Television

"Compelling content will always be watched!" : Ronnie Screwvala UTV group CEO

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His affable manner complements his shrewd business sense. UTV group CEO Ronnie Screwvala is literally one of the survivors who has seen many crests and troughs in his career.

Screwvala was involved with the first organised cable venture in Mumbai. He started cable TV way back in June 1981 - Network was a three-hour video channel that showed movies. The cable channel started off by providing content to some homes in Maker Towers in the posh Cuffe Parade area of Mumbai. The young entrepreneurs charged Rs 200 per month and soon had thousands of households in the area subscribing to the services.

Screwvala has recently recast his business operations with three major focus areas - the content services division, the creation division and (what they term) the pipelines. Under services, activities such as ad film making, selling airtime on DD or for the Sun group is included. TV production is being clubbed with the content creation division. Animation is an opportunity that the group is bullish about. The other activities include activities such as dubbing in multiple languages, airline in-flight films amongst others.

Screwvala says that UTV has always believed in a multiple revenue diversified model. However, a balance has to be maintained in terms of ensuring rigid discipline in each of the diversified offerings, he says.

Perhaps, this diverse portfolio has helped the production house to survive the test of time even when others such as ABCL, Multichannel and Plus Channel have not.

In a freewheeling conversation with indiantelevision.com's Ashwin Kotian, Screwvala touched upon various issues.





Excerpts:

Let us start with the hot topic of today - CAS. What are your views?



Everybody knows that CAS is a good move but everyone has an issue with it's implementation. From one or two channels in 1984 to 100 channels in the new millennium is a long journey.

It is time for a lot of corrections in the old system that has prevailed till recently. For instance, the cable business should have been operating using economies of scale; the consumer should have been paying reasonable rates. Today, the consumer has no say. During the recent blackouts in different parts of the country, the consumer was powerless to demand. The amount of money the consumer was paying didn't give him any bargaining clout. The consumer was at the mercy of the cable trade.

But the process of implementation has raised questions. Most of these are perception problems - consumers feel that they will end up paying more. There is this debate between digital versus analogue. Insufficient attention has been paid to research on the process of transforming the unorganized cable networks into an organised business model. I feel that everything will be smoothened out in the next 18 months or so - to be very realistic.

In a country like India, one can never have a 12-month plan because everyone goes to sleep the moment extensions are given. However, the preparations and clarifications should have come much earlier - in order to emphasise that the government is keen on implementation and at the same time was willing to grant time to the trade constituents. Significant changes such as CAS and VAT cannot happen overnight.

DTH seems to be more realistic but will run into other sorts of problems. Also, DTH can never be an option to cable. As far as broadband operators and convergence companies are concerned, they are talking about revenue sharing models. They won't be able to attract production houses with this kind of an arrangement.

Do you feel that the implementation could have been done in some other way?



I feel that a key link has been totally ignored. The cable operators should be forced to obtain a licence. At present, all cable operators need are permits from Posts & Telegraph department, not even the municipal authorities, because they operate through their cable control rooms located within the premises of a cooperative housing society.

The society decides the destiny of the cable operator and this will remain unchanged even after CAS. If there is a licencing regime, two players will be operating in the same area. Market dynamics will come into force and prices will automatically undergo rationalization; value additions will become a norm.

The monopoly issue has still not been sorted out by the current CAS model. In many ways, the consumer still doesn't have choice or complete freedom. The intention of moving towards a structured conditional access system is a good one but the decision makers have missed an important link by not invoking the licencing regime.

Another problem with the current system is that the MSO with the largest number of control rooms gains some kind of an advantage and clout. In the licence system, the MSO will have to apply for licences and there will be more accountability.

Do you foresee any changes from the broadcasters point of view?



At present, uncertainty is prevailing but one thing is certain. Broadcasters will have to ensure that each of the individual channels within a bouquet or cluster will have to rise up to the challenge of luring the consumer.

Also, broadcasters can no longer afford to be rigid and will have to change their mindsets. I am confident that the present bouquet rates (for bundles or for individual channels) will no longer remain the same going forward. Reductions are bound to happen as more consumers decide to opt for set top boxes.

The increasing number, though it may be a slow process, gives some kind of an assured revenue for broadcasters. Broadcasters can be flexible if they know that they are getting X amount of revenues. However, broadcasters have to realise that it is a long journey to reach the 35 million household mark. Mirror channels could be a temporary phenomenon but it won't be a practical solution in the long term.

Broadcasters have already starting talking about reducing remuneration. Are you being overpaid?



We are definitely not being overpaid. The results are there to be seen on the screen. Over the last few years, the quality of content delivered by TV producers has improved dramatically, not just on the leading channels but across all channels.

More power to programming will become of the order of the day. Broadcasters need to beef up content rather than talk about cutting costs. The fact remains that broadcasters aren't overpaying for content. The demand and the accent will be on getting more programmes into Top 100 lists.

