The India Premier League (IPL) is arguably one of the most watched and profitable sporting leagues in the world. The month-and-a-half-long Twenty20 cricket league features star players from around the world and celebrity owners, including Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan and India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani.
Over the years, many faces associated with the cricket extravaganza have changed. These include new team owners, new and rising cricket stars, and new title sponsors. But for the first decade of the league that started in 2008, one face remained common— N.P. Singh, the 59-year-old managing director and CEO of Sony Pictures Networks India (SPN), IPL’s official broadcaster from 2008 to 2017.
Singh, who joined SPN in 1999 as its chief financial officer and became CEO in 2014, was instrumental in bringing the IPL to SPN and building it up as a property.
It was a symbiotic relationship wherein—through its marketing campaigns and wide reach—SPN helped build IPL’s popularity and the network’s revenue progressive - ly soared over the years, as the IPL gained traction with viewers and advertisers. So when the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) decided to re-auction the television rights for the tournament in 2018 and SPN’s rival Star India bagged the rights for a staggering $2.55 billion, people logically wondered what this meant for SPN’s future in India.
Singh, a media and entertainment sector veteran, knew that no good thing lasts forever and consequently started putting in place a plan to build other robust revenue streams for SPN to offset the potential loss of the IPL well in advance. As a result, even after losing IPL rights, SPN’s revenues are consistently growing on the back of its strong library of general entertainment content and rights to other sports properties acquired over time.
That, along with the resurgence of the network’s online streaming platform SonyLIV and foray into different Indian regional languages is standing SPN, which will complete 25 years in India next year, in good stead. At present, the network, an indirect wholly-owned subsidiary of Japan’s Sony Corporation, has 29 channels, and different arms for movie, television, and digital production. Its channels are available in 167 countries, and its reach in India spans 700 million viewers across 170 million households. “We were a strong company even when IPL didn’t exist, and we continue to be a strong company at present,” Singh tells Fortune India in an interview. Edited excerpts:
You have been with SPN for two decades. What are the key changes in the media and entertainment sector that you have seen from then till now?
There have been multiple changes. Technology has enabled carriage of content closer to consumers and given a lot of choice to them. Viewers’ preferences have changed and evolved quite a bit over the past two decades and the kind of content that worked 20 years back doesn’t work anymore, as viewers are more mature now with exposure to the best global content out there—across cinema, TV, and digital. Distribution is another big change that we have seen. When the industry started we just had mom-and-pop shops throwing cable over buildings, trees, and electric poles to distribute content. Today, there are so many different platforms through which the consumer gets access to high-quality content.
And then there are regulations, which have changed a lot over the past two decades and continue to change a lot.
What are the key changes that have helped SPN evolve as a network over this period of time?
When we started 20 years back we had just one channel—Sony Entertainment Television. There was another channel, AXN, which was operated from outside and distributed by us in India. Our network now has 29 channels and is present across all mainstream genres. We dominate key genres like Hindi GEC (general entertainment channels) and Hindi movies. We are a very strong sports network as well and have a sizeable presence in English GEC and movies. We recently forayed into kids entertainment with Sony Yay! and are present across regional languages such as Bengali and Marathi.
We were the first ones to launch an OTT (over-the-top) platform— SonyLIV and have a movie production business, which has seen some decent successes like Piku, Soorma, and Mubarakan.
The IPL was a game changer for SPN. What does its loss mean for the future?
We were a strong company when IPL didn’t exist and continue to be one. When the IPL was conceived there weren’t many supporters, but we put our hand up and said we will support it since we believed in it. For 10 years we supported the IPL and it did well for us. It grew into a big brand with the help of the marketing and promotions that we did. Every year’s marketing campaign became iconic—from Manoranjan Ka Baap to 10 Saal Aapke Naam . When you have a good thing going, you cannot always count on it alone and you need to have backup plans in place. Which is what we started to do much before the renewal of the IPL broadcast rights was on the anvil. And that has helped us transition. It has been two years since we last aired IPL in 2017 and our revenues have only grown in this period, and not fallen. We have created some other big properties in the sports genre. We acquired Ten Sports, which was an important acquisition for us. We have football, cricket, and WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment).
We continue to make investments in acquisition of sports rights. We have next year’s Tokyo Olympics coming up, as well as the next Asian Games. We have the rights to telecast matches of all cricket boards outside India, except Bangladesh and New Zealand. Also, wherever there is a possibility we see the potential of domestic sports leagues as well. As a strategy, we decided years ago that we will get into sports that aren’t that popular in India and help promote them, like NBA (basketball) and UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship).
If there was one person around to stick with the IPL from its first season to the 10th, it was me. But I did not lose one night’s sleep after [losing] IPL.
Despite being a first mover, do you think SPN’s OTT platform SonyLIV lost ground to other rivals like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hotstar that came in later?
We were the first ones to come out with an OTT service because we saw an opportunity early on and realised that this market will evolve into a streaming market. Therefore, we started to invest in OTT six years ago. In the interim, we made huge investments in linear TV because it was important for us to make our presence stronger in mainstream genres. We have completed that agenda and for the last couple of years we are investing significantly in SonyLIV too—across technology and content. All the rights that we acquire to broadcast different sports proper - ties come with the digital rights to air them on SonyLIV. And that has helped SonyLIV grow its user base. SonyLIV’s current monthly active users are at 120.5 million. A Counterpoint research that was published in June ranked us as the third most-watched OTT service in India. In June 2019 we launched Tamil and Telugu content on SonyLIV. These are two languages in which we don’t have a presence on linear TV, but we want to build a strong presence on digital.
The advantage that OTT services of larger networks like SPN, Star, and Zee enjoy is that we produce a lot of content on a daily basis and nobody can match the number of hours that we produce. But all of us are also getting into producing or acquiring original content for digital as well.
Do you see any cannibalisation of the broadcast television business due to the increasing popularity of OTT platforms?
OTT is still a very urban and top of-the-pyramid kind of phenomenon, which is not impacting all genres equally. I must confess English and infotainment are two genres that are getting impacted first, as nobody wants to make an appointment with TV for a documentary or a Hollywood film that is available on demand on digital.
Also, after the implementation of the new tariff order, people are making choices with respect to what they want to watch on digital vis-à-vis TV. But as far as the other genres are concerned, OTT is not having much impact on linear TV.
What has been the implication of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s new tariff order on broadcast companies like yours?
It was a big disruption to begin with; almost all of us saw an impact on revenue. But we saw that phase through. We are see - ing positive signs of improved transparency in the system—due to numbers that are coming out through monthly reports, which will be audited in due course. We are also now being able to identify demand for particular genres and channels and know where to invest. Better analytics are coming through and of course, the subscription revenue for broadcasters has improved. People have always been willing to pay higher prices for the content they really want to consume. If you have appealing content people will pay. Though the overall reach of channels in percentage terms may have come down, the time spent on these channels has gone up, which means the depth of engagement is higher.
This was originally published in the October 2019 issue of the magazine.