Television

'India is a very competitive market' : Gary Lovejoy - Zee Sports COO

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Desperately trying to get across to somebody in Russia on his cell phone from Delhi, he mumbles to himself about the (in)efficiency of telecom companies around the world. It so happens that the score card and other information regarding Davis Cup tennis matches being played in Russia aren't very clear at the Delhi end because of the colour combination utilized by the local producer at the venue. Politely he suggests some corrections. And, then in a rasping voice Zee Sports COO Gary Lovejoy tells the representative of the International Tennis Federation, "Believe me, after the feed has hopped satellites (at least two) traveling several thousands of miles to reach Delhi, things aren't very clear with the scorecard at our end. Do something like putting a 'shadow' or changing the colour combination as we are putting out the matches live."

After the call, he tells us that as a customer, Zee Sports had the right to ask for corrections if the visuals were not clear. "After uplink and downlink at several places midway (in Geneva and Cyprus), signals are likely to get a bit fuzzy and technical corrections need to be carried out," Lovejoy explains, before settling down.

Lovejoy, who heads the operations of the company and oversees the programming and production for the channel, comes to Zee Sports with 28 years experience in sports television broadcasting, the last 15 of which have been spent in senior executive roles. In his career spanning over three decades he has worked on six football World Cups, three Rugby World Cups and seven Olympic Games in addition to many other global events.

A keen cricketer and footballer and a passionate supporter of his home city football club Plymouth Argyle, Lovejoy doesn't mince words, though keeping things perfectly understated in that very British way. He speaks to Indiantelevision.com's Anjan Mitra on the challenges he faces to establish Zee Sports in a market that already boasts of entrenched international players.



Excerpts:

What is your overview of the sports broadcasting scene in India?

From what I have seen over a period of six months that I have been here, it's a very competitive and difficult market. Especially if a sports channel is a stand alone one. It is also challenging because one is involved in creating and launching India's first home grown private sector sports channel. That the channel belongs to a big network like Zee makes the work a bit easy, but it also brings along with it some obvious problems.

However what should not be forgotten is that Zee Sports is an Indian channel, manned totally by Indians, except me, of course, and that such a channel is important for a country like India where there is an abundance of indigenous sports.

Do you feel that it would be really difficult to establish Zee Sports in this competitive market without the advantage of having cricket?

As I said, it's challenge to establish Zee Sports. We also did not expect to be welcomed with open arms in this competitive market, but we are competing and will carry on doing so. We'll compete for most sports properties along with others as long as they fit in with our business plans, knowing fully well that dealing with cable operators too is a challenge.

You didn't answer the question on cricket. Is non-availability of cricket hampering Zee Sports' growth?

It's not that simple an issue. It's not a question of having cricket or hockey or tennis or golf. Yes, up to an extent cricket could have helped, but these days Indians are getting exposed to other sports and related activities too, which owes it genesis to socio-economic factors and consequent increases in disposable income.

But the boom and bust (because of cricket) isn't good for the sports industry or broadcasting. India as a country has a massive potential and a contractual future (read dependence on cricket) isn't encouraging.

'We did not expect to be welcomed with open arms in this competitive market'

Cricket is important, but the Indian team plays the game 60-70 days a year if you see the calendar of activities. What would people and broadcasters do in the remaining 300-odd days?

It's our duty to figure out what can be done and how we interpret the information available on demographics, which would lead to a viable business plan with or without cricket.

Did Zee interpret the information available on cricket correctly? Critics say that Zee's bid of $ 308 million for domestic cricket was on the higher side.

I wasn't here when the infamous bidding episode took place for Indian cricket. But from what I have come to understand at Zee is that people here have done their arithmetic well and I have full faith in their number crunching.

Moreover, it's not for the others to comment whether Zee bid high or low for cricket. Zee has a business model and it followed that. Who are others to criticize it?

(Gary Lovejoy had come down heavily on Doordarshan director-general Navin Kumar's statement at a CII-organised seminar on sports broadcasting where Kumar said that the cricket bids were inflated and "unsustainable.")

