"There is no point in making changes to a formula that is working very well for us" : Shruti Bajpai HBO South Asia marketing director

When it comes to blockbusters we are really the best." This is the core of what HBO is trying to reinforce this Summer through its programming strategy.'s correspondent Ashwin Pinto caught up with HBO South Asia's marketing director Shruti Bajpai who dwelt on the channels programming strategy, gains made

I would like to start with your views on the latest pressing issue on everybody's mind, which is CAS. Being a premium channel in a CAS environment, is there the possibility HBO doing away with ads completely as is the case in other countries, and simply concentrating on subscription?

To be very honest, I cannot comment on this. In principle it has already been said that if CAS is implemented well, then it would be a very good thing for special interest channels such as ours since we reach out to consumers, viewers interested in our product.

However at this point in time, we really do not know what is going to happen. There is a lot of talk going on. Like where are the set top boxes, are going to be three tiers, which are the free-to-air, terrestrial and premium channels, and who is going to be constitute each tier.

Another question still to be answered is the pricing level. Will it be only subscription or ad revenue or a combination of both? The area is completely grey and all of us are in the same boat.

Did HBO's ID, look, logo change last year?

Yes. Continuously retaining the freshness of our channel is what we take pride in. When we initially launched we had a certain look and feel. Last year, we felt the need to change as we had already completed one year. The look evolved to become more contemporary.

You will notice that there are more colours, which represent the wide array of content on our channel. A lot of the work was done by our in-house on air programming team in Singapore.

What are the properties that you'll view as being channel drivers this year?

We are very excited about our line up for the next quarter, which is April-June. The films that we will air cover a wide range of subjects. Girl Interrupted set in a mental institution starring Oscar winner Anjelina Jolie, 6th Day is a sci-fi film on genetic cloning with Arnold Schwarzenneger as the lead and Lucky Numbers starring John Travolta and Friends Lisa Kudrow, dealing with lure of instant riches through the lottery. Fans of thrillers can tune into Jennifer 8 with Uma Thurman playing a blind woman stalked by a serial killer.

The reason for this high quality is the output deals that we have with the four studios Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal and Warner Bros. If you take a look their last year's output, it includes Harry Potter, Spiderman and The Lord of The Rings. Put two and two together, and you will have an idea of what is to come up in the near future.

"In terms of channel share, it has been almost three years since we launched. We had a soft launch and the share was ten per cent. Now it is almost 35 per cent"

What new programme blocks and blockbusters are to be introduced this summer?

In April we have Kings of Kungfu. Every Friday at 9:30 pm we have Double Trouble where we air movie starring two action heroes like the Bulletproof and Showdown in Little Tokyo. The Cute and Cuddly slot, telecast on Wednesdays, revolves around pets. While the first two blocks are clearly skewed towards the male the last one is something the family can enjoy together. We have Fame on Thursdays, which consists of movies about people who took a shot at fame.

In May, one of our major blockbusters will be Austin Powers - The Spy Who Shagged Me that was received very well in India.

Another important block for us comes in May with the Summer Action Marathon. Thirty of the best action movies will be aired from Monday through Thursday. Summer is holiday season and so something big needs to come up. In June we will continue on the blockbuster theme with Mel Gibson's The Patriot, Shaft with Samuel L. Jackson.

Then, there is rock music film Almost Famous which has attained cult like status in the US. It stars Kate Hudson the daughter of Goldie Hawn who got an Oscar nomination. Every Saturday night, for the next 13 weeks, will see blockbusters one after another. On Fridays, we come up with action oriented movies. While on Sunday afternoons you have Sunday Treat, which is family oriented. This is light fare and everyone can watch it.

Another noteworthy property in June is The Mothman Prophecies with Richard Gere. It was released in the US last year. I don't think that this film has been released in India. All this is geared at reinforcing the message that through our compelling line-up we are screening the latest and best blockbusters. Most of the titles I have mentioned will first be seen on our channel. Then they may go elsewhere.

What are the advertising and promotional activities lined up for the summer?

We will be having a multimedia presence and campaign to make people aware of our summer line up. We will be looking at contests and reaching out to our advertisers. We will come out with an Austin Powers contest.

Within the next two weeks you will see ads breaking out in the cinemas, radio, print media, online announcing our blockbusters and programme blocks.

Are there going to be any differences in the programming strategy employed this year as against last year?

Not really. There is no point in making changes to a formula that is working very well for us. Our aim is to come up with the latest, biggest and best blockbusters consistently and not just a flash in the pan. Packaging the channel in such a manner that we can come up with diverse themes is another goal.

What new trends in viewership patterns did the channel observe last year on weekdays and weekends? Were any new audience segments identified last year? TWhere will the focus lie this year?

