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The dash of Colors

Shuchi Bansal  |  New Delhi 

The channel has raced from launch to no. 2 in just 10 weeks. Curiously, that gives hope to its rivals, who think it takes just one hit show or two to turn fortunes around.

In May, Rajesh Kamat was visibly tense, measuring his words as he announced that Colors will hit the air in July. Last week, the head of Viacom 18’s Hindi general entertainment channel (GEC) looked relaxed and cheery. That’s hardly a surprise. Within 10 weeks of launch, Colors has become the second most watched Hindi GEC as measured by TAM Media Research’s gross rating points, or GRPs, a sum of the television ratings of individual programmes calculated on the basis of reach and the time spent by viewers. For the last two weeks, Colors has been ahead of Zee TV, and breathing down the neck of leader STAR Plus.

“Relaxed? Not really. We are not popping the champagne yet,” says Kamat, yet not quite able to hide his glee, and adds that the burden of sustaining channel performance is immense. “The pressure before the launch was of a completely different scale. You’re not sure if the distribution is in place, or the content will work. And you have to compete with entrenched players.”

In the Hindi-speaking markets and among cable and satellite viewers in the age group of four plus, Colors boasted of a total channel share percentage of 19, ahead of Zee’s 16, and just below Star Plus’ 23 in the week between October 5-11. Its GRP for the week was roughly 233, a small drop over the previous week, but still holding on to its number two position.

Internally, the company had budgeted for a GRP of 100 over a three-month period. “The numbers surprised us, too,” admits Kamat. Probably, more so because Colors was the eleventh channel in the genre and started soon after the launch of 9x and NDTV Imagine. It’s born out of a 50:50 wedlock between Network 18 and Viacom. Studio 18, MTV, Nick and VH1 also operate under the Viacom 18 umbrella.

Unexpectedly, even the rivals recognise the new order. Says NDTV Imagine CEO Sameer Nair: “Colors has demonstrated and achieved what was expected in the GEC space… that it is possible to challenge the status quo and upset the pecking order.” However, if television channels like STAR Plus, Zee, NDTV Imagine and 9x are worried about the youngest kid on the block, they do not show it.

Zee group’s chief revenue officer Joy Chakraborty believes that Colors has had a big impact and has expanded the GEC market. Agrees Keertan Adhyanthaya, executive vice-president with STAR Plus: “Colors and others have expanded the GEC genre by 200 GRPs. At the same time, there is a certain amount of churn among the existing viewers.”

TAM data shows that the share of Hindi GEC’s in the overall television viewership pie has increased to 36.8 per cent after the launch of Colors (July 20-October 11), a healthy growth over the 33.1 per cent earlier (April 27-July 19).

Getting there
So far, Viacom 18’s strategy for Colors has clicked. On the face of it, its content, though fresh and differentiated, is hardly a departure from what 9x or NDTV Imagine had promised. But a closer look offers glimpses of a well-crafted plot. For a start, Viacom 18 was far more aggressive in driving its content, marketing and distribution than the promoters of either 9x or NDTV Imagine.

“We were aggressive to the extent that we opened with Khatron Ke Khiladi (KKK) — a “decent-cost” programme — on day one,” says Kamat. It means the company was confident of Colors being watched from day one, indicating that the distribution was in place.

Atul Gupta, an independent cable distribution expert, considers Viacom’s distribution strategy to be 99 per cent responsible for the success of Colors. “The channel is a distribution success. Period,” he says. The company is said to have given away Rs 100 crore as carriage fee for a year to get the best band for its channel. Its budget was clearly much higher than the Rs 40-60 crore that NDTV Imagine and 9x reportedly invested in distribution.

Kamat accepts that the investment in distribution could not be avoided as carriage fee is an industry practice today. However, what he doesn’t acknowledge is that the money was strategically poured into TAM towns — the over 150 towns where the Peoplemeters are placed which generate television viewership data — ignoring TAM’s dark spots such as Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar and the North-East. Media experts say the ratings markets are no longer a secret and channel mapping is easy. “Distribution teams at television channels have cracked the weightage that every TAM town has and go about pushing their channels in the prime brand in these markets,” says Gupta.

Colors’ strategy has its share of critics. “There is life beyond the TAM towns. The evolved, voluminous advertiser is interested in these consumer markets as well. Putting money in markets that generate ratings is a short-term strategy,” says a senior executive with a rival channel. He adds that Colors does not measure up against STAR Plus or Zee TV in the depth of coverage.

It is probably to better its reach that Colors rides on the back of DEN (Digital Entertainment Network), the cable distribution company owned by Network 18’s Sameer Manchanda and Raghav Bahl. That DEN has made inroads into Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Gujarat, could only work in Colors’ favour.

Other than placement, it is also the product that Viacom 18 appears to have got right — at least for now. From day one, the three major pieces of content integral to a GEC were present in its programme mix: reality (Khatron Ke Khiladi), fiction (Balika Vadhu) and mythology (Jai Shri Krishna). It’s not that the other channels didn’t try a similar recipe — reams have been written about Sameer Nair’s masterstroke in re-inventing the Ramayan for NDTV Imagine — but they seem to have lost steam.

Colors’ content head Ashwini Yarde, formerly at Zee, says the channel took a major risk in introducing an action-packed, male-skewed reality show with Akshay Kumar (and 13 daring pretty young things) on weekdays between 10 and 11 pm. It experimented with reality on week days against the popular trend of airing such shows during weekends. Also, it went against the tide as the 10-11 pm slot was historically oriented towards women-centric serials such as Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki and Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi.

