Anirban Roy Choudhury

End of an era: Examining the Sudhanshu Vats years

Change at the top of a national TV network is a rare event. As Vats quits Viacom18, it’s a good time to look at how the network has changed during his eight years.

Viacom18's digital video-on-demand (VOD) platform is called VOOT, which as per the organisation, has more than 100 million monthly active users. Do you know how the name 'VOOT' came into being? From a culture that Sudhanshu Vats had built in Viacom18. There was a suggestion box kept in the office and employees were requested to suggest names. One of those names was VOOT. A member of the board, which approved Vats's appointment in 2012, recalls, "Our mandate to him was to give madness a scientific shape."

Back then (FY12), Viacom18 had a workforce of 400 employees and a topline of around Rs 600 crore. The network had six channels, and today it has 57. The madness that the board member is referring to is actually the ecstasy after the crazy, creative success that the brand enjoyed. Viacom18’s general entertainment channel (GEC) Colors, which was launched in 2008, went on to become number one within the first six months of its launch. The channel became an instant hit, and its shows like 'Balika Vadhu', and 'Uttaran' went on to disrupt the television industry.

Vats came into the broadcast business after selling a different kind of 'soap' for more than two decades. At Hindustan Unilever (HUL), he was vice president - Laundry South Asia and Global Radiant. He was responsible for Unilever's laundry business in South Asia, and the Radiant brand globally. "The first impression he had on us was - A number man," says a senior executive.

"Vats started many in-house activities, 'Content Pe Charcha' being one of them."

You don't rise up the ladder at HUL if you are not a master in understanding consumer behaviour, and that is what Vats went after in his early days.

Apart from MTV (1997), VH1 Nickelodeon (2005), Colors (2008), Comedy Central and Sonic (2011), the network had its film production and distribution unit Studio18, which, in 2011, got rebranded as Viacom18 Motion Pictures. After Vats took over in 2012, he started setting up focus groups, which would emphasise on data analytics, and return on investment (ROI). During this period, Viacom18 started producing and distributing stories that a conventional studio or channel would ignore. 'Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)', ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013)', 'Margarita with a Straw (2014)', ‘Mary Kom (2014), 'Drishyam' (2015), 'Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017)', 'Andhadhun (2018)' and, more recently, 'Jamtara' for the streaming platform Netflix. "Be it the film studio, or television business, consumer insights played a vital role in us taking any decision. It is now in our DNA and that is something which got channelised by Vats," says a senior network hand. Vats started many in-house activities, 'Content Pe Charcha' being one of them. He would chair these meetings himself, and encourage people to throw ideas at each other.

Sudhanshu Vats
Sudhanshu Vats

Apart from shaping culture, Vats also steered the expansion journey of the network. When Viacom18, the 50-50 joint venture (now 49:51) between global media giant Viacom Inc. and Network18, started mushrooming in the media and entertainment industry, Rupert Murdoch's Star India and Subhash Chandra's ZEEL were already behemoths in the TV business. Sony and Sun, too, stood shoulder to shoulder. Hindi or regional languages, sports or GEC, Viacom18's competitors had established intellectual properties working as revenue spinners. Formats of successful reality shows, like ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ and ‘American Idol’, were all sold to other broadcasters. The network had to choose from what was left. So, it bought the rights to adapt and broadcast ‘Big Brother’, ‘Fear Factor’ and ‘America’s Got Talent’, and over the years, established marquee properties in the form of ‘Bigg Boss’, ‘Khatron Ke Khiladi’ and ‘India’s Got Talent’.

Vats knew he had to play the segmentation game, and play it well to survive. The Rs 2,503 crore multilayered deal between Eenadu, which operated ETV Network, and Network18 gave Viacom18 access to wide range of regional channels. By 2016, Vats had most of them rebranded under the Colors umbrella. In Kannada, Gujarati and Oriya, it established its leadership, while in major regional markets, like Marathi and Bangla, it remained in the shadow of Zee and Star's regional offerings. To further establish its leadership in Kannada, Viacom18 launched a second GEC - Colors Super and a movie channel. It further expanded its footprints in the south by launching Colors Tamil.

While Hindi and regional GECs continue to be the largest contributors to Viacom18's revenue, the kids play has been its biggest success story. Taking on Disney and Turner, once the market leaders, it has established itself as the champion in terms of both viewership and revenue share. Its flagship channel Nick has remained number one in the Rs 500 crore kids broadcast space ever since the new measurement system came into effect. Viacom18 now broadcasts Nick, Sonic, Nick Junior and the HD versions. With Vats at the helm, cluster head Nina Elavia Jaipuria took some bold decisions and invested in local IPs like ‘Motu Patlu’, ‘Shiva’ and more. Today, they are all blockbusters.

Apart from TV broadcasts, Vats also steered the organisation's entry into live events and consumer products. From launching smartphone giants Vivo in India to marketing Spanish football club Barcelona's merchandise to organising Supersonic, Viacom18 dished out many initiatives to shape an on and off-air relationship.

"Today, Viacom18 has a workforce of over 1,500 employees, and a turnover of around Rs 4,000 crore."

Vats is highly respected and admired in the industry, but has his critics, too. In 2016, when Viacom18 launched its VOD platform, it again followed its rivals. By then, all major players had rolled out their digital ventures and had a sizeable user base. The argument in his favour could be that he had other priorities, like managing the entire regional expansion. The former HUL man also got criticised for his low-risk attitude, as VOOT hardly placed big bets on the ‘Originals’ game, nor did it make any attempt to win a slice of the pay-pie, until earlier this year when it launched VOOT Select. When Netflix was premiering 'Sacred Games', Amazon Prime did 'Inside Edge', and while Hotstar was saying it aims to reach a billion screens, VOOT was promoting wrap-around shows of its television content. However, in digital, too, he had his segmentation boots on. Viacom18 launched an SVOD kids-only platform VOOT Kids. While doing so, it took all the kids content away from the parent app, which no one else did in the ecosystem.

Today, Viacom18 has a workforce of over 1,500 employees, and a turnover of around Rs 4,000 crore, as compared to Star India’s Rs 11,736 crore, Zee’s Rs 6,857 crore, and Sony Pictures India Networks’ Rs 6,309 crore. In what could very well be his last big interview, Vats told afaqs! that he was upbeat about the digital business and expects it to grow from Rs 320 crore to about 24 per cent of a larger Rs 8,000 crore business in the next four years. Now, he walks out and Rahul Joshi, who will have to achieve all this, and much more, steps in.

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