Television

'Ten Sports is the world's largest producer of cricket today': Chris McDonald - Taj Television chief executive officer

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The final frontier (India lost to Australia in a cricket home test series after 35 years) has fallen with nary a whimper but one party is certainly not complaining.

After being completely out of the bidding for the rights to India Cricket for the next five years Ten Sports' parent Taj Television suddenly found itself benefitting in a huge way from the three way legal mess that involved Zee, ESPN Star Sports and the BCCI. At one point Australia Cricket had threatened to withdraw if no live telecast was provided. As a compromise solution for the interim period the BCCI decided to air the matches on DD. It then hired Taj Television to produce the same.

Also one fact that nobody has written about is that Ten Sports aired the India Australia series in the Middle East, Pakistan among other regions. In addition recent data has indicated that even when India plays cricket World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) content on the channel holds its own. Gamer TV is one property that surprisingly has also done well on the Bukhatir owned broadcaster.

Indiantelevision.com's correspodent Ashwin Pinto caught up with Taj Television CEO Chris McDonald via email.

Excerpts:

Firstly, the hot issue at the moment is India cricket. After first being completely out of the equation you were right back in the thick of things by doing the production for the India-Australia series for the BCCI. But from a logistics perspective, how have you managed the production of two high profile series simultaneously (India-Australia and Pakistan-Sri Lanka)?

Ten Sports is the world's largest producer of cricket today. This position has been achieved because we are capable of handling situations like this. These were just two series. Earlier this year, we managed to simultaneously produce and broadcast the historic India tour of Pakistan and Australia's tour of Sri Lanka, as well as broadcast England's tour of the West Indies.

Nevertheless, it was extremely difficult to arrange things at such a short notice. But we drew heavily upon the contacts that we have made in the cricket broadcasting industry over the last three years.

Because of these good relationships, it was possible to get people on board very quickly. The biggest problem was sourcing the 13 tonnes of TV equipment required to cover the event and getting it through Customs in time for the series. 22 cameras operated everyday, which is the same specification as was seen during the Cricket World Cup.

Approximately 40 per cent of the crew are non-Indian and arranging their visas at such short notice was very difficult. But we have good relationships with the Indian embassies around the world and they were very sympathetic to our situation. Also finding accommodation for a crew of over 50 people, at such short notice, was a significant challenge.

The initial rig for the first Test Match in Bangalore proved to be the most difficult as all the equipment only arrived and was cleared by Customs 48 hours before the match was due to start. Most of the engineers and technicians worked through the night to ensure that everything was working properly before the start of the first day's play.

Coming back to how you came in from the blue as it were. What was it that Ten had to offer that swung things in its favour?

The BCCI appreciated the quality of the production work we have been doing in Sharjah, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. We've always made it a point of taking cricket seriously and using the best quality equipment, technical crew and commentators.

It's very heartening to know that in days when there is so much interest in the financial side of cricket that the quality that we have worked to create has also been appreciated. Lastly, we made it clear for some weeks that if the BCCI needed to outsource production, we would be willing to help, even if the call came at the last minute.

One aspect of the deal with BCCI that has gone unreported is that you telecasted the series in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Middle East, Europe and Hong Kong. Did you acquire the rights from Sony, which has the international marketing rights, or was it a deal done directly with BCCI?

Yes, we broadcasted the India-Australia series in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Middle East, Europe and South East Asia. The rights for these countries were acquired from Sony.

I have been given to understand that the deal with the BCCI also involves an understanding that India will visit Sharjah and Morocco from next year. Any comment?

We would of course love to have India visit Sharjah and Morocco. We remain hopeful that the day is not too far off. But there is nothing to this effect in our contract.

Staying with cricket acquisitions, what are the key parameters on which you judge the value of a property?

Viewer friendly timings and relevant quality home sides are the most crucial parameters in judging the value of a property. This is a common thread in all our cricket acquisitions - Sri Lanka, Pakistan, West Indies, Sharjah and Morocco - where the cricket is beamed into Indian homes during prime time. This is unlike Australia and New Zealand where the cricket is broadcast into India largely during the wee hours of the morning.

