Television

'We have a 3-tier growth plan and are eyeing a bn viewers internationally in 3 years' : MD & CEO - ZEE Punit Goenka

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For Subhash Chandra the last 20 years has been one man‘s war. He has allied and fought against Rupert Murdoch, fallen and bounced back in winning spirit, triumphed over the competitors, and grown a media empire that can make anybody proud. A nationalist to the core, he has a strong footprint in all the value chains of the media business and stands independent in a media landscape that is occupied by the multinationals.

When in my early years of journalism, I remember the day I rushed to my editor. I told him that I heard from a source that the merger talks between Chandra and Murdoch had snapped. He told me to go ahead with the story and I was afraid that I could be proven wrong.

I felt happy that the divorce took place. Some may call this a sadistic pleasure but it made me feel nice that my story in The Financial Express was right and, more importantly, allowed me to observe the growth of a warrior who was blessed with intuitive powers, strong business acumen and an innate ability to get into untapped areas.

Chandra showed his true colours very early in life and in 1991 got the better of Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing who asked for $5 million to lease a transponder on AsiaSat. He signed a deal with Richard Li a few months later that would kick-start his Zee empire.

Zee‘s unchallenged growth from its origins in October 1992 halted in 2000 when Murdoch‘s Star launched Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) and the three Balaji ‘K‘ soaps. Chandra‘s convergence game also went nowhere and kicked in losses. But Zee expanded into the regional language markets and Chandra also ventured into online lottery with Playwin.

The rebound in the Hindi entertainment business happened slowly. Chandra appointed Pradeep Guha as CEO in 2005 and inducted his son Punit Goenka  into the organisation.

Zee Telefilms Ltd (ZTL) got demerged in late 2006 into Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd (Zeel), Zee News Ltd (ZNL), Wire and Wireless India Ltd (WWIL) and Dish TV (DTH). He acquired Ten sports and has a growing sports broadcasting business.

Chandra‘s sprawling empire is not just in India but has strong positions in different corners of the world with his Indian content.

Even in 2012, Chandra is not in full retreat. He has passed on the baton to his son but is still around. His overwhelming personality can‘t be missed in the Zee office.

Asked to "get off the fence" and "get in the game" as head of Zeel in 2008,Goenka has proved that he definitely is his father’s son. He ended the rivalry with Murdoch and formed a distribution joint venture company in 2011 to correct revenue leakages and lift subscription revenues. He has identified growth areas in regional, international and new media. His target: to reach a billion viewers internationally in three years.

Punit (as he is called by his colleagues in the Zee group) is hungry to grow his charge; whether it is sports broadcasting, entertainment, overseas or in niche genres. In a tete a tete with Indiantelevision.com’s Sibabrata Das, he speaks pretty forthcomingly about the road ahead.

Excerpts:

Q. When did you first realise that your father was building a media powerhouse in India and that you would be part of this momentous history of television broadcasting?

For over 12 years, he was practically handling the business by himself. He was running around, surmounting all hurdles, and being a pioneer in all ways to spearhead private satellite television in India. I never thought I would run this kind of organisation. But when he told me to get into it, I quickly became a part of the Zee culture and liked it.

Q. Now when you look back, do you see any lost opportunities amid this explosive growth of the company?

The company has grown so rapidly in such a short span of time that it completely overshadows everything else. Zee started in 1992 from a single channel network and two hours of original programming - and look at where it is today! In fact, the first ten years were maddening growth. We have grown to 31 channels spread across genres, languages and geographies. Our international business is also very healthy. And today Zee (read Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd) is one of the top ranked Ebitda delivered companies in the media sector.

Q. What did you feel when the joint venture with Rupert Murdoch collapsed and your father bought out New Corp‘s stakes in Asia Today, Patco and Siticable?

The split was bound to happen. Murdoch violated the JV agreement and began to show Hindi content. The pact prescribed Star to focus only on non-Indian language programming. When Zee bought out the JV companies, it was a proud moment for all of us.

Q. You broke this 12-year divorce three years after you took charge as CEO of Zeel and inked a JV agreement for the distribution business. What made you overcome the past enmity?

We formed Media Pro Enterprise to correct the faulty distribution structures of the analogue cable TV business. It took us almost a year to finalise the agreement. The purpose is to fix the problems of the industry. There are revenue leakages in the distribution business and broadcasters get a small share of the subscription income collected by the cable networks.

The media industry has matured and we are living in a period of history when there is need to both compete and co-operate. That is what Star and Zee are doing in India. And it has been beneficial for all the partners. Zee and Star were growing their subscription incomes from domestic cable by 6-7 per cent when they were handling the distribution of their bouquet of channels independently. But both the companies are seeing 15 per cent growth from cable subscription income in the first year of operations of Media Pro itself. We are happy with the way Media Pro is shaping up.

‘The industry can’t survive on ARPUs of Rs 180. Broadcasters have heavily subsidised the content cost to support the DTH companies to grow. A similar trend is happening in digital cable‘

Q. Media Pro is currently distributing 75 channels and more launches are planned by the JV partners. Won‘t this be too heavy a load and the logic of a distribution JV become irrelevant in a completely digitised television carriage-services environment? Are we completely different from the rest of the world where broadcast companies manage their carriage agreements independently?There is no reason why we can‘t work independently in India as well. In a transparent environment, there may not be a need. In any case, the JV agreement is only for five years. We will weigh the market conditions then and take a call after that.

