-language newspaper published by the Hindustan Times, has grown 11 percent per year in recent years, compared with 4 to 5 percent for its English-language equivalent.

Although the size of this media market is often ignored by those outside the country, India’s media leaders are keenly aware of it. India TV CEO Joshi calls the English-speaking audience “a vanishingly small minority” in comparison. “Take the example of just my channel,” he says, referring to one of India’s most popular Hindi-language news channels. “It draws a viewership of around 80 million per week,” compared with 1 million for all the English news channels in India combined. That’s just one of several major channels in Hindi, which in turn is just one language; Tamil and Telugu channels each have tens of millions more viewers.

One trend has accelerated growth for all three audience categories: the increased popularity of video, especially when streamed or downloaded from the Internet. Indian investors are scouting actively for video content companies. Betting on this trend are startups like NYUSU, a self-funded venture. The self-proclaimed “one-minute, multi-lingual, video news app for Android phones” provides short videos in six regional languages, featuring opinion journalism.

Another hopeful enterprise is Ping Digital Broadcast, launched by Govindraj Ethiraj, the founder and former editor-in-chief of Bloomberg UTV. He explains that the motive behind Ping was “questioning whether we wanted to cater to the audiences of yesterday and today, or to create for the audiences of tomorrow.” Ping offers infotainment categories such as food, music, gaming, fashion, and technology. For more serious topics, Ethiraj also founded Boom Live, an independent digital journalism initiative focused on what he calls “impact docu-news.” One of his most popular video series, Explained in 90 Seconds, condenses complex issues like the European migrant crisis into very brief primers. “Our next step is to do it in 30 seconds,” he says.

These emerging video enterprises are betting, of course, that the smartphone and broadband continue to take market share. It’s a reasonable expectation; an International Data Corporation report taps India as one of the fastest-growing smartphone markets in the Asia-Pacific region, with sales of 4G devices outpacing those of their 3G counterparts, and smartphones expected to move from their current 40 percent market share to 50 percent or more by the end of 2016. If projections like these are correct, then in many villages, video will not arrive through today’s broadcast channels. People in India, even while watching large-screen TVs, will get their news and information through the Internet.

The Strategic Response

What do these trends mean for the business model of a major media company? To start with, the advantage is still with print over digital when it comes to advertising revenues. Close to 40 percent of 2015 advertising spending in India went to print publications, and less than a tenth of ad spending was on Internet advertising. (The rest went to various forms of broadcast.) Although Internet advertising spending grew by 24.2 percent in 2015, compared with 5.3 percent for print and 13.5 percent for broadcast television, the total amount of Internet advertising remains much smaller — about Rs32 billion ($499 million), compared with Rs163 billion ($2.5 billion) for print and Rs204 billion ($3.2 billion) for television. Print, in particular, is regarded in India as a prestige advertising play: It is the medium where brands are built, especially in consumer-oriented sectors such as food, personal care products, and real estate.

But as Scroll’s Samir Patil pointed out in a 2015 white paper, these spending levels don’t reflect usage habits. “Indians with Internet access spent over half their media engagement time online,” he wrote. If digital advertising spending were proportional to the time spent on each platform, advertising spend on the Internet would rise to Rs192 billion (about $3 billion), or six times current levels.

One problem, of course, is the ad-subsidized model for print — and the widely held view that subscribers will not pay much for information. Digital subscription vehicles, such as paywalls, are not treated with serious consideration by a majority of publishers, for fear that their markets will erode. “When I began this job four years ago,” says IE’s Goenka, “I believed that we would eventually institute a paywall. IE was creating the kind of content that was worth paying for. I quickly backtracked from that. That thinking doesn’t work here.”

Moreover, advertisers have yet to fully embrace the Internet as a vehicle. The Internet audience is still only one-tenth the size of the television news audience, and Internet-based news is more likely to be aimed at urban digital self-aggregators. The traffic on newspapers and TV is more varied, spread across more geographies, and more oriented to family than individual access.

Vikas Kothari, a venture capitalist at the Mumbai-based private equity firm Lightbox, argues that over time, digital startups — which can easily gather and track usage data — have an advantage over incumbent media companies, especially in countries such as India where they can leapfrog past conventional practices. “Outsiders have nothing to lose, while incumbents have to disrupt their own business models,” he says.

All of these concerns may well vanish, of course, when media companies see the audiences for digital media solidify — especially when millions of people begin to watch massive amounts of video online. Because relatively few Indians have credit cards, billing through mobile carriers will probably be the most successful early payment method. It has already been employed successfully by the Indian music site Saavn and by the content distribution company PK Online, whose audience views about 50 million videos per month. Even where individuals possess credit cards, the government’s two-factor authentication rules make online payments a more cumbersome (albeit safer) process. Online micropayments companies such as Yippster, which offer direct carrier billing through a simple SMS, have solved that problem.

Nickhil Jakatdar, CEO of Vuclip, a video-on-demand service, recalls Airtel’s one-minute video for Rs1 as an example. “If you ask users to pay each time for each video, they won’t do it. But if you offer them a one-time payment plan, like unlimited or 10 videos a day for Rs10, they readily subscribe.”

Some publishers believe the subscription-based monetization and advertising models may be helped by a multiservice approach. “Pure news offerings won’t be enough to sustain a business,” says’s Amar. “Even content by itself is not enough. I see the model of the future being a combination of content, community, and personal assistance services.” Some news websites in India now include curated city guides and local referrals, whereas others include partnerships with global content providers such as the Huffington Post (for Times Internet Ltd.), Quartz (for Scroll), and the Wall Street Journal (for, a Hindustan Times property). These allow Indian media companies to provide their global news–hungry audiences with diversified international content, while enabling U.S. and European news media companies to tap into India’s promising markets. They already know, from traffic on their own websites, that they have sizable potential Indian readership.

The stakes are high for media and entertainment companies in India. Overall, total entertainment and media revenue is expected to reach about Rs2.7 trillion (about $41.1 billion) by 2020, rising from Rs1.6 trillion ($25.1 billion) in 2015. Much of this will be drawn from advertisers, which tap into the consumer demand of a giant emerging middle class.

If you are a media enterprise leader — within India or looking in from another country — the three audiences of India give you a solid starting place. You may have entertainment or media tailor-made for the vast infotainment-craving population on their feature phones and smartphones. Perhaps you have niche mobile news content that caters to the sophisticated urbanites. Or your future growth may lie with the vernacular print audiences in India’s smaller cities and villages. Each of these markets will require a different approach to advertising, subscriptions, and monetization.

In the end, however, you cannot let this broad segmentation blind you to the one big factor all three groups have in common: They are becoming mobile-first audiences. India, along with other developing economies, will soon have millions of connected, energetic individuals ready for digital media that meets their aspirations. They see themselves living in a world of opportunity. They want to have it all — all the media of the world delivered immediately, accessibly, and inexpensively. They want the one screen that is inexpensive, ubiquitous, and always on. As in the rest of the world, the smartphone is a gateway to news and entertainment that didn’t exist just a few years ago, and that continues to evolve at digital speed.

Reprint No. 16313

Author profile:

  • Suvarchala Narayanan is a business writer and TV host based in India and Switzerland. She writes about technology and startups for the Bangalore Mirror.
  • Also contributing to this article were Smita Jha, director and leader of the entertainment and media practice at PwC India, and Munnish Puri, managing director of India Financial Advisors and Indian Film Advisors. All statistics not otherwise attributed are adapted from the PwC Global Entertainment and Media Outlook 2016–2020.
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