Television

"Our major emphasis in the coming period will be the 8 pm to 11 pm band and the weekend slot" : Sunil Lulla Sony Entertainment business head

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Sunil Lulla, the flamboyant ex-general manager of MTV India, and ex-CEO of indya.com, has officially been in charge as business head of Sony Entertainment Television India‘s flagship channel SET for just over a month now.Lulla joined SET from ValueBridge Services where he was CEO. The other senior management positions that Lulla has held through his career are as V-P - marketing at United Distillers & Vintners, client services director at J Walter Thompson (Taiwan), GM - marketing of HMV and associate account director at HTA.

One aspect that has marked his stint at SET so far though has been the singular lack of the spectacular. Rather, Lulla has knuckled down and is maintaining a distinctly low profile as he goes about working out programming and marketing strategies to take SET ahead.

In a conversation with indiantelevision.com‘s Thomas Abraham on the same day (Friday, 16 August) that saw the launch of big-budget Balaji weekender Kya Hadsa Kya Haqeeqat he discusses SET, the industry as a whole, as well as what the future holds.

As a snapshot overview, what is your perception of the television broadcast industry today and where does SET figure? Additionally, what are the immediate term goals and the long term ones that you have set for yourself at Sony?

The industry‘s going through massive changes. For the first time in five to seven years there‘s been a negative growth overall. Today advertisers have a much greater say. And that goes for even the small and medium size ones as well.

As far as programming goes, there are more international formats coming in as well as a good amount of experimentation that is being attempted but a lot more could still be done. The good thing of course is that for the viewer, there is much more on offer in terms of choice.

"We have a strong share in the 9 to 10 pm weekdays band, weekends and Sunday mornings"

Another major change that has not got quite so much attention is the quality of transmission today. The move among all players towards digitisation has made a huge difference to broadcast quality.

Where is Sony today? We are a strong Number 2. Our key goal is to build on that strong consistent position to take us further.

We have a strong cachet with the under-35s. We have a good franchise. Historically we have been a good marketing entity. Our relationships with advertisers as well as the cable trade bears testimony to that.

We have a strong share in the 9 to 10 pm weekdays band, weekends and Sunday mornings.

Our major emphasis in the coming period will be the 8 pm to 11 pm band and the weekend slot.

As a business, we are focussed on extending our marketing activities to a higher level. We have assets which we want to leverage. Take Boogie Woogie for example. We are creating special shows specifically for the northern markets. For our mytho Ganesh, we will be doing activities around the upcoming Ganesh festival.

Have you done any restructuring since taking charge of SET? How do you see the programming, marketing and ad sales working together to push the channel?

No. It‘s not really required. We have a very efficient structure in place for our

business needs. Where and when we need to make changes we will.

K3H seems to have tanked so is there a Plan B? The talk is that it will not go beyond the 44 episodes that have already been canned.

"As regards how long we will continue with the show (K3H), we will take that decision as and when we need to"

That really depends on how you look at it. Since 29 July, which is when the show launched, we‘ve seen a 250 per cent increase in viewership for the 8:30 pm slot. And a separate survey we commissioned AC Nielsen to do from two samples of 500 people each in New Delhi and Mumbai were quite encouraging. The show had a likeability of 3.4 on a scale of 5 and 75 per cent of those sampled said they would want to see the show again.

Having said that, we are definitely looking at ways to engage the viewer more in the show. Improvisations in the form of value additions will be brought in gradually. (See related headline: Sony hopes to boost K3H viewership with indiatimes contest).

As regards how long we will continue with the show, we will take that decision as and when we need to. Only three weeks have gone by so we have time.

There seems to be general agreement that it is bad for the industry that Star Plus has such an overwhelming dominance on the programming front. But there are many who feel that Star‘s cause has been helped by the opposition (mainly Sony and Zee) for not coming up with the goods to take on Star.

It‘s not fair for me to comment on the past but I‘ve already mentioned the areas where we have been successful. And looking ahead you will see over the next eight to 10 weeks a number of new initiatives where you will see us adding value. This will cover the entire gamut in terms of on air environment, genres, programming formats, time bands and marketing efforts.

Our approach is to be stable and consistent. Gauging what you want to push and then making the necessary push is what is necessary rather than going full steam at any one time.

