2008: Year of Hindi General Entertainment Channels

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In December 2007, the excited discussions hover around the launch of another General Entertainment Channel (GEC) from the Zee bouquet (Zee’s answer to Star One?), called Zee Next. The new GEC is designed to cater to the youth segment; and is a brainchild of CEO, Pradeep Guha and Network Operation Officer, Puneet Goenka.

A youth centric GEC? Isn’t that what the three month-old youth entertainment channel Bindass, from the UTV Astro joint venture, is all about? So, will Zee Next be another Bindass look-alike? “Not at all,” says an emphatic Ashish Kaul, head of Corporate Brand Development at Zee. “The programming of Bindass is a cross between AXN and MTV – which grossly underestimates the youth of the country. They are not frivolous.” he adds, explaining that Zee Next offers all the usual trappings of a traditional GEC – serials, soaps, fiction, comedy, movies – but the differentiation is in the youth-oriented setting and characterisation of these properties.

About 15 kilometers away from Filmcity, in the busy, south Delhi business hub of Archana Arcade, there is palpable excitement at the upmarket NDTV head office in Delhi too. Ace newscaster Dr. Prannoy Roy has ventured beyond news to team up with Bollywood baron Karan Johar and former Star India-turnaround magician, Sameer Nair to give shape to NDTV Imagine, a traditional Hindi GEC from the NDTV stable. Slated for the coming Monday January 21, 2008 launch, NDTV Imagine announced its programming line-up amidst much fanfare.

Sameer Nair, CEO, NDTV Imagine, shared his plans for the GEC, saying that the channel will offer “fresh not familiar” programming and will “appeal to the entire family from 6-60.” Interestingly, NDTV Imagine unveiled its programming nearly three months before the actual launch of the channel, an unheard of practice.

And since it came barely a couple of days after the big-ticket launch of 9X – The Indrani & Peter Mukerjea (ex-Star India head honcho) led INX Media’s mega GEC foray – that promises nine times more fun, media analysts are calling it a knee jerk reaction by Dr. Roy and team. “It seems when they saw the first mover advantage being taken away by rival 9X, they hastily decided to announce something,” they say.

Moreover, while NDTV Imagine does have to deal with the news-oriented image of its parent NDTV, 9X has no such image overhauls to consider. Sources in the industry also fear that NDTV’s upmarket SEC A and SEC B+ image may not work for a mass-market GEC segment. For now, the 9X launch is being hailed as the most innovative channel launch ever.

Indrani Mukerjea, Founder and CEO, INX Media, is thrilled with the initial response to the channel. “Reports are trickling in that the content on 9X is looking even better than the promos,” she gushes, lamenting the current state of the Hindi GEC category, “Actually there were just three GECs in the Indian context – Star , Zee and Sony. And there is a level of fatigue that has crept in with the regular kitchen politics soaps that run on these channels,” she says.

There is a little-known, off-beaten path just behind the NDTV facility. Walk down that lane and you will find yourself facing the spanking new, Network18 Group facility – where plans of yet another Hindi GEC are taking shape, this time in a 50:50 joint venture with Viacom Inc. (Viacom already runs MTV, Vh1 and Nickelodeon in India).

Haresh Chawla, Group CEO, Network18 Group, believes that this partnership will give Network18 Group the scale to compete and achieve leadership position in the segment. Having established leadership in news broadcasting, the last mile for the Network18 Group was indeed an entry into the multi-platform entertainment space, which will happen when this entertainment channel launches in June 2008.

2007 also saw Turner International, a unit of Time Warner Inc., forged a joint venture with Miditech Pvt. Ltd’s Alva Brothers to launch an GEC. Clearly, the entertainment overload on Indian television is reaching a deafening crescendo! And this is just the beginning – more like a peek into the plans of big pocketed players with ambitions to become the next Rupert Murdoch or Subhash Chandra.

There are numerous smaller aspirants and everybody who is anybody is harbouring TV entertainment ambitions. The reason is simple; it is a genre that has the bulk of TV viewers hooked, but has only 3-4 established players, as opposed to 9-10 players in the Hindi news segment, which has less than 5% market share. The common refrain is that there is immense potential in the segment, just waiting to be tapped.

India’s TV advertising pie is continually growing, with the maximum ad revenues being absorbed by Hindi soaps and movies. FICCI-PwC’s 2007 report on the media & entertainment industry states that the nation’s total advertising pie today stands at about $4 billion. With an economy growing at 9%, advertising expenditures are bound to soar and analysts estimate that just this year advertising revenues are all set to go past the $4.5 billion mark.

Anuradha Prasad, Managing director, BAG Films, who is slated to launch E24 GEC in February, adds that while world over the total advertising and marketing money that gets circulated is about 3% of the GDP, in India the figure stands at a measly 0.7%. “Obviously, there are great growth opportunities,” she reiterates.

Digital democracy waiting to unfold across the nation is another factor driving players to jump into the television well. Once implemented, if a channel is delivering good content, people for sure would pay to watch it – and media hubs would also save hugely on distribution costs.

But here’s the caveat to this entertainment jamboree. According to TAM, GEC share is sliding downward year-on-year. From occupying nearly 48% of the entire TV viewing populations’ share in the early years of the new millennium, the category has been sliding south ever since, to sit precariously perched at just about 28% of the total TV pie today. Market watchers say that thanks to the steady emergence of multiplexes, malls, amusement parks et al, the total TV viewership pie is coming down, and hence GECs are bound to take a beating. The lone genre that has seen growth in recent times is that of Hindi news viewers.

