Television

'The downturn will bring in corrections not just in carriage but in every other aspect' : Barun Das - Zee News Ltd CEO

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Churn. The television industry has been going through turbulent times with the economy downsliding and ad growth decelerating. Like its peers Zee News Ltd (ZNL) too has been riding the wave of turbulence with its unique mix of national news and regional language channels.

While Zee News, Zee Marathi and Zee Bangla have been growing rapidly and notching up profits, Zee Telugu has turned operationally cash positive. The management has managed to keep losses from its 'new businesses' (channel launches in the south and Zee Talkies) under control; full fiscal loss forecasts stay unchanged at Rs 700 million, even though it is planning to launch a regional channel targeted at Uttar Pradesh. Simultaneously, it has decided to pull the shutters down on Zee Gujarati from 30 April as it was bleeding.

ZNL is also pursuing growth through the franchisee model, an experiment not tried yet by the other news broadcasters. After partnering with SB Multimedia for a regional news channel in Chattisgarh, the company is keen to tap local entrepreneurs who desire to get into the TV news space in regions which do not occupy Zee's immediate direct expansion plans.

In an interview with Indiantelevision.com's Sibabrata Das, Zee News Ltd CEO Barun Das talks about the success of the Zee News channel following a repositioning exercise, the turn around of Zee Business, the emergence of new driver channels within the bouquet, the challenges of tiding over the global economic turmoil, and the company's growth plans.

Excerpts:

Media companies are reeling under a severe ad slowdown. How has Zee News Ltd bucked this trend so far?

We are helped by the fact that the regional language markets are growing faster. What is working for us is the composition of the bouquet. Some of the new regional channels have started delivering while the driver channels continue to post strong growth. The positive thing is that more channels like Zee Telugu, Zee Kannada and Zee Business are positioning themselves to get into the driver category over the next 12-18 months.

Isn't the economic downturn affecting regional markets as well?

There is an overall slowdown. But regional television media markets are still in their nascent stages. The size of these markets is small and there is a lot of potential to grow them. The Marathi news market, for instance, is new. Even in the general entertainment space, the regional channels arrived much later than the invasion of private satellite television in national languages. Outside the southern region, it is the Marathi and Bengali markets that really matter. The other regional markets are small and I don't see them growing to any significant size in the near future.

Is this the time to take hard calls like shutting down Zee Gujarati?

We critically reviewed the channels that are not likely to make profit in the near future and decided to close down Zee Gujarati with effect from 30 April. Our learning in that market shows that the revenue is too small as entertainment consumption happens primarily in Hindi. It didn't make sense to linger with the channel and burn cash any more. We would rather focus on the bottom line of the company while strategically expanding our presence in other markets, products and services.

Has the break even success of the Telugu general entertainment channel put you in a comfort zone in the southern region to launch more channels?

We are backing up the progress of Zee Telugu with the launch in this quarter of Zee 24 Ghantalu, a Telugu news channel. Though Zee Kannada will not break even this fiscal, it would happen in the first or second quarter of FY'10. So yes, we have managed to open up the southern space for ourselves.

How bullish are you about cracking the Tamil market, particularly when the Marans (Sun TV promoters) and DMK party chief and Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi have smoked the peace pipe?

We are investing Rs 900 million for the Tamil channel in the first year (capex+one year opex). We expect Zee Tamil to break even over 36-48 months. We have signed up with Sun Group's cable TV arm SCV and the channel is well distributed. We are also in talks with Sun Direct for a presence of the channel on the DTH platform.

What makes us stay bullish is that Tamil Nadu is the biggest regional market. Besides, there is only one player (Sun TV) in that market, giving us space to climb the ladder. We feel we have a good opportunity to be a strong No. 2 or No. 3. Also, we have started understanding the nuances of the southern market from our experience, planning and research in running a Telugu and a Kannada channel.

