TV Channel Ukraine 24: we want to go beyond the news market and catch up with the top six TV channels in Ukraine
The exclusive interview of Dmytro Beliansky, a member of the Supervisory Board of Media Group Ukraine, responsible for the development of the news segment in the group, to the Interfax-Ukraine agency
“At this point, the TV channel “Ukraine 24” has been on the air for some six months. Why did you decide to launch a news channel only now? After all, the Media Group Ukraine (MGU) itself has already celebrated its 10th anniversary this year?”
“We launched the TV channel “Ukraine 24” right when the Ukrainian public needs coincided with the willingness of the MGU’s team to meet it. We have been waiting for this moment for many years, and the time has come on 16 December 2019, when we started broadcasting with 4.5 hours of daily in-house content. Technical broadcasting started on 2 December. As of now, by the autumn, we are in the top three (among the news channels – red.), and I believe that by the channel’s first anniversary, Ukraine 24 will rightly take the first place and hold it for a long time to come.
The phenomenally fast growth is due to the fact that the TV channel “Ukraine 24” was launched not as a stand-alone project, but directly as a project of the MGU. Plus, of course, Segodnya news has been in need of more space on the air of the Ukraine TV channel, nationwide leader of television viewing, for a long time. Therefore, both the launch and the success of Ukraine 24 were determined by the very logic of the development of the MGU.
Speaking of us in general, we started producing so much high-quality informational content that we needed another publishing platform to run it.
Speaking about the public needs, it is no secret that before the launch of Ukraine 24, the news channel market could be compared to a situation where a newspaper still offers its customers nothing but newspapers supporting certain political parties. Sure, they are well done, properly covering the current affairs, but one way or another, they support certain parties. That is, they represent only a certain perspective. In this environment, an ordinary, well-made newspaper would make a splash.
Today, the news channel market size is about 8-10 points of the share. What are the expected limits of leadership? Perhaps this is an opportunity to take up to 50%. Therefore, when considering the highest ambitions of the TV channel “Ukraine 24”, based on the current market capacity, we are looking at about 4 points of the market share. At the same time, to achieve technical leadership in this segment, 1.5-2 points of the share would be enough for us. And 4 points is already a call for reaching a position among the TOP-6 channels in Ukraine and, technically, among the rest of them, as well.”
“How do you define the channel’s mission?”
“When a nation-wide news channel is launched, it can only have one mission. The same as with any news – to serve the community. The news is the foundation of our channel. Therefore, at any given moment, a person turning the TV channel “Ukraine 24” on will be able to watch the most topical events happening in the country and around the world that very minute. For example, the coverage of events in Belarus became the main driver for Ukraine 24’s viewing in August, especially against the background of the fact that our competitors either did not cover them at all due to their political restrictions, or the quality of their coverage was not at the highest level, as they have neither the amount of editorial resources as we have, nor the expertise, the skills.”
“What was the most challenging when launching the TV channel?”
“It was not developed from scratch, but on the inside. Yet, at the same time, as a separate project with its own rules, restrictions and a fundamentally different system of news production. We became the first of the largest media groups in Ukraine to launch a news channel, so there was no one to copy from. We relied purely on our own experience. And while before us, news channels in Ukraine were usually developed first and then launched, we were forced to, as they say, turn the web-cam on at the stage of building the foundation.
It was difficult to see the contrast in perception between the content made by the same team of professionals for the Ukraine TV channel and for the TV channel “Ukraine 24”. We kept in mind the story of the ugly duckling. Fortunately, we read it quickly and with the same ending: by spring, we turned into a swan, spread our wings and took into the sky.
