"Sports is one of the biggest interactivity drivers" : Manu Sawhney Managing Director ESPN Star Sport

It's been a while out of the spotlight for ESPN Star Sports, what with the Champions Trophy last September and the World Cup in March. On the level of bread and butter programming upstart Ten Sports and its WWE wrestling is proving a tough opponent.

That apart, ESS still remains the most powerful sports broadcaster in the country in terms of distribution strength and advertising muscle.'s correspondent Ashwin Pinto caught up with ESS' Managing Director Manu Sawhney on the sidelines of the announcement for the inaugural edition of the Electrolux Wisden International Cricket Awards. Sawhney spoke about the current impasse with Hinduja Group MSO, CAS, the leverage ESS is hoping to gain from the Wisden alliance, and programming innovations, among other things.

Is there a slim chance of a resolution in the near future to the ongoing impasse with InCablenet? 

Look we genuinely believe that there should be a resolution. As you are aware there is a contract in place. There is a contractual obligation between both the partners. The contract was signed in January 2002 and it was valid till December 2003. It very clearly lays down the monthly subscriber base, the price and the monies that are to be paid to us.

Nothing much has happened from our end. We have not asked for any escalation. The terms of the contract have remained unchanged and over the last couple of months InCablenet has stopped honouring the contract. It is clear case of a signed and agreed to contractual obligation not being met by InCablenet. 

We don't understand what the matter is. The fact of the matter is that they are charging their consumers. It is unfortunate that an organisation that talks about being at a certain stature is not willing to fulfil contractual obligations despite receiving money from consumers. The discussions are open. We have tried to open the lines of communication but have still not heard any firm commitment from them in which they would like to come and make sure that consumers are not deprived of the channels they have paid for.

Why aren't the consumers pressuring InCablenet?

The consumer needs to ask InCablenet, 'What right do you have to charge when you do not show?' I think that consumers have called up our and Incable's offices. Unfortunately cable monopolies exist wherein the consumer is held to ransom. He has to pay and there is no other option for him to get other services.

Other cable operators are not able to provide services. It is these monopolies that InCablenet is today using against its consumers. They continue to charge the consumer the same amount of money while at the same time refusing to offer services.

I think that such kind of reneging of contractual obligations is a matter, which will hold even more importance in the coming environment of conditional access wherein the cable operator, or MSO is charging them the fee and is not willing to part with the contractual obligations which he has entered into. Unfortunately consumers are caught in the middle of this. On one side they have to contend with a monopoly. On the other side you have a situation where a subscriber has to pay InCablenet because they are the only service providers in those areas.

In a CAS environment we are very confident that consumers will pay the money for our channels. ESS represents the leading sports network in the country. We have managed to build a very strong brand equity with the Indian consumer by showcasing the best of international sports from across the world. With the kind or programmes we will have for years to come we are confident that it will give us an opportunity to extend the brand equity with our consumers.

Are there any other distribution hiccups?

We are in over 30 million homes at the moment. We do not face any hiccups. Besides I wouldn't call the InCablenet situation a hiccup. It is about a person not wanting to honour his obligations.

"The Wisden international cricket awards adds on to our great line up what we bring to the Indian consumer"

In a CAS environment what extra revenue streams do you see accruing for ESS and how do you see it faring? 

A CAS environment and the possibility of other new distribution avenues, platforms opening up like DTH, Ethernet based distribution networks provide a huge opportunity for sports networks, which are interactive in nature to come out with niche products. We could have interactive features around our programming which will have a strong viewership.

We are examining all the possibilities that exist for us like pay-per-view. We are at the stage where we are examining our plans, which we will share in the near future. Just by the nature of sports as a genre and the amount of content we have the future holds great promise.

Sports is a driver in a conditional access environment across the world. If you examine the US, UK, which are mature markets, sports is one the biggest interactivity drivers. Consumers and channels participate in value additions rather than just viewing and showing content.

Have the differences between the FTA channels like Sahara and pay channels like ESS been ironed out?

The different members of the Indian Broadcasters Foundation are all united. Collectively the first issue that faces us is reduction of duty on the set top box. We are all in the process of working out with the different constituencies, be it MSOs or the consumers to see that CAS implementation happens in the best possible manner.

As far as to whether the cost of the set top should be split between the subscriber, operator and broadcaster there are various business models that exist internationally. It depends on what elements are put in place. Today the relationship is between the cable operator and consumer. Since the provision for interoperability is not available it really is in terms of who is able to put the box there.

"I wouldn't call the InCablenet situation a hiccup. It is about a person not wanting to honour his obligations."
What leverage does ESS hope to gain form the Widen alliance?

The Wisden international cricket awards adds on to our great line up what we bring to the Indian consumer. It is a great platform for Wisden to be on as it gives them access to the millions and millions of ESS fans.

We are having discussions to build a microsite on wherein people can vote. The beauty of the site is that it has been very well integrated in line with our overall plans. It has developed a huge viewership and it has been successful in terms of our integrated marketing approach. The consumer should be able to experience, touch and feel the brand not only on air but also online, on-ground and on press. Innovations like Super Selector have made the site humongously popular.

