Turning on a dime in the Indian Entertainment Industry with its tenacious leader – The story of Sony Pictures Networks India
Mumbai, the hub of India’s entertainment industry is home to almost all major film and television studios, playing host to illustrious events, celebrities and most importantly, the entertainment business. With the dynamic nature of the business, the people working behind the scenes know how to overcome hurdles and present solutions. We definitely won’t see their names on the movie/show marquees or listen to their acceptance speech at award functions, but without these brilliant minds at work in the industry, the face of entertainment would be quite different. They are a special breed of innovators and visionaries, those who think beyond what has been done before, break the status quo and challenge norms. So, where can one actually find them?
For people like me, books, podcasts, and a few conferences become the only platforms when it comes to being enlightened by these successful leaders. What if someone from the ‘success battalion’ speaks his heart out to you? It becomes a unique opportunity to gain valuable insight and to seek important work and life lessons. In the fast-paced city that never sleeps and is filled with millions of dreams, a man is captaining the ship of a film production division, multiple television channels across movies, sports and entertainment genres, a burgeoning digital business, in a calm and measured composure from the fifth floor of a building at Mindspace in Malad, Mumbai, the home of India’s entertainment; that of Sony Pictures Networks India (SPN).
A confluence of simplicity, fairness and the universal mind, he is none other than Mr. N.P. Singh. An alumnus of the Delhi School of Economics, where he completed his Master’s Program and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Commerce from the University of Delhi. A rank holder of The Institute of Cost Accountants of India, Mr. Singh is an earnest Indophile with a special interest in Indian cuisine, music and movies. Media was never on the cards for this fine gentleman; his journey sailed through the spheres of technology, telecom and engineering but it’s all destiny. From his first stint at Modi Xerox Ltd as a finance professional to chair as the Managing Director and CEO of Sony Pictures Networks India (SPN), the man has been on a mission ever since. Today, almost 38 years later, he sits at the helm of a company that is leading the Indian entertainment industry. Our whirlwind chat covered a lot – his struggles and what makes him the powerhouse of determination and vision, alike. An articulate session as this with him, left me wondering about the number of questions he must have faced in interviews like these or maybe, in life.
Fulfilling the life-long commitment of SPN towards the Indian audience: Mr Singh’s approach
- SPN has always led the industry on its own terms. What differentiates it from other M&E companies in India?
Sony Pictures Networks India (SPN) always strives to have a future forward outlook towards entertainment. What sets us apart from other networks is our drive to gauge consumer entertainment needs and fulfil them. With our corporate philosophy, Go-Beyond, compelling us to boldly challenge the status quo, we encourage our teams to take calculated risks and foster a culture of innovation and passion to help employees work on pioneering initiatives. Viewers are at the heart of everything we do at SPN.
- What changes if any have programmes from SPN brought in the Indian society?
For content to be successful, inspirational or aspirational, it needs to connect with the audience. We put in a lot of time and effort in understanding the pulse of our viewers which has helped us create captivating shows and characters, all geared towards engaging and entertaining our viewers.
The brand essence of Sony Entertainment Television(SET) is ‘progressive relationships’. We believe that when partnerships become relationships, the society achieves progress and happiness. This is something that we try and project through our content palette.
Sony SAB’s brand philosophy ‘KhushiyonWali Feeling’stands for a larger purpose in life, that of making people happy by bringing unforgettable moments and infinite experiences that lift the hearts and free the minds of the viewers.
- You have an uncanny ability to gauge the pulse of the industry and foresee the road ahead. We have seen SPN pioneer many industry initiatives. How do you do that?
Our corporate philosophy encourages us to be brave, curious, insightful and visionary in everything we do. It takes leaders to go that extra mile at every step of the game because leaders just don’t prepare for the future, they create it. We aim to stay true to the philosophy, be it in the effort to produce or upscale content, expand into new genres, escalate the digital game or become aggressive in sports.
- I read somewhere that Entertainment, Digital and Sports are the key focus areas for SPN. Could you tell us a little more on your game-plan for SPN pertaining to these focus areas?
Our growth drivers are general entertainment, digital and sports. In all three areas, we have made significant investments and are seeing positive returns. We will continue to support these, going forward.
- Your General Entertainment Channels (GEC’s) Sony Entertainment Television (SET) and Sony SAB are doing very well in the genre. With cult shows such as KBC, Super Dancer, Kapil Sharma, Indian Idol, Taarak, Tenali Raman, the two are in the Top 5 channels in terms of ratings. How does it feel to have both your channels be up there?
We are delighted to see our efforts translating into success where both our brands are concerned. SET is No.1 and Sony SAB is at No.3 with SPN having a 36% market share in Hindi speaking markets (HSM). It is indeed a great place to be in and we hope to only get better and better.