Today, everyone having anything to do with the TV channel “Ukraine 24” feels proud of their work. The launch of the project became a kind of a social lift for the newsroom team. For example, our anchors – Vika Malosvitna, Serhii Nikiforov, Vera Sverdlyk, Masha Skyba, Katia Fedotenko – used to be the reporters for the Segodnya show on the Ukraine TV channel just a year ago. And now they are the stars of Ukraine 24, anchoring the news and the in-house talk show run by the channel’s team – Ukraine Tomorrow – which airs at 21:00 on Fridays and sums up the news of the week. Under normal circumstances, this path to the success in this job takes much longer.”
“In general, how did you build the team?”
“The MGU’s news team under the Segodnya brand has been in place for a long time, and it is still headed by the permanent newsroom leader and editor-in-chief Yurii Suhak. Therefore, it was more about enhancement of the team for us. Regardless of the concept for the TV channel “Ukraine 24”, we understood that we were talking about a new player in the already established market. And until the project reaches unconditional leadership, we will have to play by the rules of this market. By the time of our launch in Ukraine, one way or another, the news channel market had already taken its shape. Wonderful, talented people have been working there, gathering a large audience and developing successful interesting formats. At the same time, all these people need to grow further, and they have a very clear understanding of the conditions they have to work in.
In this situation, Ukraine 24 was able to make a unique offer: to invite the best professionals to do what they are interested in, without any restrictions. For instance, Yevgeny Kiselev has joined our team, hosting the Real Politics weekly final analytical show at 22:00 on Sundays. Tigran Martirosyan hosts feature length Saturday interviews at 21:00 and the Ukraine Elects final show on local elections at 21:00 on Sundays. Vasyl Holovanov hosts the Holovanov’s Time show at 21:00 on weekdays. Violetta Lohunova anchors the Ukraine Today main daily news show at 20:00 on weekdays. And there are many others.
I should note with particular pleasure that the launch of the TV channel “Ukraine 24” allowed for us to bring our own personnel from the market back in the family. The best have come back. Vlad Hruzynskii from Suspilne, Yulia Halushko from 112 Ukraine, and Tala Kalatai from Pryamiy. Daryna Ohir, who used to be the chief news editor and now acts as the general producer, has returned rebuilding the television technology of our News Group. In the new season, Natalia Vlashchenko will also join the Ukraine 24 team.
Yet, I can tell you with authority that the main HR sensation on the market related to our acquisitions to the Ukraine 24’s team is still to come. It will definitely take place this year.”
“Your prime time is filled with authorial content. Moreover, the anchors and hosts have their personal opinions, subjective assessments. At the same time, the news on the channel is deliberately unbiased, impartial. Is this a conscious approach?”
“Our authorial programs are created by outstanding, strong stars of television journalism. Yes, each of them is definitely a leader expressing a certain type of opinion, and each is partly subjective, but a professional approach is always maintained. In fact, we managed to put together a true “channel of diverse opinions”. It would be sacrilege not to make it our advertising slogan. And there can be no mistakes along the way.
When we started cooperation with Yanina Sokolova, when we recruited her to the TV channel “Ukraine 24”, naturally, we expected that the owner of the YouTube Silver Play Button would attract a huge audience to the channel due to her popularity in social media. Moreover, her audience is very tempting for television – I mean young people and adult men over 35 years of age. That is, the top audience, both from the perspectives of the TV channel and advertisers. But when the product aired, we saw that our television audience did not watch it. Cooperation with Yanina brought no ratings, but at the same time, the very presence of her projects on our air allowed the channel to confirm the audience’s trust in one of the basic principles of our success. Indeed, we give the floor to absolutely everyone. The conversion did not work, but I am very pleased with the collaboration with Yanina.”
“In your opinion, why is cross-platform approach still so poorly developed in media in Ukraine?”
“This is actually a growth area. And the biggest challenge for the industry, which everyone is trying to address in their own way. How to take a writing journalist, make them a TV star, and at the same time help them remain a writing star? There is no perfect recipe yet. It is clear now that there is no direct platform conversion. One cannot take a YouTube celebrity or a popular blogger and drag them onto a TV screen and expect their entire audience to watch. One needs to try to cover all these platforms at the same time, getting the necessary traffic from each of them.”