Every broadcaster will realize that the more programmes they have on the Top 100 list - the better it is for them as consumers will opt for them. The Tentpole strategy (also read CAS: great mid-long term opportunities post short term challenges) will drive subscription revenues.

"In a country like India, one can never have a 12-month plan because everyone goes to sleep the moment extensions are given."

Is your programming exposure higher in C&S than in the national broadcaster Doordarshan (DD)?



Currently, our mix is tilted towards C&S channels with 80 per cent focus on C&S versus a 20 per cent exposure on Doordarshan. However, in the coming months, we are going to have more exposure to DD.

This is not merely due to the CAS environment but because DD has opened up. We have seen lots of changes in the recent months and some of the new policies seem attractive. As far as airtime sales are concerned, we have a 50:50 mix on DD National channel and its regional offshoots.

Do airtime sellers face a lot of problems due to non-receipt of payments from advertisers? How can this be sorted out?



Collections are always a problem but one has to proactively tackle the same. The IBF has to take charge and protect airtime sales agents. I feel that a 75-day period is good enough and people who don't pay till then should be declared defaulters. Of course, everyone does their homework and keeps a tab on the pathological defaulters.

So, what is the next big idea in TV programming?



A hit programme or a strong and successful entertainment brand is never a planned breakthrough. The winning combination has always managed to strike a chord in people - something that is relevant in that particular time or place or phase. One keeps trying till one strikes gold. As far as the viewers are concerned, whenever they experience fatigue, they try something else and make that particular formula popular.

"A hit programme or a strong and successful entertainment brand is never a planned breakthrough."

Are viewers tired of soaps and saas-bahu dramas?



Soaps will never go out of fashion. The question is "how much and how long can they be stretched"? Remember that a viewer cannot watch the same kind of programmes - say saas bahu soaps or reality TV or comedy - for four hours every day. There has to be a variety of offerings and things need to change in order to give the audience a new thrill every hour. Also, things in the offerings need to change - from four walls to outdoor locales to action to something else. The success of Des Mein Nikhla.... shows that viewers want to move away from the four-walls format.

What about comedy?



I feel that the comedy genre is looking up. TV producers have failed because they have always associated comedy with the Johnny Lever brand of comedy - which is a pretty successful formula in feature films. But it hasn't worked in the TV domain. If you notice - a programme like Tu Tu Main Main had shades of saas-bahu formula.

We undertook this experiment of running Khichdi without a laughter track - a first of it's kind endeavour. Every day, we used to debate whether we should add the laughter track or not. For the first 12 weeks, we were mulling over the laughter track. The programme started picking up loyal viewers. Finally, we realised that there was an audience that was mature enough to accept our offering and enjoy it without being "forced to laugh".

"When Zee arrived on the television scene, it had specifically asked producers to come up with programmes for children. It wanted to create a young Zee - a channel brand that would differentiate it from the rest."

What about children's programming?



Since the advent of television, producers haven't really given children's programming its due. By children's programming, I don't mean cartoon programming. Perhaps, the producers and broadcasters didn't have the right orientation because rating agencies never considered the below 12-year olds. In fact, the success of Zee Horror show can be attributed to children who used to watch the programme regularly.

However, my experience says that whenever anyone came up with some good concept targeted at children it has always been received well - the Mathemagic show for instance.

In fact, when Zee arrived on the television scene, it had specifically asked producers to come up with programmes for children. It wanted to create a young Zee - a channel brand that would differentiate it from the rest. In many ways, it was successful too and there were at least eight programmes catering to that genre. In fact, Junglee Toofan Tyre Puncture was a very successful programme. Shaka Laka Boom is representative what would work in modern times - also the genre of daily comedies is relatively new to India.

We have been asked whether our recent offering Shararat is positioned at children... but I would maintain that it is targeted at the older audiences.

What are the other opportunities in programming?



I feel that studio based shows will make their comeback in India. Remember, they are popular all over Europe and other developed countries. Somehow, people love to talk and express themselves - be heard and hear others. Communication is an inherent part of human nature. A lot of channels seek non-fiction programming - documentaries as a genre still has to take off in India.

We are well-positioned to offer content to different groups of channels - for instance a BBC or a CNN or a Star World or an NGC or Discovery. A lot of interesting work is being done in the international market and within a short time, the mature Indian audience will seek such shows. We are tapping the export market aggressively.

We have been approached by a Canadian producer to work on the Asian Cuisine show. This is a feature that focuses on South East Asian countries. We shall be shooting eight episodes that will talk about Indian cuisine and then there will be capsules on Hong Kong Singapore and other countries. Most probably, the show will be shown on Star World.

What is your view on reasons why telefilms haven't made it big in the Indian context?



Telefilms are a very difficult category. Even in the US, it took a long time to become popular. I feel that HBO played an important role by conceptualising a show like Sopranos. Remember, that HBO managed to break ground with the show - as a cable channel, it could take a lot of liberties. Things that were taboo for the satellite channels that were governed by the then existing laws of censorship, could be shown. In a way, the brashness and the crassness was a welcome change.

