'As a broadcaster with 200 million viewers, we should be able to control at least 50% of all valued added SMSs sent' : Sumantra Dutta -Star India wireless business development head

He has been, it would seem, waiting in the wings for quite a while now, biding his time for his moment in the sun. Sumantra Sumo Dutta, formerly a key member of the Star India marketing team, current Radio City COO and recently crowned head of the Star India wireless development division, is raring to go. For over two years, he has struggled to make a viable business out of FM station Radio City, in an atmosphere vitiated by government apathy and advertiser indifference. For one who was closely involved in making a marketing success of Kaun Banega Crorepati two years earlier, the radio experience was a challenging assignment.

Sumo is now back in the limelight, this time to head a division that is Star CEO Michelle Guthrie's pet passion and has already reaped rich dividends in China. He will be instrumental in overseeing the wireless business of the company, which is expected to drive substantial revenue in the coming years.

In conversation with's Aparna Joshi, Dutta outlined the company's plans.

Why has Star suddenly decided to go aggressive on the wireless front?

Star has always been in the wireless business. The world over, wireless has become a huge industry and given that India is the second biggest mobile phone market in the world, wireless is going to be key. It's the technology of the future, it can only grow.

Star Wireless has been around for two years now. Was it a gradual process to turn around 7827?

We knew we were going to push the service. But how soon were we going to give it a focus, from a point of view that it would become a separate division, a business for Star, was something we didn't envisage when we started off, but clearly, towards the middle of last year, we had an internal project team work on it and a presentation by Star management teams from various countries - India, China, Taiwan, Middle East, and I was part of that team.

We decided that SMS was going to have a business potential, and that we were going to focus on it. A couple of months ago, we decided that we were going to hive it off into a separate business division, like we have our TV, radio and DTH businesses...

I was given the responsibility of setting up the team here.

How will it work?

Wireless will totally work with and feed off television and radio to a large extent because the content and the ability to talk to the masses is available on those platforms. But there will also be a large quantum of non Star content that will be offered, which could be linked to best deals in shops, astrology, traffic, medical emergency helplines, all that.

It could well be a scenario in which you could SMS Help and get all the facilities you would need in an emergency.

How does the revenue model for Star Wireless work?

It works on a revenue share with the cellular phone companies. The beauty of this concept is that we are furthering their business. We are developing the culture of SMSing and we are driving mass SMSing. In doing that, we are doing quite a few things that the cell phone companies would never be able to do on their own. One, we are educating the masses on how to SMS. A large number of people, for example, don't know how to download a ringtone. We would have the ability to use the airwaves to educate the people about the capabilities of a mobile phone. On the other hand, we are increasing the services we offer, generating more messages.

While we will offer people the chance to download the songs they like on Channel [V] or hear on Radio City, they can also download the wallpapers of a movie whose trailer is being shown on our channels. Mobile phone gaming is a very big category of the business today. Some of our shows will also be extended to this. You can actually download a Kyunki... game.

Do you have all your tie-ups in place? When are you actually starting the service?

I think we are ready to roll in a few weeks' time now. Our tie ups with most of the cell phone operators are more or less, over. We just have BSNL yet to tie up with, and with Reliance on the CDMA front.

What kind of a marketing and promoting push are you looking at for the new 7827?

The marketing and promo push will be dependent on the kind of services we are going to offer. But yes, there will be communication to the effect that 7827 has arrived. And that it's the short code of choice for the masses.

"I believe, that it is the content and the SMS linked to the content which is going to generate the maximum response....that is the vanilla SMS, which is going to shoot up"

Isn't 7827 already known?

Through our network, yes. We will now push it an aggressive manner. The ideal positioning we would want is that it is the short code of choice. 7827 should spring to mind whenever you think of a short code.

What is the initial set of services you are going to provide?

The initial set of services will be focused towards the exclusive content that we have. You can interact with our shows on TV and radio, you can play games, have the ability to play Star SMS contests and win prizes. That in itself is a big offering.

What kind of a team do you have in place?

I am in the process of putting the team together. It's difficult today to find good people willing to associated with a start up business, as there is a lot of drive required to succeed in this kind of business... hence it is taking a little bit of time. Besides, this is a category of business that is not very mature, hence you don't have someone who is already doing it. We are looking at people from allied fields who have the right perspective of building brands and businesses. We need people with vision. Youthful, bright, enterprising... these are the qualities I am looking for.

How big will this team be?

The SMS team at Star will, I think, be a maximum of a dozen people. Because a lot of the business is going to be done on alliances with multiple partners.

How much of investment is going into this project?

