Television

"Fi"Only the telecast of India cricket (live) on any other channel has ever been able to displace us from our number one position" : Chris McDonald TV CEO

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When Ten Sports from Abdul Rehman Bukhatir's Taj Television stable launched last year it was greeted with a fair share of skepticism. After all ESPN Star Sports (ESS) had a firm grip over the sports broadcasting sphere and with Max stepping up cricket coverage there were doubts as to whether India really needed another sports channel.

However the channel has certainly enlivened the scene. Its first major event which was the coverage of last year's football World Cup, gave it visibility throughout the country for relatively less investment. Once the event was over, it was able to keep itself in the mind of the viewer primarily through World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) content. This has helped it compete favourably with ESS. It also tried to do more than just showcase cricket by serving up diverse content such as Gamer TV and Robot Wars.

All this is not to say that it has been tardy when it comes to the bat and ball game. It recently acquired the rights for West Indies cricket. Should India go through with their tour of Pakistan next year, Ten would be looking at a major windfall. Indiantelevision.com's Ashwin Pinto caught up with Taj Television's CEO Chris McDonald via email and got him to dwell on the channel's progress, how the presentation of its content is different from what ESS and Max do, the major changes that have been taking place in the sports broadcasting sphere as well as why it chose not to employ a brand ambassador, and more.

Excerpts:

It has been over a year since Ten Sports launched in India. What are the major lessons that have been learnt?

It was our belief, prior to launch, that in order to create a viable 24 hour sports channel, we could not rely solely on Indian cricket. We knew alternative sports had to be developed. The reinforcement of this belief over the last one year can be termed as our biggest learning.

We have succeeded in changing the rules of the sports television business with our "Sports Entertainment" programming philosophy and programmes like WWE, Legends, Cricket Classics, Sharjah Gold, Robot Wars, Gamer TV and Weird World of Sports. To all this, we added sports with solid and growing popularity in India, such as hockey (Champions Trophy) and motor racing. This came in the form of Narain Karthikeyan at the Nissan World series, and The World Rally Championship (WRC). Both of them consistently outperform Formula 1 on our competitors. For instance, if you look at TAM figures for January -October 2003 (six Metros, c&s 4+) our coverage of WRC had a peak TVR of 0.5. ESPN's coverage of Formula 1 had a figure of 0.2. DD Sports' Racing World also notched a peak TVR of 0.2.

We also showcase horse racing, and cricket at India relevant timings from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Sharjah and Morocco. In summary, this programming mix has catapulted Ten Sports into the leadership position by a distance. As a matter of fact, only the telecast of India cricket (live) on any other channel has ever been able to displace us from our number one position.

To what extent have the distribution hassles that you experienced last year during the Football World Cup been ironed out?

The 2002 FIFA World Cup coincided with the launch of the channel and hence was an establishment phase for Ten Sports. We were pay from day one. Over the last one year, we have established ourselves as a channel relevant to the consumer every day of the year and not just dependent on one off, India cricketing events.

This has resulted in Ten Sports being present across a majority of cable and satellite homes across the country. A quick glance at our strong reach and rating figures confirms just that. For instance, if you look at the figures for January -October 2003 (six Metros 4+) our coverage of the French Open Tennis championship in May had a peak TVR of 0.6. Star Sports' coverage of the US Open in August- September had a peak of 0.1. DD Sports' airing of the ITF Mens tennis circuit peaked at 0.2.

In what way has the definition of being a sports broadcaster expanded and changed since your stint with ESS?

When ESPN and Star Sports joined hands in 1996, they enjoyed a virtual monopoly and concentrated on how to generate maximum revenues. The customisation of their channels, beyond cricket, did not happen.

Things started to change in 2000 with Doordarshan acquiring the rights for cricket played in India. In 2002, sports television came of age with the launch of Ten Sports and Sony acquiring the rights for the ICC World Cups. The need of the day was to develop other sports beyond cricket given the high price of cricket rights. That was the tough part and is an area we at Ten Sports are very proud to have succeeded in.

"We've broken new ground in India with live coverage of horse racing from India, Dubai and the UK as well as the first ever live telecast in India of the Tour de France cycling"



Goldberg's antics on WWE Raw keep viewers hooked

Besides wrestling content, what are the other properties you'll are looking at to bring in the ratings?

We are fortunate that, because our parent company organises the Sharjah and Morocco cricket events, we have a firm base of guaranteed live cricket, in addition to all international cricket played in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the West Indies.

Our endeavour is to also develop other sports properties, notably hockey, to become part of an established sporting calendar. Our next initiative in this regard is to show hockey's Olympic qualifiers from Spain in February which features India, Pakistan, Netherlands, Spain and Great Britain, followed by the Champions Trophy hockey in November.

We have made a major committment to motorsport through the world rally championships, where we have enjoyed ratings in excess of those of Formula 1, and we will extend this coverage in the coming year to live Sunday rallying. Our live coverage of Narain Karthikeyan in the Nissan World Series also continues. We've broken new ground in India with live coverage of horse racing from India, Dubai and the UK as well as the first ever live telecast in India of the Tour de France cycling, which had a great response. We will be extending this in the months ahead as well.

It is not just about live sport though. Documentary series such as the award winning History of Football help to inform and educate viewers about international sport. The idea is to create awareness of sports stars from different areas, both in India and in the rest of the world. If we successfully do that then we can help popularise other sports.

In what way is the manner in which Ten Sports presents content like a cricket match different from ESS and Max? Are there any value adds for the viewer?

