Twelve general entertainment channels (GECs) in Hindi account for one-third of TV viewership in the Hindi speaking market, leaving 300-plus others to fight it out for the remaining two-thirds. Of the total TV ad revenue of Rs 8,000 crore, these 12 GECs account for a whopping Rs 2,900 crore. Ad and subscriber revenues are expected to more than double to $1,825 million by 2011. It is no wonder then that the GEC category is very closely watched and the players are leaving no stone unturned in their quest for rankings.
Amongst the current lot of GECs, the market leader (in early August) is STAR Plus (with a channel share of 27 per cent), followed by Zee TV (18 per cent) and Sony Entertainment Television (SET, 8 per cent). Looking to challenge these incumbents – and specifically unseat Sony – are three new kids on the block, 9X, NDTV Imagine and Colors. And they are taking a pretty good stab at it. Consider the channel shares of the Big Three before they came along. (9X was the first to launch in November 2007, NDTV Imagine came in January 2008 and Colors was launched just last month). Pre-November 2007, STAR had a channel share of 33 per cent, Zee had 27 per cent, while SET followed with 9 per cent. Doordarshan 1, which is now at 3 per cent, had a channel share of 14 per cent in October 2007.
Such battles are not new. Before this, STAR One, Sahara One, SAB TV and Zee Next fancied themselves as contenders for the third place. But it is the current battle that looks more interesting than anything that came before. Heading each of the new GECs are three industry veterans: Sameer Nair at NDTV Imagine, Indrani Mukerjea at 9X and Rajesh Kamat at Colors. All three channels had a different start, based on their business model, lineage and the personality of their founders. Yet, all three have a STAR TV pedigree and are fighting the same battle.
The entry of the new players in the GEC space has resulted in a lot of shuffling and strategising on the programming front. The established players, too, have been galvanised into action. They have restocked their artillery with fresh shows and programming strategies to retain their audience.
The viewers stand to benefit from all this activity. It has led to variety in programming and a fresh range of genres. Notable is the re-emergence of mythology during prime time as well as the increasing importance of reality shows, game shows and talent hunts as channel fodder. Here’s how the three new channels have approached the game.
9X: Tried and tested formula
9X took a brand-centric approach to its launch. This is demonstrated in the emphasis placed by chief executive officer Indrani Mukerjea on the high-end look and feel of the channel. Early programming and scheduling tracked closely what was on STAR TV.
Mukerjea invested in building the brand and launching the channel with a relatively high volume of original shows, all with top quality production values and packaging. The channel spared no expense in assembling a high profile executive team, including STAR TV veterans such as Anthony Pettifer (group director, brand and communications), Robert Bland (head, revenue) and Richard Platt (head, programming). Production companies have benefited from (and lamented) 9X’s approach to on-screen talent – paying contestants in reality shows to attract the best amongst them is a practice that 9X has encouraged.
To date, primetime shows on 9X haven’t managed to garner ratings above an average TVR of 0.4. The much anticipated Jiya Jale and Kya Dil Mein Hai disappointed on the numbers front. 9X’s biggest series so far has been Kaahani Hamaaray Mahabharat Ki. High production values, a well conceived design and glamour based casting made this the most anticipated mythological serial of the summer.
NDTV Imagine: Innovative
Brash confidence in the mass audience characterises NDTV’s approach to commissioning. NDTV Imagine has an innovative programming strategy and it has given a fresh look to the GEC programming mix with newer programme genres (Bombay Fashion) and a mix of counter programming (mythology leads to soap leads to thriller and back to mythology to comedy, as opposed to back-to-back comedy shows or mythologicals), omnibuses (stacked shows as in, for example, six episodes of a particular serial at the weekend), several costume dramas and innovative FPC (fixed point chart, or fixed schedules at a particular time) placements.
In terms of innovation, NDTV Imagine has thrown in a number of new programming ideas into the GEC mix: Dhanush, Bollywood Fashion Week, Angreji Mein Kehte Hain and Nachle Ve with Saroj Khan. But none of these has really performed, except Nachle Ve with Saroj Khan.
