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The Lead Story

March, 2006


Swearing by the tagline ‘For A Better Society’, the channel takes up issues and concerns related to the common man. In fact, the channel was launched in February 2004 with a campaign highlighting how many villages lack access to safe drinking water in Andhra Pradesh. The campaign ran for six months. “All news bulletins started with this message for more than 15 days,” says Prakash. Subsequently, the state government acknowledged the magnitude of the problem and allocated Rs 125 crore to ensure safe drinking water supply for all villages.

“Currently, about 200 villages are covered and by next year, the problem would be entirely addressed,” he says. “We are not attacking the government. All we intend to do is expose the problem concerning the community and get them addressed.”

This is largely what ABCL plans to replicate in other markets across India (See ‘Beyond News’, BW, 11 December 2006). Whether it will work is a moot point. ABCL is expanding at a time when almost everyone else is. The Rs 1,423-crore Zee Telefilm’s aggressive entry into regional channels and the Rs 290-crore Sun Network’s plans to foray into regions beyond the south, justify the move. It is also understood that southern media baron Ramoji Rao’s estimated Rs 400 crore ETV, which currently has a bouquet of 11 channels, is also eyeing more regions.

“Even if the number of (news) channels doubles over the next few years, there would still be an opportunity for more players to sneak in,” asserts Prakash. Things may not be as simple for ABCL once it steps out of home, for two reasons. One, Andhra Pradesh has the maximum cable penetration compared to other states. So, TV9 had a great time. But in regions where penetration may not always be good (like, say, Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat), things may get tough. Second is the cultural context. What worked in Andhra Pradesh may not work elsewhere; entertainment-oriented news works in Delhi or perhaps political news in Kerala. The point is bringing that variety into its bouquet will cost more than simply hiring a transponder and launching a channel. Prakash says that ABCL may or may not take up community issues depending on the market.

The African Foray

When Michael Jackson crooned Nakupenda pia, nakutaka pia, mpenzi we (I love you, I want you, my dear) in ‘The Liberian Girl’, it sounded like Greek and Latin. It was actually Swahili, the most spoken African language. Jackson’s usage of African dialect is not an isolated case. In the 1994 Disney movie, The Lion King, the protagonist is named Simba, Swahili for lion.

Although Swahili as a language finds mention in arts, songs, cinema, theatre and television programmes the world over, what’s appalling is that Africans don’t yet have a regional satellite television channel. There are a few channels beaming local content in Africa, but being terrestrial channels their reach is limited. And this is where TV9 fills the gap.

Channels such as Doordarshan, Sony and Zee TV have ventured into Africa long ago and are broadcasting programmes in English and Hindi primarily for the Indians staying there.

But! Why Africa? “It is a market waiting to be tapped. We discovered the potential in Andhra Pradesh and met with success. Now, we have a larger target: Africa,” reasons Clifford Pereira, head (sales and marketing), ABCL. “Viewers in African countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Somalia are deprived of television content,” says Prakash. For instance, direct-to-home services costs about $4 in India but in Africa it is as high as $75. This is because cable penetration is very low, and as a result, entertainment services through television can be accessed by a select few.

“We want to replicate the Indian CAS (conditional access system) model in Africa. This is going to be the future model of television viewing,” explains M.K.V.N. Murthy, vice-president (operations), ABCL. “We plan to lay optic fibre and establish seamless connectivity across regions.”

For this to fructify, TV9 is in dialogue with other broadcasters and networking solutions providers. All in all, the project would require Rs 200 crore investment and at least three years of preparation. “We may float a different company altogether, which will have new investors. The modalities will be finalized in the next couple of months,” explains Prakash.

Surely, there must be very good reasons why other global or Indian companies have not attempted a full-fledged presence in Africa. So why is ABCL risking its happy position in one state for a bet on Africa? Retorts Prakash: “We are thinking ahead of time. Even before the domestic market saturates and players start looking for avenues outside, we intend to identify opportunities where we can have a large role to play.”

Growth is an imperative. The question is will these bets work? Till about three years ago, TV18 was under Rs 50 crore in size with a channel and a portal. Now, high on market cap, interesting launches and acquisitions, the company has hit a respectable Rs 159 crore, three times its revenues. So, if these bets work, ABCL would hit Rs 300 crore in revenues by 2010. If not, it will remain a one-channel wonder and a great acquisition target.