'India is among the top three markets for us in Asia' : HBO South Asia country head Shruti Bajpai

For 10 years, HBO has warmed up audiences with big movie titles, library content and branding as a premium English movie channel.

The arrival of more players has not shaken up HBO‘s positioning. The channel has grown amid audience fragmentation and India surfaces today as the top three markets in Asia.

In an interview with‘s Ashwin Pinto, HBO South Asia country head Shruti Bajpai talks about the the channel‘s decade-old existence in India and the plans ahead.



We are at a time when a lot of English channels are looking to come in. What is the reason for all this rush?

There has been an influx of channels for some time now but it is not as though it is happening all of a sudden. Nevertheless, what is happening now is that with HD and DTH spreading their reach, a lot of specialised channels are looking at India. There is more interest as licences have been got and we are now hearing about more launches. Since Indian television has expanded, there has been a steady increase and there is more of an influx of English entertainment channels.



For long-existing players like HBO what challenges does this present?

The challenge is to retain existing viewership and get new viewers. And it is not just competition from the English entertainment channels, but also from theatrical releases and other forms of out-of-home entertainment. We have to be on our toes in terms of constantly refreshing content, delivering our promise of blockbusters and giving the extra value of entertainment that viewers don‘t get to watch anywhere in the form of HBO Originals.

We will continue to do this as more and more channels come in. We have been successful as a brand and as a channel by increasing our offerings year on year.



In the English film space, new entrants have caused fragmentation. Players including HBO have lost some share. What is HBO‘s overall game plan to counter this?

I will answer this on two levels. All genres have fragmented with new players coming in and the English movie genre is no exception. Content has to be compelling for people to continue watching. On the other hand, maybe the way English entertainment viewership is tracked needs to change. Our measurement is still traditional. As more people enhance their TV watching experience through digitisation, channels get watched more. We need to look at the reporting of English entertainment space.

I don‘t believe that the picture presented through traditional measurement is completely true. Why is there so much interest by companies to launch English entertainment channels if people were watching less of it? I am not sure if we feel that the measurement of digital homes has no scope for improvement. It has to capture the actual increase in the television viewing universe. Perhaps the measurement base has to be expanded. The measurement system has to keep pace with the pace of digitisation.



How is HBO celebrating 10 years of operating in this space?

From September on, we have 10 best films of the year. Our spots will celebrate the landmark.

We are also refreshing our look and feel. This is being done in-house out of Singapore and comes into effect next month. The graphics, colours and fonts are being improved upon to give the channel a livelier and friendlier look.



In terms of business generated and viewership, where does India stand versus other Asian markets like Singapore and Hong Kong?

It is a priority market. India is in the top three. It has the potential to surprise you with viewership increases.



‘I can‘t give a timeframe as to when we will launch more channels. As I have said before, it has to make business sense. The timing has to be right and the market has to be large enough‘



Has there been any difference in focus this year compared to the previous years?

There has been more focus on HBO Originals. Our line-up has been better than in previous years in terms of the slate of movies like The Dark Knight, Star Trek, Terminator Salvation, Angels and Demons. Hollywood Premier League continues to grow for us. The aim is to balance the quality and quantity of content and to better ourselves at our own game.


Has any research been done to find out how HBO is perceived?

It is our mix of raters and differentiators that has led to a high perception among viewers. When you do a poll and research, viewers say that they like us for the kind of films we show. Even now we get talked about for movies like An Inconvenient Truth, Blood Diamond, A Mighty Heart, The Kite Runner. A lot of movies that will come to HBO like Invictus are doing well critically and theatrically.

There is a high quality perception that viewers have of HBO. This helps us maintain our brand image. We are not known by the last title we show. What makes a viewer remember a channel more than the last title is the entire package and this is where we score.



Has loyalty come into this genre or is it just a question of who has the better titles at primetime?

It is a mix. You have the top two channels - HBO and Star Movies. Then there is a distinct number three. This has been happening for 10 years. There is a diverse selection on HBO ranging from romantic films to sci-fi. You cannot just have raters and one kind of film. Otherwise a dubbed English movie channel would be on top.

We keep our ears to the ground and make the schedule as sharp as possible. It has evolved over a continuous basis. The number of movies shown is highest on HBO. You need to see how you hold the audience‘s interest. Make sure it is known as a brand not just for raters but also for things like True Blood. If somebody wants sci-fi, they can watch films in that genre. If they want blockbusters, it is there. The variety we offer is something nobody else has and this has led to the loyalty. It is not just about stitching films together and launching a channel.



What are the steps that HBO has taken to grow the audience base over the years?

Our primetime is not what has been traditionally defined. It is when people are watching it the most. Then you can grow it. Are there specific opportunities for genres like action and romance? When are women watching it the most? When do men come in? What about teens? It is the on-going job of the person in charge of programming and scheduling to look at ways and means to use this data to expand viewership.

We were the first to come out with a block for women - HBO Time Out - years ago. We did a ‘HBO See It First on Sunday‘ block and now Star Movies has come out with something similar. We created a slot for kids, teens with Whazzup years back. If you remember, other channels did things like Action Mondays, Romantic Tuesdays. It was genre based and not viewer based. We were the ones who came out with a viewer based, profile targetted strategy.



