Anurag Basu telling stories written by Rabindranath Tagore, Javed Akhtar chatting about characters in Hindi films and Naseeruddin Shah talking about the yester-years of cricket - hoardings across Mumbai, Delhi and other cities have been showcasing for the last three weeks the line-up of eight shows on EPIC channel. Then in July, on each of the three days that a new show began airing, EPIC, or hashtags of its shows, started trending on Twitter.
The trade however is not buying yet. "Conceptually, it is good to be in differentiated entertainment with history/ mythology," says RK Swamy Media Group Senior Vice-president K Satyanarayana. But his agency is yet to advertise on the eight-month-old channel. Not surprisingly, this is true for most big advertisers. That's because EPIC's weekly audience size is less than that of an episode for a popular show on say Star Plus or about one-fifth of an average music channel.
EPIC may be an insignificant player in the Rs 47,500-crore Indian television market for now, but it is a channel to watch out for, for two reasons. One, it is the first serious, big-budget attempt at a different type of Hindi general entertainment channel, or GEC, especially post digitisation.
Two, its angel investors include Mukesh Ambani (25.8 per cent) and Anand Mahindra (25.8 per cent). Samat who earlier headed Disney's business in India is the largest shareholder (almost 49 per cent) in the channel which began with a corpus of Rs 100 crore, going by media reports. The deep pockets of the former means this attempt will last longer than earlier ones.
In 2012, when the company was set up, research showed that one-sixth of the time spent on Hindi GECs was spent on mythological programmes. "Historicals (such as Ashoka on Colors or Jodha Akbar on Zee) have been among the biggest successes on Hindi GECs. The low viewership (for EPIC) is not a comment on the concept or the opportunity, it is a comment on the execution," says one television business analyst.
And that is the first big challenge for EPIC. Its aesthetics, storytelling and stories are completely different from what a mass of television viewers and media buyers are used to. Of the current line-up, five shows are new. The other three are the second season of earlier shows such as Raja, Rasoi aur Anya Kahaniyaan which takes you through the history of various Indian cuisines or Ekaant which explores abandoned places across the country. Among others in the first lot of shows was Dharamshetra a post-apocalyptic trial, held in Maharaj Chitragupta's court where the characters of the Mahabharat accuse each other after the war of Kurukshetra.
Most of the shows look serious, sometimes dark, though regular watchers swear by the format. "Our ratings are not very high, but the social chatter is high, there is a strong understanding of what the channel attempts," says Samat.
"We are building the narrative differently from devotional mythology, we are not trying to be iconoclastic," he says. Samat reckons the problem is not the programming but the fact that there is little awareness about it. "This time our marketing is more competitive, so we are putting more money into awareness," says he.
Analysts reckon that EPIC must hit the sweet spot of 50-100 gross rating points (a measure of total weekly viewership), which most second GECs do, if the advertiser has to take it seriously. Getting the audience is critical also to ensure that operators keep it in the base pack in the 45 million digital homes it reaches. And to eventually get pay revenues. And that highlights the second challenge EPIC faces - of being an unknown selling the unknown.
When the Rs 7,200-crore Star India, with its 35-plus channels and a one-fifth share of Indian TV audiences, attempted an experiment with Kabaddi, it worked in spite of the lack of advertiser or trade support. Star invested in it by promoting it across its network till people sat up and took note. A standalone channel attempting a completely different thing, in the structural nightmare of the Indian TV market, invites scepticism. "Trying to change the rules of television makes sense if you already have critical mass," says the television analyst.
Samat doesn't agree. "The challenge is getting the balance right between content and awareness. The time is right for a segmented channel," says he. The timing couldn't be better. With more than half of India's 161 million TV homes already digitised, the promise of differentiated content that audiences and not advertisers will pay for is ripe for exploration. Samat reckons that, "Only by the second year will we be clear about where we are headed (in terms of revenues)."