The second parameter is the quality of teams scheduled to tour the home country. Tours by a country like India obviously makes the proposition more interesting.

Another key factor is the length of the deal on offer - we prefer long-term deals as that allows us to plan our scheduling, production arrangements and acquisition strategies well in advance. All our cricket deals run through to the end of the decade.

And what of other sports?

The formula is more or less the same. Again timing becomes a crucial factor, especially with sports like soccer, hockey and tennis which have solid followings in India. For example, The French Open on Ten Sports is broadcast throughout prime time in India.

Ten Sports recently acquired the rights to football from different regions. Could you provide a brief overview of how the soccer acquisition process works?

It is different in each country. Some leagues sell directly to broadcasters and some leagues use agents to work for them. What we have managed to achieve is a stress on quality with the best live games from Italy, Germany, Portugal and South America now available on the channel.

We felt that we needed to improve this area of our content and made the necessary investments.

'Viewer friendly timings and relevant quality home sides are the most crucial parameters in judging the value of a property'

Apart from the golden goose cricket, for viewership of sports to grow in India over the next five years, in your opinion what are the things that need to happen?

There will continue to be two kinds of viewership patterns in India. One will see sports which feature the Indian team or individual participation, such as hockey, motor sport, tennis and golf. The other is sports loved by Indians for various reasons like international soccer and WWE.

Obviously, the performance of the Indian team or players is a key determinant in the success of the first category. Fan-following for the players, coupled with the consistent performance of the team are crucial. These are elements that result in increasing viewership and popularity. The various associations involved need to supplement the promotional efforts of the broadcasters by fielding the best possible team and by supporting the development of young players so as to ensure that strong performances can be maintained over time.

The second category are sports which may not feature Indian players or teams but are traditionally loved by Indians. In this case familiarity and smart marketing and promotions are the key. The broadcasters need to create a connect with the Indian mindset. An example of the same is WWE, which has been promoted like a sports opera with a fixed timeslot and a sequential storyline.

So is the case with the various soccer leagues where familiarity with the players and teams over a period of time coupled with media support have led to increased viewership. An example is Copa America, where we created our promos based on the flair and the colours of samba, thus capturing the essence of Brazilian/Latin soccer.

Of course, there are programmes which attract viewership because of the presence of superstars, or the chance that history will be created. Tiger Woods in golf and Lance Armstrong's world record sixth Tour de France wins are examples of this.

One property that has shot up considerably in value is the Hockey Champions Trophy on account of India's participation. How will you be promoting the event?

Yes, with India confirmed for the Champion's Trophy, the stock of this event has suddenly risen.

The promotion tact we will use for Champions Trophy is to highlight the fact that this is international hockey's premier annual event. We also will highlight the extraordinary speed, power and even danger of hockey, which are inherent to the game but have not come to the fore till now. Consider that a Sohail Abbas drag flick travels faster than a Shoaib Akhtar delivery, and that the defense line has to stop it from a short distance with no protection.

Yet Adrian D'Souza, the Indian goalkeeper was able to thwart the Pakistani ace with repeated success in the recent India-Pak series. These facts, when exposed to consumers, we believe will help in popularising the game.

'There are programmes which attract viewership because of the presence of superstars, or the chance that history will be created.'

Recent data indicates that Formula 1 has fallen off the radar somewhat. Why?

Formula 1 is a very niche sport. With Michael Schumacher ruling the roost, interest is waning among its small, dedicated audience. This has resulted in the fall in viewership for the current F1 season.

However, interest in motorsports as a category including Moto GP biking and rallying has been growing steadily.

How expensive would football, Tennis and Formula 1 be to acquire for India vis-a-vis the other Asian markets like Singapore, Taiwan?

Football costs substantially less in India that in most South East Asian countries. This is the case even though Taiwan has very little interest in football.

Prices depend on the event, and the Grand Slams in tennis are clearly much more valuable than other tennis events.

Has Ten Sports had any success in cultivating a niche audience for Horse Racing? Is it the least expensive sport to acquire for India?

Yes. We have managed to cultivate a niche audience for horse racing. In select cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad & Gujarat, ratings in excess of 0.4 & 0.5 on a weekly basis are consistently generated by The Winning Post.

