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Saturday, Dec 28, 2002

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Getting all SET to bat for HBO

Rina Chandran

Mr Rohit Gupta, Channel and Business Head, HBO.

CHENNAI, Dec. 27

THE New Year will herald several changes at Sony Entertainment Television (SET), including a hike in the monthly subscription fee for One Alliance - the joint venture distribution company of SET and Discovery Communications India (DCI) - and the start of distribution and ad sales activity for HBO, the English movie channel.

The network will continue look for other alliances, but with an eye on quality rather than quantity, said Mr Rohit Gupta, Executive Vice-President & Head - Sales & Revenue Management, and Channel & Business Head of HBO and AXN.

"We don't believe in quantity, or having a bouquet of 12-14 channels," Mr Gupta said. "It is better to have half the number of channels and still be able to do the same amount of business."

With HBO now, SET offers "a formidable platform from the perspective of the advertiser and the viewer," Mr Gupta said. "We felt that it was important to have an English movie channel to complement and strengthen our English side, and HBO fit into it." The HBO acquisition "did not happen by accident", he added. The channel, which was launched in 2000 and claims a reach of 15 million households in south Asia, has shown strong growth in terms of viewership. Besides, there is a trend toward niche channels, particularly English channels: "The quantity of ad spends in them is increasing, and there is clearly a huge audience for them," he said.

The One Alliance currently includes Sony, Max, AXN, CNBC, Discovery and Animal Planet; distribution of CNBC will move to Zee-Turner from April next year. SET has identified three core areas: mass entertainment Hindi, English and cricket. Any alliances will be linked to these existing structures, Mr Gupta said. To expand its market, the company has expressed an interest in aligning with a news channel, a music channel and, possibly, a kids' channel. While these would make sense from the distribution side - "it would complete our bouquet," Mr Gupta said - the network is moving slowly because of the small volumes in ad sales. "News is a high growth area, but revenues are small in music," Mr Gupta pointed out. And, any channel partner would have to fulfil the parameters of high quality and being on top of its respective genre. This way, even with the adoption of the Conditional Access System, SET cannot lose, as viewers will pick the most popular channels, anyway.

For HBO, besides a strong line-up of movies for 2003, SET plans to launch on-ground promotional activity to garner greater visibility for the brand and establish a closer connection with the viewer. SET has had considerable success with on-ground activity for AXN, particularly with the India edition of the reality series, "Who Dares Wins", Mr Gupta said.

There is no danger that HBO will take viewers away from AXN, because the two channels have distinct identities and attract different sets of viewers for different programming, Mr Gupta said. SET will also track viewing patterns to ensure that time slots are not mixed between the two. "We want on to build the two channels, not have them kill each other - so we will not crowd them," Mr Gupta said.

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