Television

NP Singh’s triumph and challenges at Sony Entertainment

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In 2009 when MSM India CEO Kunal Dasgupta resigned suddenly, industry insiders were betting that the COO NP Singh would take over. But that did not come to pass. MSM India chairman Man Jit Singh – who had taken charge as interim CEO and was also leading the search for Dasgupta’s replacement – was given the job after a nationwide hunt.

Hence, when news emerged on Friday (3 January) that NP (as he is known by all in industry) was being elevated as CEO of MSM India, it was time to bring out the bubbly and cheer for him. The collective belief amongst most in the know is that NP has got his just rewards, finally!

During the 15 years at MSM India, the turbaned NP has served the organisation well. Extremely low profile and mild-mannered, he was the perfect foil for the aggressive, innovative and outspoken Kunal Dasgupta.

“He was always there, which gave Dasgupta the freedom to innovate and grow the network. He offered the rock solid stability which the organisation really needed,” says a person who has worked very closely with both Dasgupta and NP. “He is a very good leader, man manager and operations man. And he is extremely sharp with numbers because of his finance background. To top it all, he is a gentleman in every sense of the word – a rarity in the current cutthroat world of media and television."

His big win has been the biggest success of the Sony Entertainment Television (SET) Network in recent times – the channel Sab. After SET acquired it in 2005 for Rs 57 crore from Sri Adhikari Brothers, the management quickly moved it away from its comedy positioning which founder Markand Adhikari had given it and relaunched it as a youth-oriented channel. Not a very good move, really as its audiences disintegrated almost instantaneously. The team persisted with the youth demographic for two years, until NP proffered that it should stick to its original positioning of comedy, and went about cobbling together a clutch of funny shows along with Sab head Anooj Kapoor. Amongst the shows which emerged from those early huddles include the long-running Tarak Mehta Ka Oolta ChasmaChidiya Ghar and FIR.

The net result: the audiences flocked back and Sab, today at times, figures amongst the top 5 GECs. And it is highly profitable too. Mother channel Sony Entertainment, which it was supposed to simply flank, has comparatively not lived up to its potential and has been struggling to get its fiction show act right for several years now.

NP’s second success has been Sony Max, which offers a cocktail of cricket and movie fare to its viewers. It arguably tops the Hindi movie channel category at all times of the year and it shines brilliantly through the annual flashy IPL tournament when it has at times moved to the number one spot (it has even beaten Hindi GECs).

He and the team under him have been innovating with Max’s programming by bringing in more entertainment into the prizewinning Extraa Innings – new anchors, cricket veterans like Navjyot Singh Sidhu and Sunil Gavaskar (cracking jokes in Hindi), better sets, cheerleaders, a live band and even added doses of comedy and movie integration. Max has over the years also dabbled in Hindi and Bangla language commentary, much before ESPN and Star Sports did.

The third six that the extremely articulate NP has hit is with Sony Pix, the international movie channel that in the SET portfolio. It is currently placed at the No 2, behind Star Movies. But it took some doing getting it there. From a classic movie positioning when it was launched, it was refocused as a channel which delivers new fare from the world of English cinema with the tag line ‘Stay Amazed’. NP has secured long term content deals with Sony Pictures and MGM which have delivered films such as SkyFallMission Impossible III and Spiderman, among several other films. It was NP who decided to acquire Slumdog Millionaire and air it in both English and Hindi which worked very well for the network as a whole. And last year he recruited Saurabh Yagnik from Star with a clear mandate to take it to the number one spot. 

NP also pushed for the shift of AXN – the English general entertainment channel – from Singapore to India and has been acquiring content which suits Indian tastes more. And that strategy seems to be working for AXN even though it has tough competition from Star World and Zee Café.

When he decided to launch the music channel Sony Mix a couple of years ago in an overcrowded market, not many gave it a chance. But today it has beaten back the leader 9XM with innovations such as music based programming on time bands and moods and also bringing in radio host Anurag Pandey onto the channel with his own show.

Along with Man Jit Singh, NP  has also been quietly building a slate of low cost movies under MSM Motion Pictures, which should start adding revenues to SET’s top line and hopefully its bottomline in the coming year.

That he is getting charge of one of the jewels in the Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) international crown shows how much confidence he has managed to gain from Los Angeles-based bosses Andy Kaplan and Michael Lynton. SPE, on its part, has been under pressure in recent times with declining profits and it even announced that it would prune its movie slate and focus more on television content. It hired a consultant firm Bain & Co in November 2013 to help it generate $250 million in savings. One of the options it is looking at is streamlining its international operations by setting up more joint ventures, apart from lowering head count.

According to reports in the international media, its Indian network reaches about 484.1 million pay TV subscribers, but it would like to see more revenues emerging from India. MSM India annually contributes nearly $600 million in revenues and $130 million in profits annually to SPE's media networks' business which tots up $1.5 billion in revenues overall, reveal Media Partners Asia estimates.With India’s cable TV networks on a digital rollout nationally, the hope is that subscription revenues will rise substantially for all the major Indian broadcast networks, amongst which figures MSM India.

NP has his work cut out. He has to focus on making the nearly billion dollar investment the network made in the IPL generate more revenues (the deal ends in 2017 and probably around 40 per cent of the investment has already been recovered), he has to make fiction work at Sony Entertainment, build a stronger creative team to bring in cutting edge series, and strengthen its non-fiction lineup at a time when fatigue is setting in amongst viewers.

This apart, he has to strengthen the Sony Entertainment network’s channel bouquet, bring in regional language and niche services to take advantage of the monetisation opportunities that digitisation will throw up in the next four to five years. All this at a time when its US parent is putting the squeeze on money and trying to generate savings, which means the accountant in NP will really have to do some financial legerdemain.

Most industry watchers are betting that NP will do the trick. “NP’s core strength is also distribution. Remember, he has been one of the architects of putting together the content aggregator One Alliance. So clearly, he will be able to work some magic on distribution and subscription revenues,” says a media analyst. “The problem with its major content offering - Sony the Hindi GEC - has been too many people have being driving it in the past, which has impacted its performance. With a single leader at the top in NP and a good programming head in place, expect Sony to really drive ahead on its programming initiatives. NP loves a challenge.”

It is precisely this quality in him that will prove handy as he goes about building Sony Entertainment Television for a digital and young India.

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