Was the look, graphics of the channels used for interstitials changed in any manner during the past year?

We constantly look to innovate and come out with the best graphics that are available. ESS today clearly stands out year after year for setting benchmarks in sheer production qualities.
Have the formats for your news bulletins like Jason Dacey's SportsLine been changed in any way? 

Programmes like SportsCentreSportsLine have achieved a huge amount of consumer branding. We have tried to make them far more interactive, faster and pacier. We have also made a conscious attempt to increase their relevance. These are easily the highest rated sports news bulletins in Asia. Our aim is to give the consumer all the information he requires in the most comfortable manner.

Are you looking at increasing coverage devoted to other sports besides cricket? What are the prime properties you'll are looking at to hook viewers this year?

ESS is not a cricket channel. It is the best sports network in Asia. Our football coverage covers a wide area be it the English Premier League or the Spanish League or UEFA. In Tennis we showcase three out of the four Grand Slams. We are showcasing all Formula One races including pre and post programming. For Basketball we have the NBA, for Golf we have the Augusta Masters, US Open, the whole PGA Tour.

This year alone we are showcasing 257 days of live cricket. This is huge. However it is also important to note that today the Indian consumer is very discerning. He wants the best of international sport. He has matured. His interest has moved from just India specific cricket to cricket of the highest quality from all over the world. In addition the viewership in Indians for Golf, Tennis etc has been growing year on year. We believe that this trend will continue.

"Our pre and post coverage for sports like soccer has been boosted in terms of analysis, panel discussions. The aim is to extend the viewership band that exists beyond the live cricket into non-live programming "

Are you satisfied with the response that Star Sports' football soap has received? I am not sure that many Indian football fans would also take to the soap like a housewife.

This is a programme innovation we are trying for the first time. We want to gauge consumer reaction and also see if there is scope for the soap concept to be extended to other sports including cricket and tennis. The response till now has been positive. I am sure that while programming like this takes to grow if it is successful can give rise to resilient viewership on a day to day basis.

What other innovative show formats can the viewers look forward to?

Harsha Online will come in a new format. It has been edited down to half an hour. The ESPN School Quiz saw an increase in the number of centres and we reached 2000 schools. Also our pre and post coverage for sports like soccer has been boosted in terms of analysis, panel discussions. The aim is to extend the viewership band that exists beyond the live cricket into non-live programming.

"We have a whole lot of marketing and communication plans, which will build up towards India's tour of Australia"

Given the amount of investment that the channel has sunk in I am surprised at the lack of visibility of brand ambassador Sachin Tendulkar apart from the birthday celebrations of course. How are you'll going to use him?

We have showcased a huge amount of programming apart from just his birthday show. We started with Harsha Online. Then there were two shows India Vs and Sachin Speaks which was geared around the pre World Cup build up we were doing. This is not the end just the beginning. As far as cricketers are concerned (read Saurav Ganguly?) we are in talks with various players in terms of the value that they add to the brands and the relation that exists between the brands and them.

Next year Doordarshan will benefit immensely with teams like Australia visiting India. How does ESS plan countering this?

This is a question of the ICC calendar. This year we will air India's tour of Australia in December. Like I said earlier the viewer has matured and has gone beyond just India cricket. Cricket out of South Africa, New Zealand will reinforce our cricket programmes.

As to the possibility of eyeballs shifting to Doordarshan from us I do not think one can look at a single month in isolation. You have to look at the year as a whole and what cricket properties are there. Over the next five years we will showcase 1,100 days of live cricket.

How much research went into creating the animated cricket characters Anda Bhai, Gilli Swamy, Yogi and Runjeet Singh? Which companies are sponsoring these characters on screen? 

They have generated a lot of interest. A lot of research was done in terms of how we would integrate the characters vis-?-vis the Indian diaspora. Which region should we integrate them from and what values would they bring in that the local consumer would appreciate? Perfetti has sponsored them and interest is also coming in from the others.

Our decision on whether or not to create an animated Tendulkar or Adam Gilchrist character would be based on the extent to which it adds to the overall production viewing experience that we offer consumers. It is a question of how the consumer gets matured into a particular taste. We will do further research to see how we can build upon where we are right now..

What plans are afoot regarding ground promotions to give a better spin to advertisers?

There are a huge amount of marketing and promotional activities being done both above and below the line. For below the line we are doing activities across markets in the regional languages. For above the line there are contests. For the ESPN School Quiz we went through a huge amount of series in terms of doing that quiz on ground in six centres. For the India, South Africa, Bangladesh triangular series we had done that. We have a whole lot of marketing and communication plans, which will build up towards India's tour of Australia.

On the ad revenue front who are the major spenders category wise?

We have all the top spenders in the country in all categories be that in beverages, automobiles, two wheelers, white goods. So whether it is TVS, Bajaj, Hero Honda, Pepsi, Coca Cola, Samsung, LG, Perfetti we have all the large Indian advertisers.

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