"We'd like to be a sports incubator" : R C Venkateish - ESPN Managing Director

Taking over at a time when issues like the conditional access loomed large over the pay channels' horizon and Sony Entertainment's tom-tomming over the cricket World Cup success was continuing, can never be easy for any country head. Especially if the person happened to be heading ESPN Software Pvt. Ltd. India, a major sports broadcaster in the Asian region, which also has an ongoing joint venture with Star Sports.

But the 40-something RC Venkateish has easily, and very quietly too, donned the mantle of managing director of ESPN India last year. Not given to flamboyance, unlike some others of his ilk, Venkateish has rather deliberately kept a low profile, apart from stray run-ins with the media.

But what may be helping Venkateish in projecting a certain profile, rather continuing with it, is that his two predecessors, former bureaucrat RK Singh and Manu Sawhney, too were not really the darling of the media --- some exceptions, notwithstanding --- where interviews and other news stories were concerned.

Venkateish heads the management of the company, which oversees the distribution, sales and marketing for the two network services, ESPN and STAR Sports, for the South Asia region covering India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Maldives.

Prior to this assignment, Venkateish has worked in senior management positions with leading companies like Kellogg Japan, Kellogg India, the Gillette Co., Oral-B Laboratories and Nestle India. Venkateish is credited with turning around a long ailing business of Kellogg India and building a platform for its sustained future growth, developing the Oral-B brand from scratch in India to building it into a strong, premium and profitable franchise. While working with Nestle, Venktaeish was responsible for moving Nestle to a position of leadership in the coffee market. He started his professional career as a management trainee with SmithKline Beecham India.

A PG degree holder in management from the Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata and a Bachelor in Technology degree from Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, Venkateish enjoys reading and playing golf and tennis, two games that are quite high on the agenda of the company that he now heads in India.

In this interview at ESPN's Delhi office, attempts to understand the mind of the person who would be responsible for charting the future roadmap of ESPN India and also ESS over the next few years.

How would you describe the last one year when cricket ruled the roost and Sony does not let go of a chance to mention it has quality properties?

It has been an action packed year and I think things have shaped up quite fine for us both from the cricket perspective and also the broadcasting perspective. Though, I must admit that the issue of CAS is something that needs to be watched.

What are the new initiatives that are being undertaken?

We are constantly in the process of innovating and introducing new things as far as our programming goes. Take, for example, the Samsung match zone. It's a property that has tremendous opportunities, which also connects with the viewers. Though we have to manage a huge database for this, apart from doing lot of backend work, but the toil is worth it.

Then, recently we announced the hockey initiative in association with the Indian Hockey Federation. This particular plan would go into building a property that we would be all proud of. Not only it aims at reviving the game of hockey, but also try wooing back viewers and spectators to the game. The domestic part of the game needs to be strengthened that would help in throwing up newer stars.

In a small way we have also been involved with the IFA Shield (football), but hockey is certainly a big initiative. The whole idea behind such moves is that we would like to really work as an incubator and help in the development of various sports.

Which other sports is being looked at by ESPN for incubation ?

Ideally, we'd like to take up many other sports, which have not managed to survive the cricket onslaught. Since we have picked on hockey first, we'd like to execute it well before taking on other sports.

Are initiatives like `sports incubation' being taken up by ESPN because neither it nor Star Sports has hot cricketing properties?

I don't think that observation, or presumption, is correct. We have a fairly good market share and also where cricket is concerned we have enough properties.Rather we have more cricketing days than anybody else. There are more cricketing properties coming up that we'd bid for, including the Sri Lankan and the BCCI-organized Indian cricket.

We are not pressing ahead with any sports at the expense of others. In general we want to promote all sorts of sports. Formula One races have become popular in India because of our marketing efforts. What we are trying to do is to make ESPN a broadbased sports channel and not concentrate on few sports or events.

How would you view the competition, especially keeping in mind that Sony Entertainment TV India turned out a successful cricket World Cup?

As a sports channel we are the No. 1 sports channel despite the fact that Sony has the World Cup and ICC cricket and Ten Sports has some interesting properties. That is proof enough that a few sporting events here or there going to competition would not make much difference to us.

Let us take, for instance, the last cricket World Cup. Despite the cricket extravaganza our business grew during that period and the viewing public seems to have really understood the value behind the channel.

Considering the business grew even when hot cricket properties were not with ESPN, what is the strategy forward?

Broadly, it's a two-pronged strategy where we try to increase our coverage of live events and then weave a series of programming around such events.We do have some interesting clutch of events relevant to Indian viewers around which we are planning to introduce some new programming like a new format school quiz. Then, the element of interactivity would be increased in Sports Centre to involve the viewer more.

