Kaplan steers channels arm to prime position

A 26-year-old government clerk from one of India’s poorest regions made headlines worldwide last month as a “real-life ‘Slumdog Millionaire’?” after he became the first contestant to win a $1 million jackpot on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

Nobody was happier to see Sushil Kumar’s win generate so much attention as Andy Kaplan and other execs at Sony Pictures TV, because the incident illustrates the depth of Sony’s growing investments in international TV networks and programming.

India’s edition of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” is carried on the Sony Entertainment Television (SET) channel that serves one of the world’s most populous countries. The buzz around Kumar’s win has boosted ratings for the channel significantly — so much so that it has ranked as the No. 1 entertainment cable channel in the highly competitive marketplace this year. What’s more, Sony Pictures TV owns the show and rights to the “Millionaire” format entirely through its acquisition in 2008 of Dutch production company 2waytraffic (which acquired the property from original “Millionaire” producer, Celador).

Kaplan has been at the helm of that train for Sony Pictures TV for the past nine years. As prexy of worldwide networks, he spearheaded the push to plow new fields for Sony’s key channel brands — Sony Entertainment Television, AXN, Animax and Sony Spin. In the past decade, Sony has harnessed the vast expansion of TV platforms in Asia, Latin America and other regions and has 120 channels airing in 159 countries and 22 languages.

The “Millionaire” windfall was an unpredictable turn of good fortune for SET, which already is one of India’s most well-established entertainment channels. But the fact that Sony had all of the infrastructure in place to find itself in that position reflects Sony’s commitment to investing in its portfolio of international channels. Just like the other Hollywood majors, Sony brass see international growth, particularly with their own proprietary channels, as a crucial engine of future studio profits.

Kaplan, who is based in Culver City, recently signed a three-year extension of his contract with the studio. He began his career at Sony more than 20 years ago as a biz exec on the domestic production side. But when the opportunity to move into a job with a global purview came up, he didn’t hesitate.

Today, the channels wing employs about 1,500 people in offices around the world. Kaplan also oversees the studio’s interest in 3net, the 3D cable channel that is a joint venture of Sony, Discovery Communications and Imax Corp.

“The great thing about this business is that the macroeconomic factors of each particular region and country are so different that it’s always challenging to start and run these businesses,” Kaplan says. “The fun part is figuring out how we run channels that have some (worldwide) similarities but are still different and specific to each territory.”

Sony’s channels serve up a mix of U.S.-produced entertainment fare, whether Sony productions or shows from other studios, and locally produced programming.

“We acquire from everybody,” Kaplan says. “Our job is to program our networks with the best available programming to get the largest audience.”

The flagship Sony Entertainment Television brand is designed as a general entertainment outlet (think USA Network) that tends to draw more women viewers. AXN, with its emphasis on action-adventure fare, leans more male. Animax is tailored to animation lovers while Spin is geared toward teens and young adults. At present, Kaplan’s focus is on adding more channels in regions where it already has a big footprint, and extending its reach into key growth territories such as Turkey and the Middle East.

Sony’s channels arm has no shortage of competition from those run by Fox, Time Warner, Disney and Viacom, among others, and all of the majors have noticeably been turning up the volume and profile of original programming. Kaplan jumped at the chance to work with Canuck production giant eOne in developing a wholly original legal drama series for the AXN channels based on John Grisham’s novel “The Firm” with writer-producer Lukas Reiter (“Law & Order”) and other U.S.-based creatives onboard.

The show turned the traditional domestic-to-international scripted series sales path on its ear when it landed a deal with NBC — long after it was already greenlighted for production for AXN and other outlets. “Firm” is now set for a worldwide rollout in early January.

For Kaplan, the experience with “Firm” is an example of how much the business landscape for programming is becoming increasingly more globally focused. And that puts Sony in a good position to prosper through the reach and diversity of channels in its arsenal.

“These are the kinds of things we’re really excited about,” Kaplan says. “?’The Firm’ is a way of upping our game and having a much bigger creative presence in big-budget programming. Our channels will be first in line for these kind of events.”

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