How ANI quietly built a monopoly

28 June 2017. The Election Commission announced it would reveal the schedule for the vice-presidential elections at a press conference the next morning. Naturally, every major TV channel covered it, beaming the news to millions of viewers. Interestingly, none of them were allowed a camera in the room.

28 September 2018. Again, another major government event. This time held by the ministry of defence, celebrating the second anniversary of a series of widely publicised military strikes by the Indian Army against Pakistan. Once again, every major network covered the event. But not a single one was allowed to bring a camera inside.

In both cases—and they are just two of many—only two organisations were permitted to provide live video coverage. One was state-owned broadcaster Doordarshan and the other a small, family-run company known as ANI.

Chances are, you’ve never even heard of ANI—short for Asian News International—or know exactly what it does. But you should. ANI has a virtual monopoly on news video feeds for television channels in the country, giving it unmatched reach. But more importantly, it is that rarest of creatures—a traditional news media company which is consistently profitable.

ANI has become invaluable to TV channels in large part due to its coverage of government events and press conferences. While many of these briefings are open to all, several (such as the two mentioned above) limit video coverage to only ANI. And even for those events that TV channels are allowed to record, many of the smaller, regional channels don’t have the resources or reach to cover every event.

Which brings us to the other side of ANI’s dominance. The news agency has a vast network of camerapersons, far more than any single news channel, and offers videos from the most remote corners of India. A warehouse for alcohol seized by authorities somewhere in the state of Bihar has a rat problem? ANI’s there. College students hold a “mini marathon” on women’s rights in distant Siliguri, West Bengal? ANI’s got you covered. Baby falls into a borewell in an out-of-the-way district in Gujarat? But of course.

Those three videos were chosen at random, from ANI’s coverage over a single 48-hour period. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The news agency sends out over 100 news videos (“packages”, in TV parlance) a day to its clients, as well as live feeds.

The history of ANI and its founder, Prem Prakash, spans decades and runs parallel to the rise of television in India. Along the way, the Prakash family—through a combination of business savvy and a web of political connections—built a small empire. The Ken dug through the archives and spoke to more than 20 former employees, government officials, as well as executives and editors at TV networks and rival firms—most of whom asked not to be named—to peer under the veil of this company which, despite its outsized role in the Indian media, remains shrouded in secrecy.

Monochrome days

Doordarshan, the state-owned broadcaster, gave India its first taste of television. In 1959, it was launched as an experimental service under All India Radio, or AIR, and turned into a regular feature only in 1965. Even this was just a daily news bulletin, and that, too, only in Delhi. Over the years, the service was expanded to cover Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Madras (now Chennai). Finally, in 1976, it was set up as an entity independent of AIR. For decades, Doordarshan remained the only broadcaster in the country, until the industry was opened up to the private sector in the 1990s.

But before all of this, a man called Prem Prakash had entered the field—working from at least 1957 (two years before the launch of Doordarshan) as a cameraman for Visnews, one of the two major global video news agencies at the time.

There is little in the public domain about Prakash’s early years. He was born in pre-Independence India, in the early 1930s, and at some point in time studied at Delhi University’s Hindu College. But what stands out is that Prakash was one of the earliest in India to recognise the business potential of television news (a 2013 article in Outlook magazine refers to the ANI founder as the “first private entrepreneur in the field of visual news-gathering”). 

He began his career as a photographer—following in the footsteps of his father, Ved Prakash—and set up a small studio in central Delhi’s Janpath locality. Called Ved Studios, the business is still up and running to this day. Former employees of ANI describe Prakash, now well into his 80s, as having a warm persona and being a perfectionist; highly respected both within the organisation and without, but also a clever businessman with a keen eye for lucrative opportunities.

Even as a photographer, they recount, Prakash would work hard at forging connections, in particular with bureaucrats and politicians, offering his services wherever possible. One senior government official claimed that he rose to become a favourite of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, one of the most powerful and polarising figures in Indian political history.

And as a videographer for Visnews, Prakash not only gained exposure to international news but also accumulated valuable journalistic experience. He covered some of the most significant events in the country’s history. During conflicts such as the annexation of Goa and the liberation of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Prakash was on the front lines. For his work, Prakash was honoured as a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth. 

A still image from a 1964 documentary on Visnews, showing a young Prem Prakash.