But having said that, Media Pro has been set up not to just take care of revenue leakages. There are other challenges in the distribution side of the business. The industry can‘t survive on ARPUs (average revenue per user) of Rs 180. Broadcasters have heavily subsidised the content cost to support the direct-to-home (DTH) companies and allow them to grow. A similar trend is happening in digital cable. But content is worth much more and we will have to lift ARPUs.

Q. Zeel gets subscription income of Rs 4.58 billion from content supply to 20 million paying DTH customers while domestic income from analogue cable is Rs 4.14 billion. What is the potential revenue growth from cable after the networks are digitised?

We expect healthy growth in subscription income over the next few years. As the cable TV subscriber universe becomes transparent, the paying subscribers will automatically become much more than DTH. Zee will be able to monetise its digital cable subscribers and the revenue gains will be significant. ARPUs will also have to go up.

Q. Since you have taken charge of Zee‘s broadcasting business, what are the future growth engines that you have identified amid new challenges of digitisation, audience fragmentation and competition from multinationals and big Indian corporates who are tiptoeing into the media business?

We have identified three-tier strategies for our growth. On the domestic front, regional will drive growth for us. We will participate in fragmenting the regional markets. Our launch of a Bengali movie channel, Zee Bangla Cinema, is part of this game plan. We are working on other genres and in other languages.

On the international front, we plan to expand our reach from 650 million viewers to 1 billion viewers within three years. We will not just restrict our focus on South Asian audiences; we will have to address local audiences in those geographies as well.

We have identified Middle East as a key market for us and intend to invest between Rs 1 billion and Rs 2 billion over the next two years. We have just launched our second Arabic channel, Zee Alwan. This will complement Zee Aflam, our first Arabic channel that shows Bollywood movies dubbed in Arabic. We plan to invest $100 million in that market.

Q. What made Zee so bullish about the Middle East market?

We had success with Zee Aflam which is a profitable channel. We are also look aggressively at growing in Russia (digitisation by 2014 in that market) and Africa. Russian audiences love Bollywood and our drama content. Besides, we are doing extensive research for the Indonesian and Malaysian markets where we are growing in single digits.

Q. Is new media a big growth piece for you?

Yes, this forms the third pillar of our future growth strategy. We have launched our over-the-top (OTT) television distribution platform, Ditto TV, in India and plan to take it to the rest of the world next year. We also have India.com and will continue to offer content across leading genres. With these content formats and advanced distribution avenues, we intend to target new audience segments. I cannot give you a number (in terms of investments or revenues), but we are committed to see that these businesses become successful.

 
‘On the domestic front, regional will drive growth for us. Internationally, we plan to expand our reach from 650 mn to 1 bn viewers in 3 years.New media forms the third pillar of our future growth strategy‘

 

Q. Digitisation will throw open a lot of growth opportunities. Will we see a more aggressive Zee launching new genre channels and addressing new geographies as distribution costs fall?

We are getting into the kids TV segment and will be launching Zee Q. The content will aim at ‘learning through fun and entertainment.‘ In the past year, we have already launched six channels.

But only the four metros will have digital cable. The real action will start in the second phase of digitisation when we go to the smaller towns. We have not studied the potential yet. We will have to wait for knowing the impact after the first phase of digitisation rollout. And then possibly you will see a flurry of channel launches.

We will also have to keep in mind what we are launching and whether it is going to cannibalise on our Hindi product. And let us not forget that there may be free-to-air (FTA) opportunities in the broadcasting space as well.

Q. Zeel is sitting on a cash pile of Rs 11 billion. Will you acquire channels to grow in a digital environment?

We are looking at acquisition opportunities if they come at the right price and make business sense for us. But we are also aware that it is cheaper to build.

Q. Zee has always been conscious of its costs and its Ebitda margins from non sports business is around 34 per cent and is higher than Star‘s. But with plans to increase original content hours on flagship Hindi GEC Zee TV and more channel launches in the pipeline, will Ebitda margins fall?

There should be some fall. Even in this fiscal, we are increasing our original content from 24.5 hours to 32-34 hours. This in itself will amount to a rise in content cost by 14-15 per cent. Our revenue in the first quarter of this fiscal has also seen strong growth.

Q. Zee has already renewed the South Africa and Zimbabwe cricket boards at around 10 per cent inflation cost. But Star has bought out Disney‘s stake in ESPN Star Sports and Sony, deprived of the BCCI rights, will be hungry for acquiring cricket rights. There is also the threat of ESPN entering the marketplace after the two-year non compete contract with Star is over. So will we see Zee bid aggressively to renew the rights for the three boards that are going to come up?

We are in active negotiations with two boards. But we will be aggressive up to a reasonable level. We realise that sports is a strategic business for us. It gives us dedicated youth and male audiences and adds to our viewership base.

Q. Will forex fluctuations affect the earlier target of the sports business turning around in FY‘14?

Yes it could, as most of our sports content is contracted in dollars. But we expect our sports business to come out of the negative zone. We also realise at the same time that sports broadcasting across the world is a low Ebitda margin business.

Q. Is Zee News Ltd planning to launch an English-language general news channel?

At ZNL, we are working on our English language strategy. We believe the news channel business will go through a phase of consolidation.

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