Star’s news partner ABP charts expansion plan

MUMBAI / NEW DELHI: The Rupert Murdoch-controlled Star’s news partner ABP Group is drawing up expansion plans envisaging niche news channels, film production and a sustainable online and mobile business model.

The Kolkata-based media company is also said to be mulling hiving off its English newspaper The Telegraph into a separate company to be able to attract investments from financial institutions, both domestic and foreign.

That a blueprint of business expansion by the group is being readied was confirmed to by the Sarkar family-controlled ABP Group’s president Pramath Sinha.

Asked about the Indian languages being considered for expanding existing TV news business, Sinha said, “We are currently exploring a number of options, but have not firmed up on any particular choices yet. Language options include English, Marathi and Gujarati, among others.”

More importantly, he said that the ABP group was “examining the strength of some thematic niches (read TV channels)” where a final decision will be taken based on the “long term prospects” of each of these and after “discussions” with Star.

Hong Kong-based Star group, News Corp’s pan-Asian venture, is a 26:74 joint venture partner with the ABP Group for owning and managing news channels in India. The JV is called Media Content & Communications Services Ltd (MCCS).

Presently, MCCS runs the Hindi Star News and Bengali sibling Star Ananda, which is co-branded on the names of the two companies.

The expansion plans were shared by Sinha in a lengthy presentation to senior colleagues last month where the basic refrain was that the ABP Group can aim to emerge as the Time Warner of India, straddling various segments of the media and entertainment industry.

When Sinha was asked by whether the company was also looking at foraying into the entertainment side of TV business, he did not deny it outright. “Our core competence is in the realm of information TV and that will be our first priority. However, we are open to exploring other options in consultation with our partner, Star TV,” he said.

Though, according to Sinha, it was “too early to comment” on forays in film production, he admitted, “(We’re) still examining whether it makes sense.”

Will the group look at acquiring an existing film production house or set up an entity for this? Sinha replied, “We are open to both approaches in all our businesses.”

Apart from these, the group is likely to start its FM radio operations in the second half of 2006, having bagged a licence for Kolkata through Ananda Offset, a group company.

Print medium and online plans

The ABP Group, which owns Ananda Bazaar Patrika, the largest circulated Bengali daily, and The Telegraph, the largest circulated English daily, in West Bengal, is looking at expanding existing business operations to leverage new technologies.

Having launched a WAP edition of The Telegraph in August 2004, the group is bullish on doing the same with its other media products to make the online and mobile business sustainable.

“Given the tremendous growth in mobile subscribers, we are very committed to offering value to our readers, viewers, and listeners through this medium. All our brands are or will rapidly become mobile-friendly,” Sinha says.

The business model would range from revenue sharing (with telecom companies) to advertising to simple subscription, Sinha explains, adding that at this point all this is more of an “essential component” of offline offerings, which complements the traditional delivery channels.

Still, what has excited many ABP doyens and senior journalists are talks about The Telegraph being hived off into a separate company, attracting funding from financial institutions for expansion and giving the newspaper a more national look with editions from places outside West Bengal.

The possibility of publishing The Telegraph from Delhi and Mumbai has been debated within the group for over a decade. However, dwelling on hiving off The Telegraph from ABP, in true corporate style Sinha said, “This is speculative and I have no comment.”

In the mid-1990s, the ABP Group had hived off its business newspaper Business Standard into a separate entity and finally sold it off to Kotak Mahindra, primarily a financial and banking company. Presently, London’s Financial Times holds approximately 14 per cent equity stake in Business Standard Ltd.

But what about investments to fund expansion plans aimed at monetizing existing and proposed services and products? “Cannot comment,” Sinha cryptically says.

As an afterthought, he adds, “In today's day and age, this question (on quantum of investment) is irrelevant. There are enough resources and more than enough opportunities. The critical issue is having the right people to make (the) stuff happen. I believe we have an excellent team in place to achieve our goals.”

The ABP Group owns and publishes the likes of Ananda Bazaar Patrika, The Telegraph, business weekly Businessworld, Bengali literally and women’s magazine Desh and Sananda, respectively, apart from a kids’ magazine.
A snapshot of the portal

It also has business interests in MCCS, and Heyya, which is a mobile internet portal. Does that make ABP ready don the mantle of the Time Warner of India?

“Who would not want to be that? It is great that you think us worthy of the question. But why not? We have a great starting point,” Sinha exults.

He adds, “First, we are one of the oldest groups in the country - several (media) companies of our vintage have gone extinct over the years. Second, we are one of the largest in terms of size, not just in print, but across media and entertainment we would be clearly among the top 10 in the country. Third, and most importantly, we are the most diverse --- from dailies to TV, from radio to WAP.

“And, our diversity is not for diversity's sake alone. Each of our properties are the leading ones in their genre. That is a great starting point that only we can claim.”

Time will only tell whether promoter Aveek Sarkar’s patronage and Sinha’s business acumen combine to make dreams into full blown realities.

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