'User generated content is popular in news, music and sports genres' : Pankaj Thakar - Cellcast Interactive India CEO

With user generated content (UGC) on the rise globally,UK-based Cellcast is betting that its Sumo.TV platform for broadcasters would catch on in India and other parts of the world. People can send in video content and if it is fit for television viewing, it will be put up.

Cellcast is also looking to launch shows on different TV channels for which it buys airtime.'s Ashwin Pinto caught up with Cellcast Interactive India CEO Pankaj Thakar for a low-down on the company's plans in India.


Could you give me an overview of Cellcast and the services it provides?

We work in the area of developing participative content. People watch television and consume it either by mobile or IVR or the internet. Cellcast is a technology and a format company mixed into one. We have integrated technology that is inexpensive to use. Both small and big broadcasters depending on what they want can use our formats.

What are your different revenue sources?

Our main revenue source is through mobile, IVR and internet. People pay for premium services like SMS, MMS, Wap, GPRS. We have a show called Bid2win which be participated through SMS or IVR or you can go to the net and log on to the website. We buy airtime on channels and showcase our content.

In India you worked with Star on their reverse auction format and with Zee on their PlayTV channel. How was that experience in terms of viewer uptake and channel response?

We did some projects with them. The results were positive with both and the projects were big. We got PlayTV off the ground pretty fast. However we feel that we have to be in control of our own destiny. We are out of PlayTV. We have bought airtime on Sony, Zee, Sahara, Zoom. That is why we could not continue with PlayTV.

For PlayTV, we did a Housie format. We used formats that work in a diptest environment so you know whether or not the audience is ready to respond. We are now looking to increase the number of formats on air on different channels. By March we hope to have six formats on air.

Could you talk more on this?

We currently have bid2win and Bollywood Dhamaal. The latter was launched on Max on 7 January. In the first episode alone we got 100,000 responses. It is a game show where two anchors talk to the audience.

There are some puzzles shown on TV. Some people get to call live and if they solve the puzzle they win prizes. At the end there is a jackpot round for Rs 100,000.

What are the other formats being looked at?

We have a sports format called Beat them All. We have been talking to Max about this. We are talking to Max to use this as the World Cup is coming up. It is a virtual cricket set up that you play along with. If you beat six top players you win Rs 10 million. We did an offline test with a mobile operator and we got 100,000 responses for an India versus South Africa match. This works via SMS and IVR. We are looking at an interactive astrology show, a social networking show, a music show and a matrimony show.

By social networking, I mean making friends through television. Already it is happening on the net through sites like MySpace. For astrology a viewer can send in an SMS and the astrologer will answer the query. The matrimony show will involve helping the person make the initiative to find a partner. TV is a powerful social medium and can attract people from all parts of life if it is put in a social environment. I am not sure if girls would want to do this but a guy can put his picture and say that he is looking for a bride and this is his background.

How cost effective is it to acquire airtime?

It is cost effective in a sense. If the response rates are good, you will be fine. The rationale behind buying airtime is to show people that our formats work. 250 episodes of bid2win got 20 million responses. It has generated $1.4 million in revenue. It is a clear-cut winner. A broadcaster otherwise has to produce his own content, find advertising money. Here we give them free content and pay for the slots. So it is a win-win situation for everybody.

Could you talk about your channel business in the UK?

We run six channels on the Sky platform. We also have airtime on Freeview. We have been operating them since 2002. Since we run our own channels, we can experiment with different types of content, technology. This is then exported. Our channels include a psychic astrology channel. We started with one hour and the channel has grown. We have a network of psychics who take calls. We have a dating channel and so people can call up and find people and do matchmaking. We have a shopping and auctions channel.

Apart from this we operate a channel in China in Shenzhen called Mymobile TV. We operate quite differently outside the UK. We form partnerships with broadcasters to provide programming or buy airtime.

We would like to eventually start a channel in India on a DTH platform. Our goal is to set up channels on satellite in different countries. We have experience in running small, vertical channels in a multi-platform environment. Our speciality besides providing content lies in running channels in different genres. Our dream would be to run an auction channel and a game show channel in India for sure down the line. However we have not set a timeframe.

What have the key learnings been from running your own channels?

I think that it is in terms of the nature of your whole business model. To bring in a niche audience you have to really know how to engage that audience and look for alternative sources of revenue. There is no advertising and subscription income. While profits have taken a hit our revenues in the UK are strong.

Our channels in the UK are freely available for those who have Sky. You have to provide an engaging experience that people are willing to pay for. Our motto is pay and play. Our experience has been that people will pay for services like an auction.

