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'Sign from the Lord': Sony tells Zee it's terminating the $10B India merger

Sony called off the merger between its India unit and Zee Entertainment on Monday, ending a two-year acquisition deliberation that would have created a $10 billion media powerhouse in the South Asian market.

Sony said in a statement that it has sent a termination letter to Zee after the Indian firm failed to meet the conditions, despite a 30-day extension. Sony said it was "extremely disappointed" that the Indian firm failed to do its part for the deal. Prospects of the deal going through resulted in a 60% rally in Zee's shares in the second half of 2023. The Indian stock market is closed today because of a public holiday in the state of Maharashtra.

Sony Pictures Networks India, the Indian arm wholly owned by the Japanese conglomerate, was pushing for the removal of Zee's chief executive Punit Goenka from staying on with -- and leading -- the merged entity following the deal, according to people familiar with the matter. Goenka fought back for months, and local media reported last week that he may agree to step down.

Zee categorically denies all the assertions made by Sony, the Indian firm said in a statement filed to the local exchange. Zee said Goenka was agreeable to step down in the interest of the deal and now the firm is evaluating all its options, including taking legal action against Sony's India arm.

Sony had earlier also sought for Zee to improve its finances, something that has only grown worse in recent quarters. The two firms announced their intention to merge the entities in September 2021. The deal would have created a $10 billion media powerhouse in India, where billionaire Mukesh Ambani is increasingly flexing his wealth and reach in the media business.

Ambani's Reliance is in advanced stages of talks to acquire a 51% stake in Disney's India business, which includes the streaming service Hotstar.

"I resolve to move ahead positively and work towards strengthening Bharat’s pioneering M&E Company, for all its stakeholders," Goenka said in a tweet Monday, calling the news a "sign from the Lord."

The merger between Zee and Sony's India business was seen as key for both the firms for their future outlook in the country. "The Disney+Reliance merger would create a strong market leader with over 40% TV viewership share and a dominant streaming presence (Disney+Hotstar and JioCinema are the two largest OTT platforms in India by MAU share). Zee and Sony have viewership shares of c16% and c8-10% respectively, and in our view, a merged Zee+Sony entity, with a c25-30% viewership share, would be in a much better position to compete with the Reliance + Disney merged entity," wrote UBS analysts in a note, accessed via S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Zee and Sony have been important fixtures in the Indian TV industry for the last 25 years. Sony launched Sony Entertainment Television in India in 1995 and has aired some of the most memorable shows, including “Indian Idol,” and “Kaun Banega Crorepati,” an official Hindi adaptation of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

The firms also operate on-demand streaming services such as Zee5 and SonyLiv that compete with dozens of other players, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney’s Hotstar and Ambani's JioCinema.