Pankaj Thakar, Chief Executive Officer, MD, Cellcast Interactive India

Replying to Anil Mascarenhas of IIFL, Pankaj Thakar says, "We are very much focused on ABC of content that is Astrology, Bollywood & Cricket along with additional genres like Relationship, Social Networking, Auctions & Interactive Group Shopping. "

July 08, 2010 10:47 IST | India Infoline News Service

Pankaj Thakar, Chief Executive Officer, MD, Cellcast Interactive India, spearheads the development and distribution of participative content for Cellcast's proprietary converged platform of television, mobile and internet in India. He holds a Bachelors Degree with honours in Mathematics and a Masters Degree in Business Administration. Under his leadership, Cellcast Interactive has changed the way TV content is being consumed in India. Cellcast Interactive has also generated alternate revenue for content developers/producers and their media partners like TV, print, radio and the internet. It was under his aegis that the company developed fantastic participative TV shows like Bid2Win and Bollywood Dhamaal. He started his career with HCL in the mid-eighties and has been a part of companies like India Telecom. His last assignment before taking up the position of CEO & MD, Cellcast Interactive was as CEO of a Silicon Valley-based start up Consilnet Inc.

Cellcast Interactive India is the pioneer in developing integrated participation content in the fast-growing Indian mobile and interactive TV market. It uses traditional media like television, newspapers and radio for customer acquisition and new media to enable consumers to pay-and-participate. We have successfully executed this unique business model in India and are experiencing rapid revenue growth. A prime example is our show Bid2Win, which received 30 million responses from 2.5 million individuals within span of one year. Cellcast's content is distributed on new as well as traditional media with real time participation enabled through SMS, IVR, the Web, WAP and 3G. With TV as a mass medium and print, the internet and radio too used extensively, Cellcast's content has strong revenue generating capabilities. Cellcast India has already created a strong track record in this arena. Cellcast's recently launched property Insomnia – Sona Mana Hai is steadily making a mark for itself through its intriguing content.  

Replying to Anil Mascarenhas of IIFL, Pankaj Thakar says, "We are very much focused on ABC of content that is Astrology, Bollywood & Cricket along with additional genres like Relationship, Social Networking, Auctions & Interactive Group Shopping. "

Give us an idea about the participatory content industry – mobile value-added-services and participatory television programming. What are the current trends?
Simply defined, participatory television content prompts a viewer to participate in a TV show using some form of interactivity and in the process turning a passive viewer in to an active user of content. In India, the predominant interactive medium enabling this participation is the mobile phone. Cellcast has been creating participatory content in India since 2004. Since the early days, where Cellcast produced the award winning interactive TV show Bid2Win, participation television now covers various genres programming from gaming, contests and trivia based to astrology and relationship-based shows. One major impact that participatory television programming has had is that it’s made late night television viewing interesting. Instead of being forced to watch repeat telecasts of TV shows, viewers now have the chance to watch and participate in a plethora of interactive participation television shows.

What is the market for interactive programming and participative media content in India.
The market is huge! Television channels are now warming up to the fact that interactive television programming actually retains their viewers and are now looking at new genres of participatory content.

Brief us about Cellcast’s activities in India.
Cellcast operates in the cross-section two large and fast growing markets, television with over 400 million viewers and mobile with over 500 million subscribers. The content we produce is proprietary and caters to a large mass of people across multiple languages. Our focus has been on television programming, but we’re now looking towards other mediums like the Web and print publications to expand the playing field. Our technology stands on a robust SMS and IVR platform that is operator agnostic and is capable of handling over 8000 calls from multiple mobile operators every second! Cellcast’s business model is different from other Mobile VAS companies, in that we maintain a direct relationship with our customers. We produce original content and products and use different media to reach out to, acquire and retain these customers.

Tell us more about your global operations.
Cellcast India and Cellcast UK, though different companies, share similar business models and programming formats. Cellcast UK operates in Europe, primarily in the UK and Cellcast India operates in India.

