Television

'We are now the number four C&S entertainment channel' : Markand Adhikari - vice-chairman & managing director SAB TV

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It was in 1985 that two Gujarati brothers set up Sri Adhikari Brothers Television Network Ltd (SABTNL), making low budget serials for National broadcaster Doordarshan.

Twenty-one years on, they are counted among the most successful serial makers of India and have their own channel to boot.

The brothers, Markand and Gautam, launched their 24-hour Hindi entertainment channel, Sabe (Sri Adhikari Brothers Entertainment) TV, on April 23 2000 beaming digitally as a free-to-air channel on Asiasat 3 and immediately made a mark with melodramas like "Pratishodh" and "Lekin", comedies like "Yes Boss" and "Abhi To Mai Jawan Hoon" plus thrillers, horror shows and a special kids band.

On 1 November 2000 Sabe TV hopped onto the gameshow bandwagon following in the wake of the popularity of Star India‘s "Kaun Banega Crorepati" hosted by filmstar Amitabh Bachchan. Roping in India‘s king of the stand-up routine Shekhar Suman as its anchor, an estimated RS 80 million was sunk into "Jab Khelo Sab Khelo" (JKSK). The show didn‘t exactly set the air waves on fire but it did help build the channel‘s recognition levels. JKSK will go off air by month-end after Suman‘s decision not to renew his contract, but the show has served its purpose says Markand Adhikari, the company‘s vice-chairman and managing director.

SABTNL continues to produce content for national broadcaster Doordarshan and markets airtime for these related programmes. Currently, it provides about 10 hours of programming per week for Doordarshan‘s Hindi and Marathi language channels.

Sabe TV claims it now reaches over 15 million homes across India.

What is not so well known is that SABTNL has joint ventures in Sri Lanka and Indonesia for programming. Its Sri Lankan programmes are rated amongst the top five on the island, going by company assessments.

Sabe TV is a month shy of completing a year on air and indiantelevision.com caught up with Markand Adhikari for a lowdown on where the channel was headed.

Excerpts:

How is Sabe TV doing in terms of audience shares among C&S households?

We are now the number four channel in C&S homes with an 8.9 audience share, which is great going if you consider that we are less than a year old.

[TAM data covering 14 cities excluding the South for the prime time band 7:00 pm to 9:00 PM According to the figures provided, Star Plus leads with 28.4 followed by Zee (26.1), Sony (21.8) and Sabe TV (8.9). Then comes DD1 (7.7), DD2 (5.9) B4U Entertainment (0.9) and Sahara (0.4)]

The figures are rather confusing. Isn‘t Sony the number two channel?

Actually Zee is doing quite well now in the prime time slot. Its numbers have really picked up with some good shows on air.

Where have you reached in terms of advertising?

We have 25 companies advertising with us at this point. Our growth has been a steady one.

In which geographical markets has Sabe TV been successful?

We have been doing well in the Hindi belt in general but Uttar Pradesh in particular. Kanpur and Ludhiana to mention two cities where we are particularly strong. In the western region, in Gujarat and Maharashtra too, our growth has been satisfactory.

What time slots have notched up success for you?

As I mentioned earlier, our growth has been steady in the prime time band and we want to consolidate on that. The prime time afternoon band, 2 PM to 4 PM, is another area where we are doing well.

What of your gameshow "Jab Khelo Sab Khelo"? It is being wound up now with anchor Shekhar Suman leaving and all? Did it meet your objectives?

It certainly was successful in that it increased our visibility tremendously so it achieved its purpose. While the show ran we received a total of 12.5 million hits on phone and through the net. When the show started we had installed about 1,500 decoders across the country. We now have 3,000 installed. So we have certainly been successful with the show. And we have not lost that momentum either. Come April, we will be installing 500 more.

Did the show break even or was it a loss maker for you?

It was no loss for us because it increased our visibility as a channel. And at the stage where we are now that was required. We have not really looked at it in terms of how much money we sunk in and how much financial returns we got.

(Though Adhikari didn‘t provide any figures it is said that over RS 80 million was spent on the show)

Have you any other high profile show lined up to follow on what Jab Khelo Sab Khelo achieved?

We are working with film star Karishma Kapoor on a project which will kick off next month. We are planning road shows which will have high public interactivity. Again as a means to highlight our presence.

Have you anything bigger lined up with her. Like her on show for instance?

At this stage no. We‘ll have to see how this works out first and we‘ll take it from there.

What of new programming? Sony‘s next big thing which it hopes will rival Star‘s hit "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi" is set for launch soon. They have lined up "Kusum" from the Balaji stable. (Balaji Productions has overtaken SABTNL as the top production house in the country). Do you have any such in the pipeline?

What we are showing on our 7 to 9 prime time band is all fresh programming. And even with a show like Alif Laila which has already had its run on Doordarshan we are commissioning 500 brand new episodes. Balaji is also doing programming for us.

Speaking of Balaji, isn‘t it a bit strange that you are outsourcing programming from your principal rival in the production business?

We don‘t look at it like that? We are quite clear that our channel should have good programming and we are ready to approach whoever will provide that?

Talking of Balaji, its CEO Sanjay Dosi was quite emphatic that Balaji wouldn‘t start a new channel because there might some conflict of interest. A perception that Balaji would devote their best creative efforts for their own channel. What is your opinion on this?

The very fact that we are taking programming from Balaji shows that we have separated Sabe TV and SABTNL as far as functioning goes. They are different entities with different requirements.

And as far as starting a new channel goes we went in for it because we wanted to grow beyond being just a production house. In this business you grow or you‘re dead.

How long do you think it will take for you to reach break-even point?

We are aiming for a three year break-even. That is mid 2003.

How much have you invested in Sabe TV?

We have factored Rs 125 crores (RS 1.25 billion) for this three year period.

You say that you are number four at present. Is that really enough if you consider all the channels that have cropped up? Except for the Big Three all the other channels appear to be scrapping for the crumbs. In this scenario how confident are you that Sabe TV will be able to create an identity of its own? Firstly keep in mind that we are less than a year old. And our strength which is programming is being reflected in the kind of shows on Sabe TV. We have a clear identity which is slowly coming through to the viewers. Anyone who comes to Sabe TV will see a clear trend in the way we organise our programming because we believe that the viewer should know what he can get from our channel. That is one reason we never went in for screening movies like the other channels have done. We are an entertainment channel and we are very clear on that.

But aren‘t the highest TRPs usually for blockbuster movies?

If people want to watch movies they are movie channels for that. As I said we are an entertainment channel and movies are not part of our script. People want something different and fresh and that will be our effort. To provide them that.

How is the distribution deal with Turner working out? Have the arrangements evolved to another level? There are some strong rumours that Turner is considering taking a stake in Sabe TV. Any comments?

The distribution deal is in place and we share a good relationship which is bound to grow. That is all I can say at this point. (Adhikari has been quoted as saying that the channel was open to "an alliance" involving the placement of 30 per cent stake with a strategic partner)

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