Television

"The entertainment channel should be occupying the No 2 slot by March next" : Sushanto Roy Sahara India's media and entertainment division CEO

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When the 20-something Sushanto Roy was named CEO of Sahara India's media and entertainment division, sceptics tittered that it was father and chairman Subrata Roy's way of rewarding his eldest son. A natural succession plan. The critics within and outside the organization felt the atmosphere would get more worked up as the CEO, who also belongs to the promoter's family, would be more aggressive and riding roughshod.

But far from it, Roy Jr is not only a chip of the old block, but is also easy going and free of airs that may come with the post. He has often surprised his colleagues by just walking into a room or a luncheon sitting unannounced and sans any pretensions. Moreover, like his father, he also doesn't get easily ruffled by needling, especially prying media that is looking for chinks in the armour. And they certainly have some ammo to work with in the low TRPs Sahara's Karishma The Miracles of Destiny, touted as the biggest and costliest TV serial made till date, is throwing up.

However, his easy going way is not be mistaken for lack of understanding of the business or anything else. Rather, even senior professionals have found Sushanto's suggestions valid in the group's media and entertainment division. But because he is young, he himself does not want to push and hurry things.

In this interview with indiantelevision.com's Anjan Mitra, Sushanto Roy discusses the disadvantages that the Sahara TV channels face and also how he plans to overcome them, apart from holding forth on the media business of the Sahara conglomerate that, he feels, is growing exponentially.

Excerpts:

What is your view of the company? 

At present, we are doing a lot of things and work is going on at a feverish pace. The other region-specific channels are in the pipeline and hopefully at least two of them, for Madhya Pradesh and Mumbai, should be on air shortly.

Finishing touches are also being given to radio broadcast plans for which we have booked space on Worldspace's satellite. Then, of course, expansion is taking place in the print medium where some more region-specific broadsheets are to be launched.



All in all, things look fine, but we cannot get complacent as it can lead to our downfall.

What exactly is the status of the radio broadcast project about which we have been hearing for quite some time now? 

We have booked three transponders for the satellite radio broadcast. We plan to have one music channel, one news or rural news channel and may use the third one for our group's internal networking purpose.

The project under Sahara Swar is likely to take off sometime early next year. We still haven't decided whether to have a news and current affairs satellite radio channel on the lines of BBC radio or get into mass communication in rural areas. If we get into the rural market with agriculture news and information for farmers and people of rural India, we expect that the government too, would come forward with some financial help and support.

Still, the group's not finally concluded whether the news channel would be purely on the BBC lines or try to give back something to society too.

Which segment of the media and entertainment business --- print, news channels and the entertainment channel--- is driving the business? 

Of course, it's entertainment. We derive about 80 per cent of the revenue from the entertainment channel. But if you ask me to give a break-up between entertainment-related business vis-?-vis news (whether print or electronic), then I'd say the ratio is 60:40 in favour of entertainment.

Lots of starlets and Bollywood film heroines are associated with the group in some way or the other. Did the group get into the media and entertainment business because of the glamour attached to it? 

Not really. Glamour is an offshoot of any media business. You see the glamour in people from the film industry, but you don't see the work they are doing too. Had it not been the group's credibility, would a top actress like Karishmaji (Kapoor now Kapur) accepted an offer to do a TV serial?

An entertainment channel certainly brings in the revenue, but it is the news channels that gives you the power. It gives you a platform to make a statement. An ideal combination would be entertainment and news, but to maintain that combination is very difficult.

Do you feel that the advertising market is big and strong enough to support this huge expansion in the electronic medium that is taking place in India with Sahara making a major contribution? 

We at Sahara certainly feel so. The retail rural market has to be tapped effectively as it offers a huge market. Local newspapers and cable channels have been doing that in a way, but an organised effort is worth it.

If you see the local cable channels have already started dipping into this retail market kitty and other national news channels too are clamouring for a share of this pie.

We did our own market research and the study reinforces our view that the rural retail market has not yet been tapped properly. The study shows that the Uttar Pradesh market (where Sahara Samay is already airing and streaming channels for cities like Kanpur) is worth Rs 450 million per annum, the Madhya Pradesh market (where the test signals of the Sahara's news channel is on at the moment) is worth about Rs 400 million, while the likes of Bihar and Rajasthan too are worth between Rs 200-Rs 300 million. The big markets, of course, are Delhi and Mumbai, which we estimate to be in the between Rs 1,800- Rs 2,500 million each.

Even if we fail to tap the whole potential, a sizeable amount too would bring in good revenue over a period of time.

Any particular initiatives being taken by Sahara to effectively harness the rural retail advertising market?

We have several initiatives in this regard. One of them is to also offer small advertisers Sahara's expertise to devise an ad for television channels. The creatives would be done by our Delhi or Mumbai office for that small town pansari's shop who had never dreamt that he would see his shop's ad on television. We may not do this for free and a nominal fee would be factored into the overall pricing. But this way, we'd not only help smaller advertisers get onto TV, but also establish a bond with them.

This particular initiative is likely to be started in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Mumbai in about two months time.