Has the way in which viewers consume HBO changed over the past three years?

Three years back I would not have expected our series, True Blood, to have done so well. It is not all about creepy crawlies and a sinking ship. Thinking man‘s films are doing better now. I would give the example of Revolutionary Road which got positive feedback. Over the years due to more exposure, people have grown to appreciate films like this. But the basics do not change. Action continues to do well.



Are you looking at dubbing?

We do this as a one off. I don‘t think that it works to do it often as it can put viewers off. The channels that show dubbed movies are targetting viewers who do not understand English well. This is expanding the market for English films. For us, though, subtitles are enough. It helps with those films where accents are tough to understand.


 When do HBO‘s licensing deals with studios come up for renewal?

These are multi-year deals. I cannot talk about the time frame.



Pix has now gone into the blockbuster space as library content does not work that well. How do you see this impacting the other players?

Every movie channel has some blockbusters. I don‘t understand the big deal. There is no comparison to the number of blockbusters HBO and Star Movies brings versus what the other channels can bring. The key is to compare how blockbusters rate among the channels.


What role does library content play in getting viewers?

You need to have good amount of blockbusters that rate. But library also delivers ratings. It is this mix that makes or breaks a channel. We make sure that library titles are something that Indians want to watch. We do not have a library for the sake of it. We do programming around franchises like Lord Of The Rings. We are running a Star Trek franchise. It has to be relevant. 


How will HBO be celebrating the festive season? Which are the big properties coming up?

Our festive season kicks in early due to our 10th anniversary which we celebrate next month. We have the 10 Best Movies Of The Year initiative. On the television series front, we will air True Blood followed by Number One Ladies Detective‘s Agency followed by Hung over the next couple of months. We will have films like Public Enemies, Gran Torino, Julie and Julia. We will have a big Diwali Festival. We will have the Diwali Blockbuster of the month and Blockbuster Of The Year coming up in November. There will also be India specific programming. We are looking at two shows in this regard.


What unique initiatives have been lined up on the marketing front in a crowded marketplace?

We don‘t spend a lot, but we spend smart. We will be doing a campaign next month to push films and the fact that we are celebrating 10 years. We will use social networks to talk about 10 years and the message will be Celebrating 10 Years.

The digital platform is definitely important for us. The teenagers going into their 20s are absorbing media. Where are their touch points? We focus on social communities because we have to be there where the potential viewers are. Sometimes we do not have to spend a lot but focus on building communities where goodwill for our channel can be garnered. This cannot be one off for a title. The online conversation has to be about the HBO brand.



With the new players coming into the English entertainment space as a whole, do you see the ad pie correspondingly growing?

It will not de-grow. There is a high level of involvement that happens with the English movie genre compared to other genres like English news. So there are advertisers who will always want to reach out to this segment. You have FMCGs that have a luxury range. You have holiday destinations, insurance companies. Cola companies will come out with more offerings. They want to reach the viewer as you cannot take Hollywood out of the life of an Indian. I see a healthy ad revenue growth this year.


How is the mood in the ad market this year compared to last year?

It is more upbeat. We are back on track in terms of the interest levels among advertisers. Our primetime inventory is almost completely utilised for the year. It is about the brand image that we have cultivated over the years that has stood us in good stead. We make sure that there is not much clutter on-air.


Could you give me examples of packages that HBO offers clients that go beyond the 30-second spot?

We have been pioneers when it comes to brand integration. We once did a ‘Maruti Suzuki Live The Moment‘ initiative. The movies were about living the moment. For an initiative with HDFC Children‘s Plan, we showcased films like Pursuit Of Happyness. For the two wheeler Scooty, we did a Babelicious initiative. We also do things like HBO Scorecard that builds engagement. All this has solidified our relationship with advertisers.


Do you feel that the English movie genre should compete better against other genres like English news for ad revenue?

The involvement is different. We would be higher in the pecking order in terms of the kinds of ads shown. We have a disciplined niche quality when it comes to advertising and the viewer experience. The engagement that a viewer has with news would be much less compared to movies. The engagement is deeper with English movies. An English movie viewer might check out the news first when he gets home at around 8 pm or so. Then he will watch a movie at around 9 pm. To compare the two genres though is not fair.


How is the deal with Zee Turner working out in terms of reaching the smaller towns and cities more effectively?

The relationship with Zee Turner been working well. There is an opportunity to grow more in the smaller cities and towns. At the same time, our marketing budget is limited. There is only so much we can do. We have to focus, prioritise and take a call. But it makes sense to expand the market. It is part of our long term plan.


Do you see 3G having a big impact on this genre?

This is not something immediate, but it will definitely happen. We have to take a cautious approach initially to this. It will be slow and steady for us. 3G will happen at its own pace and time.


HBO also has a women-centric channel abroad. When will this come in?

I cannot give a timeframe as to when we will launch more channels. As I have said before, it has to make business sense. The timing has to be right and the market has to be large enough. The distribution scenario is changing as we speak. Cas is not spreading as had been expected earlier but digitisation is. 

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