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Hot Seat

‘We are getting into a very aggressive growth mode now’

Last week Multi Screen Media (earlier Sony Entertainment), Sony Pictures Television’s India business, completed 20 years of operations in India. The company, which launched with one channel, Sony Entertainment Television, has grown into a network of 11 television channels, one digital venture (Sony Liv) and a motion pictures business (MSM Motion Pictures).

One of the big four companies in the media and entertainment space, MSM has seen a lot of ups and downs in its journey.

Even if its flagship channel SET is on a course correction mode, the company is on an aggressive growth path, says MSM CEO NP Singh, who has been part of MSM for the last 16 years.

Recently, it has announced a joint venture with The BBC, to launch BBC Earth, a factual entertainment channel in India, as well as collaborated with one of the world’s biggest sports brand ESPN to launch co-branded channels.

MSM is also bullish on high-definition and will soon be launching HD feeds for Max and SAB to grow its HD bouquet, which currently houses SET HD, AXN HD, Pix HD and Sony Six HD.

In an interaction, Singh said he is focused on ‘aggressive growth for the network’ and at the same time ‘consolidation of existing channels’ and ‘course correction of flagship channel’.

Edited excerpts…

Q. 20 years seem like a very long time. How has the journey been?

It has been a very exciting journey for us and particularly for me as I have spent around 16 years in the company. We have seen the growth of our company from a single channel to now multiple channels, and we are getting into a very aggressive growth mode now.

There are still challenges, but at this stage, I am focused on aggressive growth of the network, as well as consolidation of our existing channels and course correction of our flagship channel.

Q. How will you describe aggressive growth with consolidation of existing channels?

The objective really is now to consolidate our existing businesses, get into new areas of businesses, expand and diversify our portfolio, and explore opportunities on the digital platform as that is something that is growing very rapidly.

We have made some changes in the management team of our flagship channel and you will hear about the changes in content and programming as well on the channel.

And, in the last couple of years we have started to focus a lot not just on consolidation of existing channels, but also on expanding our bouquet, which is why you have seen a flurry of announcements recently.

We have done a joint venture with The BBC to bring in BBC Earth into the market and a partnership with ESPN. Therefore, thanks to the might of a global brand, along with the credibility of our own sports portfolio, we will be able to serve the fans in India. The collective might will cook up a great offering for sports fans in the market.

“There are still challenges, but at this stage, I am focused on aggressive growth of the network, consolidation of our existing channels and course correction of our flagship channel.”

Q. Don’t you think regional play is missing from your bouquet as apart from Aath, you do not have any regional presence?

Yes, that is one missing piece and we are looking at regional expansion as well, but we are also focused on the profitability of the network. All decisions have to make a business sense.

Q. So will it be acquisition or organic expansion?

There is nothing available for acquisition that makes business sense. So it will have to be organic. But, as I said, we are sharply focused on the bottom-line and will take the decision by studying the markets properly.

We do not want to let go of profitability for expansion. All our existing channels are profitable.

Q. How did the idea of JV with The BBC come along?

A couple of years back, when I was looking at our entire portfolio, I realised that ‘factual entertainment’ is one big genre that is missing and there is a lot of consumption of that genre on digital as well as linear television.

What I also realised is that a lot of content is being supplied by one company, the BBC. And that’s when they wanted to bring BBC Earth to the Indian market and I said this is the one to work with.

That’s when I decided to get into a joint venture with the BBC to launch Sony BBC Earth in this market. The channel has the best quality factual entertainment content. And when you have best of the makers as your partners, you don’t have to worry about creating local content… they will help us do that.

Q. So when and how are you rolling out the channel?

We are waiting for the FIPB approval. Once we get that, we will complete other formalities like forming of company, and applying for the licence. While that is happening, the team is being put in place. The existing team has started to work with the BBC team to curate the content so that we are in a state of readiness when we get the licence.

Saurabh Yagnik is going to head the JV in addition to his role of business head of Pix and AXN.

At the launch, we will have that content available on linear TV in standard as well as high definition as well as on our digital platform. We will first launch in English and Hindi and later offer other languages as well.

Q. But why did you decide to go for a JV?

It is beginning of a very strong relationship. As things progress, you will see more action. It is also the credibility of the brand that appeals to us. And when you bring in BBC Earth as a brand, which is co-branded with Sony, it will have a very strong appeal to the viewer.

To answer your question, yes Sony itself could do it, but when you have an established and entrenched player like BBC, who is willing to come as your partner, their brand comes along with it, their expertise on the editorial side, content, global experience, all comes along with it.

All that put’s together with our own experience will actually work very well for both the partners, and that is why it’s a joint venture.

“Looking at our entire portfolio, I realised that ‘factual entertainment’ is one big genre that is missing and there is a lot of consumption of that genre on digital as well as linear television.”

Q. You agree that your flagship channel SET is going through a tough phase right now. While a whole new team is in place under Danish Khan, what kind of time-frame you are looking at for things to look upwards?