But Yarde, who put high-viewership serials such as Maayka, Dulhan and Saat Phere on Zee to narrow the gap with STAR Plus, was confident that audiences would be attracted to Akshay Kumar. They were.

When KKK went off air after 16 weeks, it was replaced by Bigg Boss, the “highly-controversial” (by design, say media experts) show hosted by Shilpa Shetty, which is averaging a healthy TVR of 2.8.

The head of NDTV Media, Raj Nayak, says: “KKK and Bigg Boss gave the channel its hype, but it is its fiction Balika Vadhu and Jai Shri Krishna which are delivering the ratings.” Agrees Kamat: “Balika’s TVRs are three times that of KKK but then it took 10 weeks to reach here. If viewers did not sample the channel initially with KKK, it would have been dead.” The popularity of the show pushed the channel to air repeats several times a day.

“It’s difficult to say what clicked with the viewers. It could be sheer fatigue of watching the existing shows or they found something refreshing on Colors,” says Anita Nayyar, the CEO of media buying agency Havas Media.

The price
A major attack on Colors’ content is to do with the cost of programming, among other things. In fact, the media industry buzz is that the channel will exhaust Rs 500 crore in the first year of operation, including a significant sum on programming. It is said to have blown up between Rs 70 crore and Rs 80 crore each on Bigg Boss and KKK. “That’s not all. At that cost, they don’t even have a shelf life to boast of,” points out a former STAR TV executive. Colors’ insiders claim that the channel hasn’t burnt any more cash than the others. Its two major reality shows, put together, were made for under Rs 100 crore, “which still makes them expensive,” says an executive.

(channel share in %)

Sep 28 to

Oct 5 to

Star Plus 22 23
Colors 20 19
Zee TV 17 16
Sony Ent. TV 8 9
Star One 8 7
NDTV Imagine 6 6
Sahara One 6 6
9X 5 5
SAB 3 3
DD1 3 2
Star Utsav 2 2
Zee Next 0 0
Source: TAM Peoplemeter System
Target: Cable and satellite viewers (4 years and above) 
Hindi-speaking markets

Critics argue that with the current content, the channel is unlikely to improve its share much further. Can a 24-hour entertainment channel run on just four shows? Why not, asks Kamat, who claims that its repeat shows are delivering good numbers. STAR Plus currently airs 38 hours of original programming a week, Zee 35, and Colors does 27 hours. “In terms of ratings we have already crossed Zee with fewer hours of original programming,” Kamat points out. However, he admits that the channel is now focusing on creating its afternoon band “which is not easy to monetise”. Two new reality shows and a serial are in the pipeline.

Viacom 18 left no stone unturned to market Colors either. For a start, it made a smart use of Network 18’s news channels to cross promote the entertainment channel. To avoid confusing the viewer, it also cleverly pushed only its high-wattage show, and Akshay Kumar. In contrast, 9x advertised all its fiction shows during its launch. Akshay Kumar actually worked almost like a brand ambassador for Colors without the channel really having to rope him in that role. The star’s face helped the channel cut through the clutter. “Half the programming cost of the show should be counted as marketing cost really,” says a company executive.

However, more than marketing, it was the massive public relations exercise that put Colors on the GEC map. The channel focused sharply on editorial support and ensured that it generated enough reports on the channel. “For Bigg Boss, we picked newsmakers and the single-line brief was how these people should be able to move the coverage of Colors from the entertainment pages to the front pages of newspapers,” says Kamat. Thanks to participants like Jade Goody and Monica Bedi, the channel quickly achieved what it set out to do.

TAM’s PR measurement division Eikona, which tracks editorial coverage for brands, noted the PR activity of Colors, which was spread across newspapers in the Hindi speaking belt. Eikona executives refuse to give details of the coverage but say it was substantial. Colors executives privately admit that the company roughly generated PR worth Rs 50 crore.

With or without PR, nobody is denying Colors its due. However, the trajectory from here may not be easy. It seems to be targeting the young viewer, who is fickle and disloyal. “Zee, for instance, has a loyal, mature audience upwards of 35 years with a high disposable income,” says — who else — but a top Zee executive.

However, the most critical issue would be monetising this success both in terms of advertising and subscriptions. “As a media planner, you look at three factors: ratings, the price at which these ratings are offered, and whether the profile of the channel meets the brand’s target audience,” says Madison chairman Sam Balsara.

The channel, which began with very poor inventory, now claims to have more than 100 advertisers. Hindustan Unilever, which stayed away for the first two months, has just come on board. However, in terms of the total advertising seconds in a month, at 210,000, the channel is still behind STAR Plus at 400,000 and Zee at 340,000 seconds.

However, media planners say Colors’ advertising rates for its top-rated shows are comparable with what STAR and Zee charge. But isn’t monetising advertising during a downturn a bad idea?

Nayyar at Havas Media does not agree. She contends that the slowdown has affected the print medium more than television. “All the offer-led promotions are missing from newspapers,” she says. Sameer Nair at NDTV Imagine admits that advertising hasn’t dipped in the last 12 months, “but going forward the macro-economic condition may impact advertising and marketing spends across media”.

The real test of a GEC is when it is able to turn pay. A GEC will find it hard to break even till the subscription money kicks in. Currently, Colors is a free-to-air channel, which Kamat says is an introductory offer. He is confident that while the GRPs oscillate, the channel has achieved the critical mass and it is unlikely to fall off the radar suddenly.

That is not to say that the others have lost out either. It is a matter of one or two good shows and their fortunes could turnaround. “There is enough of a battle left. Nobody can say we have arrived,” says Kamat. Clearly, it’s too early to crown the new king of the small screen.

(With Suveen K Sinha)