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Ambani's new content coup

After months of speculation, RIL boss is diversifying into media

Varada Bhat & Arijit Barman  |  Mumbai 

is looking at creating a mega server of broadband content for his 4G customers. Network18-Eenadu is just the beginning of a bigger data and video strategy

The prime-time newsmaker will now become the creator of news himself.

Mukesh AmbaniAfter months of speculation and closed-door dialogues, is finally making a big-bang diversification into media through a complicated series of transactions that could eventually see his flagship Reliance Industries control a significant chunk of two of the leading media houses in the country—the Raghav Bahl-promoted Network18 Group and the Eenadu Group, run by Hyderabad based

Most analysts believe the move is perfectly in sync with Ambani’s long-standing dream of entering the media and entertainment space dovetailing with his 4G telecom rollout through

Raghav Bahl“The broadcasting industry is in for consolidation. This deal would trigger broadcasters building a national portfolio, backed by a strong network of regional channels. This would be just the beginning of many such deals to come,” said Jehil Thaakar, executive director, media and entertainment at consulting firm KPMG India. “For Ambani, given the 4G rollout expected next year, this could assist him to integrate the business further,” added Thaakar.

  • owns all 22 4G circles, to start service by year end
  • Plans to create a mega server of content for Infotel’s broadband customers
  • To offer mobile handsets or set top boxes that combine TV channels, on-demand video, video-conferencing
  • Choice of over 100 TV channels, exclusive content at rock bottom price
  • deal will allow Infotel preferential access to content, programming
  • In talks with content providers like Balaji Telefilms, Shemaroo, Walt Disney-UTV, Yash Raj Films among others
  • Video to be key differentiator. Easy to sell, drives traffic volume

This is a typical Ambani juggernaut: Silent and swift. But it opens up possibilities for a much bigger telecom-media-entertainment consolidation. Is he going to be the biggest data content driver in his telecom platform? Is Ambani the next media czar in our highly integrated information overdrive?

To start with, the Network18-Eenadu deal will allow Infotel preferential access to the content of all the media and web properties of Network18 and its associates and also programming and digital content of all the broadcasting channels of TV18 and its associates on a first right basis as a most preferred customer.

Reliance expects digital content from entertainment, news, sports, music, weather, education and other genres will be a key driver to increase consumption of broadband.

Betting on data

Ambani, say media industry executives, wants to create a mega server of content. This will include a large library of national, international and regional movies in multiple genres, television shows, non-film offerings, music, games and applications. There will be a choice of over 100 TV channels including high definition (HD) ones and other exclusive channels for his mobile and broadband users at rock-bottom rates.

The invasion into homes will be through handsets or mobiles as well as set-top boxes that combine TV channels, on-demand video and video-conferencing. Trial runs for both are currently on as have been negotiations with cable for leasing out additional bandwidth capacity.

Apart from Network18 and Eenadu, Ambani is also looking at many partners for his broadband content. “The company has already initiated talks with various content providers like Balaji Telefilms, Shemaroo, Walt Disney-UTV, Yash Raj Films and Eros International,” says an executive, privy to these negotiations.

Reliance Infotel already has an entertainment division which is headed by Jagdish Kumar, a former STAR  India President (South). In future, the company may even enter full-fledged entertainment business like younger brother Anil Ambani, industry officials say.

“Ambani has always been saying he wanted the telecom handset to also double up to offer data, TV content and streaming videos. He has 20 MHz more spectrum, but at one third the 3G spectrum price and now, he will have national content of news and entertainment. It’s an unbeatable proposition,” says a CEO of a media company on condition of anonymity. 

The genesis of this strategy was set in motion last year with the dramatic re-entry of  Ambani into telecom. In June 2010, little known Infotel Broadband won nationwide BWA spectrum paying $2.7 billion. Within hours of that, RIL bought out the company for a billion dollars.

The billion-dollar bet this time around is wireless data. And even there, the differentiation is video. It’s easy to sell and drives up traffic.

“Increasingly, telcos are facing a challenge to convince people what the broadband connection is for. Here, Reliance is tying up with the best in class media brands. If you need to control the different pieces of the value chain (read basic telecom service+data provider+exclusive content+media partnerships), then the value of your platform increases and you can monetise exclusive content as well. And in content, video draws out the differentiation and drives up consumption,” says Kunal Bajaj, the India head of Analysys Mason, a telecom consulting firm.

Production companies, too, are lapping up this new bonanza. Typically, they syndicate their software to content-selling companies, telcos or online portals through various revenue-sharing deals. And, already, many production houses like Eros and Shemaroo have started dabbling in delivery of film-based content such as music, videos, games and movies including short 15-minute versions of blockbusters like Sholay, Chupke Chupke through new media.

Broadband entertainment clearly is going to be the game changer for delivery of content. “Most production houses are sitting on a goldmine of content. With BWA rollout, content will be delivered at a faster pace and in an innovative way. The quality will be better and will change the entire ecosystem of the industry. The BWA spectrum and LTE technology will assist him to increase the efficiency of the server and much faster and real-time downloads. Once it’s done this form of entertainment through videos and movies will hog the limelight,” says Thakkar.

Reliance Infotel plans to launch its service in the second half of 2012. The rollout will begin from the metro cities and then scaled up to a countrywide network. It plans to provide data connectivity with speeds of 50-100 mbps, which is much faster than 3G services currently on offer, which have 3-7 Mbps speed. Buying the spectrum at much lower price will also assist in offering the faster service at much cheaper rates.

A new giant?
After the Network18-Eenadu deal gets consummated, Ambani will get an unparalleled access to national and regional content. 

To begin with, ETV’s bouquet consists of 11 regional channels and one Telugu news channel ETV2.  The 11 infotainment channels in different vernaculars have an exhaustive nationwide presence beaming from states like Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in south to Gujarat and Maharashtra in the west, Bihar, UP, Rajasthan and MP in north and central India, while reaching out to Orissa and Bengal in the east. It also reaches out to the Indian diaspora in the USA, providing digital entertainment via ETV Telugu, ETV Bangla and ETV Gujarati entertainment channels.

These regional channels have had an interesting model of clubbing news and entertainment together, with the logic being, that a news wheel at the top of the hour will hook viewers to stay on for the entertainment programme that follows. 

On the other hand, Network18 is one of the largest diversified media houses in the country with interests in television, internet, filmed entertainment, e-commerce, magazines, mobile content and allied businesses. As a broadcaster, it operates two leading business news channels, CNBC-TV18 and CNBC Awaaz, two general news channels, CNN-IBN, IBN 7 and a Marathi news channel in partnership with the Lokmat group. It also operates a 50:50 JV with Viacom which houses  a portfolio of India's market leading entertainment channels — Colors, MTV, VH1 and Nickelodeon — and Viacom18 Motion Pictures, the group's filmed entertainment business.

It also has a strategic distribution alliance with Sun Group, SUN 18. In a newer initiative, it has also ventured into factual entertainment via its JV with A+E Networks (formerly A&E Television Networks). AETN 18 operates History, Bio, Crime & Investigation Network and Lifetime. The various other digital, e-commerce, internet, news terminals, event management and publishing ventures of the group — including a collaboration with Forbes Magazine — are still fledgling and niche, but are strategic platforms for future growth.

First Published: Wed, January 04 2012. 00:51 IST