"The news channels will make profits by the end of the first year" : Sumit Roy Sahara India deputy director

The Sahara India Parivaar, estimated to have a turnover of Rs 160 billion, has this knack of getting into the news and, most of the time, for all the wrong reasons. The group's media and entertainment business, a growing revenue stream for the diversified conglomerate, has been no exception to this rule.

Critics had sniggered at the group's foray into the domestic airlines business some years back, but have been more or less silenced since then due to the creditable performance. Similarly, when the Sahara group decided to dabble in media products, starting off with a Hindi language daily, the critics had pointed out that it is another flight of fancy of the group's managing director, Subroto Roy, who prefers to call himself the managing worker much to the chagrin of critics who claim that the group doesn't have any creditable HR policy.

Then came a Hindi general entertainment channel! Critics crowed that Sahara's media & entertainment business was just another ploy by the Roys to give themselves some power, the likes of which is wielded by the Jains of the Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd., or the Birla-Bharatiyas of the Hindustan Times Ltd. or the Kasturi family of The Hindu. Sceptics also pointed out that Sahara's flirtations with media would end soon. The speculations have died out now that Sahara has emerged as a serious player in the media business in the country.

One of the reasons for such an all-pervasive notions about Sahara may be because the group's senior executives, leave alone Roy, seldom interact with the media. Instead, Roy prefers to throw lavish and star-studded parties (attended by topnotch editors, of course) which become the talk of the town and regularly get featured on page three. But for a change, the Sahara group decided to open up a bit and talk about its media & entertainment business.

In this rare interview conducted just before Christmas, Sumit Roy (no relation of the promoter family), a deputy director in Sahara India and head of the group's media & entertainment business discusses with's Anjan Mitra the future prospects of the company, the reason for attempting to launch 30-odd region- specific news channels (Sahara plans to invest close to Rs 6,000 million on the whole news project) and, more importantly, the yearning to be taken seriously, whether it be in general entertainment or in the news category. Roy, as per his own admission, is not new to media as he has been handling the media and organising press conferences from the time he joined Sahara almost 16 years ago.

What is the status of Sahara's news channels projects?

Let me make this official. We have plans to launch 30 plus news channels which will be targeted at various regions of the country. The first two: the national news channel and Sahara Samay Uttar (meant for the state of Uttar Pradesh from where the promoters hail) have been slated for launch in February.

Then, between February and June 2003, some of the other news channels will also be launched in a phased manner. In the pipeline are Sahara Samay Mumbai (which will also cover part of the state of Gujarat, apart from Maharashtra), channels meant for the other Hindi-speaking states like Rajasthan, Bihar and National Capital Region (covering Delhi and surrounding areas). So, basically we are looking at six region-specific channels, plus the national news channel by June.

Let me also assure you that the work on the first two channels, slated for February launch, are at an advanced stage and the progress is satisfactory. I am also told that some dry runs for training purposes did start some days back.

Did the company bring Vinod Dua in because the whole venture was getting delayed because of internal politics and differences between the various channel heads?

Certainly not. You journalists love to speculate even when the facts are far away from the truth.

Really? But Sahara has not denied the stories that have appeared on these lines in the media, including the one on

I don't know what exactly appeared on, but I did see some other reports that were pretty wild. It is a documented fact that (Vinod) Duaji has been brought in as an advisor and this doesn't mean or suggest that the company's management does not have faith in the channel heads.

"Our aim will be to offer products which will be as good as BBC and CNN. "

That's exactly the point. If you have faith in the channel heads, then why bring in Vinod even as an advisor?

Duaji has had a long association with Sahara and he was responsible for the first news and current affairs programming introduced on Sahara TV. Our managing worker thought of formalising the relationship with Duaji and he was named the advisor to the news project. But let me tell you; Duaji's presence in no way undermines the importance of the channel heads, which include Arup Ghosh (incharge of the national news channel); Prabhat Dabral (incharge of the news channels meant for the Hindi heartland); Rajiv Bajaj (incharge of the Mumbai channel); and Shireen (incharge of the NCR channel). The team spirit is very high and everybody, including Duaji, is working towards a common goal.

