'Zee Telefilms to see ad revenue growth of 12 - 15% in FY07' : Rajiv Garg - Essel Group CEO of corporate strategy and finance

Cable and direct-to-home (DTH) is where Zee Telefilms Ltd (ZTL) chairman Subhash Chandra is planning to put the accelerator on. Wire and Wireless India Ltd (WWIL), the cable outfit, will enjoy an investment of Rs 5 billion to lay out a digital platform, gear up for triple play and expand in value-added services. And to fight Tata Sky in the DTH business, he will pump in Rs 2.5 billion over two years.

Zee News Ltd. (ZNL), which will have news and regional channels under its umbrella, is looking at a turnover of Rs 2.5 billion this fiscal. The listing of these demerged companies is expected to be in September-October.

In an interview with's Sibabrata Das, Essel Group CEO of corporate strategy and finance Rajiv Garg talks about the reasons for the demerger and the expansion plans of these separate entities.

Why did Zee Telefilms Ltd (ZTL) decide to demerge its businesses into separate entities?

The driving argument for demerger was that all these businesses had become big in themselves. Huddled together under Zee, they were not given the right strategic focus as the company was very broadcast-oriented. In cable, for instance, we felt that we were not doing justice to its growth potential. Also, in certain lines of activity the government regulations were impinging upon the growth prospects of the company. The idea was to see if we could create that focus and comply with the government guidelines. With so many technological advances taking place, we felt it was the right environment to carry this out. We decided to create independent governing structures and managements, delink cable from broadcasting, and put together certain news-bearing channels into an independent entity.

Why was the direct-to-home (DTH) business housed in complex structures which did not allow for tax efficiencies?

The idea was to provide specialist services in specific entities. As the competencies lay in them, the DTH business was spread across three outfits. Integrated Subscriber Management Systems Ltd, for instance, has an expertise in such areas like subscriber billing. Siticable has been negotiating content from the time the cable industry began in India. New Era Entertainment formed the marketing and ad sales arm. The aim was to create a revenue-sharing arrangement with ASC Enterprises Ltd (Ascel), the DTH license holder. When we did this structuring, there was no service tax applicable to the industry which was introduced later. We did not anticipate taxation developments to happen so quickly and cause financial inefficiencies. Besides, demerger will provide clarity of structure and add value to shareholders.

Since regulation allows for a broadcast cap of 20 per cent, why didn't ZTL hold stake in the DTH business?

It would have happened in due course. We were in no hurry as we wanted to present the DTH platform as broadcast neutral. The internal intention was to acquire equity once the key relationships came in.

What does the demerger process in the DTH business involve?

In the first stage, Siticable will hive off its cable TV business into Wire and Wireless India Ltd (WWIL). The residual Siticable and its wholly owned subsidiary New Era Entertainment Network Ltd will then merge with Ascel, thus consolidating all the DTH operations under one company. Zee Telefilms shareholders will get 23 shares of Ascel for every 10 shares held.

How did you arrive at this exchange ratio and why did you prescribe for a subsequent cancellation of shares?

It is the independent valuer (Deloitte Haskin & Sells) who came up with this ratio. As for cancelling three of every four shares held in Ascel, this is to bring back the capital base to the pre-merger level. The paid-up equity of Ascel would have bloated to around Rs 1.66 billion after the merger, up from the base of Rs 411 million. This would have been too large an equity for a company of this size. So we wanted to compress the capital base. We could have given a predetermined base, but didn't know the ratio the valuer would arrive at.

'DTH revenues will touch Rs 8 billion in FY08 as subscribers rise to 3.15 million and ARPU to Rs 310'

Zee's operating revenues from the DTH line of business was Rs 818 million in FY06 while losses stood at Rs 790 million. What is the investment plan and how do you see subscribers and average revenue per user (ARPU) size up over the next two years?

The net expense for DTH operations so far is Rs 3.8 billion. We are planning to pump in a further Rs 2.5 billion over the next two years. But we are sitting on a dynamic model and if Tata Sky and us are aggressively competing, there is a possibility of the subsidy amount further increasing. It is a factor of what strategies we adopt to develop our subscriber base. By the end of FY06, we reached close to one million subscribers. We project a gross revenue of Rs 3.2 billion in FY07 on a subscriber base of 2.4 million and an ARPU of Rs 250 (up from Rs 190) mainly because of the launch of value-added services. And in FY08, we see ourselves growing to a revenue of Rs 8 billion as subscribers rise to 3.15 million and ARPU to Rs 310.

When do you expect to sign up with Sony and how do you see content growing?

We expect Sony to happen within a month. Gradually, the content kitty is filling up. We are also looking at creating new DTH channels. Our plan is to expand to 200 channels.

Will transponder space be a limitation?

We will have to find space. We may have NSS when Doordarshan's DD Direct vacates the satellite to move to Insat 4B. We are also talking to Isro (Indian Space Research Organisation) to launch a dedicated satellite for us.

