"AXN Asia's ad revenue has grown by over 50 per cent regionwide" : Todd Miller AXN Asia managing director

With the cricket World Cup out of the way, action channel AXN is moving into high gear. The channel launched 47 new shows last year and a similar number is promised this year. The action for this year is all set to kick off with the critically acclaimed drama series 24, airing from 8 April. The man spearheading these initiatives is AXN Asia managing director Todd Miller who took charge three years ago. Todd, as he likes to be called, sat down with's correspondent Ashwin Pinto and elaborated about the channels plans, the state of reality TV, CAS.

Excerpts -

CNN's Chris Cramer recently blasted reality TV shows calling them a distraction from the important things in life. I would appreciate your views on the subject as well as on the future of reality shows in Asia and India?

First of all, the worldwide popularity of reality TV is growing. Reality TV right now happens to be the hottest trend in television. That will change. TV goes through cycles and scripted entertainment will at some point re-emerge. My prediction is, fairly soon. By soon, I mean within a year or so. However, as a genre, reality TV will always be around and will always find a base for popularity. It will always form a key part of AXN's programme lineup. From day one, AXN has had Reality on its schedule and has done well with Who Dares Wins.

There is always going to be space for reality. I think that Chris Cramer would say the same thing. Now in terms of distraction, we do not see this programming in this manner. We see this as escapism and particularly the kinds of reality programmes that perform very well on AXN. Through shows like Fear Factor, Ripley's Believe It or Not, ordinary people do extraordinary things. As such, these kinds of shows provide vicarious thrills, vicarious excitement, which energises and entertains our audience. We will continue providing shows that fulfil these desires.

Will AXN get into the Bachelor, Bachelorette, Joe Millionaire, Popstars type of programming, which are being aired on mass entertainment channels in India and abroad? Look, we are an action adventure channel and we are very conscious that everything we do has to fit within the prism. The shows you mentioned are relationship shows, which happen to be doing very well in the United States. However they do not quite fit into the programme model that is AXN. We are very focussed on action adventure and we do not want to dilute that position. A show like Joe Millionaire has no action at all. It is all about relationships and emotions.

What about local programmes being made exclusively for the Asian audience? 'Who Dares Wins India Special' is basically an extension of the Australian brand.

Who Dares Wins was a show that was exclusively customised for the Indian audience. We borrowed the popular format, which we then modified for Asia, and India in particular. It was watched by 9.26 million people in the country and 43 per cent of SEC A. We will continue to invest in original productions to make the channel more relevant for our viewership here in India. I can't say much at this point except that we will be back. We will be bigger, bolder and we hope to take your breath away around August-September.

What are the new programmes being launched this year on AXN and do they signify any change in programme strategy from last year?

There will be no change in strategy. We are action adventure specialists, always have been and will be. Our programme mix remains movies, series, reality programmes and some animated shows. That does not change. What does change is the scheduling pattern. We have to make our programmes a better fit to Indian viewers' lifestyles. We are upgrading the Prime Zone to 10 pm and we are now concentrating on movies for the weekends. On Prime Zone, you will see different series each night, which have both pedigree and buzz.

We are happy with the response received to the X Zone every weeknight at 9 pm and so this timing will not change. This includes the reality themed The Right Stuff, Fear Factor, Guinness World Records. In addition, Rated X is on a new time slot of 9:30 pm on Fridays. This gives you the lowdown of Hollywood cinema such as what are the latest films, who is dating whom?

We will also be introducing the CSI spin-off show, which is CSI Miami. Later in the year, viewers can expect to see The Shield with Michael Chiklis as well as NBC's Boomtown.

"We want AXN to be a core channel among the staple of channels that the upscale 20-something attitudinal Indian viewer watches"

Are you looking at a greater degree of experimentation?

We are looking at a lot of variety in the shows under the action adventure umbrella. We hope to provide choice and we will be introducing a lot of shows. The 11 new shows we will be introducing from April to June are more in the spirit of variety and freshness and not experimentation. After four-and-a-half years of broadcasting in India, we have a pretty good grip on what drives the Indian viewer.

From which television companies and production houses does AXN acquire content and what are the criteria for acquisition?