Alongside his work for Visnews, Prakash continued his own businesses, which included Ved Studios and making documentaries and films for Doordarshan (a relationship that he nurtured over the years, and which has benefitted ANI greatly). One of these businesses was ANI (incorporated as Asian Films Laboratories in 1971).

The biggest break, perhaps, for Prakash’s news ambitions was an association he was able to build with the London-headquartered global news agency Reuters.

One of the oldest news agencies in the world, and the second largest after the US-based Associated Press, Reuters decided to make inroads into the video business in 1960. To do so, it acquired a minority stake in the British Commonwealth International Newsfilm Agency—a video news service that, some two years later, would be rechristened Visnews.

Visnews and Reuters began to work closely in the early 1960s, with the former operating out of the latter’s offices in a number of locations around the world. In 1985, Reuters raised its stake in Visnews to 55%, before buying the rest of the company outright seven years later, in 1992, and rebranding it Reuters TV.

Meanwhile, Prakash used his Visnews connections to strike a deal with Reuters—ANI would provide Reuters with feeds from India. By 2011, ANI accounted for 99% of Reuters TV’s Indian coverage, according to an essay in the book Media at Work in China and India. On top of that, ANI also secured the rights to distribute Reuters TV feeds to Indian news channels.

Thomson Reuters—the Canadian firm which today owns the Reuters news service—now holds a 49% stake in ANI Media Pvt. Ltd through a Singapore-incorporated subsidiary. (The Ken was not able to ascertain when exactly Reuters invested in ANI, and what the quantum of said investment was; a former senior employee says the investment happened in the early 1980s, around the time Reuters acquired majority control of Visnews.)

The Reuters partnership helped set the stage for ANI’s ascendancy from the 1990s onwards, as a plethora of TV channels blossomed in the wake of the economic reforms of 1991.

Show me the money

In the heart of a prominent national English news channel, a litany of queries and commands flies across the news desk as the soft-spoken editor points to one of the many screens that dot the newsroom. On it is an interview with a village council leader in the Kashmir Valley. The interview, he says, is a testament to ANI’s reach. Their stringer network, he adds, even outclasses that of the Press Trust of India, or PTI. This allows them access to places—and people—few channels have access to.

“Which is why about 60% of our daily multimedia content comes from ANI,” he underlines. 

The desk perennially monitors two ANI feeds: Live and Select. Select beams in news stories from all over the country as and when they happen; whether or not it has news value is for editors to decide. Live, as the name suggests, provides TV channels with a real-time, live feed from important events (think election rallies and big government announcements). There’s also a digital feed, with a different subscription model. On top of this, ANI also runs a text wire service, which goes out to newspapers and websites.

The Prakash family owns and operates two corporate entities involved in the publication of news—ANI Media Pvt. Ltd and Asian Films TV Pvt. Ltd. According to regulatory filings sourced from Paper.vc, ANI Media (incorporated in 1971, in which Reuters owns 49%) offers news agency services to “audiovisual media”, while Asian Films (incorporated in 2000) does the same for “newspapers and periodicals”.

Combined, the two firms reported revenues of Rs 68.23 crore ($9.28 million) in 2017-18, and profits of Rs 9.91 crore ($1.35 million). The lion’s share of both revenue and profit come from ANI Media. Neither of the two companies has any borrowings on its books.

ANI’s revenues are a fraction of the earnings reported by the top TV networks, all of whom subscribe to its services. But while ANI Media has been profitable for at least the past 12 financial years, news channels in India have been struggling to make money.

Many of the regional language channels are able to stay afloat by keeping costs (especially employee costs) low and capitalising on rapid growth in demand for local content. Likewise with the top Hindi channels, which are also able to leverage their vast audiences. English news channels, however, face the dual challenge of a small viewership base and dwindling ad revenue.

“Competition in English and Hindi TV news business has reached a saturation point. A plethora of TV channels are there to give news in multiple languages, and regional is where growth is happening now,” says Ashesh Jani, a partner at consultancy firm Deloitte India. On top of this, he adds, television is a far more capital-intensive medium than digital or print, which drives up losses.

The exact numbers, however, are difficult to pinpoint, as most large broadcasting companies club their loss-making news channels along with more profitable ones, as well as entertainment channels.

For ANI, this provides an opportunity—as news channels look to trim costs, they are increasingly likely to rely on agency feeds instead of setting up expensive news operations in centres around the country.

