Television

"Under CAS the consumer will pay far more for far less" : Manu Sawhney Managing Director ESPN Software India

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In 1995 when ESPN came to India, not many had thought that it would become a force to reckon with where sports' broadcasting was concerned. And the presence of Star Sports, another sports channel, did not make ESPN's job any easier. Both fighting over telecast rights of sporting events for the Asia and Indian sub-continent region had telecast rights fees spiralling northwards. Then came a tactical joint venture with the Rupert Murdoch-controlled Star, which resulted in ESPN Star Sports (ESS).

No more fighting for the same market, let us share the booty, seemed to be the logic behind the JV. Today ESS can safely say that between the two channels the joint venture company is having a ball. And feeling the heat are the newcomers like Sony Entertainment TV and Dubai-based Taj Sports, which manages Ten Sports.

Having bagged some 805 days of additional international cricket rights from round the world - except the ICC-organised cricket for two cricket World Cups - next year and in 2007 - and some other tournaments - ESS now has reasons to smile.

Indiantelevision.com's Anjan Mitra caught up with ESPN Software India's managing director, Manu Sawhney, for an interview in which the ESPN man gives some glimpses of things to come on the two sports channels, especially ESPN.

Excerpts from the interview:

ESS has bagged the Octagen-CSI cricket telecast rights, involving five cricket playing nations, but how true is it that these rights are being termed as "leftovers"?

We have put all speculations to rest as far as cricket telecast rights are concerned. What leftovers? The sheer numbers are overwhelming. As far as international cricket and the ICC go, there are 153 days of international cricket (through five key properties, including the two World Cups). Compare this with what we have. ESS till 2007 now has the telecast rights of 1108 days of international cricket. Is this leftovers?

So, what you are trying to say is that competition from the likes of Sony Entertainment TV (which has the telecast rights for the ICC-organised cricket, including the two World Cups) is totally wiped out. Correct?

That is how you are putting it. I can only give you numbers which speak for themselves. Even in the 153 days of cricket that competition has, ICC has classified the cricket days into A, B and C categories where matches involving nations like Namibia and Canada too will be telecast. On the other hand ESS has telecast rights of eight out of 10 cricket boards. The cricket matches of the cricket boards which we have include Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe, West Indies, Pakistan, England and Bangladesh. You judge for yourself which one is better.

But ESS doesn't have the extravaganza called the cricket World Cup which the competition has. How do you explain that?

Well, you know that we also bid for the rights, but after some period of time it became apparent the cost did not make business sense. Our latest acquisition, I think, is very exciting.

Is the latest acquisition of ESS restricted only to satellite rights, or does it mean you also hold terrestrial rights as well?

We have exclusive standard and non-standard (terrestrial, MMDS, etc.) telecast rights for the footprint of Asiasat-3 satellite, which covers almost 53 countries. But, I must admit that ESS does not have the terrestrial rights for Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan for these 805 days of cricket that we have bagged.

"We also bid for the (ICC) rights, but after some period of time it became apparent the cost did not make business sense"

How are you going to exploit the properties that you have acquired and what is going to be the marketing strategy?

I can't tell you our whole marketing strategy. But what I can say is that the new acquisition ensures us unparalleled leadership position, especially in a country like India where cricket is almost like a religion. What we are going to do is to ensure that we dish out compelling and high technology fare which will enthrall the viewers and advertisers alike. We will also use other compelling features like a programme with cricketing genius Sachin Tendulkar and the whole range of new programming is likely to be unveiled in a couple of weeks time.

Will the cricket matches be shown on both Star Sports and ESPN or ESPN will retain a majority of the cricket matches as also the revenue accusing from the telecast ?

The rights have been acquired by ESS, a joint venture company, and the matches will be shown both on Star Sports and ESPN. The revenue will go into the account of the joint venture company.

How much investment has ESS made in the latest cricket acquisitions?

I cannot reveal this. It is confidential.

Would you deny that close to $ 200 million have been shelled out for the latest cricket acquisitions?

No comment.

Is the figure being bandied round on the higher side or is it much lower than that?

No comment. But it is sound business investment which will help ESS retain its leadership position.

Apart from making big ticket cricket acquisition, what else is up ESS' sleeves?

It is a two pronged strategy where we continue to acquire compelling and live telecast rights of other sports wherever available, be it soccer or tennis and then to continue to innovate through programming around such acquisitions like Harsha Online or the Sports Centre news. The strategy is to have a good mix of live and non-live programming.

Which are the other exciting non-cricket properties that ESS has?

Just to give a few examples, we have the Australian and US Opens and Wimbledon where tennis is concerned. Then we have Formula 1 races and the NBA where basketball is concerned. In golf, we have the US Open and the PGA Tours.

What sort of revenues have been flowing in recent times if we compare last year's figures to this financial year (July-June)?

The revenue growth has been robust for ESS and both the joint venture partners are committed to this market. The Indian market has contributed quite well to the overall revenues of ESS that includes both subscription and advertising revenues. But I cannot give out any figures to the media.

As a broadcaster, what are your views on conditional access system?

As a concept it has generated lot of heat and dust and it is understandable because various issues are involved which need to be examined before any legislation regarding CAS is brought about.

As part of a joint venture, which handles two pay channels, are you opposed to CAS or for it?

As a concept we are not opposed to CAS. Especially because sports programming in an addressable environment has tremendous potential here like anywhere else in the world. But, as I said earlier, there are other issues too which need to be looked into. For example, nowhere in the Bill has the issue of piracy or quality of service (by cable operators) been addressed or even referred to. The Bill assumes that cable operators will provide a good service and deliver it at the consumers' doorsteps. What if that does not happen? Today, there are standards for everything, why not also for the quality of service being provided by the cable operator?

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