Features, Film

The Uber Storyteller

Sudhanshu Vats, group CEO, Viacom18, believes that in the new-age, content will be king, while context will emerge as the queen

By Vinita Bhatia

When Sudhanshu Vats, Group CEO, Viacom18 talks about his company, his passion for three things stands out – technology, content and people, though not necessarily in that order. The technology part is understandable, equipped as he is with a B Tech degree and a PGDM from Ahmedabad’s Indian Institute of Management.
To understand the content bit, you have to step back to 2012, when he joined Viacom18 and initiated the acquisition of ETV’s regional channels and launched Nick Jr, Nickelodeon’s kids channel for 4 to 12 year olds. A year later, Viacom18 turned profitable, recording PAT for the first time as a network.
Believing that talent is at the core of the company’s business, Vats has encouraged various initiatives at Viacom18 over the past five years. He wants to drive synergies to harness Viacom18’s 1500-strong talent pool and has started an ongoing transformation programme called Evolve, so that the organisation can keep getting better at what they are. Want an example about its open work culture? Try this. When Viacom18 was considering a name for its OTT platform 18 months ago, employees were encouraged to recommend names and one of their suggestions was chosen as the title – VOOT!
So, how does Vats juggle so many balls in the air while walking a tightrope? Well, try another one for measure – he also happens to be a fervent marathon runner!
Here is how one can sum up Vats – a methodical, analytical, yet soft-spoken, person, who works hard at being successful. He believes that being successful takes a lot of hard work and planning, something that is reflected in the way he has managed to make Viacom18 grow since taking charge.

Down memory lane
A decade and counting, Viacom18 has gone from a single music channel brand, MTV India, to operating 44 channels. Today, it is present in 80 countries catering to the needs over 500 million viewers. What’s more, it has diversified into five business lines – broadcast, films, digital, live and merchandising. And, to spice things up a little, it entered into the F&B business by launching the first ever MTV themed café in the world, FLYP@MTV.
Through this all, Viacom18 has managed to tick off the right points on the growth chart, growing from INR 80 crore in FY 2007-2008 to INR 3100 in 2016-2017, registering an admirable 40x growth.
After Viacom18 Media was founded in November 2007 as a joint venture between US-based Viacom Inc and Mumbai-based Network18 Group, it launched Colors in July 2008. “Within nine months of the launch, the channel ranked #3 on first ratings post-debut and subsequently we went international with the launch of Colors in the US, where the channel is called ‘Aapka Colors’,” Vats said. Broadcasting remains the company’s mainstay, with presence in four key genres – general entertainment with Colors, Rishtey and Cineplex – youth music, English entertainment, kids entertainment and regional entertainment. After the ETV acquisition in 2012, the five regional channels were subsequently rebranded to Colors, which further bolstered the GEC cluster.

MOVIE MAGIC
In 2010, the company acquired Studio18, which was later renamed to Viacom18 Motion Pictures in 2011. Vats proudly called this the most successful studio in the country because they not only do critically acclaimed films but those that are commercially successful as well; a tough proposition at best. These include critically acclaimed films like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Queen, Margarita With A Straw and Gangs of Wasseypur.
“When it comes to films, we push the envelope, want to expand the box and operate on the edge of the box,” said Vats. “We want to be a little ahead of the times; and it is important to be just a little ahead. You can’t be too ahead, because it is very difficult for the audience to comprehend your content, and you can’t be too behind, because then your content is not new. We are, therefore, in the business of creating tomorrow.”
Additionally, Viacom18 has a movie distribution partnership with Paramount Pictures. It has also collaborated with the Hollywood studio, Lionsgate, for marketing and distribution of five movies, beginning with the Deepwater Horizon, followed by the award-winning La La Land last year.

LET’S GO DIGITAL

In 2016, Viacom18 launched its digital business, VOOT, and Vats is delighted that within 18 months the OTT platform has 50 million downloads, and 30 million monthly active users. “More importantly, it has about 50 minutes plus watch time per user per day, which makes it the number one premium content streaming service in terms of watch time in the country,” he happily added.
To innovate, Vats believes that it is important for a media house to stay fearless and have a child-like curiosity. “We need to have the ability to try different things and take risks, which is something we do all the time. We need to listen keenly to the new world because things are changing very fast,” he stated.
Taking off from some deep listening on what the audience required, earlier this year, Viacom18’s digital arm worked with Google to create VOOT Lite, which is a Progressive Web App (PWA) product. This allows for offline page caching functionality, fast loading, responsive interface, and push notifications. This is particular useful for users who access the service on 2G or 3G networks or in areas with slow connectivity.