Later on HBO went a step further with it's original productions. Just imagine a telefilm like Band of Brothers shot on a large scale! Despite Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, it didn't get the kind of success that it deserved.

Yes, telefilms are a difficult nut to crack. A lot of right ingredients have to be mixed for the right brew. One needs a little bit of luck too.

"I feel that Flash is the next big opportunity at least for India. Flash provides the same look and feel as the other animation genres but at one third the cost and one third the time."

What about the recent controversies wherein Indian TV producers have been accused of copying western concepts and ideas without paying for the copyright?



I can't remember having chosen any format wherein we have indulged in blatant copying. Remember that all programmes "inspired" by foreign content has to be adapted to suit the Indian psyche - otherwise it is bound to fail.

At UTV, we make sure that we always take utmost care about copyright related issues - whether it is Snakes and Ladder (Saap Seedi) or C.A.T.S or the Wheels of Fortune. We have paid the licence fees and tried to do everything the right way. But remember, that one can find similarities in everything. For instance, LA Law, Practice and Ally McBeal (all of which follow one another) all have a common thread running through them. However, any person who blatantly copies sequences from the original work will definitely be noticed - whether in feature films or in the television arena.

What about the animation business?



Animation is a very expensive proposition. In fact, abroad, animation programming is given more importance than other shows.

At present, we are doing five serials in 2D, 3D and Flash animation - Untalkative Bunny, Toad Patrol, Key Dark, Monsters amongst others.

I feel that Flash is the next big opportunity at least for India. Flash provides the same look and feel as the other animation genres but at one third the cost and one third the time. It requires more detailing. Also, one needs to have a bank of at least 26 episodes before one goes on air. Therefore, it is an expensive proposition. Also, Korea and Taiwan have stolen the march over India and have a clear cut lead in 2D and 3D. Indian professionals are good but they are not trained for key elements of the animation business such as speed and delivery schedules.

In the case of Flash, all the three countries are equally placed and have the same advantages and disadvantages. Everyone in this business is on the learning curve at this point of time.

"We missed a golden opportunity in the 1980s when Gandhi won many honours. We should have opened up the industry then to the western world."

What is your take on the Indian film industry? Will UTV produce crossover films?



I feel that crossover films is a much hyped up word. Monsoon Wedding and Bend it like Beckham were films made by foreign directors (who stayed abroad) using foreign stars. Agreed that they might have been shot in India, but they still cannot be branded as crossover films.

A crossover film makes money in diverse markets across the globe - for instance even today the Greeks won't agree that The Greek Wedding was a crossover film. It raked in revenues all over the world wherever it was released. There are 10 plus film festivals around the globe and Cannes is just one of them. It received a lot of attention due to Aishwarya Rai and the perception of India as an exotic place.

But for most of the film world outside, India is still a black hole. There isn't much demand or interest in Indian themes or content. Also, remember that India hasn't produced a truly global star - Australia has a Nicole Kidman or a Russell Crowe who are popular across the globe. Of course, India has potential and it will take five or seven years for us to catch up with the rest and make it into the big league.

I feel that we missed a golden opportunity in the 1980s when Gandhi won many honours. We should have opened up the industry then to the western world.

As far as UTV is concerned, we are doing pretty well. We have projects such as Shah Rukh Khan's Chalte Chalte, JP Dutta's LOC and Farhan Akhtar's Lakshya. The movie business will account for 15-20 per cent of our group turnover despite the fact that we have several big projects on hand.

As a producer-distributor , aren't you disturbed when new films are show on cable channels within days of release?



There are several issues related to reporting the infringement and subsequent prosecution. First of all, one has to catch cable operators in the act; the producer has to take cognizance; and the third is the issue of abysmally low conviction rates. In India, things would improve tremendously even if we get 10 per cent conviction rate. There is a distinct lack of will to enforce. The music industry has done pretty well and we should adopt the same procedures. Also multiplexes have changed a lot of things. The ancient producer-distributor arrangements and MG models will have to be relooked at on a constant basis.

However, in these days of 110 to 150 prints, the life of a film in the theatres is very short. Earlier, films used to run longer because there were lesser prints in circulation. I feel that current negotiations will definitely lead to a workable compromise between the producers and the distributors.

What about the recent changes in UTV's management structure? (Read Management restructure of core portfolios at UTV )



As far as the recast is concerned, we have the right combination in place now. We shall constantly review and things will evolve.

What are your future plans?



I don't rule out the possibility of the group starting our own niche (special content) channel. The post-CAS environment is conducive to starting a special interest channel. We are examining all the possibilities but haven't drawn up a final business plan as yet. But the time is right.

Compelling content will always be watched. A film like Gone with the Wind earned $40 million whereas Star Wars bagged $600 million. But the former was and will always be more popular and etched in memory.

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