January 27, 2020
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An Innings Defeat

How Doordarshan has outmanoeuvered Prime Sports out of the World Cup cricket telecast sweepstakes

An Innings Defeat
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The invitation list read like a who's who from the industry. It was considered a privilege to be invited. The occasion was a personal triumph for Rupert Murdoch's network, Prime Sports. After losing out initially in the bidding for cricket's costliest event yet, the network had emerged victorious again. The way it happened had raised tempers more than eyebrows. The adrenalin had started flowing furiously.

A little recap first. Doordarshan, awarded live rights for World Cup 1996, apparently defaulted on the third instalment due to WorldTel. According to the version coming from DD officials, the payment was sent on time, but the WorldTel official in London had changed residence without informing DD. Thus, the cheque reached after the deadline expired. As a result, Prime Sports won the deal and went to town about it. It branded the historic gathering as Cricket's Greatest Hour. And that it certainly was. That evening I was hypnotised, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Clive Lloyd, Ross Edwards, Mohinder Amarnath, Krish Srikanth, Kirmani, etc, and cracking jokes with this august company over a drink.

It was after this that slowly the sky started crashing down for Prime Sports. An exclusive live coverage became a remote possibility as DD went to court. Doordarshan also acted brilliantly in announcing attractive advertising packages immediately. Media directors were confused as it was a pleasant surprise to receive such competitive rates from DD, and clients and agencies swung into action to book time. Nobody was bothered that no live telecast by DD had been formally announced; after all there is a basic difference in the household penetration level, with STAR getting into 16 million households and DD into 50 million.

Prime Sports also made the classical blunder of pricing its ad spots too high. The smallest package offered by Prime Sports amounted to Rs 95 lakh, which was phenomenally high by the channels's standards. This package entitled you to ninety 30-second spots which meant that each spot on an average was to cost over a lakh, making media planners look up in amazement. The reason given by the STAR marketing team was exclusivity and the fact that these were rates offered at Hong Kong as well. Tell me, how could this make sense? How many clients can you think of who could afford to spend close to a crore on one event in a year as spot buys were still not announced? Hence, all media planners adopted the wait and watch policy with STAR, but went ahead and placed bookings with DD. The net outcome: DD, at the time of writing, has 70 per cent of time sold out whereas STAR has to yet open its account.

The other rumour going around in the market is that STAR will find it tough to get all the relevant clearances required for transmission—from the Videsh Sanchar Nigam for uplinking, from the Indian Navy and the Home and Defence Ministries. All these are keeping STAR executives on tenterhooks. To spoil the broth further, media planners known for their ethical arm-twisting have started pressing STAR for better deals.

Why did all this happen? One story floating around is that a top BCCI executive had given all assurances to STAR TV which boomeranged as the top man of Doordarshan took this letdown from WorldTel as a prestige issue and vowed not to leave any stone unturned till DD also got live telecast rights. Today it's a familiar sight to see the top man of STAR running around the deserted corridors of Mandi House for a patch-up, but DD is refusing to play ball.

STAR, I am told, is ready to shell out a phenomenal sum to get rights for a joint telecast. Now does this make business sense? I am afraid, it does not. Maybe by the time this appears in print, the picture will be clear but DD, for a change, is smartly aggressive on the front foot and the timing is as stunningly perfect as Sachin Tendulkar's cover drive. And Prime Sports is on a sticky wicket—as sticky as Old Trafford, Manchester, after a rainy night. 

(Media Director Chaitra Leo Burnett)

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