Mythology and fantasy have traditionally done well, though they went out in 2000-01 due to audience saturation. The gamble NDTV Imagine took in bringing them back with Ramayan is being hailed as a masterstroke.
Colors: ‘Fearless’ entry
Colors CEO Rajesh Kamat believes that innovative programmes and disruptive marketing tactics will propel his channel into the Top 3.
Three flagship series were planned to take on this challenge: Fear Factor Khatron Ke Khiladi, the most expensive reality show yet to hit Indian television; Mohe Rang De, a high gloss drama that attempts to break away from the ‘saas-bahu’ dramas featured on other channels; and Jai Sri Krishna, capitalising on the religion/ mythology genre proliferating on television.
Clever scheduling tactics have been deployed. Bucking the “soaps at 10pm” trend, for instance, Colors used the time slot to schedule the action packed reality show, Khatron Ke Khiladi, which has brought in a lot of otherwise non-GEC viewing audience, helping the channel garner a commendable average TVR of 2 in its first week. This programme is part of a ‘tent-poling’ programming strategy, which creates a large audience spike, taking up the preceding and following shows’ numbers up, too. Kaun Banega Crorepati did this successfully for Kyunki… Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi in 2000. The audience disruption caused by Khatron Ke Khiladi is bound to make a dent in the existing GECs’ viewership.
Khatron Ke Khiladi has been followed by Colors’ next big reality series, Bigg Boss Season 2, hosted by actor Shilpa Shetty. Colors’ foray into the mythological space with Jai Sri Krishna at 8.30pm seems to have created some interest. Perhaps, the series would have done better had it not been pitted against stronger shows on STAR Plus and Zee TV (Kis Desh Mein Hai Mera Dil and Maayka, respectively). Another bold move on the part of Colors was to take up a topic like child marriage through Balikaa Vadhu. While the programme might not appeal to an urban audience, it is expected to find instant audiences in states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. This programme is seen by experts as a potential lead soap in days to come.
Kicking off in style
The launch strategy of each of the three new general entertainment channels (GECs) is directed by their founder’s lineage and business model.
9X: Best practice trendsetter
The brainchild of chief executive officer Indrani Mukerjea and ex-STAR TV head and industry mogul Peter Mukerjea, 9X started from scratch with backing from investors including Kotak; Singapore’s state investment vehicle Temasek; and US private equity firm New Silk Route. Keen to capitalise on the gap created in the GEC market for a strong No. 3, Mukerjea introduced a channel with high production values aimed at a broader swathe of the urban plus market.
In devising ad sales strategies, 9X challenged prevailing industry norms by introducing founder advertiser relationships, performance transparency in deals, structured rate cards and Club INX members (founder advertisers such as Vodafone, Reliance Industries and the Future Group). Now, however, CPRP (cost per rating point) deals have become the industry norm and all three challengers seem to have been compelled to structure their sales around that metric.
9X took a mainstream approach to its launch marketing, reaching out through an aggressive three stage, 360 degree communication campaign, which was rolled out on 25 TV stations, 35 radio stations in 28 cities, hundreds of cinema screens in 19 cities, running more than 2,000 spots a day. There was also a print campaign across all key national and regional newspapers. 9X was also the on-air and on-ground sponsor of the India-Pakistan cricket series during November and December 2007.
In the first stage of its launch, 9X focused on creating brand impact with teaser campaigns. It was projected as a product, like a fairness cream or an anti-ageing product. The second stage aimed to create awareness of the channel itself. In the third stage, programming based campaigns were launched.
9X spent a hefty Rs 75 crore on its launch. The result: 17.9 million viewers tuned in during its launch week. Compare this to the latest reach figures of 41.9 million, an impressive 135 per cent increase in nine months. It attracts a slightly female audience with a relatively larger number of younger viewers – 15-34 year olds.
NDTV Imagine: Friends and family
NDTV Imagine, which was a new channel in an existing network culture, benefited from the availability of established systems and relationships, but the wily Sameer Nair brought with him colleagues from STAR such as the creative head, Shailaja Kejriwal, executive vice-president (EV-P), revenue, Harsh Rohatgi, and EV-P, operations, Gaurav Gandhi.
