MUMBAI: It was hardly a month or so ago that ZEEL MD Punit Goenka had issued a denial, saying that it was not interested in acquiring the radio and TV business of the Anil Ambani-owned Reliance Broadcast Networks Ltd (RBNL) because radio regulations do not permit FDI equity beyond 49 per cent.

But, the media was awash once again with the news that it had restarted negotiations with RBNL just two days ago. When got in touch with the ZEEL corporate spokesperson whether this was true, this is the response, we got: “From time to time, we keep exploring strategic opportunities for entering new businesses or in our existing businesses. However, as a matter of policy, we do not comment on media speculations,” the response said.

To us, this sounds ominously familiar. This is the exact response ZEEL and Essel had issued when news reports appeared about the sale of its TEN Sports business to Sony Pictures Networks India. When speculation about Siticable buying DEN Networks gathered steam, a similar line was thrown.

Ditto was the response with Dish TV’s ongoing discussions to acquire Videocon d2h from the debt-laden-and struggling Videocon group. Dish TV is a part of the Essel group as well.

And, we all know what happened with Ten Networks. After denying it for a few months, SPNI bought it over for a cool Rs 2,600 crore.

The DEN Networks talks turned out to be just talks. Now, the Sameer Manchanda-promoted cable company has got an infusion of cash and the rumour mills state that it will be acquired by Star India at some stage.

As far as Dish TV is concerned, the company recently moved its registered corporate office from Noida to a Mumbai address of Marathon Futurex, which also houses other Essel group ventures. Observers believe this move could help facilitate its Videocon d2h acquisition. The two groups will have to approach only one court – the Bombay High Court -- for approvals. Whether this is true or not, only time will tell.

Overall, the media industry is ripe for consolidation. And, the hungry to grow, Zee (Essel) group is scouting around for opportunities, chatting with almost everyone who could be a potential good addition to its portfolio. Analysts feel the prospective RBNL deal will be a win-win for Ambani as well as for the Essel group, of which ZEEL is a part.

The Essel group is present in television, films, print, music, events and live, and digital. What’s missing is radio. The acquisition, when and if that does happen, will herald the group’s entry into that segment as well. It recently announced its diversification into that segment in the UAE by leasing the frequency, which was operated by the radio channel Hum. The lease becomes active cum January 2017.

RBNL will also add a Bhojpuri regional channel BIG Ganga and a comedy-centric national channel Big Magic to the Zee TV bouquet. Both these genres are strikingly absent in the ZEEL bouquet. In July 2015, ZEEL gobbled up Odia channel Sarthak TV for Rs 115 crore.

Anil Ambani has been attempting to find buyers for his media and entertainment assets for some time now. Lured by the sector, he rushed into it in the previous decade setting up a DTH venture, poured investments in DreamWorks, in his Bollywood studio, in a VFX studio and in shooting floors, a TV production company, and in radio and TV broadcasting.

The oodles of cash he kept on pumping into the sector have not got the return he expected. One bright spark has been his radio and TV venture, especially the FM station and the regional channels. Recently, the group announced that it was carving out its DTH venture Reliance Digital TV into a separate company from Reliance Communications.

Observers say that the Zee group and RBNL are examining ways of slicing and dicing the RBNL business to facilitate a buyout. Among the options being considered is ingesting FM radio into Zee Media, and incorporating the Big Magic channels into ZEEL. According to BSE filings, Zee Media does not have any significant foreign holding. Hence, the foreign investment cap will not come in its way of digesting Big FM. And ZEEL's acquisition of the Big channels is but a shoo-in.

Of course, pricing has to be agreed between the two parties. Figures of Rs 2,000 crore-Rs 2,500 crore that are being bandied about seem far too inflated considering the scale of RBNL’s radio and TV business. The acquisition tag could more likely be at half of that. Or, if one stretches ones pockets, at a discount of Rs 500 crore to that.

We, as media observers, can only wait and watch to see which way the pendulum swings.

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