'What is working for us is the composition of the bouquet. Some of the new regional channels have started delivering while the driver channels continue to post strong growth. The positive thing is that more channels like Zee Telugu, Zee Kannada and Zee Business are positioning themselves to get into the driver category over the next 12-18 months'

How much is ZNL going to lose from its new businesses this fiscal?

We are sticking to our original guidance of an EBITDA loss of Rs 700 million from our new businesses (Zee Telugu, Zee Kannada, Zee 24 Taas, Zee Tamil, Zee Talkies and Zee 24 Ghantalu) this fiscal. There is no revision upwards despite us planning to launch a regional news channel in Uttar Pradesh.

With the Indian economy coming under the shadow of a global recession, have you shelved plans to launch an English news channel?

There is no additional expansion plan at this stage outside the launch of Zee 24 Ghantalu and a regional news channel in Uttar Pradesh. But we are exploring opportunities in the English business news space. There is a lot of potential, but we have not concretised our plan as yet.

Marathi movie channel Zee Talkies got transferred from Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd (ZEEL) to ZNL. Will the company launch regional movie channels in each market where it runs a GEC?

Theoretically, we should have a GEC, a news, a movie and a music channel in each regional market where we have a presence. But we are not getting into that gear at this stage. Our Marathi presence is the most widest, followed by Bengali where we are involved in two GECs. While we have the market leader in Zee Bangla, we have taken a 26 per cent stake in Akaash Bangla along with a channel management agreement.

Will you be expanding in the near future through the franchisee model?

After launching Zee 24 Ghante Chattisgarh under this model, we are exploring more such opportunities. There is a huge upside in revenues when the economic climate is more favourable; and the money goes straight into the bottom line.

Is the flagship Hindi news channel growing at a slower pace?

Along with the growth in viewership share, there is a significant revenue growth as well. After we relaunched the channel with a game-changing strategy, premium brands from sectors like cosmetics, automobiles, and IT - who were earlier not present as our advertisers - have come on board.

How are you planning to push Zee Business which is considered as a laggard in comparison to its competitive channels?

Zee Business has made rapid strides over the last several weeks and has moved up from a 11 per cent share in a four-channel market to a 26 per cent share in a five-channel market scenario. We have changed the look and feel of the channel, beefed up our research team, took it beyond a eight metro approach, targeted specific audiences, and focused on the SME sector. We have also concentrated on events; we would have conducted 47 events in the second half of the year. All this seems to be working for us.

In fact, 2008 is also the year when 24 Ghanta went ahead to emerge as a leader in the Bengali news market with its focus on content, events and communications. We nullified Star Ananda's strength in football coverage by acquiring the rights of the National Football League.

Do you have plans to launch add-on channels like Tez to guard your flagship Hindi news channel?

Primarily, our strategy is to have state-based news channels. This will continue to be our going-forward direction in the near future.

Is subscription revenue looking positive with the entry of more DTH players?

DTH is a growing segment and we stand to benefit from it. It currently accounts for 32 per cent of our subscription income.
Will carriage costs continue to climb as more channels launch and continue to jostle for space on cable networks?

With digitalisation growing, carriage rates will continue to slide. The downturn will bring in corrections not just in carriage, but in every other aspect.
Including downsizing staff?

Retrenchment is not required. But going forward, we will see how much we need to rationalise on our costs. We will scrutinise every cost, review every deal, and re-negotiate with our suppliers.
In such a tough market, will you cut down on rates and play the volume game to consume ad inventory?

The right strategy would be to provide better value than cut rates. Our plan is to offer tailor-made solution for clients and work on innovations. We are, for instance, getting four co-branded programmes on Zee News channel. The truth is that all of us have to stretch more than what we have ever done so far.
How do you plan to survive the woes of 2009-10?

It will probably be the worst year any of us have ever seen. Our endeavour will be to strongly hold on to the ground and use this period to prepare ourselves for being able to take the next big leap when we finally move out of the global recession.

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