The first channel of Turner-Miditech is looking to carve out an 'urbane' space for itself in a crowded segment. Will it sell?.
Sunil Lulla wants his new channel to be clearly differentiated from its established competitors. So Real, which goes on air in March, will stay clear of the saas-bahu serials, which started a phenomenon when Sameer Nair, as the programming head of STAR, decided to bet on Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms. Nor will Real show high-voltage mythological drama, which gained currency recently when Nair started Ramayan on NDTV Imagine.
Instead, Lulla, director of Real Global Broadcasting, a joint venture of Turner International and Miditech of the Alva brothers, is targeting a different segment of the market. “Our channel is targeted at the neo Indians: the urbane, upwardly mobile and aware consumer of 15 to 34 years who speaks Hindi. Our programmes will be around real stories, which provide joy and are aspirational,” he says.
But, despite the distinction, industry experts point out that Real, too, is going in for some big-ticket programming backed by big prize money to woo viewers. That will be in line with the strategy of Colors, the new channel from Network 18 which has quickly captured the second-largest viewership.
In fact, the format of one of the early Real shows sounds similar to that of Big Boss on Colors. Sarkar Ki Duniya is a 100-day realty show in which players would live on an island under the autocratic rule of the sarkar. Poker Face, on the other hand, is a game show on which one can earn Rs 1 crore every week. In Vicky Ki Taxi, all kinds of people tell their life’s story.
Get the picture? The programming is meant to be joyful, aspirational and close to reality.
Turner, which already has a distribution joint venture in India, Zee Turner, will pitch in with distribution support. That will give Real easy access to cable and satellite homes. In fact, the channel hopes to begin with 10 million homes. Miditech, known for shows like Indian Idol, will take care of some of the programming.
Lulla’s need to be different is understandable. His channel is the new kid on the crowded block of Hindi general entertainment channels (GEC). Just 18 months ago, there were only three large players here: STAR, Zee and Sony. Yet, Real will be the 12th to join the fray, which in the last 12 months alone was joined by Colors, NDTV Imagine and INX.
It is not difficult to see what is driving the new channels. The Hindi GEC segment is crowded for a good reason. It is the largest in terms of both advertising as well as viewership. A third of the total television advertising of Rs 9,000 crore flows into Hindi GECs. While advertising in news channels is slowing, it continues to growth for GECs.
“Like last year, we expect the advertising market for GECs to grow by 13-14 per cent. The slowdown has affected print and news channels, not entertainment, as the key components who advertise here, such as FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) players, are increasing their ad budgets,” says Lulla. STAR Plus executive vice-president Keertan Adhyanthaya agrees: “The category has been growing at a steady pace…and it is sizeable for multiple players to be in it. But it’s also a high-risk, high-gain category…You need deep pockets to survive.”
Together, the new players have splurged Rs 1,000 crore on turning their dreams into reality. INX thought the way to break the clutter was to target women between 25 and 35 years of age. Its promoter Peter Mukerjea, a former CEO of STAR India, was aware that STAR Plus was already the complete entertainment channel for the entire family, STAR One addressed the younger audience, and Zee was for the slightly older group. His own channel needed a distinctly different positioning.
“Half the advertising in Hindi GEC channels is addressed to this segment of women and nearly 60 per cent of the viewers of GEC channels fall in this category. So we decided to orient our programming accordingly and create a tactical differentiation,” says Mukerjea.
Some others call this strategy a no-brainer, since every established channel is also aware of the advertising skew and positioned accordingly. “Every channel is wooing the same target group of women, so there is no special incentive for viewers to go to INX. After all, even Colors is concentrated on the same audience for its core viewership,” says a media planner.
Colors initially targeted the age group of 14-34, men and women, who according to research were ready to “flirt” and experiment with a new channel. “This was not the core audience but the most vulnerable. We targeted them with Fear Factor, starring Akshay Kumar, and of course Big Boss,” says a senior Colors executive.
The strategy worked. The next challenge was to get the core audience of women between 25 and 44 years, who were hooked to other established channels, to sample the new channel. Colors started advertising its mass market shows, Balika Vadhu and Jai Sri Krishna, in a big way during Big Boss and Fear Factor. It also cleverly timed the various programmes based on the assumption that most homes have only one television set. So Balika Vadhu and Krishna were shown between 8 pm and 9 pm, and Big Boss after 10. “Once younger audiences tried Colors through Fear Factor and the core audience sampled our soaps, we saw the TRP of Balika Vadhu soar from 0.8 to 8.5,” says the executive.
NDTV Imagine decided to take STAR Plus head-on.
When it comes to family entertainment, STAR is all things to all people. “STAR Plus is an entertainer that narrates grand stories that brings families together. Our core target audience is a young housewife who is seeking an emotional outlet,” says Keertan Adhyanthaya, its executive vice-president and general manager.