Early on, NDTV Imagine chose to sell ad inventory independent of NDTV’s own ad sales company, NDTV Media. It raised the eyebrows of industry folk familiar with old STAR politics. Do the prejudices continue after seven years? This further pressurised Nair to bring in the advertisers with his channel launch.
Launched just weeks after 9X, NDTV Imagine took a programming led approach to its launch, believing that audiences watch shows, not channels. Its new programming slate included Dhoom Macha De, Radha Ki Betiyaan, Dharam Veer and Nachle Ve with Saroj Khan.
NDTV spent about Rs 60 crore on the launch. Around 15-20 per cent of this was on outdoor promotions, 20 per cent on radio spots and 60 per cent on print and television together.
NDTV Imagine pioneered the devotional route to advertise its mega show, Ramayan. Posters and banners were used and the title track of Ramayan was played for devotees in 7,000 temples across India. Leveraging the NDTV family of channels, other on-ground events, such as an interactive RQ (Ramayan quotient) quiz, was aired on news channel NDTV India to test the knowledge of participants on the epic.
Marketing campaigns were launched with a focus on the Hindi belt. The launch campaign aimed to reach out to multiple touchpoints in 60 metros and mini metros. The media mix included TV, print, outdoor, radio, Internet, mobile, direct marketing and other innovative activities. NDTV Imagine roped in blue chip advertisers such as Hindustan Unilever Ltd, Paras, Emami, Cadbury, General Motors and Hero Honda.
Colors: Catching up quickly
Launched in July 2008, Colors completes the Viacom18 bouquet of channels in India with a wide reaching adult mass appeal offering. Colors, headed by Rajesh Kamat (who holds an MBA and is a former Endemol and STAR TV executive), has a corporatised structure. Backed by Viacom and TV18, it spared no expense in recruiting professionals. Uppermost on the mind of the CEO of the youngest of the challengers must have been: “How can we upstage the alma mater, STAR TV, and grab the top spot?”
The big and ambitious Fear Factor: Khatron Ke Khiladi was a fitting metaphor for Kamat’s plans. The channel appropriated actor Akshay Kumar as its brand ambassador over the launch period, plastering billboards and other media with his image in the advertising for both the show and the channel. Industry sources put Colors’ launch budget at between Rs 35 crore and Rs 45 crore, spent on high profile coverage in the country’s top 90 cities and towns, spread across the Hindi speaking markets.
Colors also launched programme specific advertising for its three key properties: Khatron Ke Khiladi, Mohe Rang De and Jai Sri Krishna. The Colors brand was printed on the menu in McDonald's outlets. With every special meal, customers were given Khatron Ke Khiladi merchandise.
For Jai Sri Krishna, Colors tied up with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). The show was promoted at every ISKCON temple in India. Colors branded the ‘prasad’ stalls, giving out merchandise, literature and calendars. For Mohe Rang De, the channel organised street plays in Punjab and Delhi.
So far, Colors has achieved breakthrough audience numbers for its early weeks on air, ranking as the No. 3 channel in its second week on air. It remains to be seen how it measures up now that its flagship serial, Khatron Ke Khiladi, has ended.
The TV ad market is expected to grow sharply in the next two years. GECs will grow with renewed energy, thanks to the excitement infused into the space by the newcomers. More money coming into the sector will help create more content choices and more jobs. However, the entry of the new players is also changing the game quite sharply and unpredictably.
There are minefields on the path ahead:
• There is a massive bubble of ad inventory building up.
• The TV landscape is turning into an ad buyers’ market.
• Cost of resources, content, carriage and promotions is growing exponentially.
• Channel launches continue unabated. Already looming on the horizon is the Turner Alva Group’s GEC.
• Regional GEC launches are causing further fragmentation within the GEC genre.
Given the booby traps in their path, the trio will need to navigate carefully. So far, it has been a creditable show thanks to their intrepid leaders. The stakes are high and the balance of power will shift constantly as incumbents and challengers battle it out.