"Zap on to Zee MGM anytime and you will have a good movie" : Zee English, Zee MGM vice president Ajay Trigunayat

It's a quiet revolution. After keeping a low profile for a while, Zee English and Zee MGM, the two niche channels from the Zee stable, are quietly turning over a new leaf. Fresh programmes, a different look and a new feel are all contributing to a slowly rising channel share. Ajay Trigunayat who took over as vice president for the two channels earlier this year is confident that the two channels are headed for a leadership position in their respective genres in the coming year. correspondent Ashwin Pinto met up with Trigunayat last week to get the lowdown on the performance of the two channels on the programming and ad fronts as well as his plans for the future.
When did you assume charge of the channels and what is your brief?

I took charge of the two channels in August 2002 and the brief was to exploit the programming strength and potential. My aim was to convert them into big revenue streams.

Are Zee English, Zee MGM going in for a new look in terms of logo, channel id?

Yes, both the channels are going in for a new look. A new look has already been put on air from this week for Zee MGM. For Zee English, we are not going for a new look right now. We will wait for some time and then proceed. Effectively, we are taking things in various stages and I call it the 'afterburner' approach. We have a clear-cut plan for the next twelve months.

'After-burner' means that everything needs to be worked out in certain stages. So we have worked out various stages for each channel as in what activities will happen and at what stage.

We have changed our promotional strategy. There has been a dramatic difference in the promotions in terms of creative quality before and post August. We said whatever you show on the channel is a symbol by which people live and buy. The way the channel is being represented in terms of graphics, music and on air packaging is not reflecting the desired brand identity of the channel, which is 'Good Movies At All Times'. So in mid September, we decided to change packaging altogether. The pneumonic needed to delve in to the brand heritage of MGM. Indians know MGM by the roaring lion and so we decided to bring him back.

The lion was in a laid-back form walking around. We realised that not only did the roar have to come back but also that we needed to reinforce it further. MGM has developed some fantastic creative in the past. We therefore decided that if we were bringing back the roaring lion, let us also use the famous tagline Lions Share of Hollywood.

We are trying to use it in an innovative, creative way rather than merely formatting it. We say lions' share of romance, lions' share of action, lions' share of drama etc. This is critical because MGM might be in a different age and stage in the US or Greece or Latin America. There, though they have moved away from the lion, the consumer has evolved with the lion. There has been a gradual transition from a lion into a woman. The lion is now doing something else like leaping and the woman has taken over. For us, the music score needed to emphasise Good Movies At All Times. The graphics had to be modern. That is why we did not develop the fundamental package here. We requested MGM to develop it for us. We upgraded it here with state-of-the-art facilities. We have completely changed the equipment for the two channels. We also have a new promo director Shret Garnett who has worked in the UK and Dubai for around ten years.


Since the start of the year, how has Zee MGM been faring in the primetime band compared to HBO, Star Movies, Hallmark?

Zee MGM is a channel, which has grown from strength to strength over the past three to four months. The channel has increased connectivity and subscriber base by over 31 per cent. In terms of viewer ship, the channel has increased its channel shares during primetime, which I define as 9-12 pm, from 11 per cent to 24 per cent, which is a significant jump for us. Having said that, we really started the exercise in August. We are trying to reach a point where every rocket is an after burner stage. That would be the point where we take the final quantum leap and I think that we are headed in the right direction. We have extensive spadework for it.

It is easy to see that we will have good movies at all times. If we did not have the 4000 strong library of MGM, this would not have been possible. This is the fundamental difference between a library channel versus a title driven one. Star Movies and HBO are always sourcing movies at all times.


"We are the only ones who are seeding interactive ideas on our channel"

What is the USP of Zee MGM? What does it offer that the Hollywood buff cannot get from the other movie channels?

In August, we did an extensive amount of research to find out exactly where the channel stood. We had two - three obvious findings. What you do with them is not so obvious. The first finding was that both the channels in competition, HBO and Star Movies, are title driven. They spike a week with one or two big titles and intersperse them with a lot of B and C grade movies. On Star, I have seen some third rate Chinese movies. I do not know the reason. At one end of the spectrum, you are talking Mission Impossible and at the other end, you are showing absolute mindless nuisance.

The second finding was that consumers told us that when they watch an English movie channel, they look forward to unreleased and unknown movies in India. These have not been seen in theatres or on the DVD, video circuits. This led to us to the assumption that maybe we should be a channel which plays good movies at all times.

We took the decision to not be a functional or a symbolic brand. We will be an experiential brand. You can watch a good movie at any time and there will be no appointment viewing required in my case. You just zap on to me and you will have a good movie. That is the brand experience we promise our consumer and we work day and night to make this possible.


"We will be an experiential brand. You can watch a good movie at any time and there will be no appointment viewing required in my case"

What new blocks were introduced on Zee MGM, English during 2002? Did any old ones from last year go out?