Over a period, SET has been able to stay relevant to the audiences by evolving with their consumption patterns and offering a differentiated content palette making it one-stop family entertainment destination amongst metros and large towns.
Furthermore, SET deploys sharper targeting to reach out to the affluent/premium audience with a progressive mindset. Having identified the right audience it becomes much easier to cater to what they want to watch. SET has been able to establish relatable characters, offer differentiated, impactful and relatable urban stories and continues to do so by staying true to its audience and creating content in a much real space. Furthermore, catering to the millennial audience, SET has revolutionized the way content is consumed by introducing the second screen engagement.
For Sony SAB, our aim is to get customers to look at it as ‘a brand with a heart’. And for that, the key is to be a meaningful brand with a strong emotional connect. Given the fact that TV is a family viewing tradition, Sony SAB offers content for every member in the family. While we have content like Taarak Mehta ka OoltahChashmah and Bhakharwadi which appeal to the entire family, shows like Baalveer Returns, Aladdin: Naam TohSunaHoga and JijajiChhat Per Hai clearly have a younger audience appeal. On the other hand, a programme like Tenali Rama appeals even to children. So, for us, our audience mix is very beautifully balanced, and we intend to keep this balance intact. Meaningful content will always find a place in viewers’ lives and we are confident we will continue to grow our viewership base.
- . Sports is one of the key focus areas for SPN. Could you tell us a little more on your game-plan for SPSN? How do you plan to stay ahead of your competitors?
The sports cluster of Sony Pictures Networks India is a global multi-sporting arena and besides cricket, our sports bouquet also consists of football, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and NBA to name a few.
Besides, we have the rights to eight cricket boards, and the best of international football with rights to broadcast over 700 football matches this season. We are taking rapid strides in our endeavour and commitment to bring the best of multi-sporting events to our Indian viewers, we have acquired the broadcast rights for the upcoming Olympic Games, which is considered one of the biggest multi-sport events in the world.
- . Your film studio SPN Productions has had recent success with its films Piku, Soorma, Mubarakan and Poster Boys. What’s next in the pipeline?
A lot of these successes that you have mentioned come with a lot of patience, hard work and instinct to select the correct script. I have always believed that it is the story/script that is the king. Going forward, for our 2020 release slate, we will be following the same philosophy and we are developing some movies across genres. All of them will be announced in a timely manner and we aim to engage and connect with the audiences through various subjects.
- . You recently launched a content wing called Studio Next. Could you tell us a bit more about SPN’s plans on content creation?
Leveraging the demand for high quality content in the TV broadcasting as well as digital space, we launched Studio Next, since it focuses on creating original content for both linear TV and digital media. To bridge the gap that exists in the Indian as well as global markets, our content division will leverage original IPs owned by Sony Pictures Networks (SPN) and produce them in other languages both in India and beyond. As far as the content strategy is concerned, we understand our audience and hence we will create content across genres. We aim to collaborate with the best of talent in the industry and create a fair and sustainable working model with them.
- It’s been a year since you launched a Marathi GEC – Sony Marathi. How is the channel performing?
We have seen growth despite challenges in the genre. We set out to carve a niche for ourselves as a premium channel and rightly so, we have managed to be amongst the top five players in the category. Our content which is aspirational in nature, has a progressive and universal appeal and caters to both the young and the old. We intend to stay true to our content philosophy of VinuyaAtutNati (weaving unbreakable bonds) with our viewers.
- What are your plans of foraying into the regional space in other languages besides Sony AATH in Bengali and Sony Marathi in Marathi?
We want to expand our footprint across other regional markets. Currently, there are other markets that are of interest on our radar and we take them one at a time. It is premature for me to comment on which languages, but we definitely do have plans to get into other markets as well.
- We hear that you are a huge Hindi music aficionado with a huge collection of music. Tell us about your music business, Sony MIX.
Mix is a channel, with its musical soul in the right place. It is the only channel in the genre to play music from the last 5 decades and also the first channel to play music as per ‘Mood Play Out’ depending on the time of the day. What sets MIX truly apart is also the fact that it’s a channel which plays music for everyone in the family and is not just youth focused like every other channel in the music genre.
- The OTT space is getting cluttered and aggressive by the day. What are your plans for your OTT platform SonyLIV to stay ahead of the game?
On SonyLIV, we are investing heavily both in and content and technology, so as to provide our viewers an unparalleled viewing experience, be it in sports or general entertainment. We have a slew of content on our platform ranging from originals, short films, sports, movies, catch up content amongst others. We have recently forayed into the online gaming space which is the first of its kind in the Indian OTT arena. We are focusing a lot on language content. Niche is the way to go on OTT because more and more consumption is going to happen in multilingual content. Each of these local languages are representative of very large language communities and each of these communities are a business by itself. We want to look at these as independent categories and we want to build content for each of these markets.
