Two of the largest broadcast groups in India are to merge, it was announced on Wednesday morning local time.
Publicly-listed Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited is to merge with Sony Pictures Networks India. The merged business will be headed by Zee’s Punit Goenka, but following a cash injection of $1.57 billion from Sony India’s backers, the Sony shareholders will control a 53% majority stake.
The move follows years of corporate turbulence at both companies and comes at a time when the massive Indian television landscape is being transformed by vastly wider access to broadband internet and the incursion of streaming video services.
Sony Pictures Networks India has long been an important figure in the Indian television landscape, thanks to its generalist TV channel Sony Entertainment Television which was launched in 1995. But it is understood that SPNI has previously been frustrated in its attempts to either sell off the business or expand it to a larger scale. It currently consists of 26 TV channels, a film production and distribution unit and the widely-viewed streaming platform SonyLIV.
ZEEL was long controlled by the Essel Group. But Essel has been burdened by its own $2.4 billion debts and frustrated by its inability to finance the expansion of ZEEL, which operates 66 linear television channels across 171 countries and is attempting to build the reach of its streaming platform, Zee5, around the world.
In 2019, Essel brought in financial advisers Goldman Sachs to help it evaluate strategic options and then to weigh bids for the sale of a stake in ZEEL. Sony and Essel held talks in 2019, but these came to naught.
Essel is also understood to have held talks with James Murdoch’s Lupa Systems and Comcast, but it resisted selling the stake to a business rival. At the end of 2019, Essel agreed to sell a 16.5% stake to U.S. investment group Invesco’s Oppenheimer Developing Markets Fund, instead.
These financial investors have lately been frustrated with ZEEL’s performance. Invesco and OFI Global China Fund, together voting 17% of the group equity, this month tried to remove Goenka as CEO, along with two other board directors Manish Chokhani and Ashok Kurien.
“Under the guidance of the board, the management of ZEEL, ably led by Mr. Punit Goenka, continues to steadily work towards achieving higher profitability in line with its set goals for the future. With this corporate development, the merged entity will result into an accelerated growth and a significant opportunity to create tremendous value for all its stakeholders,” said ZEEL in a statement to the BSE.
“The combined company would be a publicly listed company in India and be better positioned to lead the consumer transition from traditional pay TV into the digital future,” Sony Pictures Networks India said in a statement. “The merger of ZEEL and SPNI would bring together two leading Indian media network businesses, benefitting consumers throughout India across content genres, from film to sports.”