“How do media groups interact with large online platforms like YouTube today? Are you often banned for your own content based on “copyright claims”?”
“All Ukrainian TV channels had such problems, but now it is not as pressing as it was several years ago. Personally, I often watch our airs on YouTube in order to understand how it is perceived by the viewers. I read the comments, see how people react to certain things.
The cooperation with YouTube is based on anti-piracy initiatives and legislation. And we, as a media group working with our own content, are extremely interested in making all anti-piracy initiatives work. Almost all of Ukraine 24’s content is available on YouTube now.”
“How do you monetise the content available on YouTube?”
“We have sufficient experience in monetising the content on YouTube, but digital advertising is not limited to this platform alone. As a media group, we always look at two advertising markets simultaneously, the television market and the online advertising market. And today we have a very good share in both markets.
Both of these markets are large enough. The digital advertising market is already larger than the TV advertising market, but it also has significantly more players.”
“These days, the self-censorship and the most tolerant attitude towards any format of phenomena and events is being actively promoted all over the globe, people are trying to deliberately distance themselves from negative content. How do these trends affect the work of TV channels?”
“In fact, this is the development of the history of the emergence of the standards of journalism themselves: how to call a spade so that the editorial office is not burned down to the ground? Therefore, now all of us are looking for a new language of communication with our viewers. Very complex events often act as triggers for rapid change. One way or another, professionals are the winners – those who are able to live and develop in the already existing constraints. Is it inconvenient for the channel to “blur” people who accidentally got into the frame? No, it is not. Because in this case we are working with cleared information. Does this give us an advantage over someone who will publish the same picture without blurring? Yes, it does, because their content will be blocked very quickly. Do we benefit from trying to use feminitives? Definitely. But we are deliberately looking for a way to use them so that, on the one hand, we do not go too far, and on the other hand, keep pace with the development of the language, which today has become most labile and changes every day. As to how each of us affects the media market as a whole... Everyone knows that news is made for competitors. We look at all of each other’s materials, we analyse our colleagues at our planning meetings, we argue, sometimes we even quarrel. But all changes in the media industry are happening much slower than they actually happen in the real field. In any case, we try to speak the language of our viewer. And if someone reproaches our presenters saying the use of feminitives is illiterate... Well, sometimes it is better to talk about something in an illiterate rather than offensive manner.”
“You have repeatedly emphasized the apolitical nature of the TV channel “Ukraine 24”, and your broadcast, in fact, does not meet the expectations of any of the political forces represented in Ukraine. Do you think it is dangerous?”
“No, quite the opposite. After all, we have the opportunity to show both sides. If we boycotted one of the parties, we could have had some issues, but we show and will always show everyone. Furthermore, at the time of the creation of Ukraine 24, the state, the government in the broadest sense of the word, did not have its own “home” channel. There were only a number of party channels in the country, one of which is in rather strict opposition, and the others are in a segment where it is not very proper to even show up on air. Therefore, the time of our start coincided with the period for the authorities, when they were especially interested in fair conditions for an appropriate statement, and I believe such combination of factors had a very positive effect on the success of our channel.”
“Tell us about the changes in the cost of the staff in the market. With a recent launch, you likely have the most current information now...”
“No matter how much the staff costs on the market, we cannot hire people without focusing on the salaries at the TV channel “Ukraine”; otherwise, or our team would simply lose motivation. Obviously, we always knew that as soon as we entered the market with the launch of Ukraine 24, we would “heat it”. Any entry of a major player into the market means that people who are paid at a specific salary level will demand a certain raise. But it only works for launching a product as a start-up – with a separate budget, a separate team, a separate office, after all.
But we are not a start-up. Ukraine 24 was launched primarily as the home channel of the Segodnya newsroom. Therefore, we can agree on some exclusive formats of cooperation only with our stars and celebrities. But the operator who goes to work with them will receive the best conditions, yet within the existing rates on the market. That is why our launch did not stir up the prices.”