Basically, our endeavour is to maximise the viewership base through a gameplan that would give the viewer live events as well as other sports related programming that need not necessarily be live.

"Formula One races have become popular in India because of our marketing efforts"

What sort of programming that is being developed by the channel to supplement the live coverage?

Some of them are in the conceptualization stage, but I can say this much that they are very interesting. We do plan to unveil some of them soon over the next few months.

How about a hint of things to come?

All that I can say at this moment is that they are not shows as people understand. Some of the programmes would dwell on developmental sports.

Would the channel outsource programming or do it in-house considering there would be an increase in the TV software being generated?

We prefer to rely more on in-house talent to do the production work.

There have been reports in the international media that ESPN is weighing the option of introducing some additional channels in the region. Your comments.

The potential always exists. But nothing concrete that I know of is taking place at the moment. Such things would depend on many factors like how CAS evolves, whether distribution problems get ironed out or not (with cable ops) and how the regulatory environment evolves.

How about having a sports news channel in this region?

We have debated it also internally at times. But at the moment I would dub such talks as premature as, we feel, the Indian market is not yet ripe for such a property.

Why do you say so?

For a full-fledged sports news channel, like some in the US, the relevant market must have enough sporting events round the year about which the viewers and the public, in general, would like to have information. For example, in the US there is a huge number of people who would be interested in the game of baseball and other news and information relating to the game. To have a sports news channel is feasible in a country and market like the US. But in India it would take some time for such a thing to develop as the volumes are driven mostly by cricket and there too the activity is not happening really all the year round. May be in 5-7 years times, 24-hour sports news channel becomes a viable proposition.

"May be in 5-7 years times, 24-hour sports news channel becomes a viable proposition"

What sort of programming budget does ESPN have?

I cannot give you numbers, but you see the programming cost may vary and fluctuate quite a bit depending on the sort of programming that is being generated. Live events come at a huge cost and the cost of programming on a sports channel would be 50-100 per cent more expensive than a normal TV programme.

By what percentage the acquisition cost would have gone up between 2000 and 2004?

That number would have gone up easily between 200-250 per cent. But the big question is: how long can the market sustain such escalation?

So, what is your take on the query posed by you?

This rise has to plateau off, otherwise it would become very difficult to have a balance between cost and revenue.

How is ESPN and ESS maintaining the balance, if at all they are evenly balanced?

Again, I cannot talk about exact numbers, but the business has been good and the income has exceeded the target.

With the Reserve Bank of India having relaxed norms for booking as on TV channels, especially foreign ones, do you see an upsurge in advertising revenue from smaller Indian advertisers?

It's certainly a good move and would help us to tap a different segment of advertisers. However, it'd be difficult to quantify as of now the increase (in ad sales) as a result of the RBI initiative.

What are some of the main issues relating to the industry that must be in place to keep the momentum of growth and what role can the government play?

It is extremely important to have a regulator in place and in this regard the government could have acted earlier. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has kicked off a series of initiatives, but it is also important that the regulator understands the ground situation well before moving in with policies, etc. The regulator should look into the way cable industry functions and whether there is enough transparency to foster a healthy business environment.

Moreover, newer technologies should be looked at now. Otherwise precious time may get wasted later and that may hinder the second round of growth in the industry.

"It is extremely important to have a regulator in place and in this regard the government could have acted earlier"

How serious is the problem of continued face-offs with cable operators and MSOs ?

I'd say such wrangling do not augur well for the industry as a whole. There is no competition on the ground and because of monopoly ugly situations rear up.A transparent system would shift the focus to expanding the revenue pie, which is not happening now.

Globally, between 50-75 per cent of the subscription revenue is a broadcaster's share, but in India, the broadcasters merely get 25 per cent for stronger channels. The regulator has not approached the whole thing from the side that cable ops' under-declaration leads to many of the problems besetting the industry at present.

What would be your take on the industry scenario two to five years from now?

The industry has posted tremendous growth and, I think, it'd continue to do so for some more years. Some newer segments would be opened up in the broadcast and cable industry as a whole of newer people jump onto the bandwagon. Such things have happened elsewhere too with the evolution of an industry and as long s the gravy train continues rolling in India, people would like to dip their fingers in the gravy for a scoop.

Moreover, if the economy continues to do well as it's doing now --- there's no reason why the GDP cannot sustain the present growth and improve on it --- the industry would see a robust growth.

Though India lags behind China in terms of viewership, I see the stage is set for a sustained growth for another decade or so.

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