Sports18: the new challenger
Football events on MTV and Vh1 in 2021, before the Sports18 launch
Given Reliance Industries’ bullish attitude in positioning Viacom18 as one of the foremost broadcasters in the country, it has left no stone unturned in ensuring that it has plenty of sporting events for its new Sports18 channels, as part of an aggressive expansion into sports broadcasting to take on the duopoly of Star and Sony head-on. Even before the Sports18 channels were launched this year, Viacom18 had secured the broadcast rights of three major European football leagues in 2021 in quick succession: LaLiga (Spain) for three years, Serie A (Italy) for three years and Ligue 1 (France) for an undisclosed duration, plus the Carabao Cup in England. Since it did not yet have sports channels to show these matches, the broadcaster got creative: the Hindi youth channel MTV showed LaLiga matches, while the English music channel Vh1 — the only one left in the country after the exits of 9XO and Nat Geo Music — showed Ligue 1 and Serie A matches.
While this was not an ideal solution, it was nevertheless a great exploitation of existing resources, since MTV and Vh1 already had great brand recognition among young Indians in urban areas, so Viacom18 leveraged on that with its coverage of European football. Additionally, all matches were also streamed live on Voot Select, including some which MTV could not accommodate in its broadcast schedule. However, insofar as distribution of its niche HD channels is concerned, Viacom18 has always been a laggard: among DTH platforms, MTV HD+ is available only on Tata Play, while Vh1 HD is only on Tata Play and Sun Direct. (The Hindi music channel MTV Beats HD is available on these two platforms plus Dish TV.) This meant that viewers of Airtel Digital TV, Dish TV and d2h were forced to watch these matches in inferior SD quality.
The icing on the cake, as far as football was concerned, was undoubtedly Viacom18 bagging both the broadcast and the digital rights of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar in September 2021, which Sony had had for the previous two editions (2014 and 2018) in Brazil and Russia. The most prestigious single-sport event in the world will be aired from 20 November to 18 December, and Reliance has even offered to stream it for free on JioCinema — which will likely be a headache for those who have an Airtel, Vi (Vodafone Idea) or BSNL connection instead of Jio, though there may be other offers to entice them. This further cemented Viacom18 as the football broadcaster to watch out for, making it a serious challenger to Star Sports with its Premier League (plus the domestic ISL) and Sony with its Bundesliga and UEFA events.
Other sporting rights, from BWF to CSA
Another sport that Viacom18 was able to secure was the BWF badminton rights, including the men’s Thomas Cup (which India won in May for the first time, beating badminton giant Indonesia) and the women’s Uber Cup. In fact, Viacom18 went a step further and roped in yet another channel — History TV18 — for airing the FIFA World Cup group draw in April. The factual entertainment channel (which is not a part of Viacom18 per se, but rather belongs to AETN18, a joint venture between the Reliance-owned TV18 and A+E Networks) had also aired the BWF World Tour in March — yet another example of Reliance creatively using existing channels. Otherwise, Viacom18’s non-football events remained somewhat weak, consisting of a few smaller-scale cricket events (Road Safety World Series and Abu Dhabi T10 League), NBA basketball (which was also aired on Vh1) and ATP Tour Masters 1000 tennis.
However, as mentioned earlier, Viacom18 has gradually been building up on its sports portfolio, with a more diverse mix of sporting events akin to Sony Sports Network. Recently it secured a seven-year broadcast contract for Cricket South Africa (CSA), previously with Star, starting from 2024 — as well as a ten-year contract for the upcoming SA20 T20 cricket tournament that starts in January 2023 — giving it a much-needed cricket boost. Previous South African T20 tournaments, like the Mzansi Super League, failed partly because of the lack of a lucrative Indian broadcast contract, given that CSA is scarcely as cash-rich as the BCCI. This Indian TV deal with Sports18 will be crucial for SA20’s success, plus the fact that its six teams are owned by existing IPL franchises, a much-needed source of finances.
Sports18 channels growing fast, but distribution remains poor
With the foundations in place, it was time for Viacom18 to make its foray into full-fledged sports broadcasting with dedicated channels. The main Sports18 1 channel was launched on 15 April, in both SD and HD feeds, and the Hindi free-to-air channel Sports18 Khel was launched on 25 April and immediately added on DD Free Dish — providing an alternative to the state-run DD Sports for DDFD viewers, now that Star Sports First is no longer available on the platform. More recently, a few days ago, Viacom18 secured MIB licences for Sports18 2 (SD and HD), Sports18 Hindi (SD and HD) and Sports18 Tamil (only SD). These are likely to start satellite transmission in the coming days in the lead-up to the FIFA World Cup.
That said, there is no denying that Sports18 has been lacking on the promotion and distribution front. While DTH platforms were quick to add the SD version of Sports18 1, the HD channel was added only by Sun Direct among DTH platforms — aside from JioTV — which was also the case with Sony Ten 4 HD, as mentioned above. Sports18 Khel is technically available only on DD Free Dish, but in practice Dish TV viewers get to see it as well, since the two DTH platforms’ satellites are close enough to each other to facilitate the sharing of feeds. The Sports18 channels have been around for a few months now, but there have been no large-scale ad campaigns so far for the upcoming FIFA World Cup like Star or Sony have done for such major global sporting events.
Viacom18 needs to get its act together and embark on a comprehensive promotional campaign, along with getting Sports18 1 HD added on all DTH platforms, before it proceeds with launching its other planned Sports18 channels. As mentioned, MTV (Beats) HD and Vh1 HD have faced the same problems with visibility, as have other Viacom18 channels like Colors Cineplex Bollywood, so this is a long-standing issue with the network. But with the backing of not only the Ambanis but also Uday Shankar and James Murdoch, Sports18 is clearly a long-term bet to revolutionise Indian sports broadcasting — not to mention that Viacom18 has now bagged the IPL’s digital rights, as above, which will single-handedly catapult its digital platforms (if not the Sports18 channels) into the big leagues like never before.
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