“Will Ukraine 24 have its own website? Or will you develop the segodnya.ua website?”
“We have two brands – the Segodnya brand and the Ukraine 24 brand. The Segodnya brand is a news brand. On the other hand, Ukraine 24 is the resource which we would like people to use to search for the news. Therefore, we are interested in the existence of Ukraine 24 everywhere, on all platforms – TV and digital.”
“Are there any plans to launch a network of regional news channels?”
“We are currently using the reporter network of the TV channel “Ukraine”. We have three mobile news offices abroad: in Europe, the USA and Russia. If everything goes according to our plans, we expect to open at least two more offices abroad. But there are no plans to create a network of regional TV channels in Ukraine. I do not see any added value here. We are doing a number of projects dedicated to the regions within Ukraine 24. But, in fact, we are interested in a certain centralisation, in the ability to take other content in. We can easily broadcast the material of our “34 TV channel” in Dnipro on the air of Ukraine 24. In a similar way, we can include the products of Ukraine 24 on the air of the Ukraine TV channel – if necessary and depending on the importance of the event. Developing a monobrand is more beneficial for us. And, to be honest, for the country as well.”
“Do you plan to launch any projects in economics?”
“There are such plans. We are currently developing a number of projects. This topic is very important for us. In general, taking a look at the audience of any news TV channels, one will see it consists of the following categories. Older people (50+ y.o.) are the #1 audience. There is #2 audience, which basically does not count; those are VIPs, the so-called “influencer audience”. Its share is quite small compared to the first audience. But there is also the remaining majority. And these are the people who should turn the channel on, get interested in its programming. And that is a growth area.
We found out how to work with this audience correctly, and we plan to move in this direction: economics, sports, and other topics. Taking the lead in the news channel market is an intermediate goal for us. We need to grow into a nationwide news channel.”
“Will there be any topic-specific programs such as technology, economics, travel?”
“Any information needs of the audience will be met. Another thing is that there is a launching sequence for these stories. We have a very strong analytical service at the MGU. We do not make decisions intuitively, but based on serious research. Therefore, first of all, we will move in that direction where we can reach success.”
“What is your assessment of the work with cable providers?”
“We have been dealing with agreements with cable operators for a very long time. We have devoted tremendous efforts to pass this milestone quickly. But there is one more issue here: as long as the client does not update the application on the TV, the new channel simply does not appear there. And virtually no one does this, ever. And this is the fundamental difference between those TV channels that have been on the market for a long time, and those that are just starting to work.
The second issue is the quality of the content. We are currently focused on the production of the content that will allow us taking part of the audience away from existing players in the news channel market.
And when we win the first place, we will move on: to travel, to technology, to other topics that are interesting to the public. Now we are airing only the in-house products, that is about 14 hours of our own content. In the autumn, we plan to start broadcasting earlier and extend weekend broadcasting.”
“Who do you consider to be Ukraine 24’s immediate competitors? Who are you looking up to when developing the channel?”
“News is made for competitors. The channel was created by the MGU, a leading media group. There are four large media groups on the market and none of them currently have a news channel.
For us, the launch of Ukraine 24 has significantly strengthened the news team. The one known to the national viewer as Segodnya on the TV channel “Ukraine”. It strengthened the staff, strengthened through the development of skills, which are theoretically unthinkable for a national news team. I mean the speed of working with information: decisions are made instantly, broadcasting starts instantly, etc. We have invested a lot in our newsroom, bought some new equipment. And every penny invested in Ukraine 24 strengthens the Segodnya team and strengthens the MGU.
“Tell us about the channel’s budget, sources of financing. What time frame have you planned for reaching self-sufficiency?”
“The Media Group Ukraine is a business model. Like any business model, it is divided into two components: money-makers and money-spenders. The news, of course, is the spender. But it is impossible to be a media group without incurring the cost of news production.
