Business Times

Rs. 2 bln tele drama content wasted – industry veteran says

By Jagdish Hathiramani

There is Rs. 2 billion worth of Sri Lankan tele drama content going to waste since only a few out of around 1,000 locally produced programmes really go on to become popular or even viewed by the audience. This is due to a lack of professionalism and knowledge, according to Sunil Ratnayake, an industry veteran whose company Teleview was one of the pioneers in local video production when it started 25 years ago this month.

Sunil on location

Speaking to the Business Times, Mr. Ratnayake is also the first to admit that he himself was interested in video first only as a hobby. Coming from very modest beginnings, during which he had to walk 3 km to school every day; Mr. Ratnayake served first as a Civil Engineer with the Highways Department. As such, he can attest to the fact, first hand, that many in the profession today lack formal training, which can only be properly remedied with a renewed focus on technical skills training.

Entering the industry more than 25 years ago, first by earning enough spare money to buy a Betamax player and then working in Saudi Arabia for four months to afford a video camera, he later did a documentary about his home district of Badulla that caught the attention of then President Ranasinghe Premadasa and got him hired as a videographer. However, it was ultimately through a job at state television channel Rupavahini that resulted in his first training in the area.

Even 21 years after setting up Teleview, Mr. Ratnayake reveals that he treated this business as just a hobby, albeit a lucrative one, and it was only four years ago, after he received technical video training (AOTS) thanks to a scholarship from Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry, that his business acumen evolved enough to propel Teleview to a medium sized company that earned Rs. 40 million in profits in 2009. It now also has several new revenue streams: Outsourcing work in Computer Aided Design (CAD) drafting and design, and even animation, for the Middle East; documentaries and tele serials for Japan's NHK television channel; in-flight entertainment for Emirates, SriLankan, etc.; video production training academies; home entertainment; and rural-based event management and consumer activations.

These are big steps for Teleview, which had its start making tele dramas and documentaries almost exclusively for the government, the biggest customer for Mr. Ratnayake's products 25 years ago. However, he is quick to point out that his major income is still from tele dramas with these now being sold primarily to privately-owned Sirisa TV as well as Rupavahini. In fact, Teleview is the biggest local producer of tele dramas today, with earning from training academies also being a significant part of the business. Additionally, he notes that, while Teleview had started its first video village 12 years ago in Badulla, it is only in the last four years that another had been set up in Maharagama with a third facility about to be finalised soon. All this is a result of Rs. 400 million already having been invested in upgrades in facilities, equipment, skills, etc. Another example being investments in high definition cameras, a requirement for any content supplied to NHK.

However, while the make-up of business has changed from mainly public corporations such as the Tractor Corporation in the 1980's to today's overwhelming private companies focus; clients like Bank of Ceylon, Cargills, HNB, Peoples Bank have remained with Teleview since the very beginning. Meanwhile, the future for Teleview, according to Mr. Ratanayake, is international markets and he spends a considerable time attending trade fairs through which, in addition to his activities with the Japan Sri Lanka Technical and Cultural Association (JASTECA), he has made many inroads into Japan and even the Middle East, with two projects in the works in the former and a further six completed in the latter.

Now in Teleview's 25th year, Mr. Ratnayake is also confident, now more so than ever, regarding the direction in which his company is heading. Modern practices such as 5S and Kaizan today rule the roost, and serve to keep costs down, while Teleview's varied offerings, from tele dramas to television commercials to documentaries to directing to casting to elaborate sets at its video villages and even any aspect of the entire production process, allow it to maintain its edge into the future. He also adds that he has plenty of access to funding, an Initial Public Offering is not an immediate consideration; implying he has all the necessary pieces already in place to secure his company's next 25 years.

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