COLOURING OUTSIDE THE lines
In 2013, Viacom18 introduced Integrated Network Solutions (INS) with a simple premise, to work across the network’s properties/brands and offer customised brand solutions by creating large format IPs and brand solutions for clients. Later, it was further divided into Live Viacom18 and BE Viacom18, where the former’s mandate was to create live properties in music and entertainment for English, youth, kids and regional clusters. The latter worked majorly on building broadcast properties on Viacom18 Network leveraging all its media assets including Viacom18 Motion Pictures and deliver clients and brands partnerships and solutions on a strategic level. The live experiential entertainment business struck gold with the creation of IPs like MTV Video Music Awards India and Vh1 Supersonic.
An inquisitive urge of wanting to expand the business boundaries led Vats to develop the merchandising market that the company had started in 2006. Over the years, the kids’ consumer products portfolio, comprising over 50 categories, has launched more than 10000 SKUs in popular characters like Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob SquarePants, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Motu Patlu and Ninja Hattori, touching more than 15,000 retail outlets all over the country. It has also created several co-branded products under MTV, including clothing, sound systems and sunglasses.
And then there is FLYP@MTV Café, a food and beverage destination that was started in 2015 at New Delhi, so that the target audience could experience every aspect of MTV in all its glory. 18 months since its debuted, the outlet has reached break-even point. A Mumbai outpost was added to the portfolio a month ago, with another outlet in Chandigarh on the anvil. “We will soon open at 10 cities shortly and you can see that we have gone from selling soaps to selling soups!” Vats laughed.

THE ROAD AHEAD
Constantly questioning how to become not just the most successful, but also the most admired, media and entertainment company, Vats believes the answer lies in continuously coming up with entertaining and engaging content. “Good business administration is the right balance of respect and love; and respect comes out of performance. For me, performance should be measured in hard numbers; be it ratings, downloads or views,” he noted. And love comes from the culture prevalent in the organisation, and how people within engage with each other, and outside with the community at large.
Admitting there is no secret sauce to success that one is privy to, Vats said that an agile company should plan ahead for the future. For Viacom18, it begins with sharper segmentation, capturing white spaces in the business, followed by going digital and building a holistic ecosystem that encompasses all entities the company has built so far.
When it comes to shaper segmentation, Viacom18 has done a psychographic and demographic segmentation of its kids portfolio, which is Nick Sonic, Nick Jr. and even Nick HD Plus. In English, it has segmented the portfolio with Vh1, Comedy Central and Colors Infinity. In regional content, the company is pushing for localisation, and has strengthened its leadership in the Kannada language with Colors Super.
In the fickle Bollywood domain, Viacom18 has backed personality-backed stories like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Mary Kom, Manjhi -The Mountain Man and even the controversial Padmavati, besides pushing for movies with innovative concepts like Special Chabbis, Oh My God. “I believe that the 1.3 billion people in India are distinct clusters and you have to identify these clusters and adapt to their needs and create content that cater to their requirements,” Vats pointed out.
To continue doing this, Viacom18 will invest in creating new IPs across important genres and experimenting with newer concepts and formats. This includes expanding into regional cinema and creating more original content for VOOT.
Viacom18 is also working with Maharashtra State Transportation Department to provide VOOT Go, where travellers can enjoy the streaming service on their digital devices without having net connectivity. “We also plan to here exclusive content on VOOT behind paywall and roll out a subscription offering by mid 2018. Additionally, we hope to take our OTT platform international and will continue to strengthen our technology backend analytics capability as we do so,” he informed.
Everything that Viacom18 has – from digital, experiential, gaming, merchandising, etc – is underpinned by broadcasting and films, which is the company’s bedrock. Vats underline that all of this is built around content and talent. “We are storytellers and if I were to sum up our role, it would be taking the story to the right audience and every audience to its story,” he said. As long as he can tell good stories, he will always be in business.
And looking at the content pipeline that Viacom18 has lined up for 2018, it looks like the company is in for some roaring business!

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