In general, the issue of self-sufficiency is a matter of several years. All we can do from the part of news production is to cut costs as much as possible, try to spend as smartly and as little as possible, but without losing the quality of what we do.
We spent much less on creating Ukraine 24 than we could have in case of creation of a stand-alone TV channel. This amount is comparable to the cost of news production during this period. The costs are not that huge that the media group had to postpone the period of reaching self-sufficiency for years, take a loan from the IMF or sell stories. We do not sell news. And someday it will definitely pay off.”
“Advertisers on news channels: who are they, what are their goals, what is the difference compared to other channels, the opportunities to attract advertising within a large media group?”
“These are mainly the automotive industry, pharmaceuticals, beverages. There is interest in other areas, but only occasional. Furthermore, everything depends on the audience: on the one hand, adult men who have seen a lot in life, on the other hand, our audience includes that segment of people who really make decisions, are active and can spend more. Therefore, advertising on Ukraine 24 is certainly very important for us, but it very much depends on the speed of our growth. Because once we take the lead by the end of the year and maintain the same dynamics next year, this will become a completely different commercial offer. Then we will be able to offer advertisers a general wide audience.”
“What are your plans for next year?”
“The main expectation of the next year is that the Ukraine 24 project should enter stable operating conditions. While now we can confidently say that the project has succeeded, then by the beginning of next year we should be able to say, “OK, this is working.” The channel should have its own manager who will develop the channel further, as part of the MGU’s business strategy, and make it stronger every day.
Today, besides me, this project is being developed with the same attention and degree of effort by my colleagues: Oleksandr Barinov, Chair of the Supervisory Board of the MGU and Yevgen Bondarenko, CEO of the MGU. There is no longer a shadow of doubt that TV channel “Ukraine 24” will be a stable leader for many years, will enjoy the success and trust of all Ukrainians, will serve society and create comfortable jobs for journalists on the market. We believe that this is exactly what its shareholder, Rinat Leonidovych Akhmetov, expects from the MGU’s new project.”
“Do you think that the talk show format has been greatly devalued in Ukraine in recent years since it became almost omnipresent? How are good talk shows different from bad talk shows, in your opinion?”
“From the point of view of a member the Supervisory Board of the MGU, Freedom of Speech by Savik Shuster is an example of a good talk show in Ukraine. It differs from bad talk shows in that good talk show is hosted by Savik Shuster and produced by Pavlo Yelizarov. Another good social and political talk show that I watch is called Main Topic. It is hosted by Olena Kot and produced by Yevgenia Fedichkina; she also makes the Friday news show Ukraine Tomorrow for Ukraine 24.
But there is hope that we will soon add some worthy positions to this short list. Right now, we are working to launch a range of political talk shows on the TV channel “Ukraine 24”.” On Wednesdays at 09:00 p.m., we will have Talk Show N1 hosted by Vasyl Holovanov, and on Thursdays at 09:00 p.m., we will have People Vs. with Natalia Vlashchenko.”
“Was the quarantine a challenge or an opportunity for Ukraine 24? How did the team work under these conditions? What has changed in the work of the editorial office?”
“Basically, quarantine is a disaster for the editorial office. Journalism is about people, it is always a scene... Everyone should communicate with each other, live as one family, this is fun. And when you bring a bunch of new people to the newsroom, half of them are wearing masks, and people cannot meet; when they shy away from each other, one has to invent new forms of communication. When the lockdown affects the plan for the development of a new newsroom, one has to wait. So the quarantine was not easy for us from the point of view of development. And in this sense, I am happy that we were implementing exactly that type of scenario along which we began to move. Supposing Ukraine 24 was developed as a stand-alone start-up, this would lead to the situation when we would have to postpone our ambitions indefinitely. And since we did this within the MGU and with the help of our team, we have definitely achieved success.”