Won't it be difficult to launch a channel in India as DTH has a transponder space problem?

We face universal constraints. Measat 2 has launched for South Asia. Suddenly space for 400 channels is available.

'bid2win got 20 million responses and generated $1.4 million in revenue. We will increase airtime buying on channels'

How did the concept of Sumo.TV come about and what were the technical challenges initially faced?

It came out of the participative content that we do. In the UK when we did MMS participation, people sent pictures, lots of videos. We realised that since there is a huge market out there we can actually encourage people to create their own content and send it to us. The challenge was to build a content management system. The other challenge is how do people who participate be a part of the value chain. With mobile technology that allows you to download services we have solved that puzzle also.

Sumo.TV basically invites individuals to share their personal or creative videos that can be featured on primetime television. Sumo.TV has already launched in China and in the UK. In fact in the UK we have started a 24-hour channel where content is distributed solely by the viewers. This exceeds what youtube and MySpace can do. All content can be shared through the site,, where viewers can through the net or mobile post their content, which can then be viewed and shared.

How does the monestisation process work?

It is very simple. If you download content through mobile or net we charge for it. The content creator gets a percentage of the revenue accrued. There is a pre-agreed revenue sharing arrangement for all the partners in the value chain. Every time content is downloaded by another user or shown on television or streamed on the mobile the creator gets a percentage of revenues. Effectively Sumo.TV users are being invited to set up their own mini-channels. In the UK everyday the site gets 80,000 unique visitors. Of course there is a filtering process and so all submissions are not accepted. This is how we are different from youtube. Whatever is accepted must be fit for television viewing.

What about India?

We are talking with Indian broadcasters regarding airing user generated content on their channel.

Have any special services been introduced in India?

Cellcast India has introduced three services in India. One is Sumo Ki Pehchaan. This is where you submit a clip and the best one wins Rs 100,000. Then there is Sumo Ki Sangeet. Here you can submit a video of you singing or playing a band. While Indian idol gives an opportunity to talent, Sumo.TV will open avenues to talent that had been previously hesitated to come forward. Then there is the Super Sumo challenge. Here one can submit a short socially relevant film. We will look to help broadcasters build on content.

A UGC platform like Sumo.TV allows for expansion of content and the most important part is that it connects viewers to viewers. Right now 100 TV programmers decide what a billion people should watch.

But while India is a huge mobile market the concept of user generated videos is new. Mobile participation is as of now mostly limited to SMS, chat. How long do you feel it will be before UGC takes off in India?

Well 30 per cent of mobile phones in India in 2009 will have a camera. This means 60 million camera phones or one camera for every 20 Indians. The question will be whether any event can remain in the private domain.

An event which can't be published in a newspaper or be seen on television can be put on Sumo.TV by someone who feels that the event is important. More video content will be consumed. This will however not replace traditional television. The fact that Apple has come out with the iPhone, which has video ipod, web, camera, shows convergence. Right now there are nine million phones that are GPRS enabled. This itself is a big number.

The UGC process can be described as aim, shoot, compose, post and share. Our strategy with broadcasters will be with licensing and revenue sharing. The first step will be to help them aggregate content. Once that is done there will be licensing fee and a revenue share with downloads if for instance Sony asks viewers to send in content.

What genres are popular with UGC? How do you authenticate content?

In the short-term shock therapy works. So news, music videos and sports are the three main genres. For authentication we are developing tools. Doctored video we have figured out. But as far as the authenticity of the actual event is concerned, it is for the broadcaster to figure out.

What are the advantages for advertisers in a participation environment?

You can tag the product lines, do product placement along with return messages. Participation means a two way communication process. There is a chance for the advertiser to put in a tagline. At first advertisers did not understand the power of UGC. They were also worried about issues of IPR. Once those get sorted out, they will be more than happy to come on board.

Could you talk about how Cellcast is taking advantage of the synergy between mobile and the internet?

Going forward, five years from now net will be as present on the mobile as it is on the PC. I do not see a reason to treat them as two separate mediums. Once bandwith prices get rationalised, people will use the mobile to access the net.

How important do you feel India will be for Cellcast five years down the line in terms of business being generated?

India is a key market along with UK, China and Brazil. That is where the mobile uptake has been at its most healthy. It has been a long, hard road to get to where we are in India but now we are stable. We have a team that is expanding. From two people, we are now 30 people. We get creative work outsourced from India as the talent here is fantastic.

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