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Star, Sony urge easing of government controls to spur growth

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MUMBAI: They may be fierce rivals. However, one point that both Star and Sony agree on is the need for the authorities to stimulate growth in Indian television and not focus on excessive rules that would only serve to create entry barriers.

This point came out strongly on the latest edition of BBC World's new show Business Bites. Hosted by UTV CEO Ronnie Screwvalla, the episode that aired on 22 August featured Star India CEO Peter Mukherjea and Sony Entertainment Television India CEO Kunal Dasgupta.

Both expressed worries that the authorities (broadcast regulator Trai or the government as the case may be) were putting too many controls in the system. This would subdue growth, they argued. As Mukerjea pointed out, ''Regulation ought to be looking to drive further growth in the industry."

Star India CEO Peter Mukerjea Another topic that came up for discussion was DTH. Mukerjea however, warned that for growth to happen DTH operators would have to change the current perception about DTH being urbane, elitist and expensive. "DTH is suitable for everyone as long as the pricing of the product is kept at a sensible level. I see the DTH market being big enough to accommodate two players not including Prasar Bharati. If the government sees DTH as the way forward then it should fast forward applications. From the consumers' point of view, they are not bothered about the mode of delivery whether it is DTH or cable or broadband. Choice is important for them," he said.

Sony Entertainment Television India CEO Kunal Dasgupta Dasgupta pointed out that DTH could create competition to cable. "We need alternative delivery systems. DTH is one of them. DTH offers the opportunity to pick up premium subscribers. Some non broadcasters could use DTH as a way to get into the television business which is fine." Dasgupta was also of the opinion that adult entertainment should be allowed under DTH, arguing that the set top box had parental controls as well as a usage monitor.

On the vexed issue of providing channels to different DTH platforms (a major sore point with rival Zee's Dish TV), Mukerjea made an interesting observation. According to him, while "certain types of channels would be exclusive to certain platforms, they will not be mass entertainment products (as in Star Plus and the like) but more niche offerings." He gave the examples of golf and fishing channels in this context.

As far as the current cable pricing was concerned, Mukerjea admitted that it is realistic considering the Indian ground realities. He however, felt that there was an opportunity to move beyond the current levels. According to him the way forward was to give consumers choice.

Dasgupta added that the Trai price freeze had outstayed its utility. "It has been eight months and between then and now 10 new channels have been launched. By the end of the year another 10 to 12 channels would launch," he said.

Queried about the regional language space, Dasgupta indicated that Sony was not too keen to enter that arena for the present. While the investment required is substantial the market is just not big enough, Dasgupta said. "The size of each regional language is not exciting enough. It does not travel globally. Let the market grow in size. Then we will acquire companies that specialise in regional language proposition. This will be better than investing in a losing proposition for years and years," Dasgupta reasoned.

Star on the other hand has been waiting to solidify its position in the Hindi space before moving on. "For us there was the danger of missing the agenda on the Hindi market when you spread yourself across several languages. We are now well embedded in the Hindi market. We have also been waiting for the regional language market to grow." Mukerjea said.

Another thing unlikely to happen soon is a shakeout in the television space. As Dasgupta pointed out, the new entrants have carefully and intelligently studied the programming on air and also the gaps that need to be filled.

Regarding the kind of content that will grow in popularity the forecast is for migrating formats to happen with greater frequency. "Whether these are ideas that are lifted and looked at from other parts of the world or formats working elsewhere we try and put them into the Indian marketplace with Indian sensibilities, characters and story nuances. This along with movies and music will be the mainstay of Indian television. They will form the backbone of general entertainment," Mukerjea said.

Dasgupta added that whenever Sony adapted a show from abroad it had never been a straight copy. " A strong localisation is the answer. We pay a lot of attention to localisation and audience sensibilities. Also the challenge before us is a fragmented market. Within the general entertainment space there are 15 choices. The situation earlier was that you had the mythologicals where you would not see a single soul on the street on Sunday morning. There is no programme today that can do that apart from an India-Pakistan cricket match. With all due respect Star has done a brilliant job of sustaining viewership in such a fragmented market."

Dasgupta added that Sony's strategy is, if you cannot beat them do not join them. "You cannot do more of the same or you will be fighting for the same eyeballs. You have to constantly change the cycle and broaden the viewership base."

The question over whether channels should be allowed to be both pay and ad driven was also raised. Dasgupta pointed out that when you have a situation where $ 2 dollars is being paid for 100 channels then what is each channels share? "The channels that operate on a (pure) pay basis operate are premium channels."

Mukerjea noted that ad revenue was not sufficient to spread across the channels. "So a secondary service (as in subscription) is almost essential."

In his concluding comments, Dasgupta said market segmentation through addressability would come in at some point.

Mukerjea stressed on the need for less regulation, not more if growth was to be sustained.

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