NDTV Imagine, too, adopted the strategy of catering to all age-groups and genders. “The essence of a GEC is that it reaches out to a mass audience. When we launched last year, it was in a sense the return of the GEC. We were always clear that we would be targeting a wide audience… the family audience. We have looked at segmenting that audience base… Our segmentation is currently approached via specific programming and time bands and not on an overall basis,” says Sameer Nair, the channel’s chief executive officer.
That way, Real is being really different, with its focus on the “urbane” Indian and not the traditional GEC bastion of women who like to see saas-bahu serials. “She might be in Indore, 27 years old, and with a child, but she is not traditional and has a say in her life. We want to offer HER a fresh alternative,” says Lulla of his target.
Lulla’s detractors, and even media buyers, warn that his strategy could be a recipe for disaster, that saas-bahu serials and mythology do drive TRPs and advertisers. “Soaps and saas-bahu serials are the daal and roti of Hindi GECs. You can of course always package it differently, but you cannot ignore them,” says the CEO of a competing GEC channel.
Nair wouldn’t want to comment on Real’s strategy (“To each his own,” he says), but does not think it is time to renounce the tried and tested. “The on-going, continuous success of our mythological shows, Ramayan and Mahima Shani Dev Ki, is proof that audiences are looking for quality content. The success of any genre is how attractive you make it for audiences. I don’t believe that the saas-bahu and mythology are past their prime. They continue to be the genres that bring in the big numbers. Balika Vadhu and Jai Sri Krishna prove exactly that,” he says.
A Mumbai-based media expert adds: “This younger audience target in Hindi GECs doesn’t work. Zee Next, Bindass and even STAR One have tried it.”
It does not work for several reasons. There are very few two-television homes in India. Most Indian households — especially the ones that have TAM meters — are single-television homes. So the younger audience does not hold the remote at prime time.
Niche in a Hindi GEC does not work either. You may position it as an upscale channel, but advertisers do not buy the positioning, they buy the gross rating points. If an advertiser is specifically targeting the youth, it may like to opt for MTV or Channel V.
Says an advertising sales expert: “It is not that there are no upmarket, urbane viewers. But whether you can create a genre out of that in the GEC space is another question. It is not that such audiences, who do not wish to watch saas-bahu and mythology, do not exist. But it is difficult to monetise them.”
The marketing director of a telecom service provider, which is a big advertiser on television, says his company puts in its commercials in programmes depending on their TRPs, and irrespective of the channel. “As an advertiser, we are not looking at what new genre you are creating in the Hindi GEC space. We don’t look for differentiation.”
According to Anita Nayar, CEO of media buying house MPG, “You can’t move away from content that works. After all Colors is close to becoming Number 1, but it has saas-bahu and mythology.”
There are other challenges. Revised estimates suggest that the growth in Hindi GEC viewership (measured in gross ratings points, or GRPs) will not be more than 9-10 per cent. Says Sanjoy Chakrabarty, chief operating officer of Dentsu Media: “The growth in Hindi GEC is almost flat. With more channels being added to the genre, the GRPs will only get re-distributed.”
L V Krishnan, CEO of TAM, which measure viewership, says the Hindi GEC category accounts for 28 per cent of the total cable and satellite GRP, up from 26 per cent in 2007. “Its growth in 2009,” he says, “will depend purely on content and marketing of these channels.”
Both content and marketing will have to contend with the rising cost pressures. Hindi GECs need cumulative investments of over Rs 800 crore in the first four years before they break even. But these numbers might go awry for many reasons.
The growth of advertising on GECs has slowed from the earlier 20 per cent. Second, the cost of programming is going through the roof. According to an insider in the Essel group, which owns the Zee bouquet, it has gone up by two and a half times in three years. Carriage fees paid by new broadcasters to cable operators to ensure “good placement” is nearly double of or three times what established players pay. This constitutes 30 to 50 per cent of a new channel’s marketing costs.
The subscription revenue for most new channels is zero. Colors promises to go pay at an “opportune” time. But currently it is free-to-air. Real says it will be a paid channel. Second, rates that sponsors are willing to pay for big-budget programmes have sharply come down.
“Earlier the chief sponsor of a big programme paid Rs 7 crore. Today the same is available at Rs 5 crore. That is because earlier there was only one programme of the size of Kaun Banega Crorepati (the game show that revived STAR Plus), but now there are four programmes of a similar stature, so the audiences are getting fragmented,” says the senior executive of a leading FMCG company. The executive adds that new broadcasters are offering discounts of 10 to 30 per cent to companies that buy bulk time.
Surely, it will not be a cakewalk for the new kids on the Hindi GEC block, real or otherwise.
(With Ashish Sinha)