‘We have never got the cable television pay model right': Ronnie Screwvala

Despite having a negative connotation more often than not, “disruption” can be a good thing, especially when it’s planned and executed in a strategic manner. And if there’s one person who is known for good disruption time and again in the Indian media and entertainment industry, it’s Rohinton Soli Screwvala or Ronnie, as he is popularly known as.

With a quest to grow and excel in whatever he undertakes, Screwvala belongs to the rare breed of first generation media entrepreneurs in India. For him, trying is not enough for he believes in achieving all his dreams as he dreams with his eyes open!

The pioneer of cable television in India, Screwvala has been best known to build brands and enter untapped territories. From a humble beginning in the cable industry, erecting one of India’s well known media company UTV, grabbing The Walt Disney Company’s attention, foraying into Kabbadi - a sport that was never televised robustly to breaking even in the second year, Screwvala has always pushed the boundaries.

Complacency and failure are two words that don’t exist in his dictionary. In a country where entrepreneurship means legacy business, Screwvala is the flag bearer for first generation entrepreneurs.

In a conversation with’s Anirban Roy Choudhury, Screwvala goes back in time and shares his views on the Indian cable TV industry, Disney, sports and more.

Read on for more :-

The Disney - UTV deal is touted as a landmark deal in the Indian broadcast space. How does it feel when you look back at it today?

I feel very proud when I look back at Disney India. We have a phenomenal team, which is doing an incredible job across the board. The channel is doing well and the movie studio is doing fantastic. The live show Beauty and the Beast has given live experiences in India a new benchmark. The best part is that they did it with local talent. It was not some imported show that travelled in here and went away.

So it’s an incredible job done by the Disney team in India and I am proud of them. The easiest thing would have been to get a travelling show in, but they took the difficult route with local talent so it’s a local Disney show. The Disney team makes me feel proud.

As a pioneer of cable television in India, you played a pivotal role in building it from scratch. What is your view on the evolution?

When I look at cable, I have to say I have a little bit of regret because we are the only country in the world where we have to explain what cable TV is!

The concept of local cable operator (LCO), multi system operator (MSO) is not there anywhere in the world other than India. A cable operator means that you need to pay for content. There are cable operators who are actually aggregators of channel. We have never got the pay model right! It started because nobody wanted to pay. Then there was a whole decade of under-declaration and nobody made capital investment.

There are two things: Firstly, after 25 years of cable we are still not paying for content and secondly, serious investments have not gone into cable. You need billions of dollars……. we are still using the same cable that we were using 25 years back. We are still using the same model that we were using 20 years back. Yes, there have been some improvements, but we cannot call it cable TV. We are not cable TV like the world understands cable TV and that’s my problem.

On the flip side, I must say it’s an incredible cottage industry. Look at the number of jobs it has created! It’s such a gigantic industry and for that matter if it was not the way it flourished, TV might not have been that popular the way it is. People could still be watching terrestrial TV and there would have been no satellite programming. So the fact that it has spread because of its entrepreneur spirit is a proud moment.

I am proud of the entrepreneur spirit that has gone in there. However, I am regretful because no serious investment has been made there and we could not manage to get the pay model right.

Speaking about the pay model, are we getting it right in digital? We are providing content for free and hence making free content consumption a behaviour.

Let’s be very clear… people think online is free, but we are not doing anything for free. The first entrepreneurship course that we are launching is for Rs 50,000 for three months. Yes, people are skeptical to pay but that’s the way forward.

The problem with the digital platform is that the biggest player in the ecosystem - YouTube is for free. That becomes habit forming. Things will change on digital once we go to experiential viewing. There has to be something for you other than just watching… I don’t have any idea what that is but we are trying very very hard to figure it out.

I think the digital paid space will be experiential where you are not paying for watching but for watching plus plus… We are trying to figure out what those plusses are.

Do we have a content strategy ready for digital? People still consider it to be a platform for 2 to 3 minutes video consumption.

You will be shocked to hear that since last year, people are watching 30 to 40 minutes of content online even while everyone thought that digital means two to three minutes. 

There are more people now watching 20 to 30 minutes of content online compared to the ones watching two - three minutes. What’s more, people have been also heard saying that the smaller duration content is snaky. That habit is changing because there are increased offerings. You give people quality content, they will consume it.

Quality of content and storytelling in digital is changing. People are ready to watch a full movie on digital but they cannot now because of the bandwidth issue. So content size is not an issue, it’s the quality that matters.

Talking about films on digital, Netflix recently simulcast The Beasts of No Nations. What’s your take on Netflix and what is the revenue model that Indian players should follow?

Today Netflix’s market cap is as much as 21st Century Fox’s, it is as big as Time Warner and higher than Viacom… with the sole exception of Disney, which is the largest media company in the world.