The core of ANI’s business comes from its video feeds, sales of archival footage and its partnership with Reuters.

As far as private TV channels are concerned, ANI runs on a subscription model, and its rates are highly negotiable, with one executive at a national TV channel quoting a figure of Rs 6 lakh a month. Adding digital rights to the package raises the price by at least 50%, the executive added. The digital subscription is also available as a standalone package for online-only news portals.

Over and above this, ANI offers its clients access to decades worth of video archives—including rare footage of events such as the controversial Babri Masjid demolition of 1992. These archives occupy the top floor of the news agency’s five-storey headquarters in Delhi. “Archives is where the real money is made. The prices can go as high as ANI wants because any new TV channel would pay to get its hands on the old footage,” said a former senior employee. ANI, this person said, charges channels anywhere between Rs 800 and Rs 1,000 per second of archival footage.

For Reuters TV, ANI acts as the primary source of content from the Indian subcontinent. While the main Reuters service has a significant presence across South Asia (including outsourced financial coverage from its Bengaluru hub), the television arm only has a small Indian team which covers news of the highest importance. Everything else comes from ANI—which curates and sends across the 30 top news stories of the day; it’s not clear exactly how much ANI earns from this, but Reuters paid the Indian company Rs 2.54 crore ($350,000) for “media services” in 2017-18, according to ANI Media Pvt. Ltd’s filings sourced from Paper.vc.  

Additionally, ANI acts as a distributor for Reuters TV feeds in India, selling them to local TV channels looking to source international footage. In return, ANI earns a small commission from Reuters. This amounted to Rs 31.77 lakh ($43,000) in 2017-18.

Beyond its video syndication services, ANI has one other major source of revenue—programming. Over the years, the news agency has produced entire television programmes for channels in South-East Asia, the Middle East, North America and Europe. (These programmes, such as the weekly newscast South Asia Newsline, cater largely to the Indian diaspora.)

Notably, it has also produced and managed content for a number of Doordarshan’s smaller channels. Over the years, Prakash’s businesses, including ANI as a film studio, would supply documentaries, short films and eventually programmes to the national broadcaster. In fact, in the late 1970s, Doordarshan was accused of giving Television News Features—an organisation in which Prakash was chairman—an effective monopoly over producing documentaries for the government.

And in the past couple of decades, the government has also contracted ANI to develop programming for channels such as DD Kashir and DD North-East, which cater to the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the seven north-eastern states, respectively. The channels run content focused largely on the culture of the regions they cover, both of which have seen a high degree of conflict and separatist movements. DD Kashir, in particular, has been described as an attempt by the government to “fight Pakistani propaganda” in Jammu and Kashmir.

“Doordarshan hasn’t gained anything from these partnerships. The quality of programming was never up to the mark; it was a way for the government to do propaganda programming in these states,” says a former senior executive at Prasar Bharati, the government-owned corporation that operates Doordarshan and All India Radio. Prasar Bharati did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The tie-ups with Doordarshan perhaps best exemplify the Prakash family’s long-standing relationships with the state-owned broadcaster—and the government as a whole.

Politically correct

While ANI has built its monopoly on the back of a huge first-mover advantage, its position today is in no small part due to the Prakash family’s careful cultivation of relationships with those in power.

It began with Prem Prakash, who, as a photographer and cameraman, built a network of contacts with political leaders and bureaucrats over the course of several official assignments. But it was in the late 1980s that ANI and Prakash ran into a spot of luck when his son Sanjeev married Smita—the daughter of  Ramamohan Rao, a former Principal Information Officer in the government. Importantly, Ramamohan also served as the media adviser to four powerful prime ministers from the Congress party: Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Chandra Shekhar. 

“ANI is neither aligned to the left nor the right, just to the government of the day.”

A former ANI employee

Rao, who passed away last year, facilitated meetings and interviews with government officials for his daughter and, by association, for ANI. This gave the fledgling news agency a huge boost. In particular, the veteran bureaucrat’s close ties with the Congress, which has led the government for most of independent India’s history, ensured that ANI never drew any political ire.

The company, however, has been careful to never affiliate itself with any one political party or group. In this way, no matter who is in power, the Prakash family is never left out in the cold.

