Anirban Roy Choudhury

"Not getting into sports is a conscious decision": Sudhanshu Vats, Viacom18

Viacom18 recently turned 10. An interview with the boss of the network, on the occasion.

New entrant in the 'decade club' media conglomerate Viacom18 has come a long way. Over the last ten years it grew from a three channel strong, Rs.80 crore network... to a profitable, Rs.3,100 crore network (figures sourced from Viacom18).

Viacom18's journey in India started as a 50:50 JV between US-based content powerhouse Viacom Inc. and Raghav Bahl's Network18 (which he subsequently sold to Reliance). Back then, the JV ran three channels - Nick, MTV and VH1. In 2008, it entered the general entertainment space with Colors; the channel, on the back of popular shows like Balika Vadhu and Uttaran, reached the top slot in its genre in first year itself.

Now, with a workforce of 1,500 people, across Mumbai (where it is head-quartered) and several other regional offices, the broadcast business of Viacom18 comprises 44 channels, aired in 80 countries. Besides broadcast, the network’s businesses include digital, films, experiential, as well as licensing and merchandising.

Viacom18 will launch Colors Tamil in February 2018. Around June, it will introduce a paywall on its digital platform Voot, after which it will operate as a 'freemium' platform - with both advertising-led (free) and subscription-based (paid) content.

We spoke to Sudhanshu Vats, group chief executive officer, Viacom18, on the sidelines of a recent media event held in Mumbai.

Edited Excerpts

How do you divide your time between the business and the people who help you run it?

I spend time, individually, with people over coffee. As a company, we meet every Monday for lunch with the top teams. Once a month we meet on a Monday for a business meeting. I believe both formal and informal meetings are very important. Ours is a business of people; it is people-centric and people-specific. Most of my time is spent building a culture...

What kind of culture are you nurturing?

One that is open, in which there is a lot of respect and dignity for people, and one in which innovation and entrepreneurship are fostered. This has helped us keep our important people with us. I trust, empower and respect my colleagues.

In the presentation you made to the media about the network's journey, you specifically underscored the salience of your mid-level workforce. Tell us about that.

The reason I mentioned our mid-level people is - the 'bull work' of any organisation is done by its mid-level managers. They need to be constantly upgraded. It's what I give special attention to. We're also building them as our future leaders. Every year the 'top 100' of our organisation get together and do a 'change leader conference'. This way, we devote two days a year looking at the future.

Now that Netflix, Amazon Prime and other OTT players have come into the picture, we may see producers taking more risks and owning IPs. Then, what will happen to the multi-screen monetisation model?

See, I am a firm believer of abundance. Yes, with more players coming in, the established production houses will move in that direction. But there is an India beyond ABCD and E, and there are stories and storytellers we need to identify and give an opportunity to. Also, I would like to make it clear that incentives are a part of our relationships with producers even today; whenever there is a success, there is an incentive and the producer is a part of it.

You've spoken about spotting 'white spaces'... so what has kept you away from the sports space?

Not getting into sports is a conscious decision we have taken. I believe we still have a lot more to do in our entertainment portfolio. The kind of investments we want to make in our entertainment portfolio at the moment... well, that kind of investment is enough for us to be considered a big sports player. We keep asking ourselves this question - 'Should we get in it or should we not?' I don't think the time is right at the moment.

Why so? You say you want to build IPs that stay with you forever and which you can sell across platforms. That's something you can't do with sports...

No, that is not the case... let me be honest with you; sports is a very good business in India. To me, it's a high-investment, long-gestation business. You have to invest a lot and the returns will come over a period of four to five years. At this stage, we would like to make such investments in the entertainment space, because we see a lot of opportunity there.

Let's talk about the growth of FTA (free-to-air) channels - isn't it a very real threat to pay TV?

We have to prepare ourselves for what India watches. And in India, there will be a free -and a pay- ecosystem. This is the case in both television and digital. We have to learn to deal with this hybrid ecosystem. We are playing in each of them. We cannot be overly dependent on either side of the business. Our portfolio will move in the direction of the eyeballs... tomorrow, if more eyeballs move towards free-to-air, we have to be ready for that. The good news is, in India, pay channels are very affordable and hence have a bright future as well.

How is the profile of a pay TV viewer different from that of an FTA viewer?

For the vast majority of categories and brands, purchasing power -and consequently, advertising money- lies with the pay TV viewer. Free-to-air will grow faster than pay TV, but in India this will help grow the overall pie... they will not eat into one other's growth.

In what way do you expect BARC's Ekam launch to change the advertising side of the business on Voot?

A third party measurement system for digital is a good idea. It will start bringing more credibility to digital numbers. BARC's entry will allow us to measure total audience across platforms.

Why has it become so important for a broadcaster to diversify and be present across the spectrum of touch-points? For example, how do live events and offline initiatives like your café Flyp@MTV help?

This is a tough year for us... and that is where building a portfolio helps business. This year, the advertising spend is low, but our film business in doing very well and our topline is driven by our film business.

We have to build businesses for the future. I believe live entertainment will always be a more aspirational form of entertainment... and in the future, the youth will move towards experiential -not passive- entertainment.

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