Television

'We need to pump in money to get B4U back on track in India' : Sunil Rohra - B4U Network global CEO

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Sunil Rohra, who took over as B4U Network's global chief executive officer in November, was recently in India to formulate a business plan. Based out of London, he admits his biggest challenge is to revive the Indian operations.

In an interview with indiantelevision.com's Sibabrata Das, Rohra spells out the company's revival plans and the drive to synergise global operations.

Excerpts:

For over a year, B4U Group has not invested in India. Why were things allowed to slip?

There is no doubt things have slipped for us. We realise we need to pump in money to get back on track. The main problem is distribution; we don?t have visibility for our two channels. Once we address that issue, everything else will fall in place. But we also have to beef up our content. We won?t get distribution otherwise. It is a chicken-and-egg situation. We have to break that cycle.

How?

By investing, both on content and distribution.

How much?

We may have to invest Rs 1 billion. On the content front itself, we may require Rs 600 million. We will also need to energise our distribution system. But I am evaluating the business and will submit a business plan before the board.

B4U was better distributed earlier. Will you now be willing to pay carriage fee to the cable operators?

We will have to provide an incentive for cable carriage, at least in the initial stages. That is the reality of the situation. We were getting distribution in the beginning, but things slipped. We have to correct that. But what we need is an entire plan. We will have to sort out cable distribution as well as content issues. We will have to give the channels a fresh look, pack it with better movies, organise bigger events. The content has to be compelling enough to drive viewership.

But isn?t infighting among promoters a bigger issue? Has that been sorted out?

I wouldn?t like to get into shareholder issues. I have been given the task to correct the problems in India and to contribute to the overall growth of the company.

'We expect the Indian venture to be profitable in 4-5 years '

Is Kishore Lulla still in the board?

I wouldn?t like to comment on such issues. It is, after all, a privately held company.

By beefing up content, do you mean you will be buying more and bigger movies?

We will start to buy exclusive content. We will not be effective otherwise. We were not doing that earlier as a clear-cut strategy. Even if we had movies, we used to sell it to other networks after telecasting it first on our channels.

Had you stopped buying movies for a long time?

We had bought several movies six months back. Then we stopped. There has been no regular and consistent buying policy. Although we have been buying, our main focus for quite some time was on the overseas markets. The staple diet of our channels is movies. We have to resume interacting more with the Bollywood industry.

What is the plan for the music channel?

For B4U Music, we are also looking at exclusive content. It will make a big difference if we can have content running on our channel exclusively for a week. We will have to have exclusive songs, bands and new shows on our channel. We have to establish contact with Bollywood.

For distribution, are you in talks to join a platform?

We are considering all options. We will start talks. But we will continue with our current arrangement and see how it evolves. We have outsourced our distribution. We will explore possibilities of joining a distribution bouquet.

B4U has very little of the old staff remaining in the company. Are you on a restructuring exercise in India?

We have to reorganise and restructure the company here. We need a country head to oversee operations. We are also looking for a distribution and sales head. There has to be a person for acquisition of movies as well. They will be reporting to me. Though I will be based in London, I will make regular visits to India.

Is India the only problem market for B4U?

We are doing well in the other markets. In UK and Europe, for instance, we have recently launched picture messaging. We are the first Asian channel to offer this service. MTV does a little, but this service is mainly offered by the adult channels. India, no doubt, will take time to come back on track. It is a mammoth but not impossible task.

Is B4U suffering operational losses only in India?

There is an operational loss, but it is marginal. We have scope to make substantial profits here, which we are not harnessing. We were not properly focussed and organised in this market. There was some gap after our former global chief executive officer Ravi Gupta left. But B4U is still a very strong brand in India.

Are Indian channels including B4U seeing slower growth in the UK market?

Growth is slowing down because of severe competition. There are 20 Asian channels in that market. But we have 100,000 subscribers on the BSkyB platform. We sell as a package with Sony and are priced at $13.99 a month per subscriber. And advertising revenue is growing.

How is B4U performing in the other markets?

In the US, we have 70,000-75,000 subscribers. We are not packaged there with Sony. But we are exploring what bundling strategies we can have. We are also on the Pehla platform in the Middle East and have 200,000 subscribers. In Africa, we are on Multi Choice. We are exploring possibilities of expanding geographically. We are, for instance, not available in the Far East.

By having a presence in such diverse countries, isn?t B4U keen to build synergies across operations?

We will be bringing in synergies. It is important to have effective management from all our entities and work in tandem so that the network benefits. We have started local production in the UK. We will bring that content and flavour into India. Crossover movies is another area to look at. We can also centralise some activities in one place to reduce costs.

You had a deal with Mumbai-based iDream to co-produce films. What is the status of that?

We have frozen all our existing relationships for different businesses. We have put everything on hold till I finish my evaluation report. We are not getting into movie production at this point. It is not a priority area at all.

Do you have a preferred arrangement for acquiring movies from Eros since it is promoted by Lulla? Being one of the promoters in B4U as well, does he enjoy that special status?

I am not getting involved in the shareholder issue at all. We buy movie telecast rights from Eros as well as from other suppliers. We keep the company?s interests in mind when we are procuring movies from suppliers; We do not necessarily buy because the rights are with our shareholder. B4U has to gain from such a transaction.

The government recently rejected rejected B4U Television Network?s proposal to transfer some shares from group company B4U Multimedia International to three investors based overseas. Can you provide details?

As I told you earlier, I do not want to get into corporate issues at this stage. My task is to revive the Indian business. Once we are back on our feet, other issues will get sorted out.

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