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Sony turns 20 in India: Retrospect & Prospect

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

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

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.

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

Q. So will it be acquisition or organic

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
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
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

Q. But why did you decide to go for a

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.

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

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

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
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.

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
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

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
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

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

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.

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

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  1. MUMBAI: Glory,agony,poison,panacea…
    As Multi Screen Media (MSM)
    (erstwhile Sony Entertainment Television India) completes two decades
    in the Indian broadcast space, it has
    witnessed it all. The broadcasting
    company, which started with
    one channel, is now sixteen channels
    strong with even more additions in the
    In a rapidly changing scenario, where
    the entire ecosystem is moving
    towards the digital platform, there
    are challenges and opportunities
    alike. And MSM CEO NP Singh is ready
    to take them all head on.
    A Sony veteran, Singh has been privy
    to the business affairs of the
    company for as many as sixteen years
    since first joining the organisation in
    1999 as chief financial officer (CFO).
    Even as word trickled in about MSM’s
    collaboration with US-based mega
    sportscaster ESPN Inc, came the news
    that the Indian Premier League’s
    (IPL) title sponsor PepsiCo was
    withdrawing as it brought ‘disrepute’
    to the game. In the midst of some
    good news and bad, Singh’s core focus
    at this stage is on the network’s
    holistic growth.
    “My focus is on aggressive growth of
    the network and consolidation of
    events on our existing channels.
    Along with this, foraying in new areas
    of businesses, expanding our portfolio
    and exploring opportunities on the
    rapidly growing digital platform is
    what we are looking at. At the same
    time, course correction of our
    flagship channel Sony Entertainment
    Television (SET) is a priority,” Singh
    To that effect, MSM has made a series
    of changes in its management team
    and these are likely to reflect in the
    programming and content soon
    In its two decades of operations in
    India, Sony has been a pioneer of new
    ideas that set benchmarks in the
    Indian broadcast space.
    “MSM as a network has pioneered a lot
    of new ideas, for the industry to
    follow. The first ever big scale live
    event was done by us, which was Lata
    Mangeshkar singing live. We’ve had
    the privilege of having her do live
    events for us and then we also had
    Asha ji doing a live event for us. This
    was never done before or after,”
    Singh reminisces.
    In days of yore, Sony also created
    ripples by airing blockbuster Hindi
    movies on TV. It started with the
    airing of the evergreen
    movie Sholay and was followed
    by Border . “Sholay on television blew
    everyone away. And after that we
    aired Border. The ratings those days
    were somewhere close to 30,” he
    While today MSM’s flagship channel
    SET might have lost its yesteryears’
    glory, the fact remains that it aired
    the first ever daily soap in Ek Mahal
    Ho Sapno Ka. “The show reached a
    thousand episodes those days during
    1998 – 2000 and used to do well
    against Kaun Banega Crorepati (on
    Star Plus). Moreover, the first daily
    show created by our very own Ekta
    (Kapoor) – Ghar Ek Mandir – was also
    on Sony,” says Singh.
    From CID , which recently completed a
    run of 19 years on Sony, to the
    maiden season of the interactive
    reality show Indian Idol , the finale of
    which witnessed a total of five crore
    votes, there have been landmarks
    galore for Sony. From India’s first
    homegrown reality show – Boogie
    Woogie to the now very popular
    reality show format – Bigg Boss,
    which was initially brought to India by
    Sony, the network has been
    trailblazer of sorts.
    In March 2005, Sri Adhikari Brothers’
    Hindi general entertainment channel
    (GEC) SAB TV was acquired by SET
    India and one of the country’s most
    popular scripted comedy show Taarak
    Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah has been
    running on the channel for almost
    eight years now.
    In a bid to bring the glitz and glamor
    of the film industry on television,
    Sony was also a first mover in
    televising the Filmfare Awards.
    “We were the first ever network to
    bring sports on a Hindi movie channel –
    Max in 1999. It continues to be the
    leader even as today there are many
    others who do the same. The first
    ever wrap around show ( Extraa
    Innings) for cricket was done by us
    during the Colombo Champions
    Trophy. Extraa Innings is now over 12
    years old, and is the highest rated
    wrap around show for any sport on
    any channel,” informs Singh.
    The rationale behind telecasting
    cricket on a movie channel was to rope
    in the women audiences for the game.
    “In 2003, on the back of Extraa
    Innings, the female viewership grew
    by 31 per cent,” he adds.
    The retrospective is indeed dotted
    with many a milestones.
    “Sony Pal to have original content,
    ‘KBC’ back in 2016”
