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Plenty of promise left in Indian TV industry: CASBAA’s Christopher Slaughter

In an interview, the CASBAA CEO gives some interesting insights on television in the era of digitisation and digital media, and also on issues such as distribution and carriage fees that have eluded a successful resolution so far

Shanta Saikia | Delhi | April 1, 2015

Christopher-Slaughter Christopher Slaughter

Christopher Slaughter has more than 25 years of experience in the Asia-Pacific broadcasting industry. He leads the Executive team responsible for representing the interests of 130 member companies of the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (CASBAA) across 18 Asian markets. Prior to CASBAA, Slaughter was Managing Director and Executive Producer at production company APV, Asia-Pacific Head of Consultancy at The Yankee Group, and Hong Kong and Shanghai Bureau Chief for CNBC Asia.

BestMediaInfo caught up with the CEO of CASBAA during his visit to New Delhi for the CASBAA India Forum 2015 last month, on March 23. Slaughter speaks at length on television in the era of digitisation and digital media, some issues such as distribution and carriage fees that have eluded a successful resolution so far, and the way ahead for the Indian television industry. Excerpts:

What are your key observations on the India television industry?

My first time dealing with the Indian pay TV industry was about 12-13 years ago and I never cease to be amazed by the pace at which this industry has developed. The growth in the industry, the increasing sophistication, the creativity and the sheer volume of the industry amazes me. That is a development that has taken in spite of all sorts of regulatory issues, in spite of all sorts of market issues. Despite many different setbacks and challenges, the industry has flourished, and I think that the entrepreneurship that this industry demonstrates is nothing short of inspiring.

12-13 years ago was when India witnessed the growth of a multiple channel market. Do you think the television industry has kept to the initial promise shown?

There is still a plenty of promise left; I don’t believe that by any stretch of the imagination that this industry is going to stop growing or stop developing. There is still a massive upside in the traditional pay TV industry. There is still potential for more channels, more niche channels, a broader range of channels, definitely local language channels. The Indian market is big enough to still take in even more growth and for those entering the market to be successful, or for existing players in the market to further refine their strategy and offerings to appease consumer demand. It is all because there is demand and there is untapped market.

For me, the great area of interest, of course, is in the digital side and I confess that as we set about developing the programme for this event, though we included certainly people from the new media, the new business models, the digital side of our business, we didn’t quite expect the currency of conversation to be so digital and it is clearly front and centre on the agenda for our industry.

Today, we see the proliferation of multiple screens and content being consumed across screens, now we also have an app like Hotstar from Star. So how relevant do you think television will continue to be in times to come?

Massively relevant! When you say television, I hear many different things, but what I hear principally is the business model, that is, the linear distribution of channels, of appointment viewing just like in a stream. Turn on your TV set, you watch the TV, you change the channel – that’s what I hear you say. It doesn’t go away. Television is still a big business, it’s still an absolutely viable business, it is still going to be most of the way content is consumed, certainly in the medium term, but I think what is interesting is what else will be made available in addition to the linear stream. So, I don’t see television have a dark or dim future at all.

But I do think there is an interesting development of new businesses that are sort of tangential to the linear business that support them and provide alternative ways of engaging content. That’s the challenge that we face as an industry. The main business that we got is still big business, but consumers want more. So, we as an industry need to make sure that we are providing our audiences with what they want and what they want is to be able to engage with their content on different screens in a different way, different times that they have scheduled for and whatever environment that they would be in. We just have to be customer responsive. This is like Business School 101 – give your customers what they want. That’s the challenge for us as an industry, and I don’t think it is a terribly difficult one. We just have to be creative in our business models and understand the investment and the environment that we have to work in.

Raghav Bahl had mentioned that television screen probably would be used for what he termed as ‘big scale community viewing’, while on an individual scale people would probably consume content on maybe a mobile screen. What kind of challenges do you think it poses the content creators, on the one hand, and broadcasters, on the other hand, to cater to that wide spectrum of audience viewing?

The demise of television as a destination for viewing has been predicted for a long time, and yet we have a new golden age of television, where some of the best content internationally – not just specifically the Indian market – is available on television. Raghav is a brilliant guy and very visionary; I think in this particular case, he is probably talking a lot more long-term. That’s one scenario in the future that might be there, but in the meantime, there still plenty of demand for television.

For content creators, they have new opportunities. They can continue to produce big budget productions for television that still demands content – 800 channels, 24 hours, seven-days-a-week television – that requires a huge amount of content! It’s tens of thousands of content required in a year to feed that machine. Now there are more opportunities, you can do it in a six-minute version or a four-minute version, you can do it in seven-second Vine – there are so many different ways in which you can engage customers. And, at the same time, by the way, you can take that 30-minute or 60-minute TV programme and pour it over the digital world in a different way as well. So, there is no single future outcome, I think.

As a broadcaster, my challenge is to pick the best content that fits with my audience to maintain customer loyalty and continue to have them watch my programmes, and as a creator, I now have a bewildering array of different avenues that I can funnel my creativity and there is no limitation to what format I can create stuff on. I think it is intensely liberating for content creators, even if it is a bit confusing for everyone, quite frankly.

800 channels and still counting – but to take those many number of channels to the viewers distribution has always been a huge issue. What do you think are the key challenges in the current digitisation as well as digital media scenario that broadcasters face when it comes to distribution?

Distribution is about the deployment of technology – we are talking about something as simple as a spool of co-axial cable and a set top box. We are taking about a fibre network, 4G LTE broadband wireless service. You have to have the technology and technology costs money. The challenge with distribution is how you make the investment to ensure that you have a return on that investment that is a viable business model so that you can fill your network with content. So, the challenge with distribution is how do you fund it? In some cases we have some very wealthy companies who are sitting on the resources, in other cases there is a fund shortage. Then there are cases where even if you have the network, you don’t have the power for more than 2-3 hours a day. These are all challenges. The opportunity is for somebody to figure it out and somebody to get it right. Who that will be I do not know, I am not in the business of picking winners like that.

We have definitely identified that the biggest challenge is developing distribution. It’s another reason why DTH has become so popular so quickly is because the deployment of technology is much easier – you just have to get a dish and the set top box. That’s why it has become a very cost effective solution and why so many millions of people are subscribing to it.

With the adoption of digitisation, there were hopes that the carriage fee issue would be more streamlined, but it still continues to be a contentious issue. Do you see a breakthrough solution being arrived at anytime soon?

Based on the discussions in the industry, I think the issue is likely to remain for a while. There is always a challenge about where is the value and as long as you have different points of view about where that value is you will have disagreements – is the value in providing the networks, is the value in the content provided. That’s why they call them negotiations! There is no market in the world where there is unanimity about where the value resides; in every market this is a discussion that goes on.

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