Another finding was that there is a propensity on the part of the consumer to tune into English movie channels for simple masala and action. Nothing more, nothing less. The viewer expects a high level of energy, intensity to be provided whether it is comedy, action, serious drama, romance. In August we re-negotiated our contract with MGM. Earlier we were playing only MGM movies. On 29 August, we aired the Oscar winner Traffic. In the past, we played movies from the MGM India bank every month without getting too much revenue from the market.

So we split up the entire week into six thematic slots and two flexible slots. The top of the line slot is Romanic Mondays and I am told that in this slot my channel share has gone up by thrice as much. When Harry met Sally, French Kiss air here. The Billy Crystal Meg Ryan movie is equally popular with men, boys, girls. Then there is Thrilling Thursdays. We then pick up a star for Man Fridays and say that this is the man of the week. It is personality driven and could feature Gene Hackman, Kevin Costner, John Travolta. We are looking at creating a woman's slot, which would be slightly tongue in cheek. It will have a hot flavour to it but I think that people will buy into that. On Saturdays at 11 pm, we play a bunch of Fun n Frolic movies, which have unfortunately been misunderstood. We call this Sizzling Saturdays.

In October, we had the Woody Allen Festival. In November, we identified that we were not featuring horror, suspense. So we decided to tackle this through movies that have not been released in India like Brain Damage, Monkey Shines. We decided to call this Terror Tuesdays. Whacky Wednesdays sees us turn to offbeat comedies with the likes of Martin Short. We also made the lion yelp in the middle of the promo.

What acquisitions were made this year?

For Zee MGM there was the Carry On series, Pink Panther, The Man in The Iron Mask, Traffic, Get Shorty, Blown Away. Friends, Mad About you were done for Zee English.
Has there been a shift in audience demographic for Zee MGM since the year started?

It has stayed more or less constant. We have had more and more viewers between 15-45 coming into the channel. We have noticed that the age group 35-45 warms to certain films like Woody Allen's Annie Hall. It is difficult for an 18 year old to understand what it is all about as it is an acquired taste.

There is the feeling that although Zee English's programmes are better it is lagging behind Star World in terms of look, feel? Has any progress been made?

When I took on Zee English I found that it had perceptibly different and demonstrable programming strengths from the competition. We have Friends, Seinfeld, Sopranos, The West Wing. The programming was already working for the channel except that the image of the channel was that it is for fuddy duddies. We noticed that viewership was on our side but people felt that something was wrong with the FPC.

The problem with the channel was that it suffered from an inconsistent brand adage. Its brand identity is now fixed which you see day in and day out. Zee English was conceived to feature the world's best programmes suited to the Indian consumer taste and expectation. Star World and AXN are catering to an audience not just in India but also to viewers in Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore. Dark Angel and Buffy The Vampire Slayer may be popular in those countries but do not quite gel with the Indian viewer. They prefer fine political drama in the form of The West Wing. Also our programmes have won maximum number of Emmies - the television equivalent of the Oscars.

The look is contemporary. Programmes like Fresh Prince of Bel Air might look old but there are family and teenage audiences that tune in. Seinfeld is a discerning comedy and there is also the slapstick kind. We do a mix and match. What we did for Zee English is to put all the graphic elements which were already available but which had not yet been used into place like new fonts. Every promo has a time and day, which is standardised across the channel.

We tinkered only slightly with the FPC. When Friends aired at 10:30 pm, channel share was 55 per cent between 9-12 pm. So we decided to put it back on weekdays, which is Monday-Thursday at 10 pm. Our agency Madison did an analysis. The highest PUT slot for AXN, Star World and Zee English is 10 pm. We were advised that at the time when there the number of viewers is maximum, you put in your best programme. If the competition has something better, then maybe we will shift it around.

We do not repeat a programme excessively, just three times which is the normal international average.


In terms of ratings, how is Zee English faring vis-a-vis Star World and AXN?

As far as ratings are concerned, the International people meter system is not designed to measure unique content channels. TAM says that the current panel is not enough. The next panel plans to increase coverage from 3200 to 5400 households claiming to measure us more accurately.

For a while, people were with Star World until the new kid on the block came along which gave you a diverse array of shows. Who do you think people are watching right now? Everywhere I go people say "I watch only you".

TAM data provided is only for Mumbai and Delhi. Insufficient data is available for any other city. When I do a contest on Friends I get as many responses from the South as I do from the North and West. I am not trying to bad-mouth anyone. These are not only my problems. These are also my media planning problems. I do my brand perception score results and I take them to my media partners. They say you are right but they cannot compare a .10 to a .15 as it is negligible


Around how many new advertisers did the channels succeed in attracting this year? What is the pitch being made to the ad community and have any revenue targets been set?

Sales have gone up appreciably. Recent brands that have come on board include Mastercard, Kodak, Scorpio, Hero Honda, and Celebration Diamonds. We are looking at tripling ad revenues as compared to what we did last year.