- In an ever dynamic and constantly evolving industry how does one stay relevant?
In the media and entertainment space, the migration of viewers towards digital platforms, coupled with a rise in smartphones usage and the low cost of data has changed the face of the industry. It has become imperative for broadcasters to pulse check their viewers and reach out to them more innovatively. Audiences today want access to the latest content as quickly as possible. Broadcasters must facilitate a deeper engagement with content to offer a carefully crafted omni screen experience.
- What is SPN’s corporate culture?
We believe in creating an inclusive work environment that promotes equity and equal opportunities. At SPN, we place key emphasis on values which foster an environment of transparency and empowerment. Three years in a row, we have been ranked as one of the country’s Top 100 Best Companies for women to work. We have also won the AON India Best Employers 2017 and Top 10 Companies in India for Best Health & Wellness Practices 2017 for four consecutive years.
- We’ve seen SPN do quite its bit with CSR. Have read about your various initiatives under the theme Ek India Happywala? Could you delve a little more into SPN’s CSR initiatives and your thoughts on SPN doing its bit as a corporate for humanity and the planet?
At SPN we try to imbibe the spirit of Ek India Happywala and under its aegis run our CSR programme. Ek India Happywala focuses on creating a positive impact in our ecosystem and is built around three pillars: empowerment, education and environment. We interweave education with music and sports to empower various segments of society, whilst at the same time focusing on protecting our planet’s environment cover.
As corporate leaders, we are the torchbearers of positive change and have an opportunity and responsibility to put that influence to the larger good of the planet through our purpose driven actions.
- The entertainment landscape is evolving to a great extent, could you highlight a few trends you foresee.
Technology will be the underlying factor catalyzing innovation and growth opportunities. It is imperative to engage with your viewers beyond television and digital screens to ensure brand affinity. Artificial intelligence and content collaboration are the driving forces for the next phase of the entertainment landscape.
- People in the industry say that Mr. Singh remembers every employee’s name. How do you manage that?
In my opinion, remembering your colleagues and employees who help you build the organization is important. It is not only a sign of respect, but it also makes them feel valued in the company. The virtue of spending over twenty years in the organization across various business verticals also works in my favour.
- In this dynamic business and industry, what do you do to deal with work stress? What is your stress buster?
I strongly believe that stress will get to you only if you let it. As you climb the growth ladder, there may be situations wherein stress becomes inevitable, however in such situations it is important to stay calm and be mindful. For me, I follow the age-old technique of identifying the stress-triggers and mapping out corrective steps accordingly. Spending time with family acts as a great stress buster. Apart from that, watching a good movie and indulging in good music are my ways to get-past the stress.
- You have been a steering factor SPN for two decades. If you were to reflect on this period of your life, what would be your most satisfying / cherished memories? What were your 3 learnings from this period of life?
While it is difficult to pick three learnings in a journey, which has been full of varied experiences, but had to list down three, I would highlight the following –
Embrace change – When you’re functioning in an ever-changing environment, it is important to be adaptive to change and direct the business accordingly. When you’re leading a certain task, the decision you take might be risky, but never let risk become fear.
‘Listen’, don’t just ‘hear’ – Unless you listen carefully, you can’t give people right direction—you will say something, and they will take it as the gospel truth and go ahead and do it. Hence, as I always say, it is important to listen and not only hear.
Give equal attention to smaller details – I strongly believe it is important to pay attention to details, as it is the small steps, which pave the way to achieve the ultimate goal. And as Charles R. Swindoll quotes, “The difference between something good and something great is ‘attention to detail’.”
- Some consider it to be their responsibility to give back to the community and it goes much deeper than that. How can one be a medium of change through media?
All of us are equally responsible to take care of our surroundings and prioritize conservation of the environment. Apart from doing their part to preserve the environment, through leveraging our voice across media channels and taking purpose driven actions, we are capable of building a better tomorrow. I believe that visual storytelling is a powerful tool to inspire social change. To support this, we at Sony run a short-film competition called ‘Picture This’ for emerging filmmakers, everyday storytellers and changemakers worldwide, to showcase the positive future they see for our planet and heighten social consciousness. We have also run various public service announcements for the Maharashtra, Kerala and Orissa floods, Women’s Day campaigns and Swachch Bharat Abhiyan to name a few.
- It’s always tough to manage a huge and dynamic businesses. Give one piece of advice to budding /aspiring CEO’s.
When you are at the topmost role in an organization, the success of the organization is a result of your decisions. While strategy is a key aspect, you must work towards your organization’s overall health. Put people at the heart of the company strategy and success will follow – after all it’s the people who make the difference. When your people are happy, it will be easier to align the vision and work towards achieving business goals.