Anirban Roy Choudhury

"It will take time for OTT to challenge TV": NP Singh

During the past year, Sony Pictures Networks India (SPNI) has been in the news for its aggressive investments, consolidation and new launches. As the network turns 21 in India, afaqs! interviewed SPNI's CEO, NP Singh. Seventeen years into Sony, Singh's work is his life, "The first thing that comes to my mind after I wake up is when will I reach office," he says.

Singh believes that in some genres the digital evolution is impacting television and that the industry is in a phase of 'transition'. However, his major focus in the coming years is to make the most of the investments already made.

Edited Excerpts

How challenging is it to stick at one place for a long period and how does the long stay give you an upper hand when it comes to leadership?

I must confess, when I came in I knew nothing about media. All my learning and training in media happened while working here. When you have so much of learning about a company and the industry, it becomes easier to take up leadership positions. You have the complete perspective of anything and everything that happened in the past, is happening now and how it will impact our business in the future.

If you are continuing to grow as a professional at any place, there is no need for you to change jobs. I came in as chief financial officer and got the opportunity to move on to general management and become the chief operating officer. Now I am heading the company.

A year ago when we spoke to you, you said that the 'revival of Sony, the flagship channel' is your primary focus. Today, Sony is much better positioned compared to last year. Is it because of the change in the team?

What was needed at that time was a complete overhaul of the team at the channel and some fresh energy and thinking. Danish (Khan) as the head of the channel put together a team of experienced professionals who had deep understanding of not just Hindi general entertainment as a genre but also of the viewer.

They were able to pick content that would resonate with the viewer and, from a communication perspective, they were able to carve out communication that would successfully appeal to the viewer. The work is only half done, but I am happy that we have taken positive strides.

Have advertisers recognised the revival?

With successful shows coming on the channel, starting with The Kapil Sharma Show and then Super Dancer and some fiction starting to resonate with viewers, we have seen good traction from advertisers. That shows in the numbers too. In the first seven months, we grew 40 per cent over last year.

The two shows you named are non-fiction shows. Is Sony dependent heavily on non-fiction or reality shows? What's happening with fiction?

Not really! We have two strong non-fiction shows, which have taken the channel to leadership position on weekends. I must confess that we have seen limited success when it comes to fiction, but I am confident that the kind of content that we have on air and with what is coming up in the next three months, we will see a resurgence of viewership on weekdays as well.

Your second Hindi GEC, SAB, seems to have recovered from the setback after the launch of BARC. What is key for the channel at this stage?

SAB is uniquely positioned in the market. It is the only family humour channel. We have carefully crafted that positioning over the last 10 years. We would like to retain that and consolidate it further with new content. In the last three months, we launched a few new shows, which earned us some new viewers on the channel.

Are SAB and Sony competing with each other and at times eating into each other's pie?

Sony stands for variety while SAB is focused on family humour. They don't really overlap in terms of the target group they appeal to - instead they complement each other.

On-demand viewing is on the rise. Whenever one feels like watching a movie, one can watch it online. How is this impacting the Hindi movie channel business on television?

There is a huge mass of viewers who want to see Hindi movies on their TV screens, so we have not really seen any negative impact on Hindi movies. At present, it is the younger generation that consumes a lot of content on OTT platforms. Hindi movies traditionally cater to the older male in the smaller markets rather than the larger ones. As far as OTT consumption is concerned we are seeing growth in the larger markets, especially metros.

What happens to television premieres of blockbusters then?

There are online players who are aggressively acquiring streaming rights of new blockbuster movies and will start streaming those in the next few months. Then we will be able to see what happens. My view is that India is a very large market with immense headroom for growth. We will continue to see growth in consumption of Hindi movie content - both old and new - on TV screens. It will take some time for OTT to become a big challenger to TV in this market.

The audience of OTT and English entertainment on television is quite similar. How is digital growth impacting the English cluster business?

On the English general entertainment side, there is a little bit of dispersion at present. The viewer has not yet decided whether he or she wants to consume more on mobile phones and tablets or on TV.

Many viewers of English general entertainment content who were consuming through piracy were given an offer to consume the content simultaneously with the US on TV and there was a reasonable success with that formula. It will take another year more for people to settle down and be sure about the medium they are comfortable with. But for now we are seeing an impact on the viewership of English general entertainment channels.

What about English movies?

There is some impact, but not to the extent of English GEC.

As digital grows further what will happen to English entertainment on television?

Both will co-exist in our market. While the West moved towards cutting the cord very quickly, it will take a long time for Indian viewers to make a complete move towards OTT. TV still has the pride of place in the living room of almost all households. And that is not going away soon.

How have advertisers reacted to this impact on English entertainment? Are they heading towards the digital platforms?

A year ago we saw a shift from television to digital and now we are beginning to see a reversal. In the international market too, people are starting to realise that putting all your dollars on digital is not a prudent strategy because you don't get the ROI. So they are also moving back to the traditional media of communication.

That's what we are seeing in India too. Give it one more year. Once the viewer is settled, we will see advertising money flowing one way or the other or both.

What got you into talks with BBC for the launch of Sony BBC Earth? Why is it important for SPNI to have a factual entertainment presence?

There were two gaps in our portfolio. One was kids and the second edutainment. BBC is the largest producer of factual entertainment content in the world and it made absolute sense for us to get that brand and content to the market.

