Television

'Star is actually trying to copy us; they will fall further' : Kunal Dasgupta - Sony Entertainment Television India CEO

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These days when you walk into the offices of Sony Entertainment Television in the television suburb of Andheri (W) in Mumbai, you can feel the charged excitement in the air. The network's headquarters is a hubbub of activity. The salt and pepper bearded CEO Kunal Dasgupta has a perk in his step.

His network is in fine fettle, revenues are up. SET has just delivered the highest rated show in Indian Idol and is gradually gnawing away at market leader Star Plus' almost monopolistic viewership shares. And finally, he has just finished a well priced acquisition of a niche channel Sab TV and has added a leading sports television channel in Ten Sports to his cable TV bouquet. No wonder Dasgupta is gung-ho and cheery as a whistle. Indiantelevision.com caught up with him over two meetings to get the lowdown on Sony.

Excerpts:

What is the programming focus at Sony?

The programming is based on variety entertainment. It is innovative, youthful, vibrant and colourful. It is targeted at women in the 15-35 age group, but includes the rest of the viewing universe too. Sony encompasses the emergence of the new youth of the new India of a new millennium. Our stories have no kitchen politics, they are aspirational, high gloss, real stories, not focusing on an overwhelming single element of life. We balance all elements to give a perfect blend. We are however not losing sight of traditions. We believe in the values of marriage, family, respect for elders, education. But we do not believe in old dogmas, rituals. No insensible things of the past.

In terms of dress, language, dialogue, we are shaping India's culture. Consider Jassi. She is the icon of almost every north Indian woman. In the case of Indian Idol, tune into FM radio, you hear a lot about our participants. A station had a quiz asking listeners to name the Indian Idol finalists and callers could name all of them. It was a rare instance. We are not western. We have become a part of Indian life.

How do you tread the fine line of not going the way of the other channels?

The key thing is we try to avoid overdoing melodrama in our shows. It is useful upto a certain extent. Overdoing it is not helpful. When it becomes unreal like it is on the kitchen politics channel, people will realize what quality entertainment is… Melodrama there targets at the lowest strata of society. We used drama in Indian Idol to generate ratings of melodrama. People could identify with the reality of the show, hence they switched off the melodrama channel and tuned in to us.

In my opinion, Sony was the only channel that really grew in the GEC category. The overall market has grown around 7-10 per cent. We have grown 30 per cent upwards in ad revenues. Star's growth actually slowed down drastically. Our figures show that Star had a 15 per cent drop (in growth). They created Star One to try and topple Sony. And you know it went nowhere, while we went places.

What contributed to the growth at Sony?

Primarily advertising growth. We got better rates on the back of ratings growth. I set new benchmarks for the ad sales team and they more than delivered on them. Rates were up 20 per cent this year and additionally, while we were running empty earlier, we filled up a lot more inventory this year. Advertisers have realised that Sony is an even more effective medium to reach out to audiences than the others. There is a buzz.

Why the reliance on international and reality formats for Sony's shows?

We have gone for only four formats. Jassi, Batliwala, Indian Idol, and Fame Academy. (This interview was done before indiantelevision.com broke the news that Sony has acquired the telenovela Juana’s Miracle) We have 30 other programmes which are all original. We will buy and produce whatever works for the Indian market and we will buy for the world. We will not buy a Big Brother which will not at all work in India. Ready formats help leapfrog production cycles, give us access to a storyline that has worked. What is needed is adaptation, keeping our culture in mind.

Why launch another musical show in 'Fame Gurukul' so close to 'Indian Idol'?

We believe it is a natural extension of Indian Idol. We have a fabulous academic staff in Fame Gurukul -- Ila Arun, Shankar Mahadevan. They will put those selected through the paces of improving their voice, pitch, diction, attire, and give them a chance at fame, fortune and a successful future. Fame Gurukul will close and Indian Idol will open again. Helping us stay in touch with our audience, interact with them on the ground and on air throughout the year. We created singer millionaires of talented individuals who probably would have found it difficult to get into the music companies' offices. And we will do the same with Gurukul too.

