HBO may hit break-even by next year

MUMBAI: When premium movie channel HBO launched in India two years ago, it had set itself a goal of breaking even within three to five years. The channel, which has seen a revenue growth of around 20 per cent this year over 2001, says it is already close to breaking even.

Speaking on Monday on the sidelines of a press briefing announcing HBO's move from the Zee Turner platform to the Sony Entertainment-Discovery One alliance bouquet, HBO South Asia managing director James P Marturano spoke at length to about how the channel was positioned currently and what lay ahead.

Marturano said that India currently ranked among the top six markets in Asia for HBO. The top four markets, according to Marturano, are Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand. Indonesia is also a big market, he said.

Queried as to what share of the revenue pie India contributes in Asia, Marturano said it was around 8 per cent currently. Marturano was quite bullish on the channel's growth prospects and pointed to the fact that when it launched, break even was targeted at between three to five years down the line. He said the channel was well on target to achieve that and was already close to breaking even.

Adding to that, HBO director of marketing (India) Shruti Bajpai said ad revenues in 2002 over 2001 were better than expected. Bajpai made the point that for special interest channels there is always advertiser interest, and that HBO's ad inventories were full.

A media buyer that spoke to said there was not really much to choose between HBO and principal rival Star Movies on rates. As far as effective rates are concerned it is about $400 per 30 seconds for both, he said. Asked to point out any particular value add to the advertiser that HBO offered, he reiterated that both the channels were more or less on an equal footing. He, however, pointed out that HBO did appear less cluttered and was stricter as to the amount of ad spots it accommodated. HBO maintains a 15-minute run-time between commercial spots on its movies.

Asked to respond to I&B minister Sushma Swaraj's warning on sleaze on television issued during the DD awards ceremony held in Mumbai over the weekend, Bajpai said this did not affect HBO in any way. Bajpai stated that the kind of censorship guidelines that govern HBO were "more than appropriate for telecast in India."

Talking about programming initiatives, Marturano said December would see a blockbuster marathon showcasing two films a day of the biggest movies HBO telecast during the year.

The really big-ticket offering that will be on air in the New Year though is Mission Impossible 2 with Tom Cruise in the lead role. A major marketing and promotional campaign is planned around that. Among the other big titles on the cards in the coming months are films like The Cell, Universal Soldier: The Return, Romeo Must Die, Hollow Man and The Perfect Storm.

HBO's biggest movie of this year was The Gladiator, which was the Diwali offering and was pitted against rival Star Movies' repeat of Jurassic Park. A rather defensive Bajpai would not comment on the ratings that the film got in the two key metros of Mumbai and Delhi but was quite categorical that when looking at the main nine-city TAM ratings, Gladiator had outslugged the monster movie.

Elaborating on other upcoming events, Marturano said that an HBO original series Tales of the Crypt would be on air in the first quarter of next year. Tales of the Crypt has a lot of star power with the likes of Tom Cruise having presented one of the episodes. To begin with 13 episodes will be telecast and if received well, this number may go up to 26, Marturano said. "We're evaluating other scripts as well but no decisions on that as yet," he added.

HBO also plans to bring 12 of its original movies - one a month - on the channel next year.

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