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Retrofit: American studios’ growing presence in India

Guest Column
Retrofit: American studios’ growing presence in India

Author | Sandeep Bamzai | Wednesday, Aug 12,2009 8:49 AM

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Guest Column <br>Retrofit:  American studios’ growing presence in India

Ever so slowly, American studios and networks are grabbing larger swathes of Indian media and entertainment space. While it is still difficult to get a large toehold in the news business – both print and television – due to FDI restrictions and caps, it has been relatively smooth sailing for the big boys to establish a rock solid presence in the entertainment space.

One can argue that it has taken Rupert Murdoch-owned Star Group many years to find terra firma in India, but that is also a function of the dynamic Indian market and some pretty clueless decisions in the initial run. To get your feet wet, you have to first put them into the water and Star Group’s journey in India has been long and eventful, with some misses and lately many hits.

So, while many of the biggest players are here, Bertlesmann AG, the third largest entertainment conglomerate after Time Warner and Walt Disney Company, is still to drop anchor here. But everyone – from Howard Stringer to Rupert Murdoch to Michael Eisner and Andy Bird to Tom Freston – was visiting India. India had become ‘the’ flavour. In many ways, the recent revival in India as a destination is also because of Viacom’s big punt – Colors – which has worked in a short span of year, launched as it was in July last year, it has dethroned Star Plus.

News Corp

I actually sat down and tried to map the presence of all the American biggies in India. And believe me, I was surprised to find just about every big player having a substantive footprint here. And it took a bit of research. Rupert Murdoch obviously is the big daddy and in many ways the first mover in India. News Corp’s interests are wide and varied – the Star Group, as it is called, has a presence across media and entertainment verticals, led by a bouquet of channels in Hindi and English, the Star network, National Geographic, History Channel, Fox Star, which has just paid Rs 90 crore for the rights of Karan Johar’s under-production ‘My Name Is Khan’.

Then of course, all English movies under the 20th Century Fox banner are distributed here by this arm, its book publishing business, Harper Collins; Tata Sky, its DTH platform in a joint venture with the Tatas; Star Vijay; and the newly constructed Star Jupiter with entrepreneur Rajeev Chandrasekhar in the South, through its 26:74 JV with Ananda Bazar Patrika called MCCS has three news channels – Star News, Star Ananda (Bengali news) and Star Majha (Marathi current affairs); a Wall Street Journal facsimile edition; a distribution JV with DEN, a Sameer Manchanda-Raghav Bahl venture called Star Den Media Services. The distribution venture now has 22 channels on its platform. This distribution alliance brought MGM onto the cable platform last year.

All this has been assiduously built up over the years with many controversies thrown in. Many attempts have been made to destabilise the business verticals, but Murdoch has managed to survive all to sally forth in India. What he has failed to do in China, he has managed to do in India, paving the way for others to follow. Columbus, Magellan, call him what you want, but he has succeeded. What will Murdoch bring next to India? Fox in English?

Warner Bros

Another monolithic studio and the third largest, Warner Bros, a subsidiary of Time Warner, has a similar active presence in India. Time Warner’s interests vary from Turner Broadcasting’s entry in the early 1990s with Cartoon Network to TCM (Turner Classic Movies) to Pogo to its distribution deal – Zee Turner – to its branding deal with IBN – CNN-IBN to investing in Hindi films. Sadly, both turned out to be turkeys – one small – ‘Saas, Bahu and Sensex’ and one mega flop – ‘Chandini Chowk to China’. But this has not deterred Time Warner, which has gone ahead and signed a three-film deal with Nikhil Advani/ Mukesh Talreja’s People Tree Productions, and a five-film deal with Rajnikanth’s daughter Soundarya’s Ocher Studios including the next big Rajni-starrer ‘Sultan’.

It has also done a deal with Ravi Chopra for his next film. Recently, it launched a movie channel aptly called WB as a flanking device. It is already here with its other flagship movie channel, HBO. ‘Time’ magazine has been in India with the India Today Group for many years. Sadly, Turner Broadcasting’s big GEC play with Alva Brothers’ Miditech has proved to be a damp squib. NBC Universal’s JV with NDTV Imagine has suffered a similar fate, a lame response to Viacom’s Colors.

Walt Disney Co

Walt Disney Co has had a chequered history in India. Its first attempts were a failure. It entered into a legal fracas with Lalit Modi’s Modi Enterprises. Yes, the same Lalit Modi who is now IPL cock of the walk. Soon they got it right by launching Disney Channel and Toon Disney. Recently, they took a big leap of faith in the Indian market by buying Hungama from Ronnie Screwvala for $30.5 million and then acquiring 59 per cent in UTV Software with an investment of Rs 840 crore. This way, it plugs and plays into one of the big production studios in Hindi cinema, makers of hit films like ‘Jodhaa Akbar’, ‘Race’ and acclaimed smaller budget films like ‘A Wednesday’.

