Television

"I may distribute a news channel. I just do not want to run one"

Sony Entertainment Television has secured the cable and satellite television rights for all ICC-designated One-Day cricket for the next seven years, which includes the next two World Cups. But with a reported $255 million acquisition tab, SET CEO Kunal Dasgupta has his task cut out to profit from it. At a media briefing last Friday, Sony presented the captain of India's successful World Cup campaign of 1983, Kapil Dev, as its brand ambassador. Dasgupta talks of this and other issues like conditional access, DTH, uplinking from India to indiantelevision.com's Thomas Abraham.

What made you plump for Kapil Dev as your brand ambassador?

The point is, just as Amitabh Bachchan is the icon of movies, Kapil Dev is the icon of cricket and we expect Kapil to do for Sony Entertainment what Bachchan did for Star.

There is this huge investment of $255 million that has been pumped into getting the rights to ICC-designated One Day cricket tournaments. Recovering that is a tough ask any way you look at it. At least as far as the ICC tourney in September and the World Cup next March, are there any programming initiatives that you have in mind?

There are a number of them we have lined up but I don't want to talk about these initiatives at this juncture.





 

What about an outline of your overall strategy?

First and foremost, we want to take the game beyond the male and offer it as family entertainment. The programming initiatives that we are working on will take cricket beyond the boundary and get the families in. There will certainly be a focus on women in our plans.

 

Secondly, we have to generate interest beyond the matches India is playing. And we will have to create devices that provide for that.

 

And the ICC rights that we have include under-19 cricket tournaments. There is no interest for this now but we will have to generate it.

 

One way is to make the cricketers more media savvy. They will need to be groomed accordingly so as to give the proper sound bytes at the proper time. Tiger Woods is not just a sporting success story but a marketing one as well and this has been achieved by a great deal of coaching on how he conducts himself.



 

Now that you have acquired this massive cricket property, have you thought of an IPO. Would this not be a good time to raise funds from the market?

My board doesn't think so.

The big debate currently is around the government's determination to introduce conditional access systems in the country. What is your stand on this?

Well I would have to see how it is implemented. My principal concern is that there should not be a disruption of services which is something I am sure the government would ensure when CAS is introduced.

 

The big question is, will the law make it mandatory to declare the subscriber management systems, which are in the hands of the cable operators? How do you control this is a big worry?





 

The Cable TV Networks (Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2002 is almost certain to get cleared in the next session of Parliament in July. How long do you think the first phase of the rollout in the four metros will take?

It should take about a year or so at the very least, I would think.





 

What will happen to DTH in this scenario? The whole concept of having tiers means that high-end services can be offered to consumers which would incorporate interactivity and other options like pay-per-view. Would this not make the DTH option a non starter?

The introduction of CAS as is visualised would in fact speed up the entry of DTH. If the customer has any way to invest in a set top to access channels, the quality of service that DTH provides would make it quite a feasible option if the price is right. It should be noted that in India what we are talking about as far as CAS is concerned is an analog service. To digitise, massive investment is needed for cable TV headend upgradation as well as line upgradation. What we are looking at is costs of up to Rs 50,000 crores (Rs 500 billion). At the moment, it is only Reliance that is doing this kind of cabling.





 

The introduction of CAS would certainly alter the dynamics of the business. What sort of scenarios do you visualise?

Bundling of packages will certainly be there. It will ultimately boil down to who offers the best package. There will be possibilities of a number of currently rival networks like Sony, Star and Zee for instance coming together and offering a shared bundle. India is a unique market. Ultimately, market forces will settle the issue.





 

What other options are there available to the broadcaster?

One possibility is to supply boxes directly to the consumer. That way we bypass the cable operator altogether by entering into a direct relationship with the consumer.





 

If you are talking packages, then strong bouquets will still be important. Have you earmarked any candidates for joining "The One Alliance" (what the addition of the Discovery and Animal Planet channels to the Sony Entertainment bouquet of SET, MAX, AXN and CNBC India is called)?

An English movie channel is top of our wish list. Music and niche channels are our other options.

How many new channels can we expect on the platform by the end of the year?

Ask me on 20 June.





 

What about a news channel? There is a lot of buzz that a news channel is also on your list.

As long as I am CEO, a news channel will not happen. We do not want to get into issues of editorial management as that would involve taking sides on issues. The issue we have with running a news channel is that we prefer to remain neutral. We have a lot of products that we promote in India besides our channels. There is the movie business, music and electronics goods that we have as well, so that is the position that we are comfortable with.





That is not to say I cannot have a news channel on my platform. I can certainly distribute a channel. I just do not want to run one.

Now that the government has liberalised uplinking, there is talk that broadcasters who uplink abroad will be looking at transferring operations to India so as to bring in new avenues for advertising. Is Sony considering such an option?

Not for the near term at least. If at some later date, we feel there are clear advantages to be derived, then we would have to reassess the situation.

What of programming? Is there anything new happening on Sony?

We will be introducing a new blockbuster series slotted for the weekend prime time. The weekend has been associated with blockbuster movies. Now we are working on a blockbuster series that will run for 39 episodes. With it, we expect to carve out the weekend prime time slot.

Balaji has said it is readying a 39-part weekend series that is going on air within the next two months, slated to run as a one-hour show on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. And the talk is that you are doing a big new show with Balaji. Is this that show?

Yes it is.

Still, it is the weekday programming that ultimately decides the success of a channel. What have you lined up for the weekdays?

We will be continuously introducing new shows but they will be short duration series. The days of the long-running serial are numbered.

Do you have any big ticket shows lined up?

One show we are seriously looking at is a game show called Russian Roulette.

From whom are you acquiring the rights?

It is a Columbia Tristar property.

(Russian Roulette, produced by Columbia TriStar Domestic Television [CTDT], is a game of chance where every question could cause a contestant to literally "drop out" of the game and has been a hit in countries as wide apart as Russia and Spain. In this knowledge test, four strangers challenge each other to answer a series of multiple-choice questions. If a contestant answers incorrectly, he must pull the lever potentially triggering one or more "drop zones". When only one contestant is left standing, that person keeps all of the money won and proceeds to the final round. In the US version, the final winner takes home an additional $100,000.)

What about Shubh Vivaah (Sony's blockbuster marriage reality show)? When do you see it finally launching?

There is a hearing scheduled for 8 July. After that, we will know for certain.

But I thought the issue was settled. Didn't the Delhi high court ruling (of 3 March) state that Taal (which went to court over claimed copyright violation) gets a lead time of two months if its own show Swayamvar launches on or before 30 June, otherwise Sony would be free to launch Shubh Vivaah?

Well, Taal went in appeal of that ruling. So the judge has put 8 July as the date for final hearing of the case. Basically, Taal is only employing delaying tactics. In any case, we expect to have the show out in the next few months.

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