Everything about our conversation so far has led me to believe that Louise Sams wants to talk business and strategy, television and broadcasting, but towards the end of our chat, I realise thats not quite true. When we turn to subjects personal, the president of Turner Broadcasting System International lightens up instantly, for it turns out that Sams is newly married and her husband is with her on this trip, their very first to India together.
Hes a professional chef and French, and the couple has just spent four lovely days in romantic Udaipur before arriving in Mumbai, where shes attending to business and hes being a tourist. Hes taking photographs all over Mumbai, she says fondly.
Sams business in Mumbai is to do with another marriage, of the corporate kind. Turner has recently taken over the Imagine channel from NDTV for $117 million and Sams is here to oversee some of the post-nuptial arrangements. She has just addressed a town hall meet, always considered a crucial part of corporate wedding ceremonies in America, where everybody naturally wanted to know if there would be any major changes and if Turner would be acquiring more channels in India. I said we were always open to opportunities in the future. But the priority now is to integrate the two companies, says Sams.
Acquisition of NDTV imagine has added three new channels Imagine, Lumiere, Showbiz as well as a movie production company to Turners assets in India. More importantly, it has more than doubled the companys headcount in India, from 150 to 350. Turner is now in the process of shifting its legacy employees from downtown Parel to Imagines offices in the suburb of Andheri, in the heart of Mumbais television industry. The physical move is a great metaphor for the merger, as Sams says, My job is to see that nothing is broken in this process.
For most of her 17 years at Turner, Sams has been the companys general counsel and as a seasoned lawyer, mergers & acquisitions (M&A) are her speciality. M&A has been a central part of the companys growth strategy, especially in Latin America. Last year, thanks to the NDTV Imagine buy-out, Turners biggest investment has been in India, though profit margins here are still lower than other parts of the world, mainly on account of regulated rates for pay TV. I believe it would be best for the market to set rates, says Sams. The pay TV market is huge in India, with 80% penetration, compared to only 10% in Brazil. Our revenues here are high, but the margins are low.
At FICCI-Frames 2010, the showpiece conclave of Indias entertainment industry, Sams is on a panel discussion on whether the Indian television industry has matured, where she faces all kinds of questions related to the acquisition of Imagine. One member of the audience wants to know if she intends to change the channels content, which is mostly regressive saas-bahu serials.
Sams reply is categorical: The debate over mature versus immature content is irrelevant. You have to give the audience what they want. And they want content that is relevant to them.
Without referring directly to the Turner acquisition, Darren Childs, managing director of BBC World-wide, says, Id be very scared of investing in the direct entertainment space at this point of time. The size of the investment is huge and returns are very uncertain.
But then again, you certainly dont need to teach a lawyer about balancing risk. My legal background is useful in this job because Im used to picking transactions apart. Whether its a partnership or an acquisition, its about balancing risk. When you invest in an acquisition, you dont go in expecting to make a profit in a year or even two years. The environment can change completely in two years. You just need to go in with your eyes open, says Sams.
When Beijing played host to the Olympics, media companies like Turner were hopeful the country might open up. That was not to be. Things didnt work out the way we hoped in China, says Sams. We thought we would work with local companies in Beijing and Shanghai to distribute our content. But the Chinese government has issues with media companies and our access is restricted only to hotels and the US embassy in China.
With new technologies coming into the market and business models constantly evolving, what does she see as the future of broadcasting? Its anybodys guess whats going to happen with the younger generation, says Sams. I dont think its just a question of online versus television. Kids like to park themselves in front of the television, just as their parents do. Television may not be the same in 50 years, but it will exist. I dont know if putting all our content online would be a solution. Would everyone eventually watch full-length movies on their cellphones? I seriously doubt it.
As one of Americas most prominent women lawyers and now CEO, Sams is often called upon to offer career advice to other women. In a recent interview to Pink magazine, heres what she had to say on work-life balance: I like to think of life as a journey with different chapters some when you focus more on personal issues, like kids, elderly parents, illness, or maybe just yourself from time to time, and others when you focus more on work. Hopefully, across all of that, there is overall balance.
I cant say whether its achievable or not, but I think you should shoot for it in long run. I sit on panels and hear other top women say there is no such thing and that young women are kidding themselves if they think theyll find it. I always want to say, Let them try. They might achieve it. Taking her husband along on trips to interesting places and taking time off to holiday in the midst of business meetings is Sams way of shooting for some balance. And judging by her India trip, it works fine.