Our pitch to advertisers is that we have a functional strength in terms of programming. Any other strength in terms of broadcasting like brand per se can be built in two to three months' time. You cannot build demonstrable programming strength in such a short period. It will take at least a year to do so. We have rejected shows similar to Alias, which I could have picked up for one-fifth my programming budget. I did not do so as it does not meet out programming standards. We try to balance superlative comedies and dramas with programmes that Indians can relate to. To give you an example Mad About You brilliantly captures the nuances of a young urban married couple especially in today's context.


What new marketing initiatives were used this year like radio, online, theatre and when did they kick off?

We have worked out a completely new network promotional strategy for Zee English. Before becoming business head I was in marketing where I had more time to delve into the way the consumer interacts with television programmes. We did research as to why a consumer watches a particular programme. We aggregated all the scores and found that 94 per cent of the consumers came in to see a programme because the source of information was television. Not online, not print, not outdoor. That is when we realised that we are not optimising the usage of our network to promote our programmes.

The first test case we did was for Miss Universe which last year had a rating of 1.1 in Delhi. We had spent around 35-45 lakhs on outdoor promotions in Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Delhi. Promos were done across the network for a month.

This year we advertised the event on the network. We did not do a single piece of print. We did just one hoarding as it came to us free of cost. The result was that we had a TRP of up to 2.47 in Delhi. This is excellent when you consider the fact that Miss India did not win this year. We did promos for only five days 24-29 May and not four weeks. If I tell you to watch something this Sunday I am giving you relevant information and relevant time to make an appointment. If I tell you to watch something after a month you will not be interested.

"When I took over, the programming was working for the channel except that the image was that the channel is for fuddy duddies"

Are you planning to introduce interactive initiatives on the two channels?

We are the only ones who are seeding interactive ideas on our channel. We do a contest every month with For Friends we did a media alliance with Indiatimes and The Times of India.

We have also done media alliances with a couple of magazines. If you put a value to the number of spots I run across the network it is around 40-50 lakhs a month. If I am not doing justice to that then I feel that I am actually putting money down the drain.

We are doing online activities with MGM where we have a Dress Circle. This month it features Man In the Iron Mask. Interactivity to me is really the engagement factor that you are building with the consumer. The engagement factor between television and the Internet is much lower than television and SMS. 8888 on indiatimes fetches us more responses.

We have demonstrable facts and figures on the response rates, which we have taken to advertisers and they have been willing to pay for it. We used to do seeding, interactivity on the channel free of cost. It is starting to pay dividends. I still have not completely recovered the cost but my view is lets be ready for the future and I expect to break even here six-seven months down the line. We experimented, failed and learnt from our mistakes. We now know which creative works better, what to reinforce in the contest.


What are your future plans for the two channels?

In January, we are bringing Robert DeNiro's Jacknife. This is unreleased and kind of unknown. People will watch it for the storyline. We have to create the trailer, promote it.

We will have an Indian festival on Zee MGM next month. We have identified that Indian English movies are here to stay with the success of The Guru. Of course new movies like Monsoon Wedding will go through extensive negotiations. Star Movies and HBO may also be thinking along these lines. Movies that we will air include A Passage to India, Shadow of the Cobra, East is East. These will air on Tuesdays at 9 pm.

We have created a Movie Marathon where we play classics including the likes of Silence of The Lambs, Blame It On Rio. We are also going to feature the German film Run Lola Run at the end of January. For Zee English we will be adding on four programmes next month. We will be taking a fresh approach. The tendency for a channel is to see what has been a hit in the US. We see shows that have run for just ten episodes, which we feel will be a big hit in the future. So they are just right out of the oven for Zee English. Season 9 of Friends airs in the US in February. We will bring it in June. If anyone wants to air Season 8 they can do so from the second half of 2004. Mad About You will enter its third season on the 17th. Seinfeld is entering its last season on 23 December.


Are you not concerned that the Cricket World Cup will reduce the number of potential viewers for your new programme initiatives.

I think that there is a fever and it is sweeping people. The day India beat England in the ODI Natwest Final just 22 per cent of people watching television at that point of time saw the match at all. Out of that, only eight per cent saw it for over three hours. The thing is that we tend to get swayed away unnecessarily. We have a different kind of viewer base. You cannot really stop your plans and rollout because the World Cup is happening.


Give me your opinion on CAS.

CAS puts power into the hands of the consumer. I think that Zee English in particular stands very well because I think that today people are willing to pay a premium for it and for Zee MGM also. Ad revenue will get affected only if connectivity and viewer ship get hit. I don't see an immediate problem per se and there are a lot of ifs and buts involved like how the players are going to react.

There is a huge investment involved on the part of the cable operators to make CAS possible. Who is going to pay for set top boxes? Are the cable operators going to pass on the cost to the consumer or will they absorb it?

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