Are your Korean set-top vendors planning to set up a manufacturing facility in India?

I don't think it is viable at this stage. The volumes are too small for us to ask our STB vendors to manufacture in India. When we scale up to five million (boxes a year), then it may be a feasible project.

Which do you think will attract investors first, the DTH or cable company?

Both have attractive growth paths. We are looking at a mix of debt and funding coming from strategic or private equity investors.

Are you looking at a small dilution initially of up to say 26 per cent?

It all depends on what is the offer. Yes, if you initially dilute a small stake you have the advantage of discovering value as the company grows. But we have a flexible approach and it all depends on how lucrative the proposal is.

Have you started talking to investors?

We have been approached by many, but nothing is imminent yet.

Will WWIL infuse massive capital towards digitisation of cable and triple play?

We know the cable business has a lot of undiscovered value and will be giving it a big push. WWIL has a business plan which would take in an investment of Rs 5 billion over three years to drive digitisation, broadband and triple play rollout. It is a classic example of how the focus has been lacking and we have not taken advantage of the technology advances. We are looking at a million digital cable subscribers in the first year as we bundle service and hardware together in some form of subsidy. We also plan to make the network available to telecom operators for voice. Valuation of the cable business can only go up as the industry is badly suppressed. Conditional access system (CAS), digitisation and triple play will liberate the industry and growth in revenues can be rapid.

How much debt you will raise to fund the expansion?

We are looking at a debt-equity ratio of 1:1. The net worth of the company currently is not that strong to support that size of debt. We are, after all, planning to pump in Rs 5 billion to expand the business.

What was the need for restructuring Zee News again?

The restructuring started a couple of years ago when the uplinking guidelines were changed. Since we had a substantial foreign holding in ZTL, broadcasting of news and news-bearing channels were placed on a separate footing. Gradually as a response we shifted news gathering and uplinking to a separate company, Zee News Ltd, which was in compliance with the guidelines.

But in the last few months, we have been mutilating this model as we found that there is a lot of strategic gap or clarity between the thinking of the producer (Zee News), the distributor (Zee Telefilms) and the team that exploits the commercial rights (Zee Telefilms) to such channels. So we thought we would close the gap and put everything in an entirely separate entity. All strategic decisions should be taken in an integrated manner by one team - be it production, news gathering, programme slotting, distribution or commercial exploitation.

So what were the strategic gaps?

The differences sprung because there was a revenue sharing arrangement between the two, but I can't give you the minute details. It is not a good idea tactically to unite even if both of them are part of the same family.

Zee news and regional channels had a combined turnover of Rs 2 billion in FY06. Were regional channels brought under Zee News Ltd (ZNL) because they could add to the company's topline growth?

The main reason for this kind of arrangement is that they are news-bearing channels; the regional channels have a strong component of current affairs and news programming. One of the consequences of this combination, of course, can be fattening of the topline. We are projecting a revenue of Rs 2.5 billion in FY07 and Rs 2.9 billion in FY08.

As part of the restructuring, 137 ZNL shares will fetch 100 shares in ZTL. But with the total foreign shareholding in ZTL at 54.69 per cent, how does ZNL fall within the regulatory cap of 26 per cent?

ZTL chairman Subhash Chandra will be transferring his foreign holdings (22.77 per cent is foreign promoters holding in ZTL) to an investment company in India. Also, foreign institutional investors (FIIs) will be given preference shares to bring the cap under limit (FIIs hold 31.51 per cent in ZTL).

When are you planning the launch of Tamil and Malayalam language channels? How much are the new southern channel launches consuming as investments?

The two channels should see launch in the current fiscal and in FY08. Along with the Kannada launch, the total investments would be in the region of Rs 350 million.

With the demerger, won't the topline of core Zee Telefilms see an erosion?

Even after physically transferring the topline out, there is enough of a mandate to register growth. We have the number two and three (Zee Cinema and Zee TV) channels in the country. If they continue to focus on the products they have, their growth path is mandated. The flagship channel, Zee TV, is seeing a surge in ratings and ad rates.

For core ZTL (after demerged businesses), we expect an advertising revenue growth of 12-15 per cent in FY07. While international business will sustain its 10-12 per cent growth (adding of channels and gain from Middle East), domestic subscription will stay steady. Overall, the core ZTL (after demerged businesses) will see a growth of 10 per cent in the current financial year.

Will the bottomline look healthy after hiving off the loss-making businesses?

The pullout is of minor loss-making businesses. The impact will largely even out as Zee News and the regional channels were profit-making. Still, there will be some positive outcome.

How will Zee Sports play out on ZTL's bottomline, particularly after bagging at a whopping price of $219.15 rights to 25 offshore cricket matches over five years?

Zee Sports is at a development stage and there will be investments made for the long term development of the channel. There is a particular sequence in which we have to pay and the outgo for the first year will be $5.04 million per match. That will give us reasonable time to drag on the investments and build the channel. Besides, we will be bidding for other major sports properties including the ICC World Cup which is coming up for grabs.

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