Television

'Why would BCCI want its biggest new property on a new channel?' - Kunal Dasgupta

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For Sony Entertainment Television (Set) India CEO Kunal Dasgupta, the big wish for 2008 is to throw up that one hit narrative show that would get some momentum going for his network's flagship channel Set. Other than the vexed issue of Set and its equally struggling Hindi GEC sibling Sab, the network is doing fine thank you, argues the long serving head honcho of the Indian broadcast operations of Sony Pictures  In conversation with Indiantelevision.com recently, Dasgupta looks back on the difficult year that was 2007 and offers some pointers to the strategic direction Set India (now renamed Multi Screen Media Private Limited) is looking to take in 2008 and beyond.Excerpts:

Let's start with the new name. Is this because your parent Sony Pictures Entertainment is distancing the Sony brand name from the Indian broadcast entity?

Certainly not. The name is reflective of the company's evolution from a pure television broadcaster to a multimedia one. We want to be on all screens that are video enabled. Going forward, we will be actively investing in mobile, movies, Internet, and out of home screens. Mobile in particular is going to be a focus area for us.

When you say you want to be on all screens, could you elaborate on that?

I am going to be recycling the over 30,000 hours of television content and 750+ movie titles that I have with me. We plan to repurpose a lot of it not just across the different screens, but across networks too. The realm of exclusivity is no longer the norm. To stay ahead of the game you have to be focused on how best to leverage the content that you have.

Like the Rs 40 crore (RS 400 million) deal you did with Peter Mukerjea's INX for 60 movie titles?

Yes. That deal entitles INX to three airings of each film I have syndicated to them.

Looking back to 2007, how would you rate the performance of the channels in the Sony network?

Well, Max was fantastic; Pix became viable. On Sony and Sab we have suffered reverses on account of our fiction programming not working.

And looking ahead into 2008?

The business paradigm is changing and we are at the forefront of that. You could say we are the catalysts for change. Syndication, mobile; these are going to be areas that will explode. The one who reads the writing on the wall and adapts will survive.

How has the year been in terms of revenues? The perception in the market is that Sony had a terrible year?

If you add up ad sales, distribution and our international business, it would be Rs 1,200 crores (Rs 12 billion) overall, so you can't say it was a terrible year.

One reason for the perception that Sony had a lousy year, aside from its programming not working, was the ICC World Cup debacle in March. We understand you lost some RS 800 million odd due to India's early exit. Comment?

The ICC rights should not be looked at from the results from one tournament, but on how it delivered over four years. And it delivered on every count for us.

Looking at the larger perspective, what have been the big challenges the broadcast sector faced and will face, going forward?

The pathetically slow pace of digital rollout (Cas) has been the biggest challenge for existing players. Though I do believe digital distribution will come into play from 2008 onwards.Combating all these new players will be the big upcoming challenge. The (leadership) pecking order will have to be reestablished. Star is not complacent in its position of number 1. Even Zee as a challenger is not complacent. Everybody will face challenge. The whole media business will face challenge.

The industry is seeing huge churn now. The channel explosion is going to further fragment audiences. We will soon have 9/10 channels in each of the genres - news, sports and movies.

You say pathetically slow digital rollout on the cable front is the biggest challenge for the new players as well as the existing players. But if we look at 9X, the numbers they are drawing are not due to cannibalization, but due to new viewers?

It's not cannibalization of GEC but other genres like music.

So you don't believe that people have an inherent desire to consume entertainment content but may have been tuned off by the lack of variety presently on offer so they are trying out channels like 9X?

It's not just 9X. Even Bindass is getting new viewers. 9X is making a lot of noise but give me a name of one show that stands out. On NDTV Imagine also, nothing will stand out.

What do we have in 2008? BCCI's Indian Premier League will take off and what else?

I don't know on which channel it will take off. I hope it is on ours.

But as you yourself said, there will be new sports channels launching and we should expect bids from new players?

They can of course bid but why would BCCI want its biggest new property on a new channel? Its not just money, they (the cricket board) have to make it successful.

We do have an example of Ten Sports, which launched with World Cup Soccer in 2002?

There were only two channels - ESPN and Star Sports - then. Today there are seven channels (DD Sports, Ten Sports, Zee Sports, ESPN, Star Sports, Star Cricket, Neo Sports). Additionally, Max is half a sports channel.

Each time you launch a new channel, the space will get further fragmented. There is too much out there. There is going be a blood bath.

What about a platform proposition, like in the case of Sky in the UK? For a rights holder, could IPL potentially become as critical as EPL was to Sky?

Firstly, in India no exclusivity is being allowed. Secondly, the new guys bidding for the rights are channels which are not yet launched. If platforms like Dish TV or Reliance were to buy the rights, then I would understand but the guys buying are unknown people. They are all startups. They are doing it for their business valuations. They are not bothered whether IPL succeeds or not. Whereas BCCI wants IPL to succeed. IPL will collapse with new players.

Coming back to the year ahead, how do you see 2008 for your network and the industry?

As far as the industry is concerned, we would want to see the Reliance launches happening. It's a very big thing. Then IPL should succeed. New players should enter digital distribution in the cable front. More people are required, more funding is required.

As for ourselves, we will take some other new initiatives and continue to build our business. We need one hit show. Saat Phere was the starting point for Zee. I need one hit show from Monday to Thursday. That is my perspective. I have no problem in any other area of my business except that. We need to build up, which is not happening.

Each channel is doing its own thing and so are we. In the meantime, I am doing syndication and international distribution. I am doing everything right except getting that one hit show.

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