Sahara's media ventures, especially the news channels project, have been plagued by delays in what looks like a classic case of failing to deliver on promises made. The announcements were made in 2000 whereas the delivery will be in 2003. When will Sahara clean up its act?

The delays you are talking about were all perceived delays. The first general announcement was made in 2000; we made a definitive announcement earlier in 2002 and we'll be starting off in February 2003. I don't think that is time enough to be called a delay for a mammoth project like this. Tell me, who else is setting up such a vast infrastructure nation-wide? V-sat networks, human resources, equipment. The logistics are huge and need time to get sorted out. The equipment that we are getting, and have got, are not available off the shelf.

Despite the best of our efforts, some things are out of our hands. Let me give you an example - people from the (foreign) companies which are working on the technology aspects, like EMP and Omnibus, want to go on holiday at this time of the year. We cannot stop them as Christmas is around. Moreover, our plans too underwent some changes over a period of time. Broadcasting is a dynamic situation and thanks to our managing worker's vision, the group realised that a different approach has to be adopted for the news channels project. Instead of having a national news channel, it was thought to be better to have several region-specific channels to cater to the huge demands of small advertisers (for a viable advertising platform in the electronic medium) as also the needs of various categories of audiences in this vast country.

We are in a unique position to cover the country via our 30 plus news bureaus and other outlets. That's why I'd say that the delays you are referring to are all perceived delays considering the logistics of the project.

Since you are launching region-specific news channels, I am sure the group has done some market research. What would be the advertising market size that you are targeting?

Some research has been done though I cannot tell you all the details. But the findings show that the needs of the Indian audiences are different from region to region. Moreover, the retail market in India, according to published reports, is around Rs 32 billion and that has encouraged us to tap the regional market through regional-specific news channels. I'd be unable to tell you about the size that we are targeting because these situations and figures constantly fluctuate. But there is certainly a market to be exploited. Moreover, after September 11, 2001 there is a hunger for news programmes in India and around the world.

Distribution of satellite channels has always been a challenge for broadcasters in India, especially if they are not part of a bouquet, as is evident from the low penetration of the general entertainment channel Sahara TV. How is the group tackling this issue where the news channels are concerned?

I agree that this is a big issue, but we are closely working with the cable fraternity to counter the issue of low penetration for Sahara TV as also the distribution of the proposed news channels. Since the news channels will be transmitted on digital mode (from Asiasat 3S satellite), set-top boxes would be needed to access those channels. We are evolving schemes whereby cable operators will get the boxes without adding to their existing expenses. Schemes are being finalised. But the boxes would not be given out free.

"We are looking at launching Hindi and English weeklies, including three English weeklies, for the markets which will be targeted by the 30-odd news channels"

Has the market been already seeded with STBs for the news channels?

The process is on and the boxes are slowly going out. We are looking at distributing about 1,000 boxes for the Uttar Pradesh channel not just in UP, but also in Maharashtra where we have found there is a demand for news from UP. For the national news channel, about 5,000 boxes would be distributed initially.

So, you have realised that distribution is a problem. Apart from pleasing the cable fraternity, what else is being done?

We have also realised that we need driver programmes on Sahara TV to pull in the viewers which will create a demand for our channels. A new programming strategy is being put in place. There are programmes in the pipeline which feature Karisma Kapoor as also Sridevi. We hope that such programming will do for us what Kaun Banega Crorepati did, for example, for Star Plus and the demand from viewers will get us to the top (read - on prime band). By middle of January or so, you'll see a Sahara TV with a brand new contemporary look and new programming. I promise you we'll come back with a bang.

Sahara has set up an earth station on the outskirts of Delhi for uplinking its channels. How much of investment has gone into this and will the uplink facility be used for in-house purpose only or also rented out to outside broadcasters?

