If Man Jit Singh, the chief executive officer of Multi Screen Media Pvt. Ltd (MSML), is thrilled about the performance of Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) 4 that has helped his flagship channel Sony Entertainment Television (SET) garner ratings, he doesn’t show it. But that’s typical Singh, understated and overcautious, a complete contrast to Kunal Dasgupta, his flashy predecessor who was at the helm of Sony’s broadcasting business in India for nearly 15 years.
Dressed in khaki trousers and a simple shirt—the designer label, if any, wasn’t visible—Singh is admiring the renovated Jawaharlal Nehru stadium through the XXL glass windows of the Taj Chambers at New Delhi’s The Taj Mahal Hotel, when I walk in to meet him. Although he lives in Mumbai, his affection for Delhi, where he grew up and went to St Stephen’s College and the Delhi School of Economics, is palpable. “Hum Dilliwale hain (I am a Delhiite),” he says as he settles down to chat about his India journey in the past 18 months after he shifted from Los Angeles (LA), California, to steer the floundering media business of Sony in India.
Instead of coffee and cookies, Singh prefers to soothe his irritated throat with a glass of warm water. “When I took over, we were at a low point. We have, since, clarified our strategy, doubled our ratings on SET and tripled them on SAB (the Hindi comedy channel).” However, SET’s serials need to “perform better” and the channel must move to the top slot in “profitability”, says Singh who oversees the operations of MSML, a subsidiary of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., which runs AXN, SET Pix and SET Max, among others.
In the first couple of weeks of KBC 4’s launch on 11 October, SET briefly pushed Zee to the No. 4 slot in rankings according to gross rating points. Clearly, 53-year-old Singh, entrusted with the task of turning around MSML in three years, is taking his job seriously. For someone new to India’s television industry, he’s already recognized as a responsible CEO leading an organization that was mired in corruption and controversies.
Chameleon: Singh believes a goodconsultant has theability to learn a new business every three months. Jayachandran/Mint
Asked to compare Singh with his predecessor, Sunil Lulla, the CEO and managing director of Times Global Broadcasting and a former Sony employee, says, Singh is not “flamboyant” and “actually goes to work. He has created a culture of openness at Sony. The employees are confident”. Several other top executives at rival media companies share Lulla’s view.
Clearly, Singh’s turnaround strategy comprises more than a financial makeover. “We were hierarchical. We’ve stripped some layers and built a flat structure. People have been empowered and encouraged to innovate and take risks,” he says.
Part of Singh’s efforts have gone into creating a transparent organization where the deals to buy films or television content are above board. Singh says MSML follows the highest standards of governance and has set the tone from the top. “All of us are constantly in the market, so we know what is going on. Since we are all involved, there isn’t an opportunity any more for anybody,” he says.
The programming costs have also been pared and the focus has shifted from expensive reality shows to fiction. However, the channel’s tryst with soaps, such as Mahi Way, Seven, among others, from the first-time television producer Yash Raj Films (YRF) didn’t exactly set the small screen on fire. But such failures do not rattle Singh. He believes SET has the best content team in the industry today that offers shows that are contemporary, optimistic and relatable. “With the YRF shows, we were a bit ahead of our audiences. We have taken a step back although our storytelling will not change,” he says. Season 2 of YRF shows will begin in December.
MSML is a privately held company and Singh declines to share revenue figures. However, last year was the most profitable for the broadcaster, he claims, adding its distribution collection (subscription revenue) also improved because of the Indian Premier League (IPL). According to estimates of an independent advertising sales agency in the broadcasting sector, MSML revenues are close to Rs 1,000 crore.
Singh’s current mandate to his team is explicit: Create the industry’s most profitable broadcasting network. His fondness for numbers comes from his invaluable work experience in the US that he wears lightly on his sleeve.
An entrepreneur and a management consultant for most part of his life in LA, he was principal at Diogenes Capital, Llc, a private equity fund, before joining as chairman of the board of Multi Screen Media Pvt. Ltd in 2007. He shuttled between LA and Mumbai for two years before being appointed the company’s interim CEO in February 2009 and a full-time chief executive in September the same year.
The closest he came to handling media before joining MSML was in the Internet space. He founded and sold a couple of online ventures: Futurestep, in the employment space, and Compete, a predictive analytics company that tracks consumer behaviour online.
An alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad, Singh knows that consulting requires one to learn a new business every three months. “I viewed this (MSML) would be similar. I came in as a business guy not as a television expert,” he says. Today he is clued into the concepts of all the programmes that are aired on his channels “because this (content) is the single most important thing that we do”.
He is also a great believer in market research. Concepts for all content are not only heard but also tried out in focus groups. Later, test pilots are produced. “You can bring more science into this art form,” he is convinced.
But didn’t television work on gut feel all these years? “Mine is bad, so no point using it,” he says laughing, adding that for the last five years the gut feel at Sony wasn’t good. But “feel” is still important. “You usually will not be able to use market research to get a winning formula but it can keep you away from some horrible failures,” says Singh.
The channel will continue to invest in big movies considering it pioneered the concept, creating big film and cricket properties. But wrapped up in controversies as it is, its cricket property IPL may take a hit. Singh doesn’t think so— IPL is too big, at this stage, to be affected by anything.
When the lights come on in the stadium and the best cricketers in the world walk on to the field, everything is forgotten, Singh says. But isn’t MSML’s own facilitation fee deal with World Sport Group (WSG) for IPL telecast rights currently under the scanner? The matter is sub-judice and Singh says, “We are clear what happened, what we did and why did it. There are no issues from our side.”
What Singh is currently focused on is expansion. The existing network is incredibly powerful and indispensable for advertisers, he says. But since the advertising dollars are shifting to regional channels as more viewers tune into them, the broadcaster is eyeing a slew of acquisitions in this space, says Singh without divulging the possible targets.
The expansion will be funded internally and Singh dismisses all prior reports on plans for an initial public offer. “We are and will continue to be funded by our shareholders,” says Singh. Sony Corp.’s Sony Pictures holds 62% equity in MSML with 32% being held by the Indian shareholders. The remaining 6% rests with institutional investors.
Although a quiet haven at most times, Taj Chambers is now filling up and Singh, too, has to fly back to Mumbai from where he will launch into one of his frequent tier II and tier III town tours to understand the non-metro television viewers.
Before taking leave, I ask what struck me as unusual in the first place. He spent almost three decades in the US and there’s no influence in his speech or accent that reflects the fact. Why? “Oh, please. I can pass on the opportunity, thank you,” he smiles. “In any case, LA has flat accents, besides, if they thought I had a funny accent, it never bothered me.” He looks happy to be back and claims the vibrancy of India gives him no time to miss the US. “India today is the most exciting business environment in the world. I cannot think of a better place to be in than Bombay in the entertainment business,” announces Singh cheerfully.
What he really longs for though is a bit more time for himself to play bridge—either on the computer or with his friends. “Any turnaround is intensive. You go into office early and finish late,” he says. Actually, even at home, where he lives with his wife as the daughter stayed back in the US, his eyes are glued to the television screen, intently watching the rival channels.
People in the media industry who know Dasgupta say that the former CEO will be remembered for his initial contribution to Sony Entertainment Television Pvt. Ltd, as MSML was formerly known. “However, he could not hold the organization together and lost the plot,” says a friend of Dasgupta’s, who has been part of the industry for close to 18 years, and did not wish to be identified.
Man Jit Singh is quietly rewriting that plot.