The road ahead for digital has to be ad revenue. We cannot fool ourselves on that. But the frustrating part is that we are dealing with people who do not understand digital. So the problem is that when you start a new digital medium, the main constituent - the advertisers - do not understand it at all. They still think it’s niche. They just don’t get it that today movies can be launched on digital.

There are huge advantages of the platform. Sorry to generalise on the advertisers but the fact is that they do not understand digital and it’s going to take them three to four years to understand it. The big challenge is that while digital players will rely on advertisers, there will be no one available to experiment. So players will have to experiment, prove and only then will advertisers come on board.

Are you saying that the next few years will be very tough for digital players?

It will be tough, but it will be tough in a good way. It won’t be scary tough. Only serious players in the ecosystem will stay. The others that are coming with a herd mentality, the MCN players etc… I have no idea what they are up to.

You cannot wake up to 20 different channels. What is the need? What is the model? Where will it go? What will happen to it? And the worst part is, you got investors backing those models. I fail to understand what they are up to. But yes, serious players who want to be in the ecosystem for good will be there.

After your successful stint with Kabaddi, are you eyeing any other sport?

We are investing in football. We are doing global grass root training programmes but it’s not the training that everyone is doing here. The training that we are giving is very different wherein we will take 60 kids to Germany for six years of training.

Since the cost of something like this is very high, the expenses will be shared by us and the candidates. The will pay for the lodging and boarding, whereas we will pay for the training. We will manage their careers for the next 10 years. The age group that we are looking at is under 12, under 14, and under 16. We have to catch them really young and that’s the challenge.

There are people who do three months training and summer courses, but you cannot become football stars by that. In our initiative, the kids will have to be away from home for six years. The peer pressure to meet global standards, the environment, discipline and the commitment is what we plan to offer them.

So is this a business proposition of USports or are you doing this to uplift the sport?

(Laughs). Of course it is a business proposition! Swades is the only social initiative that I am in for non-profit. Everything else is pure business. I think we are in the process of developing 300 future football stars. Then we will manage their careers for 10 years, that’s our business model.

What is the progress of your motor-sport innovation?

My motor-sport venture is an attempt to start a destination sport in India involving two-wheelers. Lakshadweep, Daman and Diu, Leh and Ladakh and Puducherry are the locations that we have in mind. The infrastructure has to step up to it, and the most important part is not the track but safety.

This year India will be number one in terms of bike consumption, larger than China. The two-wheeler population is massive in India. Therefore, sports is an interesting way to go forward with that. But to us, the most important part is safety. It’s not a rally that we are planning so we cannot do it on a muddy paddy field. The infrastructure will take time to grow. There will be one domestic team and one international. The domestic riders will go abroad and train for six months.

How much more time do you think it will take to match the quality you need? Are there any other investors involved?

I would have liked to start it in next six months but the safety level that we are targeting will take at least 18 months more.

I am doing it on my own and there is no partner involved to start the league. Here, we are going to be a league owner and our partners will be the ones we sell our franchises to.

You have entered into online education with UpGrad. What are your plans with the venture?

UpGrad is in the education space for post-grads. We are eyeing 14 to 16 completely different online courses, which will all be post-grad and specialised courses.

We kicked off on 25 November with our entrepreneurship course. UpGrad received 2000 applications and then eventually we shortlisted 600 participants for the first cohort that started on 25 November. This would be the first time someone is doing a course of such high scale on entrepreneurship. The number that we roped in is huge. For every hundred students, there will be a teacher associate, who will interact with them at regular intervals. There will be a continuous process of mentorship. The course on entrepreneurship is of three months. After that the next one on Big Data will be of nine months to a year. We are launching three new courses, which will be out between March and May.

You recently wrote a book and that inspired many igniting minds. Are you planning a second one too?

I am not an author for sure! A book takes a lot of effort, I am happy being a business man. I am not even thinking about one more book at this stage.

What are your plans with Swades? How much do you invest in it both in terms of money and time?

Swades to me is not an investment. We are putting our heart and soul in it. Zarina, my wife, is working full time for that. We are not cutting cheques. Philanthropy is when you cut a few cheques and give it to an NGO. We are building a foundation from ground up. Yes, we are putting our own money but we are also putting our sweat and toil. We have 1200 people working for Swades, which is also quite big. It is a life-long commitment for us and there is no running away from it.

You are too much of a TV person to not be in TV. When are you going back? What’s next?

I don’t feel I am being left alone. Look at the things we are doing with Football, UpGrad and with Kabaddi. If because of Filmfare, five people used to come for selfies, now at least 50 of them come because of Kabaddi. It’s the same in rural areas too. When we travel for Swades related work, we get to know the popularity and the craze of the sport.

I am happy with what we are doing and have no plans of going back. Swades is a key focus for me and Zarina both and we will continue to do what we are doing.

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