At the end of the day viewership always picks up during primetime. Our performance in February has been very strong. The weekend will be relatively strong. If there is something different coming up every alternate day viewership trends will get skewed towards that.

"If you do exactly what the others do then what is going to set you apart?"

To what extent did your share in the primetime increase in 2002 vis-a-vis rivals?

This year has just begun with three months having gone by. If you look at the top three English movies this year the first two came from us. Hollow Man with Kevin Bacon having rating of 1.5. Bruce Lee's martial arts classic Enter The Dragon had a rating of 1.9.

Now one might say that this is a 1970s film but our concentration rests on fare that the Indian film buff craves for. Bruce Lee is a cult figure in the country and therefore we chose this title. The number three film was Rambo III from Star Movies. These figures apply across the top six metros 15-44 years.

In terms of channel share, it has been almost three years since we launched. We had a soft launch and the share was ten per cent. Now it is almost 35 per cent, which is equal to our closest competitor. A rival might claim to be India's number one English movie channel but you cannot argue with the above mentioned facts. All these figures are for the month of February primetime viewing.

Did the recently concluded cricket World Cup impact viewership in any way?

Being in the One Alliance bouquet is a great advantage for us. Cricket has created a positive impact on the entire bouquet in terms of distribution, sheer numbers. We were aware of the fact that when it comes to cricket World Cup no one is interested in anything else. You do not want to try to divert peoples attention from it.

Therefore, we did something very interesting in the months of February and March. We figured that people's attention would be firmly on the matches especially with India doing well. So, just after cricket we had a sort of family marathon at 9:30 pm. Most matches were day matches and got over by that time. The whole family could relax and watch it together.

I have seen interstitials promoting HBO's high quality of programming like The Gathering Storm, Sex and the City. Can Indian viewers expect to see them in the near future?

Promo spots for the programming that you have just mentioned is a very good way of telling viewers exactly what HBO is all about. It is a truly global channel. It is number one in the US. Its quality has won awards, viewership consistently.

Our original series are more for the third and fourth quarters and so we will talk about it then. Depending on what is suitable for the Indian audience, one will see a lot of the critically acclaimed programmes soon.

Star Movies has been trying to establish a greater emotional bond with the Indian audience with Hinglish films like Bend it Like Beckham, A Passage to India. Is HBO going to make any move in this regard?

Well, it is not as if we have no connection with the Indian flavour of programming. We aired The Cell, which was made by the Indian born Tarsem Singh. We will have a showcase of films made by Asian and Indian directors. Every channel has a different way of dealing with this kind of programming.

If you do exactly what the others do then what is going to set you apart? We do not want to get into the scramble of "you have done this. So let me also do the same thing." We will do what we are good at but we have also had an Indian flavour to the kind of programming we have brought into the country.

On the ad revenue front how is the channel faring? Has most of the inventory for the upcoming summer season been sold out?

Things look very promising. In any case, the second quarter is always better than the first one. We have a healthy and diverse mix of advertisers. Nearly, 150 advertisers are on the channel. At the end of the day, advertising follows viewers choices. If the channel is providing these choices, then the relationship between us and media buyers will remain healthy.

When you talk of ad revenues sometimes people don't realise that HBO is only in its third year of operation. The manner in which people talk about our revenue it gives you the larger than life feeling that we have been around for years and years. But unlike other channels, which have been around for seven to eight years if you look at the achievements over the past three years we have done extremely well for ourselves.

What do you feel about the fact that content aggregators will have to create 360 degrees multimedia spin for entertainment brands and movie properties?

Since the launch of HBO in India, the quality of English movie programming across the board has gone up. I think that we have played a very important part in doing that. In Delhi you used to have just one or two theatres. Now you have seven to eight multiplexes showing largely English movies. This shows that the Indian audience has evolved in terms of taste and the kind of movies they like.

The audience is going to be more demanding in the future. We will have to keep them in mind. Depending on how the market forces work you have to formulate strategies to retain them. Even now we have a multimedia approach to educating them about the movies on channel to see to it they keep tuning in.

Online are you satisfied with the responses for the Gladiator and Oscar awards contests?

Yes. The Gladiator contest was a first for us. In ten days we got close to 35,000 responses. HBO may not be a mass channel getting a mass response but for us in terms of expectations of a channel targeting a niche audience the numbers were great. Even the Oscar Awards contest saw a very good response. It was a pan Asian contest but the maximum number of responses we got were from India. Mind you it was not an easy contest. You had to predict the winners in the top four categories Picture, Director, Actor and Actress. Who could have predicted that The Pianist would have come from left field and bagged two prizes.

This gives us a lot of hope that there is a certain kind of channel loyalty that has been built.

On the distribution front what progress is being made? Have any targets been set?

We are in 15 million homes. We are confident that given time, the push that the one alliance bouquet has received on account of the cricket world cup will see us strengthen our reach.

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