When Atul Phadnis, CEO of What's On India, quit his cushy job at TAM Media Research in 2006 to set up his own business, the intent clearly was to set up a trendsetting business in the media industry. While he was getting the technology platform ready for the country's first electronic programming guide (EPG) and TV search company, he shortly dabbled into branded TV content, which he says helped him to fund his EPG business. Eight years hence, he continues to run the only EPG company in the country. Phadnis works with all DTH and cable operators in the country and 750 broadcasters. He has also expanded his business to the Middle East and Africa. Last month, he sold his business to the US-based Tribune Digital Ventures (who will merge Whats-ON into group company Gracenote), which is part of the $25 billion Tribune Co. In a conversation with Ajita Shashidhar, Phadnis said that he got seduced by the global vision of the company. Excerpts:
Q. When you started What's On India in 2006 your intent was to become an equivalent of Google in the TV search space in India. In the past few years you have made acquisitions in the Middle East. What is your expansion strategy?
A. We literally had blinders on our eyes and we only thought about growing our domestic business, until Intel showed interest in our company in the middle of 2011. They told us that we have a fantastic technology platform, well suited for being taken to other markets. They were clear they would invest in the company only if we had a global vision. We found merit in Intel's suggestion and went on to acquire a programming guide company in Jordan, which we renamed What's On Arabia, which caters to the UAE, Jordan, Qatar and Kuwait. We also set up operations in Indonesia last year. This year we have launched our service in Kenya, and we are looking at getting into Singapore and Malaysia. Had you asked me two years ago if it was possible to set up a global EPG system, I would have said no, as there are no standards. Had it not been for Intel's insistence, I would have never thought of building a globally relevant platform that was technology and language agnostic.
Q. You closed down your TV channel programming guide, What's On India. Any particular reason for doing so?
A. The broadcast business has its own set of challenges. But, having said that, the channel was well received. We exited that business because we decided to put in all our energy and focus in growing the international business.
Q. You have also acquired a TV distribution monitoring company, TV Street Maps. How does this acquisition help your EPG and search business?
A. We have already expanded the reach of TV Street Maps from 226 towns to 1,800 towns and we shortly plan to take it to 3,000 towns. The market share of the company has gone up from eight per cent to 65 per cent in the last one year. It has become a dashboard for both broadcasters and distribution companies to figure out where their channels have been switched off and switched on. This helps us immensely in our search business as it helps us to know which are the channels available in various towns and cities. Accordingly, we create customised search apps for various mobile companies. For instance, if a viewer in Nagpur is searching for thriller shows, we have customised apps for that market which recommends only those channels which are available in that market. TV Street Maps also enables us to offer diagnostic services to the broadcaster.
Q.What kind of diagnostic services do you offer?
A. Suppose you are a broadcaster and your channel is not getting viewership in say, Uttar Pradesh, we do a diagnostic and find out details such as whether or not your channel is in the right package. Did you miss out some key operators or key markets in that state? Or, are you over-priced?
Q. Why did you sell out to Tribune Digital Ventures?
A. We were looking for financing through an international strategic company. During this time, Tribune was trying to build a global entertainment search company. They acquired Gracenote Video, which specialises in music search and music recommendations. In fact, post the Whats-ON, Gracenote and EPGS (Denmark) acquisitions, Tribune is now the market leader globally in the Entertainment Metadata Technology space with a coverage of 50+ countries. Tribune's search business has interests largely in North America and parts of Latin America. With the What's On acquisition they have now spread their wings to Asia. They have also entered Europe by acquiring a Denmark-based EPG company.
Q. So, what's going to be What's On India's next move as an arm of Gracenote Video?
A. We are looking at foraying into newer markets. We have also created an EPG-On-Cloud platform. Several print media companies are also in talks with us to integrate our cloud platform with their websites.