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Q&A With MTV Networks International Managing Director Bhavneet Singh

In the last two years, MTV Networks International has made a major push into emerging markets, making its Emerging Markets division the fastest growing part of the company. Bhavneet Singh, the head of those efforts, talked to Multichannel News International about the company’s strategies for expanding its presence in rapidly growing but often extremely challenging territories. An edited transcript follows:

Q: What are your main strategies and goals for emerging territories that you oversee?

A: Today emerging markets are the fastest growing business within the MTV Networks. We have put up about five services this year and I hope to pull off another five or six next year.

MTVNI has done a lot in building up the music strand. We have 17 music services at last count. But now we are now really focusing on building the other two legs of the stool, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central.

We’ve already done that successfully in some markets like Poland, where we launched the first Comedy Central [in late 2006] and we are looking to do a Nickelodeon service. In Turkey we have launched Nick and MTV. In Israel, we had Nickelodeon channel and just launched MTV.

That is also what we are planning to do in the Middle East. After launching MTV [in the fall of 2007] we will launch a Nickelodeon channel in 2008 and we have plans for a comedy service.

Second, we have decided to license our brand in certain markets when either the infrastructure or the regulation doesn’t give us enough confidence to launch the channels ourselves and in markets where we’ve found right partners who have the right local skill set to work with us.

The third main strategy for us is to reconfigure ourselves from being a television organization to being a content organization so that we are ready for the growth of digital media in these markets. We want to be able to offer our consumers the option of consuming our offering when and where they want, be it on a television channel, mobile or broadband.

A good illustration is that we’ve launched an MTV on demand broadband service in Israel [in the fall of 2007] before we even have a localized broadcast service in the market.

If youths want to consume their content online, we want to provide them the content the way they want it. We are not necessarily going to follow the traditional path of getting a broadcast service first and launching a broadband or online service after that. We might do it the other way around in some markets. In some cases, we might not even launch a broadcast service.

Q: In 2007, MTVNI sold its stake in MTV Russia and the channel is now operated under a licensing agreement. What is driving you to do more licensing deals?

A: We’ve been in Russia for nearly 10 years. We have a very strong MTV Russia proposition but we felt it made sense to go from being a joint venture to a licensee.

Our partner has strong presence in the market and they are very good people to work with. We want to build more scale in that market so we are looking to what other services we can roll out with them.

But that isn’t to say that at some point we might not go from being a licensee to something else. We look at all three models -- licensing, joint ventures, wholly-owned channels -- whenever we are exploring our opportunities in a market.

Russia is a market that has a fair degree of complexity. If it makes more sense to be with people who understand how the markets works, the regulatory framework, and the advertising business much better than we do then we’ll do a licensing deal where we supply the brand know how and the programming inputs.

Q: There has been a huge amount of interest in Central and Eastern European markets, with a lot of channel launches in the last year. What is driving all that interest?

A: We’ve always had a strong presence in Central and Eastern Europe, either through a European feed or local channels. We had a Viva channel in Hungary for six or seven years. We’ve had MTV in Poland for seven years. We’ve had MTV Romania [since 2002.] So we had a decent presence way before everyone else.

But as these markets become more sophisticated and the regulatory framework and the business environment became more structured, we’ve become more comfortable with launching more services.

Some of these countries have just joined the European Union in the last three or four years. The employment laws and the business practices have become a much more transparent. If you overlay on top of that the ad growth, the growth in consumer spending and the exponential growth of the digital pay TV market on top of that, it makes the economics for new channels much more compelling.

Q: What are some of your plans in terms of VOD, HD and other digital services?

A: We recently announced our first HD service and we are working on VOD with our affiliate partners. We already have an on demand broadband service in Romania and we are looking to do something like that in Poland fairly soon.

We also have mobile TV services rolled out in a number of markets. I think we have the biggest footprint of all the international content providers in terms of mobile TV coverage and we are now looking to localize some of these mobile TV offerings, which are currently English pan-regional services.

The other thing we want to do is figure out how to roll out some of the other Viacom assets that we have. Xfire and our other digital offerings have a large amount of traffic from international markets. So the question is how we can serve those users in a local environment that would be more relevant to them.