"We believe in tickling the viewer's funny bone" : Viacom18 Media Sr VP & GM English entertainment Ferzad Palia

Between starting out with Vh1 in early 2005 and taking over its reins in 2010, he has played a large part in finding a place for it in a Bollywood dominated entertainment space. Most of its older cousins could not withstand the sledgehammer like onslaught of Bollywood. MTV and Channel [V] began as international music offerings then transformed into Bollywood music clones and finally morphed into youth oriented channels. But Vh1 has stood tall, boldly delivering International music and content, targeting the upscale youth, under Viacom18 Media Sr vice-president & general manager English entertainment Ferzad Palia's stewardship.

Palia loves the medium and has taken on another challenge: that of making Indian TV viewers tune into and laugh to Comedy Central which offers international comedy of every kind, whether stand up or the slapstick. Indian TV viewers have been relatively indifferent to jokes as they have only entertained a single comedy channel - that also in Hindi, Sab and part of the Sony stable. The task for Palia therefore is double hard, first to introduce them to laughter and then to make them to love it and guffaw to it too. But he is quite up to the task as he discloses to’s Sidharth Iyer in this tete a tete.


Despite stiff competition from the likes of Star World and Zee Café, you seem to be enjoying quite a presence in the English GEC space. Please tell us how?

When we thought of launching the channel, we looked at the English general entertainment space and found there were mainly three peers who’ve been around for the last 12-15 years: Star World, Zee Café and Sony AXN. So it was quite a daunting task to even want to make an entry.

It was really important at that point in time to have a clearly differentiated product unlike the rest, coupled with the insight that comedy is one of the best performing genres in the category and the fact that India needs some serious laughter. So Comedy Central was apt to compete in the English GEC space - a product the consumer knew is a one-stop shop for laughs.

We did the right thing by identifying the gap and making the most of the opportunity by serving a differentiated product; creating a genre within a genre.

The launch was crucial with the kind of buzz we created even before coming in. People came to know we were debuting in India; word-of-mouth did the trick for us clearly. Our test signal was a huge talking point among bloggers, and got social media in a tizzy.

There has been no looking back since. We don’t see ourselves as just another TV channel but as one of Viacom 18’s brands, which the company is heavily invested in.

We believe in striking the right chord with our audiences; tickling their funny bone so to say. We’ve done things differently, even marketing. For example, we did menu cards which had NOW on top and NEVER at the bottom. That won us accolades, and we were able to break the clutter very quickly, getting us the right kind of audience that has stuck with us since.

Down the road, we’ve benefited considerably in getting on board over 150 advertisers across the spectrum. We’ve won loads of awards in India, Asia and more recently, at ProMax World, which is where the cr?me de la cr?me of the television industry converges every year. We’ve managed to bag 13 awards there. So everything’s fallen in place, and we couldn't have asked for more in the 15-18 months of our existence. We continue to experiment with our local programming but are yet to find that one thing that we would be proud to put on the channel to be honest.

We’re aware English comedy is very difficult. So, we’re still in the process of getting that right.

About our on-ground activities, we do believe in the power of engaging directly with our audiences. So whatever you’ve seen in terms of such activities is really just the tip of the iceberg and there’s a lot more in store. So wait and watch…

Over the past year, we’ve completely rebooted our digital presence, addressing each of our brands with consumer properties we’ve been building both online and in the form of applications.

Similarly, the consumer property for Comedy Central has been under development for more than six months now and should be ready for launch by early October. It’s going to be very interesting with various elements to it we would be unveiling.

It would be a good mix of the current bouquet of shows on air and since we’re more genre-driven than show-driven, we would have different strategies for different mediums. We would also be launching a Comedy Central app soon and so, these are interesting times…

Are there any new age marketing gimmicks you’ve deployed?

With each show we try to promote, we attempt to go that extra mile.

For instance, the way we shot an Indian promo for our show Anger Management even though we had a big name in Charlie Sheen…

We use different strategies for different shows: for some, we go with regular above-the-line media whereas for others, we go the full hog on digital to have a fairly digital kind of promotion.

Going back to Anger Management, there was a lot of above-the-line media used, and you will soon get to see some more innovations on the show in the coming weeks.

You will get to see some more path-breaking marketing once we start airing the third season of Suits.

We have a newly incorporated digital team, which is dedicated to engaging our audiences on social media as we are extremely focused as a network.

Our presence on digital is only swelling with 1.6 million likes on Facebook and just over 19,500 followers on our Twitter handle. We are making the right noises and reaping rewards on social media. 

In sum, it’s dynamic stuff like creating special ice cream in collaboration with Baskin Robbins or tying up with small donuts chains. We believe when you’re catering to a select audience, you’ve got to give that something extra where marketing is concerned.

We’re very savvy and adapt to changing trends and going forward, we plan to have newer innovations, like combining TV and digital to create further traction among our fan base.