Talking of successes, Kkusum, which was at one time in the Top 10 has slipped to 30 or thereabouts. Have you worked out any plans for some innovation like what you‘ve just done with Kutumb or what was done by Star Plus for Kyunki...?

Kkusum‘s got to have a more consistent base. And that‘s what we‘re attempting to do. And you‘ll see some changes in the story happening soon. I don‘t want to give it away. Kkusum will be the central character obviously. But you‘ll see some enhancement of the whole story. To give it that push. To build both its sampling as well as sustain viewership.

The story needs to get stronger and tighter. And I think Ektaa (Kapoor) also realises that. That it needs to move at a faster pace, it needs to change a bit, and it‘s changing.

From a big picture perspective, what‘s on the cards vis-a-vis SET?

See, like I said, our approach is that where we have strengths, we‘ll continue to build on those strengths. Add new formats, and add new programmes over the next few months in order to add new audiences and as well as to create more properties on television.

I think its important to build programming innovations - Kya Hadsa Kya Haqeeqat is one, Kahi Na Kai Koi Hain is one. And we will add some more. When we add we will be adding in what you would say is mainstream genres, whether it‘s comedy or thriller or soaps and we will also be adding some new formats, some new concepts, which would be innovations. Obviously one is keen to see that there are some innovations which are triggered off. But like in the movie business, in television as well, the success rate of anything is about 10 per cent. So you need to try a lot of new things.

"We are pretty much focussed on a two-pronged approach. One stream which focusses on enhancing the value of our current products and the other stream which enhances on thinking out new products"

We are pretty much focussed on a two-pronged approach. One stream which focusses on enhancing the value of our current products and the other stream which enhances on thinking out new products, building them, being able to quickly gauge in what direction they need to grow into and then shaping them in that direction. So there is a two-pronged strategy, which one is trying to do - add new viewers and grow the interest of current viewers. We are a general entertainment channel and we have to manage both those expectations.

Zee TV has taken the plunge as far as taking on Kyunki and Kahaani on Star Plus is concerned. They have pitched two high profile shows - Kittie Party and Simply Shekhar - in that slot. Considering that the 9 to 11 pm band is what defines top line prime time, and you have Kkusum and Kutumb in at 9 to 10 pm, when do you propose to attack 10 to 11?

I don‘t think I want to share a timeframe out on that. But I will say this. It will fall in the purview of the next few months. I think though that at the end of the day it is not about attacking competition so specifically but about finding ways to grow your own viewership.

I am not referring only to competition here. I also believe that 9 to 11 pm is the key prime time band.

A lot of television viewing begins at about 8 and if you can feed it in and then for us we have something already from 9 to 10. So for us to see 8 to 9 is very important, because we‘ve got something from 9 to 10. So bring that in and then add value beyond 9 to 10. For us that would be a more structured approach.

At the general level, as far as the programming evolution over the next quarter goes, how many genres are you looking at?

Offhand I would say about four or five genres.

Gameshows?

I know you‘re trying to get something specific out of me but I‘m not going to answer this question.

I was curious actually because it there seems to be a lack of variety among the main general entertainment channels. A SABe TV for instance seems to offer more on that front.

On Sony you do have a lot of genres, whether it is Aahat, Achanak, C.I.D, as one genre, I take Kkusum, Kutumb, Kuch Jhuki Palkien as one, I take Boogie Woogie as one kind, I take Kahin Na Kahi Koi Hain as one kind. I would take these religious mythos as one.

"Game shows have a limited life. And if you can build smartly around that life, that‘s great"

I take Kya Hadsa... as a very different kind of programme genre and we‘ve got to see how that builds up. Obviously, I am excited about it and I think it will.

For us, it‘s a combination of marquee events, fiction, thriller, sitcoms and different kinds of formats of games, and interactive stuff.

After Hadsa the next one thats coming is Russian Roulete right?

It‘s called Bachke Rehna.

So what do you foresee? Actually I am a bit sceptical about this fixation for foriegn concepts. Except for KBC, none have succeeded in the long run and even KBC had to go. Today, if you see the longest running ones have been Zee‘s Antakshri and Sa Re Ga Ma and Boogie Woogie on Sony. And coming back to Russian Roulette, I can understand it in the Western cultural milieu but here how successful do you think it will be?