Disney Consumer Products has a big presence in India, as does the Buena Vista films, which are now distributed in India by UTV. Like Warner, it made a direct foray into Hindi films with a JV with Yash Raj Films for ‘Roadside Romeo’, but that fell flat on its face. It, too, plans to make more films in India, including ‘19th September’ starring Kamal Hasan.

Walt Disney-owned ESPN is also present in India through its JV with Murdoch’s Star Sports. Both channels are aggressive bidders for cricket rights and own the ICC properties, as also the T20 Champions League for different tenures.

Viacom

Sumner Redstone-owned Viacom (he also owns CBS), which owns Paramount Pictures, has been here for long with MTV, Nickledeon, and lately Vh1. MTV was not going anywhere, India-specific programming has helped slightly, but it did not have a killer presence. Till Viacom architected the greatest throw of dice since Star Plus went Hindi on the back of Amitabh Bachchan’s KBC. Colors has paid in spades with a net run rate of Rs 40 crore per month since April, eating into the market and channel shares of Star Plus, Zee and Sony. CEO Rajesh Kamat will tell you privately that Colors was disruptive and it worked – ‘Khatron Ke Khiladi’, ‘Big Boss’, and of course the retro regressive ‘Balika Vadhu’. Viacom18 Media was also a big punt for Raghav Bahl’s TV 18 Network, which was only into news prior to the 50:50 JV. It has made everyone sit up and take notice of the Indian market all over again due to the singular success of the operation.

Liberty Media and Sony Entertainment TV

John Malone-owned Englewood, Colarado based Liberty Media, which is taking a hit these days due to the downturn in the US, is in India with its popular Discovery brand, Travel & Living being one of the best informative channels. It is also part of Sony’s One Alliance distribution platform, which brings us to Sony Entertainment TV, one of the early birds in the Indian market. Part of the beleaguered Sony Columbia Tristar empire, vested with the popular IPL telecast rights, its programming has gone to pieces.

The flagship channel Sony is now a distant fourth to Star Plus, Colors and Zee. It, too, has spent a lot of money in India – with a music label, films like the dud ‘Saawariya’, its electronics portfolio and of course a strong distribution alliance - One Alliance. With multiple channels, it seems to be a ship lost in the Bermuda Triangle, reflecting parent Sony Corp’s financial woes, which recorded its first loss in 14 years this March. Cricket is the only solace. But fragmented shareholding and presence of Indian shareholders are not helping Sony’s cause.

NBC Universal

NBC Universal again is one of the world’s largest integrated media and entertainment companies, which came about with the merger in May 2004 of the GE-owned NBC and Vivendi’s Universal Entertainment part of French Group Vivendi. GE owns 80 per cent while Vivendi owns the balance, a powerful combine in the US network and studio sweepstakes. It is here with a presence in NDTV Imagine (it picked up 26 per cent in London-based NDTV Networks for reportedly $150 million), a music label, and an extremely popular financial news channel CNBC-TV18, where Network18, owned by Raghav Bahl, formed a content partnership with CNBC, owned by NBC Universal, in 1999, and this has stood the test of time.

Astro

Malaysia’s Astro, too, is here in India with a stake in Red FM radio station, co-owned by NDTV. It has also struck a JV with Sun TV for its DTH service, Sun Direct and has a 20 per cent stake in Sun FM. Incidentally, Kalanidhi Maran owns 48.9 per cent in Red FM 93.5.

Bloomberg and BBC

Bloomberg has been wanting to come to India for long, but it wants editorial control more than equity control. The day a promoter in the business space is willing to cede that, Bloomberg will arrive in India. French network Canal Plus is also not here. But the much respected BBC is ramping up its size and scope here. BBC has been visible for long, now BBC Entertainment is seen on Tata Sky While scaling up editorial presence, it is also getting into production and two new channels – Cbeebies and BBC Lifestyle. However, both ITV and Granada are not present in India. Two big television production houses – Endemol and Fremantle Media – are also very active in India through licensing and production deals. Endemol, well-known for ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Fear Factor’ type of reality formats, is owned by Silvio Berlusconi’s family, while Fremantle is the content and production arm of RTL, makers of ‘American Idol’.

Colors has shown the way to more American networks and studios. But for the economic meltdown across the world, media and entertainment would have been booming here with more making tracks for the last great destination.

(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist, who started his career as a stringer with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. In late 2008, he joined three old friends to launch a start-up – Sportzpower Network – which combines his two passions of business and sport. Familiar with all four media – print, television, Internet and radio, Bamzai is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.

The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)

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