Television

'Ten Sports' distribution is open for negotiations' : Gurjeev Singh Kapoor - Set Discovery head

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Riding high on the ICC World Cup, Set Discovery reaped a harvest of $120 million (around Rs 4.8 billion) in 2006-07.

The challenges, though, are stiff this year as flagship Hindi general entertainment channel Sony TV is floundering. But direct-to-home (DTH) revenues will start kicking in substantially as subscribers have doubled. And the cricket play is not over yet.

The One Alliance, Set Discovery's brand, has recently added three news channels from TV Today including Hindi market leader Aaj Tak. It is also planning to form regional bouquets with presence in Tamil, Telugu and Bengali markets.

In an interview with Indiantelevision.com's Sibabrata Das, Set Discovery head Gurjeev Singh Kapoor speaks about the distribution company's interests in bidding for Ten Sports and HBO as they come up for grabs while chalking out its expansion plans.

Excerpts:

Will Set Discovery manage to retain its last fiscal revenue of $120 million in a year where it doesn't have strong cricketing properties?

I wouldn't like to comment on the revenue front. But we would surpass it this fiscal, thanks to DTH (direct-to-home) where the numbers have doubled. We are also close to signing up with Reliance ADAG and Bharti Airtel's upcoming DTH ventures. We have done IPTV deals with players like IOL Broadband, HFCL and Aksh Optifibre. And don't forget that Ten Sports had a lineup of live cricket telecast.

But Ten Sports admits that not having India cricket will affect their ad revenues this fiscal. Won't this same logic extend to distribution?

Ten Sports is a good sporting channel for distribution. Though it doesn't have live India playing content this fiscal, we could capitalise on other cricket as it was exclusive. Having no India cricket may affect advertising. But our experience shows that distribution profits if there is live and exclusive content on the channel. Besides, Ten Sports has WWE which is a good property for distribution.

Will Ten Sports not slip out of The One Alliance after the term ends in March 2008, particularly after Zee has taken a 50 per cent stake in the sports channel?

Ten Sports' distribution is open again for negotiations, despite Zee having taken a 50 per cent stake. The channel strategically helped us in pushing our bouquet and with the ICC World Cup, we had back to back cricketing properties. We gained from the 'synergy effect.' We are going to bid for it again. The distribution is up for grabs.

Why didn't Sony bid for the ICC World Cup, if it is crucial to have a cricketing property to push distribution bouquets?

Our experience shows that on the distribution revenue front, it is always good to have 2-3 boards if you are getting live and exclusive cricket. We, undoubtedly, gained in subscription revenue because of the World Cup. But it is also true that we couldn't encash on smaller markets because the World Cup is a largely shared property. We had to share with Doordarshan the India and other important big matches.

Which is why Sony bid and took the New Zealand cricket board?

Our cricket story will not stop there. We are looking at cricketing properties that make business sense for us. The thought process is that we will bid for IPL and other boards that come up for renewals.

'We are actively seeking a regional presence. We are looking at having Tamil, Telugu and Bengali channels'

Sony was in talks to distribute Neo Sports. Did it fail because Neo was asking for very high minimum guarantees?

We couldn't agree on the commercial terms. Though Neo has the BCCI rights to international cricket played in India, matches will have to be shared with DD. We felt the asking price was on the higher side.

Set Disocery has recently signed a pact with TV Today Network to distribute Aaj Tak, Headlines Today and Tej. Will Aaj Tak help you to push Sony TV, which has weakened its position, and Sab TV in the Hindi heartland?

It will complement our two Hindi general entertainment channels. But more than that, it will open up the Hindi news channels to go pay. Star News and Zee News are virtually free. As Aaj Tak is the No. 1 in its genre, cable operators will now have to understand that Hindi news channels are also pay. Already NDTV India is planning to go pay.

Our bouquet will have pay channels in every genre. We already had NDTV as the leading English news channel; and with Aaj Tak, we will now have the leader in the Hindi news segment.

How much of an upside do you see in revenue terms?

The only way we can ask for more revenues from cable operators is by expanding our content. As we are adding the three TV Today news channels, we are hiking our second bouquet price from Rs 58 to Rs 65. We have a 40-month deal with TV Today which extends across all distribution platforms - cable, DTH, IPTV.

Is The One Alliance planning to add more channels?

We will be pitching for English movie channel HBO as its distribution deal with Zee Turner comes up for renewal early next year.

What about forming regional bouquets?

We are actively seeking a regional presence. We are eagerly looking at having Tamil, Telugu and Bengali channels. While Andhra Pradesh has an estimated 11 million cable households, in case of Tamil Nadu it is 10 million and West Bengal five million. Even if we manage to convert 50 per cent of that, that is a lot of pay revenues. Kerala is not on our radar as even popular channel Surya is free-to-air.

Along with the regional channels, we can push our national bouquet more aggressively into these markets.

Will more existing channels go pay as carriage fee shoots up?

Several existing channels are looking to go pay fast. Carriage or placement fee is going to shoot up and up as cable networks have no frequency available. Between Star, Set Discovery, Zee Turner and ESPN Star Sports, there are about 70 pay channels. So where is the space on analogue cable. Bandwidth is going to be a big problem for everybody to handle.

The telecom regulatory authority of India (Trai) has asked for a la carte pricing from broadcasters in non-Cas (conditional access system) areas. Do you see this contributing to more carriage fee?

If the tariff order sails through, Trai will actually be promoting carriage as a concept. The multi-system operators will charge for carrying the channels while we have to offer them on an a la carte basis.

Why has Sony moved the Tdsat (Telecom Disputes Redressal and Settlement Tribunal) against the Trai tariff order for non-Cas areas?

We have two points of contention. Even if broadcasters offer channels on a la carte basis, how do we get paid for the exact number of our subscribers? The other reason is that we will have to reduce the rates of our channels for non-Cas areas. In Cas areas we do so but are compensated in a way because there is exact declaration of subscribers.

And for whose benefit is this a la carte rate for? How the hell does the consumer benefit as technology won't allow for a la carte choice of channels without a set-top box?

If the Trai tariff order for non-Cas areas goes through, it will be a disaster for the broadcasters. It will send bad signals to a new channel wanting to come to India.

Aren't broadcasters also unhappy with the progress of Cas?

For the first time, all of us came under one roof to foster Cas. But what we realised is that MSOs were in a way curbed by the last mile operators who did not want Cas.

We are concerned about the low penetration of set-top boxes. There was the T20 World Cup on ESPN Star Sports, India won the championship, and it was live and exclusive. How in a Cas market, there was no big upside? This defeats the purpose of Cas and leads to a lot of questions.

Besides, Trai came out with a particular reporting format, but we haven't got anything of that from the MSOs. We have no choice but to knock at the doors of Trai. We want the sector regulator to intervene.

Why aren't broadcasters joining hands with MSOs to market for set-top box penetration?

We are willing but the MSOs have internal problems. The last mile operators see a bigger threat from digital cable rather than DTH.

How do you see new entrants impacting the market?

Competition is healthy for everybody so long as the new MSOs can invest in technology and have financial stability. If cable monopolies are attacked in towns, it means more choice for customers and more revenues for us.

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