Let me come to that. Fiction is obviously going to be largely home grown. Unless you are adapting a foreign language book. I think this is not just about television. It‘s also true about how we are sensitised as Indian human beings towards cinema. Cinema has played a large role in conditioning our sense of entertainment. And if we look at it, cinema still has the same story - boy, girl opposition, proposition, whatever. Over periods they have always been functions, and some of them are dynamic. But largely the same fare and television at the end of the day mirrors that.

What do game formats do? They add variety. The reason we use them from the west is because they are well executed, well programmed, well conceptualised and there is proven experience. There is more proven experience in international markets on gameshows than there is in India, in terms of managing, creating the format and executing. Which is why we get them, if you like, adapted into Indian conditions or copied or whatever. I would say adapted. Mostly they are licensed shows.

Which is how one would do it. Because they add variety. They add a different way of presenting. At the end of the day a quiz show is a quiz show and a music show is a music show, but what happens is they can be presented differently.

So what these formats do is they present the concept in a fresh way and by having them you have freshness on your channel. They are not necessarily supposed to be the be all or end all or the saviour or whatever you want to call it or be the biggest thing on earth. They have a limited life. And if you can build smartly around that life, that‘s great.

If you want to use it tactically just to create a new audience sampling and then showcase to them other things you have, that‘s great. I think each broadcaster will have it‘s own strategy based on where they are in the relative market position.

If you look at Russian Roulette, which is going to be called Bachke Rehna in the Indian context, the product has tested well. The international product tested well. What we have done with the Indian product has tested even better.

So I think what it will deliver to us is a young audience. It will deliver freshness. Its execution style is different. So people will say "yes, Sony has something new, it‘s got something different." It will add value to our viewers. So those are our expectations out of formats like this.

The first major programming initiative that has come up after you took charge at SET is the new Balaji weekender Kya Hadsa? But as far as the marketing and promotional push that went with it is concerned it was really low key. Very un-Lulla like one could say considering that you are associated with doing things BIG.

I don‘t have a stamp or a style that has to be executed.

Well that is the general perceptions anyway.

Correct, we are dealing with perceptions. The reality is you do things that are right at that point of time. You have to see it in the context of the situation.

Even agreeing with all that, one thought the push that the Kya Hadsa got was really low key. In fact, there appeared to be a conscious effort in that direction.

I would not agree that the marketing investment for Kya Hadsaa is any less than K3H. For whatever reasons, we could not start off earlier. We started off only with an (press) advertisement this morning. Outdoors has gone out. I would have liked to start a week back. We could not do so. It doesn‘t matter. We‘ll sustain it (the marketing campaign) longer.

"I think there will be attempts to create day-by-day week-by-week character based stories"

So what are you doing specific to this show?

Specific to this show what we‘re doing is creating awareness for the show. This not the kind of the show in which you can add any frills, thrills or contests, promotions. So where we‘re pitching it is in the press, outdoors, on television, on air promos. We‘ll take it to cinemas. That‘s really what it‘s gonna be. The idea is really to build this show because this is a family based show. It‘s a very fast paced show where a lot happens. Every week there‘s a new twist and a new adventure.

Why do we not see the kind of approach to serial making like we have in the West as yet? Take Friends as just one example. While the series has a broad continuity, one can still leave the show and come back to it at some later date. That is because each episode is broadly self contained. Indian series and soaps demand continued stickiness. If the viewer drops out for whatever reasons he loses the thread of the story and therefore is unlikely to return to the show. Wouldn‘t such an approach help as the loyal viewer stays with the show anyway but also allows for sampling throughout the course of the show‘s run?

I think it‘s also got to do with what I understand our own habits as individuals, as people, that we like a story to go on. Which is why the market is headed in the direction it is. But I think there will be attempts to create day-by-day week-by-week character based stories. I think that will happen and we will evolve towards that because there will be a fatigue level that creeps in as serialised type of stories go on. And we will see those changes.

And when we see those changes, we could well go back again. If you look at it cyclically, the market grows in similar kinds of twists and turns. I would imagine that one would see these kinds of changes. That‘s one way of taking the market forward.

 

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