We are in a much stronger position than we’ve ever been

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Multi Screen Media Pvt. Ltd (MSM), which runs Sony’s channels in India, has reason to celebrate. Its Hindi entertainment channel SET (Sony Entertainment Television) has ranked No. 2 in the genre for the last two weeks, having beaten both Colors and Zee with 242 gross rating points (GRPs). The channel’s Kaun Banega Crorepati is among the top five shows in Hindi general entertainment channels (GEC) with a 4.84 television rating. Man Jit Singh, chief executive officer of MSM, spoke in an interview about the firm’s plans. MSM is to start a music channel called Mix, incorporate the Sony logo into channel IDs, begin broadcasting in high definition (HD) and expects to launch a sports channel by next year. Edited excerpts:

All MSM channels will have new logos starting 1 September. Does this imply any rebranding?

We are not rebranding our channels. What we are doing is adding the Sony logo to each of our channels. As we go forward, we are looking at presenting ourselves as a group— the Sony Network. This helps us with our viewers because they are aware of the breadth of what Sony has to offer. Also, we felt that for advertisers to realize that everything from a Max, to a Sab to an SET is all from one family, it was important to have distinct branding on the top.

The key is that the Sony brand should be at the top of all our channels. Apart from making consumers aware, it also makes our network a must-have for every advertising plan. The logos of individual channels are all unchanged. This move will give us consistency across group channels. As far as our channel heads go, there’s been no resistance to this change. There’s been uniformity of belief that we should do this. We think that the Sony name is a powerful plus for any channel to have.

Where is Sony placed as a network today? Why are you launching a music channel?

Our show Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) is doing extremely well for us, as also the fiction show Bade Achhe Laggte Hai. In many senses, KBC is a great tentpole property to have, because it promotes fiction properties around it. We are very encouraged by the growth of our fiction ratings, as much as we are by the success of Mr (Amitabh) Bachchan (KBC’s host). KBC is a great format, and he is an incredible force. The network continues to grow. Max is the No. 1 movie channel. Pix is No. 2 nearly every given week. We are in a much stronger position than we’ve ever been and it’s a very good place to be. We are also launching our music channel called Mix. We believe that there’s a gap in what is being delivered to music-loving audiences in India today. A lot of the music is geared towards a very young age group—more like a rock and pop kind of thing. We are looking at time-of-day music— where anyone depending on their mood can find something of their liking. Housewives may find love songs in the afternoon, youngsters may find their kind of music in the evenings. In the mornings, there may be devotional music. We are looking across target groups, delivering to everyone —depending on their mood— a different kind of music. Right now, there’s a single genre of music catering to the young— indicative of most music channels in India. In that sense, we have a unique positioning and the channel will be available from 1 September on direct-to-home (DTH) and cable platforms.

When will MSM launch its sports channel?

We have the Indian Premier League (IPL), which is the number one sporting property in India. It is a great property for us and we have got it for another six years. It is the biggest thing that you can have in sports in India. We are looking for other properties which have the same calibre, with which we can complement the IPL programming. We intend to launch a premier sports channel and we want to make sure that everything it has (in properties) is up to IPL standards. Quality wise, it has to match up with the IPL. It will take us a little time to come up with these sports properties. We will collect these properties slowly and then launch the channel. We’d like to launch our sports channel by next year, provided that we get our hands on the right properties —some of which are very competitive (to get) because they are with other broadcasters or because they haven’t been licensed to India as yet. So yes, it will take a bit of luck but the answer is that we are looking to have our own sports channel on the air by the next year.

Sab is doing really well in ratings. At some point, would you be looking to sell Sab?

We are not looking to sell Sab or any other assets of ours. We are looking to grow our business in India. Any reports to the contrary are just wrong.

Media reports speculate that MSM is buying Eenadu’s regional channels? Also, that your Indian shareholders are talking to two PE firms for an exit.

On Eenadu, we do not want to comment on media speculation. What we have said and will say again to you is: We are interested in the regional space. We believe that this is one space that is going to grow exponentially, after the Hindi GEC space and we believe that it’s a space that we must be present in. We are currently looking at all options—of creating our own channels from scratch as also strategic acquisitions. On the Indian shareholders bit, US-based Sony Pictures Entertainment​ (SPE) has a majority, 62%, in the company, an international fund Capital International group has 6% and the rest lies with Indian shareholders. Sony, our parent company, is not interested in selling stake in any of its businesses in India. In fact, it’s looking at investing heavily. Our Indian partners, it’s definitely true, have been looking for an exit for some time now. But I think it’s best that they comment on who they have been talking to in order to divest.

What’s your view on the Star-Zee distribution agreement? Is Sony looking to merge forces with external broadcast networks?

I think that Star-Zee coming together caused a lot of people (to talk) to others. We have a distribution joint venture with Discovery, we already have two top channels in Hindi general entertainment and Neo Sports is also a part of our distribution set up.

Neo Sports owns rights to all BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) matches till 2014. From our perspective, we have the best bouquet in the business. We don’t see our position being eroded in any way by what’s happening with our competitors.

A lot of the current problems on distribution will be solved by digitization. Digitization is the only thing that will give complete knowledge of all the subscribers out there. It will enable the government to collect taxes based on the subscriber base. It will remove carriage fees that all of us are enduring. Digital platforms carry a lot more channels than existing cable systems and will help the overall industry move forward. We are supportive of all government initiatives in this direction. We do think that some of the government time-frames are ambitious, but we are supportive of all government action on this front.

What’s the media-entertainment outlook over the next few months?

There’s been some softening in the advertising market. That’s partly due to global circumstances. Companies are responding to global pressures and reducing ad spend. But in India, we don’t see any slowdown in advertising expenditure, particularly for television. We reach 500 million people. The fact is that television is a great medium to reach people. Just looking at international trends, there is huge expansion ahead of us. Today we reach only 60% of television households in India, and even that’s slated for change. Long term, there’s no threat to television in terms of ad revenues. But what we would like to see is a change in the distribution business. We would like to see the subscription revenue business in India catching up and the under-declaration of subscribers coming down, so that we all have two streams of revenue.

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