Who will be the core target audience of Sony BBC Earth?

Anybody who is curious to know about anything in life would be a potential viewer of Sony BBC Earth and I believe all of us are curious.

When did you think of acquiring The Ten Sports Network? Why was it important for you to expand your footprint in the sports genre?

There are three pillars of our strategy - entertainment, digital and sports. Last year, when ESPN wanted to re-enter the market we decided to partner with them. That was when I realised that it is important for us to expand our footprint even further with sports. This included cricket.

We made serious investments in football too. We were also looking to expand our portfolio of contact sports. All of this was complemented by Ten Sports' portfolio. That's why we decided to get into a conversation. Soon, we will integrate the channels in our network.

Does this development mean that the dependence on the Indian Premier League will reduce?

It's not a question of being dependent on any one property or channel. It is important for us to see what works for the viewer and bring it to the viewer as long as it makes economic sense.

When Ten Sports, post the regulatory approvals, gets integrated to our sports network, we will become a strong player. We are getting set to broadcast the 10th season of IPL and it is an important event in the calendar of sports each year.

When you have such a huge property scheduled in the summer (April and May) - a period when there is no major cricketing action happening elsewhere - the full focus is on IPL. But that doesn't necessarily mean the network is dependent on a particular event.

Can the next pool of live cricket content come from regional markets? We have seen you broadcasting Karnataka Premier League, while Star broadcast the Tamil Nadu Premier League...

We showed our intent a few years ago by getting into KPL (Karnataka Premier League) and witnessed early success. Now, other states are also looking ahead towards such opportunities and with the right amount of investment and attention these properties can become bigger. It also makes good business sense for all stakeholders.

What holds you back from the regional market?

Our first intent was to invest in genres where we are present and then to consolidate further in genres where our presence was either limited or not there.

That is what we have been doing over the last three years - investing in sports or getting into new genres like edutainment or kids. Now it's time to consolidate all our investments. I would like to do that for some time. Meanwhile, if any opportunity of investment arises in the regional market, we will look at it closely.

Isn't the regional market important?

It is important for a network to be available in all markets where its viewers exist. Regional sits is in the important category but not in the essential category. We have run a successful network over the last 21 years without a significant presence in the regional market.

Having said that, we have made our way to the regional markets through sports. We had multilingual feeds for FIFA World Cup and have telecast the IPL in multiple languages including Southern ones. When we launch Sony BBC Earth it will be in multiple languages, as will our kids' channel.

How has BARC India's rural data changed the dynamics of broadcast business? What is next for the women-centric Sony Pal?

Even though it's been a year of BARC, people are trying to understand that market a little better. We have seen a huge growth in viewership of our channels operating in the rural markets.

Pal will continue to air archival content and there are no plans of releasing fresh content on the channel at this stage.

Is there a revenue model in place for your digital business?

Yes, there is. Advertising video on demand (AVOD) and subscription video on demand (SVOD) are the models that we are working on. It is more AVOD at this stage, but we are seeing significant traction and growth in terms of advertising.

Staying with VOD, what now is the biggest challenge for Sony Liv?

This has been a very busy year for Sony Liv. We had to invest a lot in technology and also in the product itself. We need to improve the number of downloads of Sony Liv and that is the biggest area of focus at this stage.

This is the fourth phase of digitisation. How have the earlier phases benefited your subscription revenue? At this stage what is the subscription and advertising revenue ratio of SPNI?

The ratio at this stage is quite similar to that of the industry. It is more skewed to advertising with 65 per cent coming in from there and 35 per cent from subscription.

We have seen limited benefits of digitisation in terms of revenue growth but I am optimistic that in the next three years this equation will change significantly and subscription revenue will go up to 45 per cent.

This interview was first published in our magazine afaqs! Reporter on December 15, 2016.

A Note From the Editor

The last time we did a detailed, in-depth interview with NP Singh - shorter, agenda-driven, announcement-based interviews every now and then, notwithstanding - was in January 2014; he had just taken over from Man Jit Singh as CEO of Sony Pictures Networks India, then Multi Screen Media.

On his mind back then were things like the performance of the network's flagship channel Sony, economic uncertainties, unstable markets and the then impending general election. Though it was just three years back, the NP Singh of today seems so far removed, in mind-space and goals, from the one we interviewed then.

While strengthening Sony is still very much on his mind and to-do list, especially when it comes to the channel's fiction offering, the NP Singh of today, like his fellow leaders in the Indian broadcast space, is a product of the times, in that he has to factor in the OTT wave and consequent on-demand viewing patterns. While he is cognizant of these changing mediums and methods of consumption, he is clear about one thing - the day OTT can pose any real threat to TV in this part of the globe is far.

Even so, there's no denying the challenge; for instance, the consumer of English entertainment - especially serials, as opposed to movies - now has a choice between watching a show on her hand held device like a tablet or mobile and her TV. The viewer, Singh tells us, is currently in the process of deciding between the two screens. It will be a year before the decision - one that will determine the direction in which advertisers' money will flow - is taken, he predicts.

Besides new media platforms, Singh also fielded questions about the developments that have kept his team busy and will continue to do so in the days ahead, including Ten Sports Network, Sony BBC Earth, IPL and Sony Liv.

More power to Singh.