'Max will see 15-20% ad growth this year' : Executive Vice-President and Business Head of Max and Sony Mix Neeraj Vyas

Neeraj Vyas, the Executive Vice-President and Business Head of Max and Sony Mix, is excited with the way the year went for Max, the Hindi movie channel from Multi Screen Media (MSM) stable.

As the head of Max and Mix, Vyas has two challenges before him. The first is to take Max to the top position. The channel?s strategy will be to acquire as many blockbuster movies as possible but at the same time remain judicious with the acquisition prices.

The second challenge for Vyas is to grow Sony Mix, the music channel that was launched last year to widen the bouquet. The key for Mix, which operates in a tough genre, is to differentiate itself from other music channels through its programme offering while at the same time control costs to become viable.

In an interview with Javed Farooqui and Urvi Malvania, Vyas shares his thoughts about the two channels and the way forward.


Has the rise of Star Gold and the launch of its sibling channel affected the existing movie channels?

Strictly from the ratings point of view, barring the first two months and post the IPL, it has been good for us. If you look at the ratings that were available three weeks back for the first 8-9 weeks, there is very little difference between the three of us - Star Gold, Zee Cinema, and Max. We have also had a successful movie acquisition year.

How dependent is Max on big-ticket movie acquisitions as it has a premium positioning?

Movie channels are completely driven by the library they have. Max has managed to have a premium image. It?s completely by design and not by default because it?s the way we want the channel and it?s the way we present the channel. It?s everything that you see on-air -- the entire movie experience and our packaging. We want to set ourselves apart from others and hence did Extra Shots last year, a property where you get your trivia during the break and also put that into a half-an-hour show. This year we did something called Dirty Khabar.

Does the premium positioning help Max get higher ad rates?

It has helped us to extract premium from the advertisers. There are a lot of lifestyle brands, a lot of brands that are very conscious of the kind of environment they are seen in from an imagery point of view. If the advertisers have a choice between two or more channels, then Max will always be preferred.

Did the ad slowdown have an impact on Max?s revenues?

There was no ad slowdown. In fact, we will see at least 15-20 per cent growth this year. The ad market for Hindi movie genre is a little under Rs 1,000 crore (Rs 10 billion).

?The music genre accounts for about Rs 4 bn and is growing at 15% annually mainly due to new channel launches. We have set a 3- year period to break even?


What is driving this growth?

There is money in the market, brands are being launched, and there are marketing activities. So there is no slowdown in my opinion. It (the slowdown) was a myth that was being created. At least till November or probably mid-December, we are tight on our inventory and are completely sold out.

But there are broadcasters who have felt the pinch of ad slowdown?

You tell me which broadcaster has slowed down in terms of content. Has anybody pulled back any shows? Despite no ratings, every GEC is going ahead with their biggest shows. There are two-three reality shows running on all the channels which are hugely expensive properties to produce. GECs are doing one-hour specials of their fiction shows and movie channels like us are marketing and putting more blockbusters on-air. Why would people do all these things if there was no money in the market? Give me a reason. I think the same people (who talk about a slowdown) need to answer this question.

After a lull last year, has there been a spate of movie acquisitions this year?

Yes, there was a lull. The way it (acquisition) works is if I have to acquire a film, I have to do it a good year-and-a-half before the film is released. If a producer doesn?t get the price he wants, he waits for the box office performance of his film. Depending on the success or failure of the film, the price gets decided. The trend these days is strange as you have to acquire movies upfront. It sometimes works for you and sometimes it doesn?t, so you have to be judicious.

Has there been a price correction in acquiring movies?

Unfortunately, what happens is that this industry is driven only by seven to eight stars. Unless we have more stars it will continue to be dominated by these 7-8 stars and it?s essentially these men who lead the prices -- the Khans, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and Ranbir Kapoor. If the price is going to be determined by these 7-8 stars, then their films will be sold at a premium.

But a large number of movies go unsold?

That is because the films of only these 7-8 guys get the ratings. For example, a film like Vicky Donor was liked by many but on television it won?t get you a rating of even 1.5 TVR. Ratings for most GECs and time spent for channels like us come from the interiors of the country and the audience in the interiors is for films like Singham and Rowdy Rathore. That?s the reality.

Do you think acquiring movies on the basis of box office success is the criteria to follow?

Honestly, that can be misleading. For example, Barfi is a brilliant film but put it on TV... probably it will get a rating of 2-3 TVR in the first airing, but it?s not a movie that will get sustained ratings. Movie channels have a different model. When a film airs on television 10 times a year it has to give a certain yield and it has to give certain GRPs. As I said, the viewership comes from the interior.

Zee walked out of the Barfi deal because at such high price point the monetisation becomes impossible. A correction is needed. It?s a no-brainer. Zee?s refusal to acquire Barfi rights was a step in the right direction. It also serves as a wake-up call for the producers or the corporates producing high-budget films. They have to get the pricing right irrespective of the box office collection because that is not connected to the success of the film on TV.

