Khanna is NBC U’s web-slinger

Exec drives global channel expansion

Whatever bumps in the road threaten to upset the international TV business in 2011, and regardless of a challenging economy, the prospects for pay webs continue to look bright.

This is all to the good for NBC Universal’s Roma Khanna. As the London-based prexy of global networks and digital initiatives, she has led the company’s channel business since 2007, achieving impressive growth for its portfolio of five core brands — Universal Channel, 13th Street, Syfy Universal, Diva Universal and Studio Universal.

“When I came onboard, it was a relatively small business encompassing a diverse bag of brands run locally,” recalls Khanna, a Toronto native.

NBC U was determined to generate new revenues from outside the U.S., and a pivotal moment came in 2008, just weeks after Khanna’s appointment, with the company’s $275 million acquisition of London-based Sparrowhawk Media, owners of the international Hallmark Channel. Overnight, the move gave Khanna responsibility for another 22 channels to add to the 14 or so she’d already inherited.

Nowadays the group of channels she oversees has expanded internationally to 71 which, according to NBC U, last year reached 243 million subscribers in 150 countries.

“The other channels came largely through organic growth,” says Khanna, who summarizes her strategy in four words — content, brand, scale and infrastructure. “We’ve had to charge forward on all those fronts to win.”

Right now, content — and how to fund it — is high on Khanna’s list of priorities as NBC U Intl. works out how to stop subscriber churn and attract new customers as competition intensifies.

When she arrived at NBC U, the shows airing on the channels were all acquired. Gradually that has started to change as content like “Heroes” — produced by Universal Media Studios and Tailwind Prods. and sold to practically every major market around the world — proved beyond doubt the value of original fare.

It’s a part of the biz that NBC U’s U.K.-based international TV production team, led by Michael Edelstein, is ramping up.

Khanna is used to cobbling together co-financing deals. The exec spent her early career in her native Canada, running legal and business affairs at Sony Music Canada before joining Chum Television, where she oversaw content.

“If you go to a U.K. producer and say you’ll put up 50% of the budget, they’ll want to know immediately where the rest of the money is coming from,” Khanna says. “But Canadians long ago figured out how to be more flexible with their funding and to piece together financing to create a Hollywood-style TV show.”

A case in point, she reckons, is the Syfy supernatural skein “Haven,” based on Stephen King’s “The Colorado Kid,” produced by NBC U and Canada’s eOne Entertainment and recently re-commissioned for a second season.

“In the past, shows would be made for one market and then sold overseas, but ‘Haven’ was conceived as an international show,” Khanna says.

“We came in at the grass roots with a creative voice in the show. Stephen King said he didn’t want to do it just for the U.S. market because he said it hadn’t been the best experience for him and he didn’t want to be beholden to one broadcaster.”

A handful of other original shows have been co-funded by Khanna’s global arm — copshow “Rookie Blue,” which airs on ABC Stateside, “Shattered” and factual series “Fact or Faked.” Another drama, “Fairly Legal,” is due to bow in 2011.

“People are coming to us and saying, ‘We have an original show. Would you like to be a partner on it?’ ” she says.

Whether or not Comcast’s acquisition of NBC U goes ahead, Khanna says new channels are on the way, with Asia, Africa and Eastern and Central Europe all target markets.

“I suspect that during 2011, based on our current plans, we will launch between 15 and 20 new channels,” she predicts.

And while Khanna acknowledges that more and more consumers are going online for their entertainment, she’s bullish about the state of the feevee biz.

“I believe that TV, pay TV in particular, has a long road ahead of it,” Khanna says.

“How consumers access their content is changing but, at the end of the day, there is something very powerful about having an editorial voice, which I believe is what a channel brand is.”