Sameer Nair, CEO of NDTV Imagine, a subsidiary of NDTV Networks Plc, needs no introduction. He is regarded as the most influential person in popular television entertainment circuit. With a clever programming and scheduling strategy, he changed the fortune of STAR TV, then a fledgling channel, which is yet to be dislodged from its numero uno position in the general entertainment space. In this interview to Soma Das of FE, Nair shares his gameplan for NDTV Imagine. Excerpts:
NDTV Imagine has had a successful debut, giving Sony and INX a tough fight for the No 3 slot among general entertainment channels. STAR and ZEE are still at No 1 and No 2 positions with over 50% share in viewership...
NDTV Imagine has done well for itself. Our focus has been on original content and we haven’t taken aid of steroids like events and movies, which ensures a high viewership for a specific occasion. As a premeditated intent, our strategy has paid off and we have emerged as the undisputed No 3 after STAR and ZEE in the week-day, prime-time band. But TVR (television rating), at the end of the day, is a seesaw game. We didn’t count MAX under GEC (general entertainment channel) category.
If we did, the channel was a clear No 1 during the IPL matches. Anyway, June onwards, we start launching weekend programmes, followed by afternoon slots. We plan to add one programme a fortnight, as it is difficult to promote all of them simultaneously.
Isn’t the GEC space getting cluttered? How many channels will survive?
I hope all survive. Currently, there are three major ones and they have their offshoot channels. The addition of three to four more—say Imagine, 9X, Viacom 18’s channel and subsequently Miditech’s proposed venture—might create some turmoil. As new players, we will challenge the status quo, do things differently. Others should and will also do that. That should set the sparks flying.
How will you differentiate yourself?
By focusing on fiction. Fiction programming will remain the mainstay of the channel with original content. Typically the reality formats are easiest to copy; but then all channels are doing that and looking the same.
You have launched a new genre of classroom format programme with Saroj Khan’s dance show and a spoken English show. Do they work?
More than creating a new category, the shows are about serving a need. There are two such self improvement shows—one is the Saroj Khan’s Nach Le Ve, a rage among the target group of four-to-14-year-old girls. Then there is the spoken English show. Some in India speak a smattering of English, some don’t speak at all, but they all aspire to. These shows have done decently in terms of TVRs.
The ‘self improvement’ format is about picking up a new skill for which there is demand. Cookery shows have fulfilled the same need for ages.
Internationally, subscription-based revenue accounts for a substantial share of a broadcaster’s earnings, but in India it is almost inconsequential. Do you see this changing?
Internationally, subscription revenue accounts for up to 60%, but in India, for a new channel, it is almost nil. As we proceed towards digitisation, it will gradually become a formidable source of income. All channels have built that source in their business plan.
For now, we have around five million digital homes in the country, DTH (direct to home) and CAS (conditional access system) homes combined. With Reliance and Bharti set to launch their DTH ventures soon, we hope the addressability of homes is at a cusp from where things will now take off. Once that happens at a full scale, the business model will change. It will also transform TV viewing habits. Right now the viewers are imprisoned in the broadcaster’s schedule through analogue TV. As one moves to digital, the viewer will reserve the right to arrange one’s life according to one’s own convenience.
At one level it could prove demanding for the broadcasters, who would be pushed to create programmes of superior quality, to advertise them and monetise them properly. But to match the international standards in terms of subscription revenue, it will take us a minimum of five to six years.
How will a subscription model work in India?
It might essentially work in two ways. The smaller niche channel may become subscription driven in terms of revenues. In India, the English channels may fall in that category. These are likely to have higher subscription for lower bases. GECs are most likely to be ad-driven and consequently ratings supported.
Ad revenue will always follow eyeballs as advertisers are looking for a large catchment area for viewers, which can only be delivered by a mass channel. The Indian case study will emerge as a mutation between the two.
At STAR, you bought international formats such as Kaun Banega Crorepati. Are you planning to do something similar for Imagine as well?
We have already bought some international formats that are yet to go on air. Talks are on with Endemol, Sony Pictures, Columbia, Freemantle to zero in on more such formats.
At STAR you also bought a stake in Balaji Films to ensure that Balaji gave its best content to STAR. Any such plans for Imagine?
Balaji was already giving the best of its content to STAR when the decision was taken. At that time it was a very simple strategic move to secure one’s content supply line. By buying a stake in the production house, one could prevent a potential hostile takeover of the company on which the channel depended heavily. Sometimes it’s also an investment option.
You’ve tied up with Kreeda to launch a game on Nach Le Ve. What’s the gameplan?
The tie-up with Kreeda was finalised before the show went on air. It is a simple arrangement in which you can play a game based on the show. It works both ways, Kreeda got the licence to create the show and we got our share of the promotion.
There are other initiatives—Ramayana got syndicated in Tamil and is shown on Sun TV where it is the No 4 programme. Gemini and Surya are following suit. We are distributing Dharamveer comics as a promotional campaign. We are interested in the home video space. We are also interested in the mobile space.
You were heading a semi bouquet at STAR Entertainment. How has your role changed after you joined NDTV Imagine, a GEC?
NDTV Imagine is not a GEC. The mandate for NDTV Imagine is to build an entertainment business. We have launched our world cinema business, NDTV Lumiere. We have acquired the rights to 300 films, and many of these will be released in theatres. We have entered the home video segment, then pay-per-view, and subsequently launch a TV channel. We are getting into film production, and getting into infrastructure, which means post production, animation facilities etc.
When will NDTV Imagine make its foray into regional channels?
Next year. But we will have to pick and choose in terms of language. Some language markets are oversaturated.