This is a round-up of the horse-racing scene across India. Horse racing, however, is not inexpensive to broadcast. Live horse racing requires substantial investment in terms of equipment, crew and uplinking, especially so because the race courses are massive and require multiple cameras and kilometers of cable to ensure quality coverage.

Are you looking at co-organising events in India like hockey tourneys to build up a closer association with the brand? ESPN Star is doing it with soccer.

We are open to proposals that improve our Indian profile and have been happy to work as a co-sponsor with the Indian Golf Tour and on Indian Motorsport events. Yes, we are working closely with the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) on this front.

Could one sport channel like The Tennis Channel in the US be a possibility in India once DTH takes a firm foothold in the country?

With the advent of DTH it is possible for super niche channels such as the one you have mentioned to be on offer. However, the major tennis and golf events, for example, would always want to be available to the widest audiences possible.

Therefore you will always see them on a sports channel like Ten Sports which reaches the vast majority of cable/satellite homes.

'Post India's tour of Pakistan we have secured more than 30 new clients such as Monster.com, Godrej, Gini & Jony and Nickelodeon'

On the technical front, what are some of the improvements that have been made in the production values of sporting events?

For the India-Australia series, we have utilised some of the largest lenses ever used for cricket with 100x1 magnification. This has helped us achieve the dramatic close-ups that have been a feature of our cricket telecasts to date.

Ten Sports is also working on a new Virtual Replay system that we hope to launch in the near future.

The other innovation has been the use of young commentators who have only recently retired from the game. They include Mike Atherton, Ian Healy, Michael Slater and Sanjay Manjrekar. This combined with some of the great former names of the game like Ian Chappell, Imran Khan and Tony Greig has made our commentary team one of the best around. In the first two Tests against Australia, Ten Sports put together the youngest commentary team ever.

What efforts are being made by your team to ramp up the declared distribution base?

We are evaluating our distribution options as we speak and will make a decision shortly. Given the fantastic line-up on Ten Sports of cricket, hockey, tennis, football and WWE for years to come, there is no shortage of parties (read Zee Turner and The One Alliance) who would like to align themselves with us.

Another amazingly successful property for you has been Gamer TV. Both WWE and Gamer TV are essentially targeting youngsters and delivering the numbers. But that has not really helped you as far as advertising is concerned. Is that a fair comment?

On the contrary we have managed to attract advertisers like Play Station, Samsung & Hutch onto Gamer TV.

Taking that forward, how are you faring on the ad revenue front? Did new clients come on board this year?

Our advertising sales team is without a doubt one of the best in the industry. They have demonstrated this fact by maximising revenue on properties like India's tour of Pakistan and our entire cricket portfolio but also by successfully selling lesser-known properties.

In fact post India's tour of Pakistan we have secured more than 30 new clients such as Monster.com, Godrej, Gini & Jony and Nickelodeon.

ESPN Star Sports did well for itself with Euro in the ratings. The success could in part be attributed to its 360 degree interactive marketing initiatives. What plans does Ten have in this regard?

Actually, with respect to football we pioneered these initiatives on the 2002 Fifa World Cup. We engineered joint promotion tie-ups across the country for the matches which were enhanced via on-air, on-line and print initiatives.

We also did a similar exercise for the 2003 Champions Trophy Hockey. This event saw great ratings, of course largely due to India's performance but also due to smart marketing. Multi nation sporting events for soccer and to some extent hockey have great potential for 360 degrees interactive marketing initiatives and we will continue to build on our earlier successes.

There is this talk that Taj Television might look at an IPO. NDTV's IPO earlier this year was a success. In light of this would you be going for an IPO to fund expansion of operations?

We have sufficient capital reserves to fund any expansion of our operations now or in the future.

Is Mr. Bukhatir looking at launching a general entertainment channel in India?

Mr Bukhatir is a man of tremendous vision. This has been amply proven by cricket in Sharjah, Ten Sports or his latest venture called Dubai Sports City.

We constantly discuss and review our options for growth in this market and internationally. So, while there are no immediate plans, nothing can be ruled out.

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