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Times Group, ABP may soon start formal talks for grand TV alliance

Move could see Times join MCCS for regional play, ABP buying into Times TV

Arijit Barman & Varada Bhat  |  Mumbai 

The lure of regional TV is getting the bigger national players hooked. Call it the new Tele Talk.

India’s largest diversified media conglomerate, Bennett, Coleman and Co Ltd (BCCL), popularly known as the Times Group, may soon engage in formal talks with Aveek Sarkar’s Ananda Bazaar Patrika (ABP) to explore a grand partnership involving each other’s TV networks.

Times Global Broadcasting Ltd is the television arm of BCCL and is popularly called the Times Television Network. ABP TV’s foray into is through Media Content & Communications Services India Pvt Ltd (MCCS).

Senior officials of BCCL have described reports of such talks speculative and ABP representatives said they are not aware of any specific proposal for a partnership. Samir Jain, Vice-Chairman of BCCL, Vineet Jain, MD, BCCL, and Aveek Sarkar, the chief editor of Ananda Bazaar Group of Publications, did not respond to Business Standard’s e-mail questions on the matter.

But according to two senior officials who are independently aware of the developments, as per the preliminary discussions between the two sides, Times TV is not averse to looking at partnering ABP in MCCS —after Rupert Murdoch-controlled STAR Group exits on June 1, 2012.

A potential consolidation between two industry leaders is bound to be a game changer, feel analysts. This is significant as it comes right after the deal between Reliance Industries and Network18 to buy out a part of Eenadu’s portfolio.

After nine years of working together, Murdoch and Aveek Sarkar are parting ways, over editorial and other strategic issues.

MCCS, formed in March 2003, has been a 74:26 joint venture between ABP TV and STAR Broadcasting. MCCS broadcasts three 24-hour channels, STAR News in Hindi, STAR Ananda in Bengali and STAR Majha in Marathi. While Ananda and the Majha are the two market leaders in their genre, News is amongst the top 3.

“Times Group has offered to come on board and replace STAR in the venture. They are especially keen on the Hindi news segment where ABP News (formerly STAR News) is a formidable force,” added the other official mentioned above. He too did not want to disclose his identity as he is not authorised to speak to media.

The MCCS JV is currently in a transition stage. ABP TV is also aggressively publicising a new look and branding for its network of channels, post STAR. The regulatory approvals and clearances from RBI, I&B Ministry, FIPB and others are also underway parallely.

Interestingly, any deal between two Indian partners in the news media space will not come under the 26% FDI equity investment restrictions. Naturally that gives both the leeway to offer significant stakes.

Times Group therefore is also believed to be open to a swap by which ABP TV will buy into their television network, which controls four news and entertainment channels — the highly popular Times Now, ET Now, Movies Now and Zoom.

“This can be complementary for both. While ABP has been exploring ways to enter English news and Times Now will give them that option, Bennett, Coleman too will get a foothold in Hindi, a market they have been eyeing for a while,” said one of the officials.

These talks are however at a very early and informal stage. Formal or a structured dialogue, focusing on specifics like quantum of equity, JV structuring, valuations etc are yet to take place, said one of the above mentioned official, on condition of anonymity. But he added that a minimum of 26 per cent stake can be offered by both.

Senior representatives and professionals from both sides are soon expected to meet to try and take the matter forward. It is also still not yet clear at this juncture if the talks will eventually fructify into a deal. ABP’s management too is expected to take up the proposal to their board very soon.

However, when contacted, Ravi Dhariwal, CEO, BCCL, said “This is highly speculative. I don’t think anybody from our side has made any such proposal.”

“I am not aware of any such development. And it is highly speculative for me to comment on the issue, said Sunil Lulla, CEO and MD of Times Global Broadcasting.

“We control 100 per cent of the JV now and so we are open to partnerships in MCCS. It can be with a foreign or an Indian entity. But specific to any proposal from Times Group for any JV, I am not aware, I would have known otherwise,” said Dipankar Das Purkayastha, Managing Director and CEO, ABP.

A Times Group official pointed out that a deal may be a good idea and even be a possibility, both organisations have to be sensitive to their competing flagship newspaper businesses. Times of India is India largest broadsheet daily and in the east competes with The Telegraph. The eponymous Ananda Bazaar Patrika is a clear market leader in the Bengali vernacular market, but BCCL has been looking at entering that space as well.

Editorial control
Editorial control is also a prickly issue in these JVs. Therefore, according to one suggestion proposed, irrespective of the equity share, in Times TV Network, the control would continue to remain with BCCL. Likewise, in ABP’s three channels, the last word would stay with Aveek Sarkar, even after any deal.

A valuation exercise of the two networks for any deal has still not been done. But industry officials say, MCCS has broken even last financial year with revenues touching around Rs 260-270 crore. MCCS operationally broke even in FY 2011, from its loss of around Rs 6 crore in the earlier year on a revenue of Rs 213 crore, according to market estimates. Times Group officials say other than ET Now, all the three other channels are profitable.

As per the latest TAM data, Times Now is the market leader in English news genre with 35.9 per cent share, ET Now has 29.7 per cent of the English business channel space, Zoom has a 7.5 per cent in the crowded music and lifestyle category while Movies Now has cornered a 31.4. share.

“Regional Market is where the growth is happening as the media market in the metros are quiet saturated. Advertising spends and media consumption are growing in a big way. The growth is significant as the size is comparatively smaller,” said Ashish Pherwani, associate director, media and entertainment at Ernst and Young.

According to PwC outlook on Media and Entertainment Industry in 2011, regional channels grabbed 53 per cent of the total Rs 10,150 crore TV advertising pie.

Out of the Rs 1,780 crore news industry advertising market, Hindi channels alone received ads worth Rs 800 crore or 45 per cent of the total pie. English news channels have a 35 per cent share at Rs 630 crore while that for regional news networks stood at Rs 350 crore.

Times Group has been looking out at inorganic opportunities to diversify its portfolio further. Earlier, it had shown preliminary interest in buying out the Hyderabad-based Associated Broadcasting Company Limited (ABCL), which owns several regional language satellite television channels under the TV9 brand. In its newspaper business, it publishes Navbharat Times, Maharasthra Times and Vijaya Karnataka, a newspaper brand they bought.

First Published: Sat, May 12 2012. 00:47 IST