What is your view on the drivers for growth and the changing entertainment landscape with the advent of 3G.
The jury on what the drivers for growth for 3G in India will be is still open. As we see it, the content and original formats are what will drive the growth of 3G. To that extent, Cellcast is well positioned to push adoption of 3G services.

Briefly explain to us your business model. What are the entry barriers in this business? 
We’re in the business of providing premium content and services to customers. We create our own interactive formats, programming and participative content and reach out directly to customers via television, print, web and the mobile. The interactive medium and the billing mechanism in all cases is the mobile phone.

Which are the new markets you are looking at?
As of now, we’re focusing on India. In future we plan to expand in other Asian countries.

What are the different platforms where your services can be utilized? Tell us how Sumo TV platform has been doing in India?
Currently, Cellcast enables participation via SMS, IVR, WAP & Internet and the content is distributed on TV, Radio, Print & Internet. Cellcast Sumo TV has been withdrawn as UGC did not really take off due to lack of Internet, Broadband & 3G infrastructure, which is essential for any video-based platform like Sumo TV.

Comment on your various revenue streams.
We are very much focused on ABC of content that is Astrology, Bollywood & Cricket along with additional genres like Relationship, Social Networking, Auctions & Interactive Group Shopping. Currently, our revenue comes from Astrology, Auctions, and Trivia-based TV Game Shows around Bollywood & Cricket

How cost effective is it to acquire airtime?
Although buying airtime is expensive, it works well for us as we have complete creative freedom and it works well for the channels too. As a result, we’ve grown from 1 show to around 8 hours of live programming every day on different channels.

Give us an idea of the popular interactive shows and what kind of money would have got generated.
Our trivia-based TV game shows and astrology shows are pretty popular. The engagement levels in these shows are pretty high with high repeat users. We generated over Rs.100 crores for our partners.

Could you talk about your channel business in the UK? You also have channels in China. What is the revenue model in these geographies?
In UK the business model is same as India except that we have our own channels in UK. We do not have any operations in China currently.

What are the opportunities and challenges in this business?
The challenge is always to create innovative content and formats that can engage viewers/ readers of this content. Getting passive viewers of a television show to sit up and react and make them active participants in the show requires a great level of skill and ingenuity. That’s exciting and a constant challenge. The other challenge is to get a decent revenue share from the mobile operators as they still keep the largest share thus limiting the other value chain partner’s growth by not incentivizing their effort enough. The operators in India will have to accept the international revenue share best practices and give away a large chunk of the revenue generated to the content providers.

Does technology make it easier for other players to get in?
Technology is one part of what we do. The other significant part is creativity and the cumulative experience that we’ve cultivated over the years. That’s hard to replicate.

What are the technical challenges you face?
Our technical challenges arise from our need to bring in innovation in our formats. There is no one constant technical challenge as such. It always stems from what we want to create. And most often than not, we’re able to use technology effectively to overcome the challenge. The other technical challenge is to build, operate and manage an ever-increasing large telecom infrastructure to enable pan India cross-operator participation. It is a Herculean task and currently we are managing it very creatively.

What genres are popular with UGC? How do you authenticate content?
Viewers participating in a live show are UGC for us. Astrology is one such genre. For example, when a viewer calls in to a live show and asks a question to an astrologer, that question may be relevant to thousands of others watching the show and that’s a great form of UGC. The other good example is what we did with our participative music show called SaReGana. Here, people called in and sang on live television. The best singers amongst them were invited to our studios and we helped them create their own music albums along with a music video. That’s the best form of user generated content; one that is rewarding not only for us but also for the creators of that content.

Canaan Partners had invested $5.25 million in your company. Who are the other investors?
Besides Canaan Partners, the other investors are Cellcast UK & Management 

What is the latest shareholding pattern? Any plans to sell stake?
Canaan is the largest share holder followed by Cellcast PLc. Rest is owned by the management.

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