The established players in the category – Zee TV, Star Plus, Sony Entertainment Television are all hungering for a bigger share of this 28% TV viewer pie. Add the 5-6 new players to the cacophony and the audience fragmentation is slated to rise to unprecedented levels. However, even the falling share of GECs cannot contain the gusto of the new players. Mukerjea, for one, believes that despite declining viewer share currently, positive economic indicators for the economy will certainly lead to higher advertising revenues, and GECs, with a compelling programming mix and the right reach, will stand to benefit.

So should the biggies in the business be shivering with trepidation of a competitive onslaught? On the face of it, no! Star , Zee and Sony are clear leaders in the category. For now, Star’s worst nightmare is its shrinking viewership pie in the face of an onslaught from a revamped and re-energised Zee TV, which is slowly coming back to claim its pre-2001 (and pre-KBC and Ekta Kapoor mania) leadership status in the entertainment sweepstakes. Sony, at No. 3 is still in the reckoning and is playing catch up with the big two.

But a closer look and you notice that fresh competition has begun taking its toll; especially in terms of employee attrition. Unlike Peter Mukerjea (INX), who was in a non-compete agreement with Star India till mid-2007, Sameer Nair has picked up the crème from Star ‘s employee well, packing a swift punch in the current market leader’s belly. Star’s Shailja Kejriwal, Harsh Rohatgi, Manoj Vidwans, Gaurav Gandhi and Kuljeet Singh have already walked over to the Nair camp and more big ticket crossovers are imminent.

“A lot of my ex-colleagues are working with me. Human management is a prerequisite in the creative business,” says Nair.

Be that as it may, it is almost certain that most of the new channels are bound to fall gregariously into the me-too trap. And media observers believe that the market is closed off for the me-too variety.

“All the new players are saying that they are different. But having seen the programming line-ups of some, I don’t see anything different that they have to offer,” says Pratap Suthan, NCD, Cheil Communications.

Going forward, the competitive fireworks will only intensify, with content, distribution and marketing becoming the reigning kings and queens of this epic battle for supremacy in the consumer mind space.

“There is a creative famine in the TV industry, which will now realise the importance of talent management; as quality content aggregation and distribution will be the defining success factors,” offers Kaul of Zee, smugly reiterating that Zee stands strong on both these counts because of its DTH and cable arm, on the one hand; and the on the other hand, media conglomerate’s already established dominance and deep pockets.

Star Plus, Star One, Sony, Sab, would also be banking on similar sentiments, but the new players are no pushovers. They are in the process of inking equity deals with big production houses to strengthen their ‘content’; as also working out cost-effective synergies with distribution alliances to script their success sagas; not to mention unleashing multi-million promotional strategies.

But the devil is in the detail. Entertainment channels require big budgets, on an average Rs 1 to 1.5 crores on a daily basis. Most of the new players have deep pockets, but many may not last the distance. With Sun TV Network, buying 49% stake in NDTV’s Red FM radio network; Walt Disney purchasing UTV’s children’s entertainment channel Hungama et al, the consolidation has already started. As pressure on advertising rates and the analog distribution systems increases, smaller players will be further get edged out.

But sitting in her plush office in Filmcity, Noida, Anuradha Prasad, is not buying this logic. She feels that smaller players have invariably managed to carve out a niche for themselves in the entertainment business. After all, Dr. Roy and TV18’s Raghav Behl were small players, who eventually gathered both size and scale. So was the case with UTV. When it comes to grabbing eyeballs, size is never the major consideration. It’s all about creativity, brains and mind space.

Even as established players and sundry new entrants gear up for combat in the entertainment category, effective marketing is scheduled to play a key role in the changing dynamics of the game. And marketing not just to the consumer, but also to media planners and advertisers – considering that most of the old and new channels are free-to-air and will depend heavily on advertising revenues.

Okay, so here’s the mother of all questions for all these media moghuls, each offering “distinctive” and “compelling” entertainment to the unsuspecting junta. Where is the money dude? Is the advertising pie enough to accommodate all aspirants?

“Whatever deals we are getting into, we are keeping in mind the developments in the market place. We do plan to continue our long term deals with some established players, but putting all our eggs in one basket may not pay, so we’ve kept some ad allocations afloat for the new players coming up,” says Praveen Sharma, Senior Media Planner, Madison.

Shashi Sinha, CEO, Lodestar Universal, goes a step further when he says that competition to GECs is now coming from even the news category. “I mean, what’s the big difference whether you are watching a sting operation on a news channel or watching a reality show on a GEC,” he questions, adding that the lines are increasingly getting blurred. “There is a total TV advertising pie and with audience fragmentation happening faster, where the advertiser will put his money will be a problem for respective media planners to address,” he points out.

What’s more, all these channels have come up/are coming up at a time when the broadcast industry is in a heated debate with advertisers on the inflation surcharge issue, wherein broadcasters are demanding higher ad rates due to increase in input costs. No wonder players like INX, BAG, Bindass, NDTV Imagine, among others are traveling that extra mile to attract advertisers to their respective entertainment juggernauts. INX has created Club INX with Platinum, Gold and Silver levels; a supposedly transparent rate card for monitoring channel inventory.

A Platinum level would mean a three-year contract with the broadcaster, with preferential pricing and bigger association benefits thrown in; while the others would imply two and one-year contracts respectively. The lucrative deals being offered by the new entrants is prompting many to pick up their offerings.

“At least, we are assured of some initial sampling of these new products by viewers. Some media planners may want to wait for the TRP ratings to come, but we’d like to be a part of that initial sampling. The new channels are spending so much on promotions, so we just hop on to the bandwagon now and benefit,” reasons Sinha.

1 COMMENT

  1. hie,
    i just came across an article which says NDTV Imagine has launched a website for the audience. The website will focus on giving a holistic multimedia experience to the viewer..for further info check this out..
    #######.com

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