While they maintained connections with the Congress during its time in power in the 1980s and 1990s, they were quick to court the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when the tide seemed to be shifting. A point, ironically enough, highlighted by no less than Sanjeev Prakash himself.

In an obituary to former prime minister and BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Prakash claims that back in 1998, in the run-up to the elections that saw the BJP first come to power, Doordarshan would only give a few minutes of airtime to opposition leaders.

In response, Vajpayee and the BJP approached private studios in a bid to get their election campaign on the airwaves, but “no private studio, however, was willing to allow them recording facilities. Such was the fear of reprisal,” writes Sanjeev Prakash. “As the doors of ANI was opened to them, all the BJP leaders trooped in one by one and recorded their messages. Vajpayeeji also came to ANI for recording.”

When the Vajpayee government’s term ended in 2004 and the Congress returned to power, ANI rekindled its old connections without missing a beat; its business unruffled. And 10 years later, when India once again seemed poised for a change in government, the Prakash family was ready.

Ahead of the 2014 elections, Sanjeev Prakash and Naveen Kapoor, a close aide, ensured the BJP was given extensive coverage, say former employees and government officials. “Cameras followed opposition leaders everywhere, and that’s how ANI got in,” said a former employee.

“At this point, ANI has more access to the government than Doordarshan and the Press Trust of India. It works well for them. Whatever needs to be covered and conveyed nationwide can be done with a single company,” said a senior government official.

ANI expands upon this by extensively covering every politician of even the slightest significance. From Puducherry Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi arguing with an MLA on stage at a minor function (viral on social media, of course) to Home Minister Rajnath Singh giving an address at a “global summit-cum-expo on Science, Spirituality and Environment” in Mount Abu, Rajasthan. From founding BJP member Jaswant Singh’s son joining the Congress to senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh in small-town Madhya Pradesh explaining why he thinks the party would actually lose votes if he campaigns for them.

More recently, when Union minister M.J. Akbar faced a spate of sexual harassment accusations by female journalists stemming from his time as a newspaper editor, his first statement to the media (denying any wrongdoing) was to ANI.  

Family matters

For all its reach and success, say former employees, the company still operates as a tightly knit family business. Either members of the Prakash family or their long-time associates have the final say in all aspects of both business and editorial operations. In this, they are assisted by a small core of loyal employees across departments who have been with the agency for decades.

By the early 2000s, Prem Prakash had hung up his boots and distanced himself from company operations. Since then, the company has been managed by his son Sanjeev Prakash, who acts as managing director, while his wife Smita Prakash is the editor. Their eldest son, Ishaan Prakash, heads ANI Live Service.

Outside of the family, two prominent figures round off the dramatis personae.

The first is Surinder Kapoor, who worked as an assistant to Prem Prakash during his early days as a cameraman, and effectively ran editorial operations at ANI under both Prem and Sanjeev Prakash. Kapoor, now in his 60s, has retired and taken up a consulting role in the organisation. In his place, his son, Naveen Kapoor, has emerged as a close confidante of Smita and Ishaan Prakash, who effectively control editorial operations today.

The management’s focus is on keeping costs as low as possible. The company’s website proclaims that it has over 50 bureaus across the country, but former employees and associates point out that apart from 8-10 important centres (including Delhi, Srinagar and Mumbai), the agency runs entirely on the back of a network of stringers—or individual journalists and camerapersons engaged on a part-time basis—scattered across India, with no large offices.

“It is not an Aroon Purie (chief executive of the India Today Group) or a Raghav Bahl (founder of Network 18) media organisation. Except for a handful of cities, there are no real bureaus anywhere but just a bunch of cameramen running the show,” said one former senior employee.

At least two former senior employees described the company as having a tendency to avoid hiring many high-level editorial staff. “They make do with a bunch of junior staff, with a few mid-to-high level people to oversee,” one of the two added.

“The family decides everything. Anyone who says anything that doesn’t sit well with the family is first rendered irrelevant and, eventually, thrown out of the company,” said another former employee. 

The two former senior employees quoted above echo this sentiment. One added that as the young Ishaan Prakash—the potential third-generation head of the business—takes a more active role, even some long-time ANI loyalists, with decades in the company, have been sidelined. A few, this person said, have left.

But no matter what, no organisation has been able to challenge the Prakashes in news video syndication or replicate even a part of their success. And not for lack of trying.