"We did our own market research and the study reinforces our view that the rural retail market has not yet been tapped properly"

The Sahara news channels started off with a bang and were getting good ratings. But, of late, it has been seen that the news channels have been heading southwards. Why is the reverse gear in operation? 

I agree when we started around March we did so in style and initially we also lived up to expectations. Maybe, of late, we have slipped a bit, but a mid-course correction is being effected to make our news channels that much more appealing to the audience.

Having agreed that the news channels are slipping a bit, what do you think should be done to get that zing back? 

I feel that we are no less than any other news channel where it comes to news bulletins. But we, probably, did not go beyond the news bulletins and explore the current affairs segment properly. Not only has there to be speed and nip, but we have to go beyond the usual rounds of analyses. We have to give that extra bit to the audience to make them come back or stick with our news channel even after the news bulletin is over.

I also feel that a bit of entertainment needs to be brought into the experience of watching a news channel.

Does that mean reporting more on Bollywood and entertainment? And, won't that dilute the news channel's credibility as a serious player ? 

Not really. What we want is to make the news channels such that there may be viewers at any given time. Not only hard core news, but information about local events and their coverage too, should be part of the news channels', especially region-specific ones, fare.

The moot idea is to have a product that would connect with the people.

So, Sahara is not only focusing on current affairs, but also trying to broadbase the appeal of the news channels. Would that mean increased outsourcing also? 

Yes, we are developing on the current affairs side. That is one area which we had neglected a bit, probably.

We are also talking to a few producers for some programmes. But nothing has been concretised as of yet. Karan Thapar is one person who has submitted a proposal and we are currently examining it.

What is the budget that the group has set aside for outsourcing current affairs work? 

It is not very huge or big, but we would end up spending between Rs 100 million to Rs 150 million per annum on such outsourced work.

What is the big plan for Sahara Manoranjan, the entertainment channel? 

A few months back we realised that there has to be a strategy in place for the entertainment channel to really take off and break free of all shackles. 



As part of the game plan we decided to bring the people and stars from the big screen on to the small screen. That has started happening with Karishmaji's serial. Then Raveena Tandon and Sridevi too are doing serials for us.

Then (Amitabh) Bachchan saab has agreed to do a serial with us, though the final scripts, etc are being discussed still. For the first time Amitji would be seen on the small screen in a serial and not in a game show.

Have the big stars started reflecting on the TRP charts too? 

A bit, if I may say so. The effective rate per 10 seconds of advertising has gone up because we have managed to create a viewer pull. It has started reflecting more after the launch of Karishma.
"I also feel that a bit of entertainment needs to be brought into the experience of watching a news channel"

Hasn't Karishma the serial and the actress failed to enthuse the viewers and the TRPs alike? Isn't it a setback for Sahara's game plan? 

As per our feedback, there are ardent fans of Karishmaji who would watch her anywhere, including television. We also get the feedback that the serial is picking up. Agreed, it's a bit slow in the start as it's a long serial. With over 200 episodes, the serial would pick up pace along the way.

I also agree that we had not expected 4-5 TRPs for Karishma.

With such big stars being contracted for television programmes, what would be the programming budget of Sahara's entertainment channel?

It would be anything between Rs 2000 million to Rs 2,250 million.

Do you feel that apart from the slow pace, other factors were working against Karishma?

I certainly think so. Sahara has been always been perceived as a threat by competition like Star and Zee and, between them, they also control almost 70 per cent of the cable distribution.

It's difficult to penetrate such opposition when Sahara's channels are not put on prime band always.

Why doesn't Sahara foray into ground distribution business too? 

I have been personally thinking about it. But we have not taken any formal decision on this yet. Rather, I haven't spoken to the chairman (who is Sushanto's father) also on this. But I think we could get into distribution. 

We are collating market figures and would see if getting into distribution of cable TV would make sense. But, there are certainly 20-25 per cent of cable operators who are still independent and can be rallied round. It's difficult to keep cable operators together, but if the business demands it, we may just go ahead and do it.

Sahara is also into film production. What news on that front? 

We have some 15-20 films on the floor in various stages of production and are looking at innovative ways to market them.

For example, we can premier a film on the big screen first and them immediately run the movie in mini-series on our entertainment channel or even at one go. Or, reverse the whole process and have the premier on television first and then take it to the traditional theatres.

Any plans on DTH? 

No plans as of yet. We want to concentrate on developing software and then using the library to tap various business propositions. For example, a Sahara group company into real estate would also build 200-odd multiplexes in the townships being planned (the news about which was first broken by indiantelevision.com several months back) where we can screen the movies that we make or have acquired. The synergy between various businesses is the key to success.

"We are speaking to TV Asia in the US and one of the options before us is picking up equity stakes in the company"

What about overseas forays with Sahara channels? 

We are talking to some companies in the US and the UK market for programming and distribution tie-up.

Is Sahara picking up stakes in TV Asia, once upon a time promoted by Amitabh Bachchan? 

We are speaking to TV Asia in the US and one of the options before us is picking up equity stakes in the company.

Where do you see the Sahara channels over the next one-year? 

By the February-March, we expect the news channels to be among the top three in the news segment, while the entertainment channel should be occupying the No 2 slot by March next.

(Photographs of Sushanto Roy by SANJAY SHARMA)

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