However, having said that, I must admit that as and when the time comes, we'd bid for cricket - whatever is available. But it should suffice to say that we are not hiding behind the network. These are early days yet and the channel is not distributed properly, but slowly we'd build up our equity.

What are the advantages of being part of a big TV network like Zee Telefilms and being an Indian channel?

Being an Indian channel, Zee Sports certainly would be looking for sympathy and support not only from the industry and sports federations, but also the viewers.

As part of a big network, issues like distribution does get taken care of, though I am given to understand that it's not easy to distribute any new channel in India. Here again, we would expect the cable community to be more sympathetic to Zee Sports because our focus is totally Indian and unique. You may say that at present Zee Sports has lot of international programming, but these are early days and we are still sprucing up the programming line up.

Apart from distribution, cross promotion is another advantage of being part of a big network. For example, Zee Sports promos are carried on other channels (like on Zee Café's Friends series) where we feel the audience profile matches with that of the sports channel. If Zee Sports hadn't been part of a network, probably, I wouldn't have taken up this assignment in this competitive market.

There are already established sports channels in India, yet others like NDTV are looking at the genre. Would you say that sports broadcast business is becoming attractive?

I don't think any sports channel is making money yet. Having sports channels is not a lucrative business in the country yet, but could become one in future with newer technologies coming in helping in distribution of sports content. Zee Sports has been started with an eye on the future.

'These are early days yet and the channel is not distributed properly, but slowly we'd build up our equity'

What is the global take on sports broadcast business?

Globally too sports broadcasting is not an immediate money-spinner. It's an expensive business because rights cost are spiraling, heavy money is to be invested if top quality production values are to had and manpower also is costly.

That's why I said that being part of a big network helps. We can relax a bit and not have too stiff a target. However, that does not mean Zee Sports doesn't have a business plan and annual targets. It has them all. Still, it's also comforting to know that one is part of one of India's biggest broadcast networks.

Are there any global standards or time frame for sports channels to start making money?

It depends on the business plan, state of broadcasting in a country and also the attitude of the government towards sports broadcasting as a business venture. If I may give an example, EuroSport (that was started and established by Lovejoy) took eight to nine years to start making money. But, then there is the example of another sports channel that I was associated with that went bust before it could even go on air. EuroSport was a slow burning success, while NTL's ambition to have a sports channel was a spectacular failure.

Moreover, sports market differs from country to country. What may have been a wrong decision in Paris, could work very well in India. The way to negotiate this sports landscape is getting the foundation right and strong. A misjudged property could sink a lot of money and which could sink the venture too in the process. So, what I'm trying to say is that I cannot give a time frame for Zee Sports to start making money, which doesn't mean we don't have business plan.

What is your take on the Indian government's proposed move to make it mandatory to share feeds of events of national importance with Doordarshan? Would it affect the sports federations' earnings?

To answer the second part first, yes. Lack of confidence in the industry would have a ripple down effect on sports federations too. If there is third party (government) interference, it makes things cloudy. That's not what people would want, I am sure.

Do you feel that the legislation has some hidden agenda?

There's no clarity on the matter yet.

The government is giving the example of Australia and the UK where there is a list of protected sporting events. With your vast experience, do you agree that India too should have similar laws?

The significant thing is that there always has been a degree of control in the UK and whenever business models have been made, the law had been factored in. Now suddenly 49 years later (UK framed the sports law in 1956), India wants to do the same. Is the business community in India 49 years behind? One has to understand that the India of today is not the UK of 1956.

India is a fairly mature market where digital TV, cable TV, DTH are flour sighing. Why is the Indian government going back to an early stage?

Would private sports broadcasters resist the government move?

If the government or anybody else tries to dictate how Zee should conduct its business, it would be resisted. If the government is trying to protect the commercial interest of DD, then it also has a duty towards private enterprise, which gives employment to a majority of Indians. DD should not be allowed to acquire rights through special privileges and act in a restrictive manner.

This issue has to be looked at from all angles and debated thoroughly with the industry before being put in place. I'd say there's no need for such a regulation. Let the market forces do the needful and let the industry iron out the rough edges with DD without government interference.

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