How Raghav Bahl became India’s Rupert Murdoch

Raghav Bahl jumped at the chance to make money from his passion producing programmes for Indian television.


Raghav Bahl has India's diaspora in his sights

Most entrepreneurs encourage the view that they alone are responsible for their success. However, 51-year old Indian media tycoon Raghav Bahl freely admits that his entry into the world of television was down to being in the "right place at the right time".

He had a day job as a management consultant, but had always enjoyed taking part in a weekly programme by the state broadcaster Doordarshan. As journalists were poorly paid, he saw this primarily as a "hobby".

But three things came together to change his mind. In 1991, India relaxed restrictions on satellite TV. At the same time the eruption of the first Gulf War showed that TV channels could use satellite technology to beam 24-hour coverage around the world.

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While India was not directly involved in the war, the ability to watch it unfolding in real-time saw a leap in the uptake of satellite TV. Finally, the gradual liberalisation of India's economy enabled entrepreneurs to raise money from private equity and venture capital firms.

While others had similar ambitions to take advantage of this new market for content, Bahl's background meant that he was uniquely well placed to do so. His time as a broadcaster equipped him to produce the local content that the big satellite firms required to appeal to Indian audiences.

Meanwhile, his corporate experience meant he also understood how to set up and run a business. So he jumped at the chance to make money from his passion, founding Network18 (then TV18) in 1993 with funds from Morgan Stanley and AIA (an offshoot of AIG).

For seven years Bahl's firm prospered, producing business and entertainment shows for a variety of channels, including Star TV and BBC World. But he was not satisfied with simply creating content for other people. Believing that "news is a broadcaster's, not a producer's game", he decided that the economies of scale presented him with a stark choice: "either expand or shut up shop entirely".

Unwilling to quit, in 2000 he persuaded the business channel CNBC to launch a joint venture with Network18 and CNBC India. Listing on India's stock exchange at the tail end of the technology bubble, he raised nearly $15m.

The gamble paid off. Despite the large sunk costs involved, within three years CNBC India proved consistently profitable and Bahl has expanded the number of channels offered by Network18.

In spite of becoming a major player (described by some as India's Rupert Murdoch'), he accepts he may have become overleveraged and has cut back in recent years. However, Network18, and related companies, still have a total turnover of £850m.

Now established in India, Bahl is looking to target the sizeable Indian diaspora, starting with News India 18, available on Sky. While a firm believer in hands-on management, he has also bolstered his reputation as a pundit, appearing at the World Economic Forum and writing a book comparing India and China.

More than anything else, he enjoys having the "ability to inform millions of people". His advice for would-be media tycoons is that they must be able to raise funds by "convincing someone else to share your passion". And always remember, "you are only as good as your last show".

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri