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How Maran helped Sun beat rivals
Bridget S Leena & Shuchi Bansal
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May 04, 2005

Consider this. Sun TV [Get Quote] Network's chairman and managing director Kalanithi Maran was recently featured in a show on Star Vijay, Sun's rival Tamil entertainment channel owned by the Star group.

The Star Vijay programme, 'Sigaram Thotta Tamizhargal', focuses on achievers in different walks of life -- politics, media, sports, medicine and social work. It's not difficult to see why the rival channel invited Maran to its show.

At 39, Kalanithi Maran is the owner of the second largest (in terms of viewership share) broadcasting company in the country. Sun TV has grown from a single channel and five-employee organisation to a network of 13 southern language channels with 6,000 employees.

The channels are supported by its cable company Sumangali Cable Vision, Tamil Nadu's largest  mutli-system  operator. Maran also owns three Tamil weekly magazines and four FM radio stations.

Big forays

His channels have a presence in the US, Australia, Malayia and South Africa.

Sun TV Network is both powerful and influential. The Tamil channel Sun TV has a market share of 48 per cent in its home turf. The next biggest player is Jaya TV with a share of 4.8 per cent.

"Compare this with Star Plus, the biggest player in the Hindi speaking market, which has a share of 20 per cent," notes Media Direction's (an RK Swamy division) CEO Sandip Tarkas. That is not all.

According to Television Audience Measurement, the viewership monitoring agency, Sun TV enjoys the largest viewership in the country after Doordarshan in cable and satellite and terrestrial TV homes. "Even in cable and satellite homes alone, it is number two after Star Plus," he says.

Sun TV's two top shows "Kolangal" and "Metty Oli" fetch unheard of television rating points (TRPs -- in the range of 23 and 26). The TRPs for Star Plus' best shows now vary between 15 and 20.

"But we must remember that media consumption in Tamil Nadu is bigger in any case. The average TV viewing time there is three hours while it is two hours in the Hindi-speaking markets," says Tarkas.

Maran's Sun may become even more influential. It is now expanding into the east. The south Indian media conglomerate is close to signing a deal with the RPG group to buy its cable network, Indian Cable Net, in Kolkata.

RPG wants out

Chennai's Sun TV Network seems all set to capture nearly 50 per cent of Kolkata's cable television market by acquiring RPG Enterprises' cable TV network, India Cable Net, in the city. It is believed that it may also buy a few other small cable operators.

If the deals come through -- and there's no reason to believe they won't -- media industry observers say, it would make Sun the single largest operator in the city at one go.

Currently, India Cable Net is the city's biggest operator with approximately a 45 per cent share of the cable TV market. It is run by the family-owned RPG group that also owns Kolkata's power company CESC Ltd [Get Quote].

On the face of it, RPG appears ideally suited to run the cable network. But despite great success in curbing power thefts in city and in managing 'last mile' power connectivity, the company never really succeeded in feeding every CESC customer with its TV cable.

Experts say that this was because CESC has had to contend with severe financial problems in the last few years. In fact, RPG saw its cable TV market share decline from nearly 70 per cent as it could not fund network expansion or check the emergence of local operators.

Being the largest cable network, it also bore the brunt of the face-offs between broadcasters and cable TV operators over subscriber number declarations. The spats often led broadcasters to switch off channel signals to cable operators, including RPG.

RPG sources admit that negotiations are on with Sun but no deal had been inked till Ice World went to press. They also admit that the group is keen to exit the business and that Sun is the only prospective buyer that is conducting a due diligence exercise.

The hitch, say media industry sources, lies in the Rs 60 crore (Rs 600 million) difference in the valuation of the business.

Neither RPG nor Sun TV executives are willing to comment on the size of the deal, but a media expert says that Sun is ready to shell out close to Rs 300 crore (Rs 3 billion) for the network.

It is also readying to start a Bengali channel titled Surjo which had initially been scheduled for an April launch. "Surjo was delayed because we got busy with the Telugu music channel Aditya. We expect to launch the Bengali channel in September with no further postponements. I do not see a problem on that front," says Maran.

Will Sun ever enter the north?

"There is too much clutter there. But there's scope in Bengali," Maran insists.

Since a host of TV channels from the Sun Network have made successful inroads into neighbouring states such as Kerala (Surya, Kiran), Karnataka (Udaya, Ushe TV, Ushe News) and Andhra Pradesh (Gemini, Teja TV, Teja News, Aditya), the company's move into West Bengal is of special interest to rival broadcasters and media analysts.

A Star group source says that Sun's east India foray reflects smart thinking. "A Bengali channel means that in one stroke you cover Bengal, Orissa, the north-east and half of Bihar," he observes.

But sceptics wonder if Sun can repeat its southern success in Bengal. The channel is entering the state at a time when its air waves are crowded -- 15 Bengali channels are beaming to homes in the region.

Currently the market is lead by Eenadu's ETV Bangla, followed by Akash Bangla (part-owned by the CPM) and Zee Bangla. Star News' partner and newspaper publisher ABP Ltd is also entering the arena with its own channel. But channels like Akash are not worried.

"We do not see a new channel disturbing our viewership. Sun does not understand the local market and ABP has tried to get into TV programming earlier without success," says a source in Akash.

Nevertheless, some television broadcasters are not taking chances. Last month, the Tara Bengali network split its single channel in two, dedicated to news and entertainment separately.

Akash is said to be poised for similar changes while ETV and Zee Bangla are repackaging their content.

Interestingly, not many in Kolkata are ready to say anything on the record on Sun's eastern foray. Off the record, media company owners in the city say that they're worried on two counts.

One, if Maran seals the RPG network deal, Sun will rule the cable distribution business in the city. This may disrupt the reach and viewership of existing channels as Sun, as Surjo owner, can block their signals.

"It is likely to undermine the reach of competing channels as it will own virtually 50 per cent of the cable network in Kolkata," says an expert. Its control of cable distribution may tighten further as Sun is also planning to acquire a number of smaller operators in the region.

Media observer say that though Zee ran a channel and a cable network in the region, it did not have the mass to create trouble.

Sun Network's political clout is not being under-estimated either. "The company is backed by the political muscle of a family-run party which is a member of the ruling coalition in New Delhi," says the producer of a Bengali TV channel on condition of anonymity.

Kalanithi Maran's father, the late Murasoli Maran, was the union minister for industry and commerce in the National Democratic Front Alliance government.

While his grand uncle, M Karunanidhi, heads the Dravid Munnettra Kazhagam, his brother, Dayanidhi Maran, is the union minister for telecommunications.

Needless to say, Sun's political might has pushed West Bengal's TV channels into a huddle and hectic parleys are on to swing the state government over to their side.

But Maran seems unaffected by the political activity as the Bengal initiative is not the only new plan the Rs 546 crore (Rs 5.46 billion) group has. Maran, who studied business administration at Pennsylvania, says: "Sun does not want to restrict itself to being only a television broadcasting company. We want to be in all spheres of communication."

His next big project is direct-to-home TV. "I see DTH as an extension of or a platform for the distribution of programmes. It is in line with our vision of being in every segment of communication."

DTH, Maran believes, has a long gestation period. "For cable, people pay Rs 75 for a group of channels in Chennai. Unless I can provide a better alternative for Rs 75, people will not shift to DTH."

Though he refuses to share the details of his DTH plans, Sun Direct TV is estimated to have a budget of Rs 145 crore (Rs 1.45 billion) versus Star-Tata's DTH venture, which will cost Rs 1,600 crore (Rs 16 billion).

Will Rs 145 crore be sufficient and will he rope in a partner? "I hope to manage alone. My vision of DTH is different from that of Star and Zee. I cannot give details as I may lose my edge," he says.

But Maran's DTH venture faces the danger of losing its edge if the project is not cleared by the government. His DTH application has been pending with the I&B ministry for a while.

Though a senior ministry official says that the application is "going through the routine due diligence process," media industry sources suggest that the government has raised some issues on the equity structure of the DTH company.

Maran is unfazed by the delays. He has other ambitions too -- entering the newspaper industry. Sun already runs three Tamil magazines -- Kungumum, Mutharam and Vannathirai. The newspaper could be either an English or Tamil daily.

And instead of launching a new title, he is open to acquiring an existing brand.

Maran's interest in the Chennai print media market is understandable. The action is heating up with the entry of the Deccan Chronicle and the impending launch of The Times of India. The Hindu, the market leader, has undergone a complete revamp.

Tarkas believes that the Sun Network does seem to have the Midas touch. While it is by far the marker leader in Tamil Nadu, its Udaya TV {Rs 93 crore (Rs 930 million)} in Karnataka is also the number one channel in the state, having beaten ETV-Kanada {Rs 65 crore (Rs 650 million), as per Media Direction estimates}.

"Even Gemini TV in Andhra Pradesh makes about Rs 129 crore (Rs 1.29 billion)," adds Tarkas. There is no reason to doubt the future of many of its new strategies, he observes.

Still, some critics argue that Maran's political connections have made a significant contribution to Sun Network's success. Predictably, Maran dismisses this.

"My political connections had no bearing on Sun's success and the early days were tough. No advertisers were willing to take the risk of giving us advertisements when we launched in April 1993."

The company's cable business helped drive the business though. "Having a stranglehold in the MSO segment helped Sun," adds a TV industry expert.

However, Rajendhira Prasadh, executive director, Maa TV, the three year old Telugu channel, says: "I appreciate Sun Network's strategies and powerful positioning of its channels by providing good content. It makes it difficult for new entrants to make mark."

Tarkas says that Sun has acquired the best of content in every state. "The company is known for its exclusive tie ups with the best production houses. It has also bought out all the blockbuster films in Tamil Nadu. It has followed the same strategy in other markets as well. But this may not work in Bengal which does not have a culture of big budget films," he adds.

G V Vijay Kumar, media director, Initiative Media, the media buying house of Lowe India, too says that Sun Network's powerful basket of channels is matched by good content.

The mega serials of Sun TV quote the highest advertising rates -- Rs 22,000 to Rs 27,000 for 10 seconds. Besides, channels are not clubbed for advertisements on the Sun bouquet.

Adds Tarkas: "The network works on fixed card rates and offers no discounts." Confirms Jasmin Sorabji, president, MediaCom, South Asia: "Sun Network's advertising rates are inflexible as it delivers viewership numbers."

Smart strategies did help Sun TV break even within a year and a half, recalls Maran. The only official balance sheet that was available says that Sun TV's total turnover was Rs 224.43 crore (Rs 2.24 billion) on March 31, 2003.

The media industry offers other estimates -- while the group turnover from seven of its channels is about Rs 546 crore (Rs 5.46 billion), Sun TV alone makes about Rs 211 crore (Rs 2.11 billion).

But can Sun keep up the scorching pace of growth? And isn't Rs 546 crore (Rs 5.46 billion) small beer for the country's second largest broadcasting company, considering that the Star group makes about Rs 1,200 crore (Rs 12 billion) a year, followed by Sony at Rs 850 crore (Rs 8.5 billion)? That's the reason the company will have to look at inorganic growth since the Tamil Nadu market is saturated.

"That's the price the leader pays when there is no serious challenge. The lack of competition has resulted in slow growth in Tamil Nadu," remarks Tarkas.

A Star group source also adds that even the subscription revenue in the region is low. First, Sun TV is a free to air channel. Secondly, consumers do not pay more than Rs 125 for a bouquet of channels, he says.

But the company does not need to worry as long as Maran is at the helm of affairs. After all, he won the CNBC award for displaying extraordinary corporate leadership and entrepreneurship spirit in January this year and knows how to make hay while Sun shines.

Additional reporting by Pradeep Gooptu in Kolkata.

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