    The Hindi GEC space has always been
    one of MSM’s biggest focus area.
    However, in recent times, the
    network’s performance in the
    category has been disappointing to
    say the least. Now with a new team in
    place, it might just be a matter of
    time before MSM’s flagship channel
    SET takes off again.
    “Our flagship channel continues to my
    number one priority in addition to
    growing the network. With that in
    mind, we have put a new management
    team. Danish Khan has joined as SET
    business head and has a new team
    under him in content, communication,
    promotions, research strategy and
    marketing. I am very confident that in
    the upcoming months with our new
    launches, we would see shift in our
    company. In six months’ time, we will
    see a big immersion in terms of
    viewership,” says Singh.
    With a strong male audience base,
    Sony is uniquely positioned at this
    stage. “Our attempt is to get the
    female audience back to the channel
    as we need to have them on board
    audiences,” asserts Singh.
    The centre of the network’s strategy
    right now is to create new content to
    lure viewers back to the channel.
    “Once we have viewers on the channel,
    everything else will follow. We are
    working hard to gain consumer
    insights both qualitative as well as
    quantitative. We are going and
    talking to consumers at the ground
    level and finding out what they
    want,” he says.
    Additionally, Sony will also bring back
    the next season of KBC, with its
    superlative host Amitabh Bachchan
    next year.
    MSM’s second Hindi GEC, Sony Pal,
    which was launched as a female-
    centric channel did not take off as
    was expected. However, where
    original shows failed, old shows did
    the turnaround for the channel. The
    channel, which currently has archival
    content from Sony’s library as well as
    airs South Indian movies, may get
    back original shows in the future.
    “In a few months’ time if we see
    viewer interaction growing, which we
    are seeing right now, then we will
    start bringing original content again
    on Pal. I have a broad outline of what
    I want to do over the next six
    months,” he says.
    MSM has also been aggressively
    moving on the digital front with its
    over-the-top (OTT) platform Sony
    “We are exploring opportunities on
    the digital platform as it is growing
    rapidly and we want to be a major part
    of the action. We’ve taken baby steps
    towards it by launching Sony Liv. In
    the last one year, we have upped the
    ante. Recently we launched our first
    original series Love Bytes, which
    already got 1.5 million video views.
    This resulted in a 300 per cent growth
    in our video consumption on the digital
    platform,” says Singh emphasising on
    Sony Liv’s growth strategy will be
    two-pronged. While the platform will
    develop new original shows for the
    digital platform, it will also
    aggregate a lot of third party
    content. “One of the key aspect of
    the collaboration with ESPN is to co-
    create a multi sport app where we will
    use the expertise of ESPN-Cricinfo,”
    informs Singh.
    Even as the digital medium is
    witnessing immense growth in India,
    players are yet to figure out a
    concrete revenue model. While a few
    of them are providing content for
    free, others have opted for a pay
    model. Singh is of the opinion that
    ‘free-mium’ is what will work in the
    long run. “It’s a classical debate
    going on across the globe about which
    module is better. As far as we are
    concerned, currently we have all our
    content on available on AVOD
    (advertising supported video on
    demand). But we will start putting up
    some of our marquee content in SVOD
    (subscription supported video on
    demand). We were the first ones to
    put content on the SVOD platform.
    FIFA 2014 was on our subscription
    based product, which was available on
    Liv Sports,” Singh says.
    “We believe that any marquee content
    should be primarily subscription led,
    and then eventually free, which is the
    free-mium model. However, at this
    stage, a lot of modules are being
    experimented with and worked upon.
    At this stage, we are following the
    AVOD strategy but it can change in
    the future.”
    MSM has an extensive sports bouquet
    at this stage and the primary of them
    is IPL, which now is making headlines
    as PepsiCo expressed its desire to opt
    out of the sponsorship deal.
    “PepsiCo opting out from IPL won’t
    affect MSM,” Singh tells
    Indiantelevision.com. “We have seen a
    change of sponsors before too but the
    tournament continued and kept
    growing,” he adds.
    MSM has made aggressive acquisitions
    of football properties this year and
    plans to create a lot of wrap around
    and editorial programming for it.
    “You know our collaboration with
    ESPN has given us that opportunity of
    presenting international level
    editorial content. We tried it during
    FIFA and it did not work to that level
    because we don’t have talent in the
    Sony Six and Kix business head
    Prasanna Krishnan will continue to
    lead MSM’s sports business.
    This year IPL was aired in multiple
    languages across MSM’s different
    channels with a common ad inventory.
    When queried if the network was
    looking to monetising it separately,
    Singh says, “We are looking forward
    at possibilities of monetising it in the
    future. We have done Bangla earlier,
    and we have done Hindi. But now we
    have multi-language channels, which
    will broadcast IPL the next time. So
    we will evaluate if we can monetise
    them separately,” Singh signs off.
    With MSM poised for the next phase of
    growth and expansion with multiple
    strategies across its businesses, the
    network’s road ahead will be watched
    with keen interest.

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