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2019: The year industry got hit in the gut

The economy also played spoilsport for much of the stakeholders.

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MUMBAI: The year of churn. Gut-wrenching churn like the industry has never experienced before. That’s how the media and entertainment history books will describe the year 2019. CEOs of media companies had to develop cast-iron stomachs to see it through.

“We are struggling to just survive,” said a CEO of a leading news broadcaster to indiantelevision.com. “I am praying that I can see through the next 12 months with my head above the water.”

In the backdrop of an impending global recession sparked off by the trade spat between two presidents – the US’ Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping – and the dreaded Brexit chaos under Boris Johnson, the industry had to deal with the cautious mind state that crept into the business on account of the slowdown. Add to this the lending phobia that has become endemic in the banking system, courtesy the implosion of a few financial institutions and banks. Net result: cash evaporated in the economy, leaving many organisation cash strapped.

The year started with a new TV pricing order which was finally enforced, sending the pay TV broadcast, cable, satellite industry into a tizzy. While welcomed by all, the manner in which it was rolled out was questioned as the distribution fraternity, for the most part, was not geared up for it.  Subscribers vanished. What were considered important genres once were hit by an earthquake that saw ratings plummet. Niche regional language channels suddenly raced to the numero uno spot, thanks to the fact that they were free to air.

Mergers shook the landscape globally, including India, as the year 2019 and were all set to hit the Indian landscape as the year was ending with Mukesh Ambani having parleys with Sony to merge with his TV18 and Viacom18 venture. Disney went through with the execution of its merger globally with Fox reflected in India in the form of Star absorbing Disney India. Unlike the rest of the world where Disney was the primary driver of the union. Viacom merged with CBS in a deal that could have repercussions worldwide. The promoters of Zee Entertainment Enterprises bit the bullet on ownership, in order to pay off hungry creditors. They chose to sell their equity and retain a minority position, and paid off creditors through the proceeds but keep India’s largest indigenous broadcast network in play amongst the top three.  Free to air channels flourished and blossomed, even as the pay TV sector groaned under the changing paradigm brought about by the new tariff order. However, the entire pay TV sector acknowledges openly that the NTO is the best way forward for the entire industry. On the advertising front, WPP sold 60 per cent of its stake in Kantar to Bain Capital.

2019 will be noted as the year when advertisers tightened the noose on promotional spends, what with consumer off-take slowing down. Almost every category of product witnessed reduced or stagnant custom.

The top agencies also splurged to improve their digital expertise. Havas Group acquired UK management consultancy Gate One, UX agency Think Design, and digital agency Langoor.

It was the year of elections – both at the centre and in different states. But strangely for the news channels, the advertising dollars did not shower on them as expected.

A relatively insipid festival season meant that not enough cars were driven out of the showroom; not enough consumer – both fast-moving and durables – were bought like it used to be. Estimates were that the advertising industry would have grown at around the pace of the economy.

Cricket, cricket – it was the year of cricket. 2019 witnessed a host of high-end cricket events rolling outright from the World Cup to the IPL to India’s tours domestically and internationally. And of course, they sucked in a fair bit of ad spends, across Star and Sony.

But optimism continued to run high as channels continued to hit uplink stations and playout facilities. The Epic group launched a free to air channel and was in line to introduce more. Zee TV was also pacing the sidelines with its new regional language offerings.

On the distribution front, Airtel flirted with the acquisition of DishTV, which was still recovering from the indigestion it suffered following its swallowing loss maker Videocon d2h. Tata Sky on its part emerged as the satellite platform, which knew where it was headed thanks to the strong leadership, which has instituted discipline in its deal making with content providers and a very strong customer orientation.  The distribution platforms started pushing devices which in turn had the streaming services installed in a bid to retain consumers.

Streamers gathered steam as the platforms swore to spend big on churning out eye-popping content, even as they continued to focus on customer acquisition and retention. And they tossed around money for productions like a gambler with a winning streak on the casino floor, giving birth to a new breed of producers, creators who let loose cutting edge content, much to the delight of a select bunch of OTT viewers.  Following in the footsteps of their global brethren, the Indian streamers as well acquired or commissioned producers to create exciting local shows. Global leaders in turn had to reorient their pricing strategies and introduce low level value packs in line with that of the Indian OTTs and more suitable to Indian incomes.

On the people front, the year witnessed upheaval of sorts. The bad economic clime apart, which led to companies focusing on productivity, saw head counts falling. Then there was the merger pressure, which led to attrition. Estimates are that almost 2,500 media executives lost their jobs in 2019.

Senior executives said sayonara to their companies. Amongst the high profile departures included: Raj Nayak, CEO of Colors, Sunil Lulla at Balaji Telefilms, Sanjay Gupta at Star India, Sunil Nair at Alt Balaji, Ashok Venkatramani at Zee Media, Barc India CEO Partho Dasgupta,  Sneha Rajani at Sony Pictures Networks, Uday Sodhi at SonyLiv, Nikhil Gandhi at Zoom, among several others. 

Other executives got reappointed: Punit Goenka as the head honcho of Zee Entertainment for the next five years (despite the fact that he - along with his brother Amit and father Subhash Chandra – is a minority shareholder today), and Jawahar Goel as the chief at Dish TV India.   Even as the year was ending, Uday Shankar found a real cool way to fill the mighty big shoes of Sanjay Gupta. He handed over the entire TV operations of Star Disney to his long time regional language colleague K Madhavan, while temporarily retaining control of Hotstar. Apparently, a senior executive with long experience in both television and streaming is slated to be announced as the new Hotstar lead very soon, if insider info is to be believed. Voot hired a new CEO in Gourav Rakshit, who filled in a seat which had been left vacant with the departure of Gaurav Gandhi in 2018.

Dentsu Aegis Network found a new India CEO in Anand Bhadkamkar as incumbent Ashish Bhasin moved to Singapore to lead as APAC CEO. Its daughter company SVG Media suffered a big human loss with the untimely demise of its CEO Anurag Gupta. Erstwhile COO Deven Dharamdasani was promoted to the vacant post.

Most of the TV executives are making a beeline for the digital world. Examples: Sanjay Gupta towards Google, Sunil Nair towards Firework, Nikhil Gandhi as Byte Dance boss.

While 2019 left a lot to be desired for those in the business, executives are hoping that 2020 will prove to be closer to being a twenty-twenty year.

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