Murdoch gazes into Space for his new India venture

Net still waiting for government greenlight

NEW DELHI — Media mogul Rupert Murdoch was back in India last week pushing Star TV’s planned Rs16 billion ($35 million) Space TV satellite venture.

When Murdoch was last in India five years ago, his Star network was trailing in third place in the satellite and cable TV audience stakes behind satcasters Zee and Sony Entertainment Television (SET).

Thanks largely to Star’s highly successful Hindi version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (Kaun banega crorepati) hosted by Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, it’s become the most powerful broadcaster in India after state-run pubcaster Doordarshan.

Now he wants to extend that power via Space TV, a co-venture in which Indian corporate giant Tata, which has interests in steel, automobiles and other industries, will have an 80% stake to allay the government’s fears about foreign media ownership.

Space TV has been awaiting a government greenlight for almost a year.

Murdoch flew into Mumbai from China on March 19 and spent the weekend in meetings with key Star execs before heading on March 21 to New Delhi, where he met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Broadcasting Minister Jaipal Reddy.

But he did not get the news on Space TV that he was hoping for. “The government is still seeking clarification on some aspects of the deal,” says a person in the know.

However, Murdoch was in bullish mood in his only interview during his five-day visit — with, of course, his Star News channel.

“India is slow to accept the idea of foreign investment; I think it’s changing,” Murdoch said “It’s always very complicated here. There is a lot of bureaucracy, the rules change from time to time, but we have to step into it. Media is changing all over the world, and in a country like India it is a great and huge opportunity.”

The facts in this country of 1.3 billion people, he added, speak for themselves: “In India, TV sets are only in half the homes. So with full electrification, higher education, better standard of living, all of which are coming fast, the television market will at least double in this country.”

Murdoch’s view is backed by a report out last week from Swiss-based global researcher KPMG. It estimates that India’s burgeoning entertainment industry is set to grow by 18% each year to more than $13 billion in revenue by 2010.

TV will be the main growth driver, accounting for 62% of revenues.

But while Murdoch will have to wait a bit longer for Space TV, he also has his eyes set on the lucrative southern Indian TV market, dominated by Sun TV and the Maran family, which has major media ventures including cable, broadcasting and print.

His problem? Whether to cozy up to Sun TV or go it alone.

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