PTI, India’s leading news agency (at least as far as text and still images are concerned), launched a service called PTI-TV in 1985, producing documentaries. The service petered out, and PTI has tried several times over the years to relaunch it as a potential competitor to ANI, says a former news agency executive, but to no avail. PTI chief executive Venky Venkatesh did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Indo-Asian News Service (IANS), another Indian news agency, also launched a video service called IANS TV in the early 2000s. It delivered news videos, with an initial focus on features and entertainment. Like PTI-TV, it didn’t last. An IANS spokesperson did not respond to an email seeking comment.

So much for the conventional news agencies. But there have been at least two others who tried to challenge ANI’s dominance.

The first was UNI TV, run by a company called YRD Media in a branding partnership with United News of India (UNI), yet another news agency. The service was launched in 2009. Yashwant Deshmukh, a veteran television journalist and owner of YRD Media, set up shop in Noida, with 75 camera teams and over 350 staff in total. “UNI TV gave ANI a run for its money, but after a few years the financial backers ran into some trouble, and the company shut down,” says a former senior editor at UNI TV.

A former senior employee of ANI, however, claims that the firm used its connections both inside and outside the government to hinder the new entrant.

A former UNI TV executive says the agency did face difficulties while applying for a satellite uplink licence (which it never got), and UNI’s partner YRD Media and its financial backers came under the scrutiny of the income tax department. But, this executive adds, YRD Media’s difficulties may have also been a result of YRD chairman Deshmukh’s family’s ties to the BJP (at the time, the Congress party was in power).

The next to enter the field was Arup Ghosh, whose firm N1 Media launched a news video service called NNIS in 2010. NNIS is still operational. The agency even entered a partnership with AFP TV (the television arm of Paris-based Agence France-Presse) in 2015. Ghosh, however, complains that he has not been able to compete with ANI on an even footing, given its access to the government—a problem that he says has worsened under the present BJP-led alliance.  

“In a democracy, where all media outlets are meant to get equal access, there was unfair access provided to one news agency post the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Either that agency should formally be declared a government mouthpiece like Xinhua (China’s state-run press agency) or equal access to all briefings be provided to all,” Ghosh said. Today, NNIS focuses mostly on sports news, apart from other news and current affairs coverage. An email seeking comment was sent to the Directorate of Public Relations at the Ministry for Information and Broadcasting, under which comes the Press Information Bureau. This went unanswered.

Happily ever after?

And so, ANI remains unchallenged. But things haven’t been smooth lately. At least two former ANI employees confirmed that Reuters hasn’t been too convinced about its partnership of late, on account of ANI’s “unprofessionalism” and “bad quality of content”.

“Till last year, Reuters was reconsidering the partnership, but finally, ANI convinced Reuters to stay. Both the parties worked something out, and the partnership continues,” said a former senior ANI employee.

Reuters declined to comment on its relations with ANI.  

Cracks also appear to be forming within the Prakash family. The family’s shareholding in the corporate entities, ANI Media and Asian Films TV, is split between Prem Prakash, his wife Daya Prakash and their children Sanjeev Prakash and Seema Kukreja (who is also on the board of directors). Prominently missing from that list are Smita and Ishaan Prakash.

“Things changed when the second generation came into play, and are, once again, looking at an overhaul with the third one.”

A former ANI employee

A feud, say former employees who were close to the family, has been in the making for a while. It is growing and turning more unpleasant by the day. On one side are Smita and Ishaan Prakash, who want a share of the business, and on the other is Seema Kukreja, who holds a stake but is not involved in the day-to-day operations of ANI.

Outwardly, though, ANI’s facade has remained impenetrable and unchanged. In all this, ANI’s business ambitions seem to be solely focused on maintaining its monopoly, no matter what the political landscape. It is also, slowly but surely, spreading its tentacles to other countries as well. Under Smita and Ishaan Prakash, the company has expanded its overseas network, including bureaus in the Middle East, the US and China. Additionally, it now places a much greater emphasis on the digital platform and social media.

“They want to be the last and only point for multimedia news supply,” said a former senior employee.

The Ken sent a detailed questionnaire to ANI and reached out to three senior executives—Surinder Kapoor, Smita Prakash and Seema Kukreja. All of them declined to comment, citing company policy.

“We don’t speak to the media.”

With inputs from Roshni Nair.

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