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Q&A with Ronnie Screwvala

Ronnie (Rohinton) Screwvala, 54 is one of the pioneers of Indian cable television. He began small, providing a few hours of movies via cable to an apartment block in Mumbai in 1981. In 1990, he founded UTV and produced one of India’s first reality television shows, “Saanp Seedi” (1992), and the long-running soap “Shanti” (1994).

Twenty years later, UTV is a global media conglomerate, with a significant presence across broadcasting, television content, gaming, motion pictures and new media, aiming to reach $500 million in revenue by 2011 under Screwvala’s stewardship. In 2008, he was ranked 35th in Esquire’s list of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century, and in 2009’s Time 100, the magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world, he was ranked 78th. Here he talks to Naman Ramachandran of Variety about the philosophy behind the growth of UTV and its plans for the future.

Did UTV have big plans for the future when you started out?

I think the answer is sort of half yes and half no. The half-no part is, when we started (in 1981, a decade prior to UTV’s formation), India was pretty much a country where there wasn’t even the concept of a remote for a television set. Ten years later, after 1991, there was only one single terrestrial channel in the country (pubcaster Doordarshan), and overall the other aspects of the content business were very miniscule. So no, one didn’t have very big plans.

But the yes part is that clearly, from day one, when the company was incorporated, we felt that we wanted to be in all aspects of content and that we would grow substantially and exponentially on all fronts.

I think the reason why we experienced high growth in the last 5-7 years is because of the seeding we did a long time back. Today, most of the other players are strong content or platform players in one single stream. But for a country like India, if you look at a diversified media model, you won’t find anybody else who has taken a strong position and a leadership position in distribution, in a combination of TV content, broadcasting and motion pictures and gaming and mobile industries. To that extent, we were quite clear that we wanted to ride the wave.

Can you single out the key moments in the evolution of UTV that have given you the most satisfaction?

One of the big moments was four or five years back, when we moved from being a business-to-business player to a business-to-consumer player. We were overall a production house doing ad films, documentaries and everything else. We decided that we wanted to be a media brand, and we wanted to touch the consumer in all respects. That was the first key moment.

After that, (we’ve gotten satisfaction from the fact) that we went into the verticals to achieve either a No. 1 or No. 2 position. Otherwise there’s no sense in being there. Today, in each of the five verticals we are in, we definitely took the path less trodden, a very difficult path. In this industry we were not to the manor born, and yet over a period of four years we went to being the No. 1 movie studio.

In broadcasting, we were definitely a decade later than Zee and Star and Sony. But we went through the specialty zone, and whether it’s our kids’ channel Hungama, which is Bindass now, in the kids’ space, or in the youth space or in the movies space, we moved quickly into a leadership positions.

You have co-produced a few Hollywood projects. What are your plans of working with that industry?

None, actually. Those were very project-to-project based. “The Namesake” and “The Happening” stemmed from India-born American directors. With Mira (Nair) we had a long-term relationship, and we wanted to do something together and her movie fit an international audience.

So we don’t have a very Hollywood agenda at all. We believe that that is a separate segment of business. There’s a very high growth factor in South Asian cinema, so we are focused on that. And we are building on the South Asian cinema diaspora worldwide, which we think is an incredible opportunity.

How have you and UTV changed the Indian media space over the last 20 years?

We have always gone against the wind, against the trend. We have been path-breakers and pioneers, and in some cases we have landed before our time. We have opened new zones and hemispheres in various aspects of the business. We are strong believers that content creates demand.

For example, when we were launching our kids’ channel, none of the existing players were serving the content requirement for kids. We broke that mold in creating that channel and became No. 1. In movies, we decided that we didn’t want to go for the staple formulaic movies that were being made at that time. We looked at the youth segment and focused on it.

I think we definitely set trends, whether for the smallscreen or bigscreen. And even in gaming, I don’t think there is any Asian company that has looked at console, MMOG (massively multiplayer online games) and mobile the way we have. That’s our strategy. It’s in our DNA and that’s how we keep our competitive edge going.

Going forward, how do you plan to maintain your leadership?

We constantly challenge what we do. That’s why we stay ahead of the curve and ahead of the game. We’re constructive in our thinking. We believe there’s a very fine line between pioneering and being before your time, and we get that right. We always take a long-term view. We know that when you are starting up you’ll always have setbacks. The differentiating factor is that in this business many people have had bad experiences and run away, and we’ve actually had success because we have stuck around.

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