From an investment perspective, it's in management, in people, and a huge amount of investment in airtime, from a television and radio perspective, to focus on 7827 as a driver. A huge amount of time is going to be kept aside to educate the masses about the concept of SMSing... a process that will go on for a couple of months.

What about investment in infrastructure?

Oh, yes, that investment has already been made. Primarily, servers that are able to handle a number of SMSs coming in.

What is the current response to the 7827 and by how much do you expect it to go up by after the revamp?

The current response to 7827 is primarily in the areas of contests, polls on the network, requests on the radio station, ringtone downloads and a lot of voting like for the Star Parivaar awards. The response we have got thus far doesn't excite us at all.

As a broadcaster which talks to 200 million viewers every day, a large subset of whom are cellular phone subscribers, we should have the ability to at least control 50 per cent of all the valued added SMSs that are sent. There's no point going hammer and tongs at this business if you are not going to be aggressive about it.

Is it going to happen overnight?

No. But our focus clearly remains that we can have 50 per cent of the market of value added SMSs that are generated.

Currently, the largest chunk of our business is being driven by ringtone downloads. Last year, globally the ringtone download busines generated $ 3 billion. Right now, in India, ringtones contribute to 10 to 15 per cent of the total.

But I believe, that it is the content and the SMS linked to the content which is going to generate the maximum response... that is the vanilla SMS, which is going to shoot up.

Does it also work in reverse, will 7827 also help in driving up viewership?

Internationally, it's not a venture to promote viewership, but it has been seen in countries where SMSing has evolved, which is in Europe, that ratings of shows have had a positive effect. I think ratings are a function of viewership and the storyline and I don't think SMS can really effect a boost in ratings. But what it can effect is a brand recall, in pushing through interactivity, but we are looking at it as a separate revenue stream for Star because progressively, if we are going to offer a set of services through a mobile phone, to make his life much more convenient than it is currently, then we can charge a certain cost per month as we move to a monthly subscription parameter, then its a huge area of business.

The idea of SMS is not to interfere with the programming at all. We understand that it is the programming and channel which is supreme and we want to just chase that great viewership and also generate a separate revenue stream, nothing else.

In the early days, we would like to see what kind of response we get before we take any other decisions, so it would not influence the content at all in the early days.

Have you devised the subscription packages?

Not yet. For subscription packages to develop, you need to develop usage. Our first activity is going to be focused on driving mass usage of the services that will come. Then, over a period of time, we will be able to see which of these services are being used more and which not, and we consistently tweak it, we would be able to bundle the more used ones into a subscription package.

Is there a revenue target for the first year of operations?

No. The target is the number of SMSs per day. I would reckon, in the first six months, the share of 7827 would be 30 per cent of the market of value added SMSing, and by the end of the July fiscal, 50 per cent.

What is the revenue sharing agreement you have with the cell phone companies?

We get 30 to 35 per cent share, but it varies. 15 per cent goes to the government, of the balance we get 35 per cent.

When will the campaign break?

It should be ready in a couple of weeks time.

Is 7827 going to be directed at any particular demographic?

SEC ABC, 12 +, all cell phone users. And we are not going to tweak the viewership of our channels to service that, because a cell phone user is a subset of our vast viewership. Different age groups utilise the mobile phone for different reasons. Our endeavour would be to cater to all the segments with individual content.

Are there any learnings from the China market, where Star Wireless is already operational?

The China market is huge from a mobile phone base, 270 million mobile phones, as opposed to 37 million mobile phones in India. Hence, the base is just awesome, and the ability to work off that base gives them the opportunity to drive 10 times more traffic.

There are certain services being offered which are similar to the services being offered in India today across various platforms. Among the few key players, apart from the cell phone companies who themselves have their own short codes, because they see it as a serious stream of revenue, there are other short code operators who are pushing through a variety of services. Hutch is doing a lot of work around the short code business, however, I am of the firm opinion that whilst it is not our business to get into the mobile telephony business, I don't think it is in the mobile telephone operators' interest to get into the content business either. Both I think can work very well together, because the more SMSs we generate, the more money they make.

What about other companies who are getting seriously into wireless?

By sheer numbers, we will exceed everyone. We beam out to 200 million people every day. Today, for example, our Channel [V] viewership would be more, marginally, than MTV.

As COO of Radio City, do you think radio will also help drive wireless?

Because of its local, topical nature, you can drive a lot of traffic. Radio stations are based in the most populous cities, which have the largest concentration of cell phones. It's a great fit. Radio will also play a key role in educating the masses.

How much will Wireless eventually contribute to the entire Star business in India?

Substantial. It should in the long run, contribute a significant part of the business.

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