Cricket is a religion in India and the biggest value add for any viewer is top of the line coverage of the sport. This is what we bring to the table at Ten Sports - top quality pictures and excellent.

We also believe in having fun with cricket when the occasion is light, as was the case during a recent exhibition match between Pakistan and the rest of the world. During this match we had Dean Jones, who was also a commentator with us, wired up and interviewing the batsmen, umpires and fellow fielders while on the field and also while he was batting.

What are the major changes happening in the broadcast rights market? Have acquisition costs gone up or down this past year?

The rights costs for popular sports like cricket may well rise given the popularity of the game. However there are many other factors which could help or hinder that increase. The key in acquisitions is the vision to identify potentially popular sports and invest behind the same for a substantially long period of time.

A case in point is hockey. Ten Sports had telecast the 2002 Champions Trophy because we believed it could develop into a high profile sport like cricket and soccer. Our belief has turned into reality with the strong performance of the 2003 Champions trophy. The coverage of quality hockey will continue with the live telecast of the critical Olympic Qualifiers in March 2004, followed by The Champion's Trophy in December 2004. This strategy of acquisitions remains the same for other sports like horse racing and motor sports.

"The key in acquisitions is the vision to identify potentially popular sports and invest behind the same for a substantially long period of time"
What role will new delivery mediums like broadband downloads play in your revenue stream?

Broadband is an alternative form of distribution to cable and DTH. So we welcome the opportunity to expand the viewing base of Ten Sports throughout the country. We will obviously look to create more interactive elements for this medium.

Will there be greater experimentation in the content format of sports channels? For instance, Star Sports airs the soap Dream Team.

Yes, experimentation in content for sports channels is here to stay. The idea is to broad base sports and the same is in sync with our programming philosophy of "Sports Entertainment."

Programmes like Gamer TV, Robot Wars, and Techno Games have been an essential part of this philosophy right from the launch of the channel. Focus studies done on the core target group for sports television, Males 15+, reveal that this programming has resulted in the channel being perceived as a "cutting edge", "youthful" and vibrant. In fact, as a result of the programme Robot Wars on Ten Sports, over 200 robots were created in India by budding Techno Whiz kids and were sent to London as entries for the show.

In the US, ESPN has a High Definition channel. Do you foresee this technology coming to India within a couple of years?

Yes, viewers certainly would enjoy the high resolution pictures and crystal clear audio which is the hallmark of HDTV. The broadcasters have to, in turn, provide HD signals. So it may take some time, but it will come.
Is Ten Sports looking at co-organizing sport events in India?

We are open to organising sports events and will take it up if we arrive at the right project.

"We at Ten Sports believe in looking out for media options and committing to marketing spends only if the same cannot be achieved using our own channel"

Although it is still early days are you planning to get involved with next year's Olympic coverage in any manner?

We are evaluating this opportunity.

When CAS does happen, does research you have conducted indicate that enough people are willing to pay for Ten Sports?

Ten Sports, with its programming strategy, has rewritten the rules by consistently out performing all the news channels and English entertainment/movie channels, week on week. We have been able to move into the same league as mass entertainment channels like Zee TV and Sahara TV, which was traditionally possible only with live India cricket.

Also, Ten Sports has proved to be the most favoured vehicle for sports viewership with similar sports getting higher ratings on our channel. This performance demonstrates the fact that Ten Sports will be the first choice sports channel in the CAS scenario.

What are the main value additions that you'll look at offering viewers in a CAS environment?

The biggest value addition we will be offering the consumer is the number one sports channel in the country at a much lower price in comparison to the competition.

Ten Sports has been rather quiet on the marketing front compared to ESS and Max. Is this a deliberate strategy?

We at Ten Sports believe in looking out for media options and committing to marketing spends only if the same cannot be achieved using our own channel.

This is not to say we don't invest behind marketing. When we do so, we exploit the strength of the channel and the property we are promoting so as to accentuate marketing spends.

A case in point is the 2002 FIFA World Cup where we leveraged the strength of the property and tied up with outlets across the country for screenings in return for committed advertising spends by the outlets. Another example of the same was for Champions Trophy hockey. The success of Champions Trophy was in part the result of a clearly planned marketing and programming effort by the channel. Knowing very well that people react to/support characters and stars, Ten Sports built up the hockey players as characters by using some facet of their playing skill.

The channel produced 20-30 second interstitials around this theme for each player and ran them on the channel much before the tournament actually began. Some of the examples are - Dhanraj - The Wizard and Jugraj - The Dragon. Additionally, we ran a campaign called "My heart beats for India" which had some of the most important people in Indian hockey talking about their most memorable experiences while representing the country. As with the FIFA World Cup, we also tied-up with high traffic outlets in major cities across the country where consumers could go and cheer for India while watching the match on a big screen.

Would a brand ambassador be looked at?

A brand ambassador is usually signed on so as to satisfy an existing "need gap" in the brand, by borrowing off the ambassador's positive values. At this stage, Ten Sports has managed to maintain its equity with the consumer without the help of an ambassador.

This fact has repeatedly come to the fore from the various consumer research we have conducted. This however, does not rule out the use of a brand ambassador as and when we feel it is required.

Finally, do you expect a boost in revenue from advertising and subscription in the near future?

We have a fantastic line up of sporting action ahead in addition to all of our very successful the regular programming. Now, with the India tour of Pakistan we are very optimistic about 2004.

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