Speaking of licensing and merchandising tie-ups, we’ve come out with a line of South Park tee-shirts that are available for purchase online and have been hurriedly flying off the shelves. We’re already on this route and many such tie-ups are on the cards.

What is your content strategy for Comedy Central? Do you plan on encouraging co-viewing?

Like any other English entertainment channel, there are different shows that cater to the needs of different sets of audiences. For instance, a show like Mash, a yesteryear classic, will most likely be watched by the father of the household, possibly along with his wife and kid whereas Suits will be viewed by the youngsters above 25 years of age. There’s a bit of synergistic viewing there as well but we don’t define a strategy like we want the entire family to watch. Reason being we would become extremely limited in what we put out so we have different kinds of content for different sets of audiences across the country at different times of the day.

But yes, we would like to believe that there’s a lot of family viewing happening for quite a few of our shows though the person influencing the family to watch together may be different in each case.

Given the environment we are in, everyone wants a laugh and de-stress, so the idea is to not inculcate comedy as a habit but to look at it as a state of mind or as an escape route for some people. So basically you can’t create a habit such as comedy…

What kind of advertisers do you have on board? Do you see any emerging spenders in this space?

For a fairly young channel, we have advertisers from all major sectors including manufacturers (handsets, chewing gum and paint), banks, FMCGs and so on.

So there is no one category driving our ad sales. The good part is we’re getting great traction among advertisers. I mean right from day one of our launch, we had Volkswagen on board, which not many channels can boast of on the first day.

While we’re blessed with a varied set of advertisers from day one, we would still love to have many more spenders on board as it’s a tough market to operate in. Thankfully, things are looking up for us and being a differentiated product is an added bonus as people value us for it. We’re pleased to see the same treatment being meted out to VH1 which is again the only English music and entertainment channel in the country.

How are you faring in terms of numbers?

For English language channels, we feel the sample size is not adequate, so we don't talk numbers. To check the affinity of the brand and to get an unbiased view on how the channel is faring - the buzz on social media should be taken into consideration, where everyone has a voice and everyone has an opinion. And you can see the results live in front of your eyes; you don't have to wait for a period of one week or four weeks.

We Indians don't really know how to laugh. What are you doing to inculcate comedy as a habit with the Indian TV viewer? 

Given the environment we are in, everyone wants a laugh and de-stress, so the idea is to not inculcate comedy as a habit but to look at it as a state of mind or as an escape route for some people. So basically you can’t create a habit such as comedy… We just expose them to things and they prefer to take a liking to it by creating a 24 hour platform to experience the best comedy from across the world.

What are the offline activities that CC is currently carrying out? And what can we expect in the coming few months from CC?

We are piloting a few things but it’s too early to talk about them but we won’t put out anything that isn’t the best quality as it will be residing in the same house as some of the best content in the world. So quality is the key and also the attempt is to create an ecosystem for indigenous English comedy which would be over the long term.

We are also doing on-ground activities like Comedy Central Chuckle Fest - where we flew down some of the world’s best stand-up comedians. So we will engage with people and make them laugh at multiple touch points. And wait there's more rather than just making them laugh we would like to put a smile on their faces.

The new shows that are scheduled to air are Suits season 3 starting 7 October and we would be airing that as its going through a mid season break and telecast the first 10 episodes from October to December and the rest of the episodes running into January. We took this call as there is huge demand for it and people don’t want to wait for the season to end and 10 is a sizable number to play out at one go. And then we have Anger Management season 2 starring Charlie Sheen also airing in October. So the year will surely end well for us…

What are your thoughts on the 10+2 ad cap? Does it encourage you to create more engaging content? Has digitisation helped?

There are a few ways to look at this. One way being the likely impact of the 12 minute ruling on each individual business, but at the core of it is the fact that better channels will win. It’s that simple.

And that is where I believe our strategy of being a differentiated player will pay off, while we are competing in the English entertainment space, we don't see this having a great impact.

In fact, we see it as a boon for our set of brands, because at the end of the day, we have invested in our brands for a reason and the time to reap the benefits of that will come in situations such as 10+2.

From the consumer perspective, it’s a great thing, because they will be able to watch more content and less commercials. The good part is that we have always been cautious about this and maintained reasonable advertising stickiness in the one and a half years.

Time will tell how it pans out for broadcasters, as some will benefit and some will be adversely affected. And I think it is also a great thing for the advertisers as their communication will get consumed in an uncluttered environment.

So I think it’s a win-win situation for all.

It’s been a good year for the broadcasting industry at large with digitisation coming into effect. As the consumer can experience a better quality of viewing and is not necessarily paying more, it may increase in the years to come, but currently, he/she is not paying more and getting a far better quality of service.

The broadcaster too is benefitting financially if it wants to know its reach in terms of the households unlike in the analog era. You also have the option of watching only your favourite channels and getting them as a bunch together. Be it English entertainment, Hindi entertainment or News, unlike the analogue era where the more you paid, the higher frequency you were put onto.

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