Television

"Introducing Sex And The City was a natural progression for us" : James Marturano HBO South Asia's Managing Director

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Ever since HBO launched in India three years ago, the English movie channel scene has seen a jump in terms of the quality of films aired. There is a constant push and pull between that channel and arch rival Star Movies over who has better content.

While Star Movies' blockbusters generate better ratings sometimes, it does not have the benefit of original content like HBO. The channel which claims to be 'simply the best' has, over the past year, aired critically acclaimed original films like Conspiracy.

Now the channel is set to take things to the next level with its original series Sex And The City, which will air every Saturday at 11:30 pm from 4 October. The show deals with the attempts of four women to find meaningful relationships in the Big Apple. At a media briefing a few days ago, indiantelevision.com's Ashwin Pinto caught up with HBO South Asia's managing director James Marturano who spoke about how the business was faring, CAS, as well as why the channel hesitated for a while before introducing an original series.

Last year you had indicated that break even could be expected this year. What is the status?



We are on target. The whole conditional access thing however has made things difficult. This has been a tough year for everyone from the cable operators who have invested in infrastructure to the broadcaster. The stop and start of CAS has complicated matters.

Having said all of that, we are happy with our current position. We are relatively new compared to some of the other broadcasters and we managed to make an immediate impact. What is unique though about this year is that a lot of things happened that people could not have planned for.

What is your take on the CAS fiasco?



I am not surprised at how things have turned out. The process is difficult and India is a huge country. While it is good that broadcasters want transparency, this will take time to implement. It is going to have to be a very deliberate, well thought out process.

I would also like to stress that you cannot force things upon the industry. There are so many different concerns. It is also very dangerous to impose deadlines. If they are not met then where do you go from there?

"What is unique about this year is that a lot of things happened that people could not have planned for. "

To what extent did SARS affect the business?



Well, the South East Asia region has experienced a few economic crises in recent times. Just when things were looking up, Sars came along. Being a movie channel, we have a huge hotel business around Asia. Tourism was hit and hotel occupancy saw a sharp dip. Things are returning to normal now.

You are coming up on three years operating in India. What have you learnt thus far?



India is a new territory and its revenue will grow in time. India is a difficult market and not easy to penetrate. It is very fragmented but over the course of time, we have become savvy about how we programme our content.

This is one of the few markets where HBO is ad supported. So we had to learn what our clients expected from us as well as what the Indian audience looked forward to viewing. The competition in India is very stiff. Everybody is sinking in plenty of resources. So the battle is going to be rough.

We already have big markets in Asia. They are Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand. China is a burgeoning market. I think that all content providers and broadcasters are looking to India and China as the regions where major growth in the future will happen. There is plenty of potential due to their size.

It is surprising that you'll have taken so long to introduce original series on the channel when Zee English has already gained some momentum with Six Feet Under?



Well, we are coming up on three years. It is prudent to study and learn from a particular market before making major programme decisions. We have been in Asia for eleven years and we have learnt to be patient. The Sopranos has not played well on the few free to air Asian channels it had a run on.

People in Asia found it too talky. In fact we passed over the rights to license the show because we felt that it would not get the enthusiastic response it had received in the US. Our instinct was proven right. Six Feet Under is very quirky. The humour is not easy to get and it is definitely an acquired taste. In addition we have also decided not to license Curb Your Enthusiasm for Asia. Our reading of the situation is that Sex And The City is the best show we can introduce for the Indian audience.

Of our entire original programming this one has fared the best in Asia. Yes Band of Brothers was well received but Sex And The City has received a tremendous buzz that has been more than any of our other original programmes. Introducing Sex And The City was a natural progression for us. When we see things that fit in a marketplace then we introduce them. Sex And The City is far more mainstream than the other two shows.

"Our main product is Hollywood and we are not ashamed of that."

Has research indicated that the English speaking Indian audience is now liberal and ready to accept the concept of Sex And The City?



Yes. The show is tongue in cheek. In fact, the cover of the recent India Today magazine featured sex. This indicates that we are introducing the show at an opportune time. Once the Indian audience gets the feel of it they will be hooked and a loyal fan following will develop.

It is cutting edge, well written and features four terrific performances. It is our signature real core series. While women will enjoy the show for a good many reasons - universally interesting issues that strike a familiar chord, beautiful women, fashionable wear, the men will also want in on the action as they may see it as a chance to unravel some of the mystery about the modern woman.

Are you satisfied with the response that your original movies have received?



I would like to point out that while they may not generate the ratings of a blockbuster, they are the differentiating factor from our competition. The trademark of an HBO original film is innovation. They are thought provoking. They attract top stars like Richard Gere, John Malkovich, Jeff Daniels and Anjelina Jolie who sometimes even take a pay cut. They do this because they have the creative freedom, which is hard to find within the studio system.

HBO chooses topics that are always fresh. Very often, other production houses do not want to touch the subjects, as the subject matter is controversial in nature. And The Band Played On is a good example of that. This month we aired RKO 281 with Ed Harris and John Malkovich. Next month we will showcase Cheaters with Jeff Daniels, which like Gia is based on a true story.

If the theme appealed to the other Asian countries, would you consider getting involved with an Indian English production in the near future?



Well, we are open to anything. If it makes sense we will do it. Our main product is Hollywood and we are not ashamed of that. At the same time, we are open to a new programming concept, which would work for a particular market. So yes. If the opportunity came along we would consider getting involved.

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