'Sony was the only channel that really grew in the GEC category'

Don't you think that viewers will feel they have had too much of music reality shows?

No. You can only wait and watch. People have faith in us. Mothers aspire to have their kids on Indian Idol. We are closing advertising and sponsorship deals for Fame Gurukul. We already have three sponsors on board and others are coming on.

Did 'Indian Idol' make money?

Yes it did. It helped become a driver of other programmes like Jassi, CID. Additionally, Idol the second time round is going to take off like a rocket.

But their ratings are not skyrocketing?

They are consistent performers. And Jassi as I told you earlier has got iconic status. Which other TV brand or star has had the brand extensions that a Jassi has had right from clothes to stamps to slimming courses to jewelry?

Will you continue with older shows such as 'Kkusum', 'CID'?

Of course. New shows will only come when viewers get tired of old shows. And that is not happening according to our research. We have hiked the production values of CID, we are innovating. Newer sets, better camera angles. Viewers are loving it.

Hasn't the competition reacted to your moves?

Star is actually trying to copy us. They are constantly eyeing us. My prediction is that Star will fall further, we will inch up closer. And it will happen sooner than anyone expects it to.

What will you do now with Sab TV?

It will become the Indian male's viewing destination. All things that males want to watch. Comedy, games, business, gadgets, sexy women, sport, cars - but it will also be youthful. We will also offer high quality male oriented fictional product. It is already doing far better than Star One.

'Sab TV will be all things that males want to watch - comedy, games, business, gadgets, sexy women, sport, cars - but it will also be youthful'

Are you planning to go south?

No. We have dropped the idea of going south for the moment. We have done a distribution deal with SCV for the south. Which we think is all we work on for now.

Why did you hire Tarun Katial in programming?

Tarun is aggressive. He is hungry. He fights for getting the best stars, the best shows, the best. He takes risks. He has passion and belief in what he chooses to do. He brought that to the table at Sony.

Why have you not got into distribution like Star and Zee?

We will never get into ground distribution. We do not want to deal with anyone on the ground on an adversarial basis. It is a serious conflict of interest. It will not benefit us. We will support a platform and not discriminate against anyone. To deny carriage is discrimination. It prevents allocation for your channel on networks.

Your views on the news channel rush?

How can a multinational control news in India? I have always voiced that getting into news is not the done thing. Today, there are more than 15 news channels in India. Cost of entry is low, rates are crashing. Be it satellite transponders or ad rates. There is going to be a major shakeout because of the glut. I prefer to focus on the high cost space covering sports, movies and general entertainment. There is more opportunity here.

One Alliance. How is the bouquet faring?

It is the most varied bouquet. It has GEC, kids, Hindi movies, infotainment, action, Hindi movies, and lots of cricket. In fact it is the most powerful bouquet. It is doing well. We had a healthy growth this year.

 

The Ten Sports deal. Will it not eat into your revenues?

No. It is a fantastic marriage. The two will give us cricket all year around. With both we will have cricket tournament every six months. Ensuring carriage for our bouquet all year around. We have a three year agreement.

Will you buy it out at some point?

We have a distribution agreement now. (Smiles). But we would like to set up an English movie channel to complete our bouquet. We have just acquired the MGM library totally. We will do it sometime this year.

What are your predictions for the World Cup? Has the cricket acquisition made money?

I cannot give out any figures. Suffice it to say we are on track. But 2007 is going to be a big, big, big year for us.

Before that 2005 is going to be also a big year for us. We have Fame Gurukul, Idols 2. We are going to maintain growth at the pace of the industry. We are pouring in investments. Setting up new channels, the results of which will be reflected not immediately but in the not too distant future.

Internationally, how is the Sony network faring?

Sony is almost everywhere. International accounts for less than 10 per cent of our revenues. SET is global, now we are taking Max global. Revenues are healthy. We also have to deal with piracy in Pakistan where we believe that around a million homes are watching Sony. We want to make those illegal connections legal.

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