The World: Western magazines tap huge Indian potential

Liberalisation in the Indian magazine market has opened the door to foreign companies such as the BBC.

Less than a year after entering the Indian market following the liberalisation rules that govern foreign ownership of media, BBC Magazines - the UK's third-biggest consumer magazines publisher - is hatching plans to launch a further ten titles as part of a sustained expansion strategy.

The magazine arm of the BBC, which sells 100 million magazines in the UK every year and owns eight market-leaders, entered an equal partnership with the Times of India Group last December to form Worldwide Media.

Under the deal, Worldwide Media took over the publishing of 29 of the Times of India Group's titles, including the market-leading women's magazine Femina and the Bollywood film title Filmfare, and will launch selected BBC titles in the future. The first BBC title to hit stands in India was the motoring title Top Gear, which was launched in 33 cities.

While it is still early days for the venture, the BBC Magazines managing director, Peter Phippen, claims that after only two issues Top Gear has become India's best-selling car title and has display advertising sales to match.

In the absence of ABC circulation figures, this claim is based on market intelligence. But whether or not it has taken the top sales slot, its rivals Autocar, BS Motoring, Overdrive and the two new market entrants Car India and Bike India are understood to be troubled by Top Gear's positive reception.

One media buyer says: "For some time, the motoring magazine sector in India has been ripe for the launch of a title with the type of editorial environment that Top Gear can provide."

With a 10 per cent rise in sales year on year in the UK, Top Gear is swiftly becoming a market test case for the magazine publisher as it looks to international expansion.

Its Indian debut follows the launch of eight licensed editions of the magazine in the past year in Russia, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, The Netherlands, the Middle East, Korea and Romania.

But as the only BBC title to emerge from the joint venture to date, market rumours have suggested that sales have fallen short of anticipated targets against a decline in circulation in some magazine sectors in the market.

Phippen denies this and says Top Gear is only one of ten further launches Worldwide Media is planning in India in the next five years.

"It's highly likely that the pace we are expecting to maintain will be two per year, every year, for the next five years," he says.

While the initial round of de-regulation that allowed the BBC to invest in India grabbed headlines, the market has since been through a further process of liberalisation. Although this has not affected the rules governing media carrying news and current affairs content, the limit on foreign equity has moved up to 74 per cent in non-news and current affairs media.

This is tempting other inter-national media organisations to India. Last week, Dennis Publishing announced it was set to launch an Indian version of Maxim in a deal with Media Transasia.

In many respects, the Indian publishing market is vastly under-served, especially given the rate at which the middle class is growing.

Media sector growth figures also illustrate the growing demand for news and entertainment media among Indian consumers. The entire media sector is currently expanding by 22 per cent, with print media growing by 11 per cent.

Devashish Sarkar, the Worldwide Media chief executive, says that with 80 per cent of ad revenue in India's entire magazine sector being spent with only 17 magazines in four or five categories, the market is ripe.

"There is a huge opportunity in almost every sector," Sarkar says. "People are just beginning to scratch the surface."

As a model for other publishers planning to enter the Indian market, Worldwide Media may hold several important lessons.

The BBC has helped the company redesign its 48-year-old title, Femina.

Sarkar says: "It had fallen a little behind other brands (in design terms) that were coming in.

"With the help of the BBC, the magazine has a more contemporary look. This is being done alongside a new marketing campaign."

But the rate of growth in media and the promise of a population of 1.1 billion potential readers belie a more sobering reality. The watchwords for investing in India, like China, are "long-term potential".

Phippen says: "We have to balance current reality with an understanding of the pace of change. In a market of more than one billion people, the 'consuming class' with sufficient money to spend on non-essentials is 150 million to 200 million people.

"This is a relatively small proportion of the whole, who live mostly in the conurbations, are well-educated white-collar workers and speak two to three languages. They have little disposable income for luxuries and leisure activities compared with the West, but that is changing rapidly."