He has come, literally, out of nowhere to head one of India’s largest broadcasting companies. Man Jit Singh, 53, was roped in by his friend and former president of Sony’s international TV business Michael Grindon to work for Sony India. In 2007, Singh, who had worked in Los Angeles for 28 years, relocated to India as non-executive chairman of the estimated Rs 800-crore Multi Screen Media, as Sony Entertainment Television (SET) is now known.
This was while Kunal Dasgupta, Sony’s earlier mercurial CEO, was still at the helm. It was a somewhat difficult time for Sony. Its shareholding was split between a clutch of Indian entrepreneurs, Sony Corp and Capital International. The Indian shareholders’ long-standing desire to exit had created its own pressures. Then there was Dasgupta’s aggressive style which did not let the company build the management depth that, say, Star had; cricket costs were rising and fiction programming wasn’t taking off.
Finally in February 2009, Dasgupta left Sony and Singh took over as interim CEO. Six months later, Sony’s pathetic tally of GRPs had doubled from 75 to 150. That is when Grindon asked Singh to “stick around and complete the turnaround”.
Vanita Kohli-Khandekar met Singh to find out how he would do that. Singh’s only condition to meet was that there would be no questions on the IPL controversy. Excerpts:
What is the thinking behind the flagship channel (SET)?
SET helps women fulfil their aspirations. The dreams that small-town women have are different from those of metro women. So we need to build the kind of fiction that caters to all of them. Fiction is the core of the business. Currently, SET is at 160-190 GRPs (gross rating points). Clearly, the desire is to increase it and become the number one Hindi GEC (general entertainment channel).
I am so glad you say that because everyone is going mad with reality...
People who watch reality are snackers. We are doing a lot of research on this, against the earlier gut-feel approach which we used to follow. Our gut, however, wasn’t very good and therefore ratings dropped. We are now doing aangans in small towns (local focus groups of sorts); perpetual panels of viewers in others.
When producers pitch a concept, we take it to the focus groups, flesh it out, take it back to the producers and ask for a pilot. The pilot is then rated against other pilots in a consumer panel. For example, on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being bad and 10 being the best), if one pilot gets 8 and another 7, then we are more comfortable with the pilot that gets 8. We know it will at least get a 1 TRP (television rating point).
The programming ecosystem in India is not yet used to so much research; how are the producers taking it?
The question is: Does the producer believe that this will improve the show? We will use research to give guidance. We are also experimenting with different things — the Yashraj Films experiment. It is taking storytelling to a different level. The production values are different. (Sony has an exclusive tie-up with Yashraj Films for the latter to supply TV programming. The shows have a better production quality and storyline compared with most other TV shows.) It has not worked as well as we would have liked it to. But we will persevere because we believe in that kind of TV.
What is the big picture strategy?
For SET, it is developing the best fiction, some reality shows and some movies. We are trying to use a science to define SET. SAB is a comedy channel, and we are very happy with the way some of the shows, such as Tarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chasma, are doing. We are at 90 GRPs; we expect to cross 100 and go ahead of Imagine. MAX has always been the number one movie channel. In fact, we just bought 3 Idiots and paid more than we have ever paid. This is one movie that, after Sholay, would rock everything. So, we are extremely happy.
The strategy for SET going forward will be to get into the regional space. We are looking at acquiring in the regional space plus looking at a sports channel because of IPL. (Currently, Sony uses Max as a sports-cum-movie channel.) India tends to be a one sport country. If we find the right property, we would do sports.
We bought a Bangla movie channel (Channel 8) in March 2009. Only 1,000 Bengali films have been made and we have 400 of those, and are still buying. We have a Tamil film library of 380 films. We are also very interested in the Bhojpuri space.
Isn’t it too late? what can you do in the language space now?
We are a little late. But there is room for a more contemporary, different form of TV in the regional space — different from what Sun or Eenadu is offering. It is a space that Sony can occupy.
How would you tackle distribution, especially in the south where Sun has a monopoly and how would you find non-film producers to make the kind of shows you are talking about?
On the distribution front, I am not worried because One Alliance team is the best. (One Alliance is the brand name under which the distribution joint venture between SET and Discovery, floated in 2002, operates. It distributes, among others, the NDTV and Viacom network’s channels.)
It is true that a lot of the traditional products come from producers with a film background. But there are a lot of younger production companies with new ideas. Mumbai producers are setting up regional operations and vice versa. There is no shortage of talent.
How far are you from the whole language and sports play?
Sports, if things go well, immediately. Because we already have IPL. Language could take another 18 months, plus there are plans for a music channel.
When do you think the Sony portfolio will be complete?
When SET is in the number one or number two position; SAB is number 4; when we have a presence in one or two regional markets and deliver the ratings we want.