Yes, the flagship channel is currently going through a difficult phase and it continues to be my No. 1 priority in the growing network.

With that in mind, we have put in place a new management team. As you know, Danish Khan has joined as business head and has put in place a new team in content, communications, on-air promotions, research and strategy. I am very confident that in the next few months with the new launches we will see the ship turning around.

Q. But what went wrong with SET and how are you looking at changing it?

The strategy that we were trying to follow, which was more inclusive did not work and it was important for us to re-orient ourselves back to the core positioning of the channel.

That is what we are now trying to do with the new team who understand the brand, DNA and viewer of the channel. They are very sharply focused on the positioning of the channel and the new content that is being developed right now, which you will see in the next two months or so.

The way I look at it right now, I think in the next six months, you will see a fairly big surge in the viewership of the channel and that I am saying on the back of the slate that we have both on the fiction and non-fiction side and the movies and events that are in the pipeline and there is a whole lot of new stuff coming up in these elements.

Q. SET has been more skewed towards male and urban audiences. Do you think that has somehow affected the viewership?

The channel has always resonated with 15–34 year female audiences, but because some of our content did not work for them in the last two years, we have seen the male TG grow on our channel.

Right now, we have a strong male bias on the channel and are trying females also to come back on the channel and the overall viewership will therefore grow.

SET always had a little urban skew and moving away from that will not make sense for us. So, to that extent, it’s a challenge, we will continue to try to retain some of our urban skew, but at the same time try and give content to the viewers which is also accessible for small towns or the rural viewers. One such example is ‘Hanuman’, which has universal appeal and you will see this kind of content in the early primetime.

Q. SET is currently heavily dependent on film premieres and multiple airings even as other networks’ reliance on movies on GECs is coming down. Will you be reducing the film airings once the channel gains viewership?

It’s been 20 years since we started offering variety on our GEC and that worked really well. I don’t see any reason for us to move away from that strategy. We just have to up our ante on our fiction content and that is what we are trying to do.

“The flagship channel is currently going through a difficult phase and continues to be my No. 1 priority in the growing network. We have put in place a new management team and I am confident that in the next few months, with the new launches, we will see the ship turning around.”

Q. You are the only network which has three mainline GECs in your portfolio. Even if Pal has not performed the way it was envisaged, what is the combined strategy?

We have currently two first-rung GECs—SET and SAB, and SAB is very distinctly positioned from anything else in the market. We have been the only network to achieve so much success with the second GEC that we launched.

Yes, we are also the only network to launch a third GEC called Pal last year and it did not work as well as we wanted it to work. But very quickly we changed the strategy on that and the ratings doubled.

Currently, Pal is airing archived content from our existing library of SET and SAB and our movies. In a few months as we see viewer traction growing, which we have seen in the last few months, we will start bringing in original content back again on Pal. I have a broad outline of what I want to do with Pal over the next six months time, let it take shape and I will share that with you. It’s a very interesting thing that I am working on.

Q. How do you see the collaboration with ESPN panning out?

Our collaboration with ESPN will give us opportunity of presenting to viewers international level content. For example, when we were trying to do a wrap-around show with FIFA, it didn’t work because talent was a problem.

Once we operationalise the venture, you will see a lot of stuff. It’s a two-pronged collaboration—one is on TV where we are co-branding a channel and also in due course of time we will create programming with ESPN Cricket locally here for our channels for example.

On the other side, we are going to create a localised multi sport app, which will again be cobranded between Sony and ESPN and it will have both editorial and videos.

Q. You said digital is a strong focus area for you. What are the plans there?

We want to be a major part of that action, which is why we started taking baby steps towards it two years ago with Sony Liv. But in the last one year we have really ramped up.

Also, one of the key elements of the MSM-ESPN collaboration will be the collaboration on the digital side of the business. We want to co-create a co-branded multisport app that will be localised. We will also have access to ESPN’s expertise on ESPNCricinfo.

Last year, we launched Liv Sports as we wanted to see how both operate independently. Now we have decided to merge them, which will happen in the next couple of months. Rather than having two platforms, we will have one platform.

Very recently, we launched our first original series, ‘Love Bytes’. We are perhaps the first one to launch an original series in the OTT market. ‘Love Bytes’ is now at 11 episodes, at the end of 10 episodes we already got 1.5 million video views and our total video consumption, because of the original series, has grown 300 per cent since the launch of that show.

There are more shows in development currently so you will see lots of action on Sony Liv. We are aggregating third-party content as well.

Q. But do you think the digital model could be subscription lead in India?

Currently, we have all our content available on ad-supported VoD, but we will start putting some of our marquee content behind the pay wall.

We actually did it with FIFA 2014, which was a subscriber model. We believe that marquee content should be subscription-led or it could be a freemium model.

At this stage, many models are being experimented with, but we are following an AVoD strategy presently. I cannot say that we will continue with this forever. We are ready with a subscription led model; we just have to be patient.