The investment is typical of that made in uplink facilities, but I cannot give out exact figures on the investment made here or in the news project. What I can tell you is that the uplink centre is state-of-the-art. And we have too much on our hands to think of doing something else with the facility.

What sort of branding and positioning is Sahara looking at for its news channels?

Can you tell me what sort of branding or positioning that Star looked for when it started Star News? Our aim is clear : address the mass(es) with class products. If you insist, we are trying to have satellite newspaper editions on television with the advantage of having a national edition too. Our aim will be to offer products which will be as good as BBC and CNN. Advertisers from Bihar to Faizabad (in Uttar Pradesh), from Devas (in Madhya Pradesh) to Pune (in Maharashtra) can all come on to our channels and get mileage for their products without burning holes in their pockets.

"I feel DTH is not going to be a successful proposition in India. "

But don't you think that there are already products like Zee's Alpha channels and ETV's language channels, not to mention Doordarshan's vast network of regional channels, tapping the regional advertising market which will pose competition to Sahara's news channels?

I don't think those channels are a competition. Our model is different and we are confident of ourselves. For Sahara, media is more of a mission than business. We don't want to wield powers through our media products, though the group has faced pulls and pressures from various quarters many times.

Mission and not business? You mean to say the group is into the media business and investing so much in the electronic medium out of charity and the purpose is to serve the people only?

I am not saying we are here to do charity. What I am trying to say is that we will not do anything by hook or crook. We believe in ourselves and we are sure of our bottom lines. We shall make profits by the end of the first year.

Is Sahara looking at making forays abroad with its media products?

We have definitive plans to enter the markets of the US, UK and Canada by 2003 or early 2004. Our experience in places like Dubai (where Sahara TV is available) has shown us that there is a market outside of India too. Talks are on at the moment with companies abroad to distribute Sahara TV there. The broadcasts will also contain news and current affairs programming apart from entertainment fare. We may either distribute the channel ourselves or hitch up with some company (or companies) there for distribution.

Apart from the electronic medium, what are the plans for the other media business that Sahara is in?

We are looking at launching Hindi and English weeklies, including three English weeklies, for the markets which will be targeted by the 30-odd news channels. The launch may coincide with TV channel launches or may be done slightly after the TV launches. The process of finalising the launches are on and we are still debating the brand name to be used for the weeklies.(Sahara group brings out a Hindi daily, Rashtriya Sahara, from several centres, including Delhi.) Then, we have plans to increase the number of editions of the Urdu daily to include centres like Kolkata, Hyderabad and Mumbai.

What is Sahara's stand on conditional access?

At Sahara, we believe that CAS is a positive development and were amongst the first to support the government on CAS. There have been some instances when the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (the apex body of broadcasters operating in India) has held meetings of only pay channels leaving people like us out on CAS. But we feel that CAS will be beneficial to all the stakeholders of the industry: including broadcasters, cable operators and viewers.

The only objection we had to CAS implementation is that the government should not decide on the channels to be carried as part of the basic tier of free to air channels. The government should decide the minimum number of channels (in the basic tier) and the maximum rate for the service. We have communicated these views to the government.

But if, I repeat if, we feel Sahara is not benefiting from CAS and not taking advantage of it, then we may need to change our strategy.

Is Sahara TV or the news channels looking at turning pay to increase subscription revenue post-CAS?

Not at the moment.

Does Sahara have any plans where KU-band DTH service is concerned?

Not at the moment. But, personally, I feel DTH is not going to be a successful proposition in India.

Why is Sahara group's HR policy so maligned and criticised? Any improvements in the near future?

I don't subscribe to the view in the first place at all. The group functions like any other diversified company. Look what happened to the critics of the Sahara's airlines service? Now, along with Jet Airways, we are one of the sought after airlines (in the domestic circuit). And the success for that is largely due to all those who work there as a team.

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