Many networks have also experimented by premiering movies on GECs rather than the movie channel?

That is a calculated gamble. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn?t. It?s a high-risk game because the price points of both the genres are hugely different. A GEC would trade at a certain level. Unfortunately movie channels have been under-priced since the beginning. By the time we start doing corrections, it is going to take time. The kind of money we recover on GECs will be far higher than on a movie channel. The yield is higher on GEC which is why we as an organisation have taken a decision to air certain movies like Paan Singh Tomar on Max but movies like Ek Tha Tiger and Rowdy Rathore will always be on Sony from a monetary point of view and its working for us. Once Sony has its one or two runs, it comes to Max and it really doesn?t make a difference. What this does is safeguard our revenues and we manage our ratings better.

How long does it take for a broadcaster to recover costs?

For us it probably takes a little lesser time because we premiere on Sony. Our recovery is higher. It takes anywhere between two to three years to recover the costs. We acquire movies for a minimum of five years. We have a library of 800 movies and all of them are exclusive.

Next year, IPL won?t be there on Max since it will move to Sony Six. So what is your strategy going to be?

We are a Hindi movie channel and we are happy that IPL is moving out. IPL moving out is a blessing for Max since we will get an opportunity to do a lot of things in the Bollywood space.

Most Hindi movie channels also have dubbed content. How is it working?

Almost 25-30 per cent of the content is dubbed and it is working. The prices of dubbed movies have also gone up although I can?t give a number. The dubbed content adds variety to the channel. People in UP and MP don?t know the actors but they love the action. Most of the South Indian films are in the realm of vendetta, revenge, high octane action, family values and so on. These are qualities that fit very well with the sensibilities of the heartland. Indian movies are Indian movies. People might look different but the basic ethos will always remain the same. The trend in Bollywood is that every big film that is going to come will be a remake of some or the other Southern language film. Everyone has acquired remake rights whether it is Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar or Aamir Khan.

What implications will digitisation have on the genre?

We are governed by the reality of libraries that we own. We will be able to run a large number of movies that we have not telecast. Hopefully, we will also get the opportunity to reach out to slightly more premium audiences. Also films like Silsila, Kabhi Kabhi, Rocket Singh and Saawariya which are rotting in our library will be able to see the light of the day.

Coming to Sony Mix, how do you differentiate the channel from the other players in the genre?

We decided to be a channel that is musical and understands the mood of the people. Our programming corresponds to the time of the day. So we have Surili Subah in the morning, Ishq Vishq in the afternoon, Mix Adda in the evening right up to Raina Beeti Jaaye, which is the slot for the retro songs. The promise of the channel is that we understand viewer?s mood at different times of the day. We also went ahead and bought more music than anybody else simply because we wanted variety. So when other channels were playing the free plays and the new music launches, we went ahead and did deals with Yash Raj and Sony Music.

What about your original content?

We have a property called Mix Solos which has singers like Javed Ali, Roop Kumar Rathod and Shafqat Amanat Ali doing acoustic solos for the channel between songs. Then we have something called Mix Tippani where the channel suggests which song to listen to in which situation. We also have a show called Picture Abhi Baki hai. Here we take bytes from the actors, directors, music composers, singers etc -- all with focus on the music and nothing else. It is like a sneak peak with focus on the music of the movie.

These are the things that set us apart and we want to continue doing them. We want to do Harmony again which was on Sony 10 years back. We would love to revive that and have a show that has pure unplugged music. We also had a show "Yun Bana Yeh Song" with Swanand Kirkire where he explained how a song was made and took the viewers through the journey of the song. We have also brought back a lot of videos from the 90s that were huge back then. You see, you have to have a Mix of music for a music channel to be called a music channel.

What is your primary TG? And what was your strategy when you launched Mix?

Our primary TG is 15-24 age group, while our secondary TG is the 25-34 age group. We would never dilute our focus on the secondary TG. We firmly believe that you can?t just cater to the youth which is why we have a Raina Beeti Jaaye at night. Music transcends age and we are going against the grain and not doing what everyone else is doing in the genre. Our belief is that it will pay off with digitisation and people wanting to make a choice.

How tough is it to sustain a Hindi music channel?

If you control your costs, then it is viable to have a music channel. But it is a tough game. We make use of our synergies with Sony Music and YRF. The challenge lies in how you programme your day as everyone has the same content in this genre. The brick of three songs before you go into an ad has to be so strong that it appeals to the audience.

How is the revenue split between distribution and advertising?

Distribution is negligible as a source of revenue right now. It?s completely dependent on ad revenue. We have a wide range of advertisers come to us due to our programming. We have a broad base of viewers and though we are packaged as young and happy, our appeal is across age groups. You have to build the proposition based on the core values. The music genre accounts for about Rs 4 billion and is growing at 15 per cent annually mainly due to new channel launches. We have set a three-year period to break even.

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