Actually, that is a very good question. Few people ask it. AXN has the luxury of shopping around the world for content. In fact, just last week we had executives in Cannes for MIPTV talking to all the world's leading content distributors so we could find the best action adventure shows.

Much of our programming originates from the United States. Having said that, we are blind to the origin so long as the show has quality, is action oriented and is aspirational. We want the viewer to say "wow, I wish I could do that" or "I cannot believe she did that" or "Isn't being Jack Bauer the coolest job?" A show like The Amazing Race, where couples travel around the world, is aspirational as people watch it and then say, "Gosh, I wish I could be on that show". If you look beyond the action label, the underlying quality to all our shows is aspirational.

These are the key criteria for us. We have acquired programmes from all the major Hollywood studios as well as practically all the leading independent ones. The supply is broad based. By having so many different sources of content, it enables us to create a very competitive and compelling channel.

How much is original and how much do you source from outside?

Almost everything is acquired. We are just entering into the original content production business. This is quite important for us in terms of branding and profiling. As a percentage of our content, it is very small. But it will grow.

What would be the cost of acquiring a critically acclaimed property like '24' and what share are you hoping the channel will get from it?

In our licensing agreements with major studios, price is one of the terms that is confidential. I will say that it is never cheap. But 24 is a quality show and you pay for what you get. That is the way we look at it. In terms of channel share, AXN is consistently performing among the top three international channels. We have every intent to stay in the top three.

"We screen everything and censor for Indian sensibilities. With Survivors, we miscalculated"

How much of content aired on the channel gets screened in advance to avoid hurting viewer sentiment?

We screen everything and censor for Indian sensibilities. With Survivor, we miscalculated. For scripted shows like 24, CSI, they do not represent a real risk. There is nothing objectionable about them. They are realistic but fictionalised. We stick to the broadcast standards in India and the other countries in which we broadcast.

It was mentioned last year that though AXN's programmes are increasing in popularity, the perception and clarity about the channel's image was still a 'bit fudgy'. Kindly elaborate.

I am surprised that you said that. Every indication is to the contrary. We are unequivocally an action adventure channel. There are three phases in a brand's growth. The first phase is the eye, the second phase is the mind and the third phase is the heart. The eye will witness. People are aware of us. They know AXN. The second stage is the understanding of the brand that is action adventure of four programme types in our case. The heart phase refers to more loyalty. We want AXN to be a core channel among the staple of channels that the upscale 20-something attitudinal Indian viewer watches.

There were reports a couple of months ago about participants suing production companies in the US over reality shows like 'Big Brother' citing emotional and mental damage. Any comments?

I cannot comment on that as I am just not close to the facts. However I can assure you that when we return later in the year to look for India's wildest and hottest couple, it will done in the spirit of fun, adventure and with the Indian sensibility in mind.

Besides India, which countries is the channel concentrating on for growing the brand in terms of share and revenue?

Every country in the Asian region. There is room for growth everywhere. India is a priority market though. It is one of our top five markets in Asia. Long-term, we see it as key.

Our other markets are Taiwan, Philippines, Singapore and to some extent, Malaysia which is a recent market. Long term, we also have to look at China. The expectation over time is that the Chinese government will become more flexible in their policy towards international broadcasters.

Are there any other large ground initiatives and events in the pipeline in the near future?

Well, the sequel to the Who Dares Wins India Special is one ground initiative. The hot and wild effort will be another. They will be quite noteworthy.

In terms of distribution in India and Asia, have any targets been set?

We are very well distributed. We are one of the most widely distributed international channels. In India right now, our reach is some 24 million homes. In Asia, the brand is in over 70 million homes.

Do you see strong partnerships and associations for AXN's programming team, which will collaborate with brands like Axe to jointly create new content?

Yes. I think that many Indian advertisers like AXN - one because of our premium viewership which we offer. They also appreciate our ability to provide associations that are both unique and world class. We also do innovations both on air and on the ground. We will continue to work with advertisers as creatively as we can to help grow their brands and our business. We have managed to grow ad revenue by over 50 per cent regionwide.

How do you see the Indian cable and satellite fraternity gearing up to meet the CAS challenge?

CAS will benefit a channel like AXN because it introduces transparency and it allows us as a programmer to get more of our fair share of the subscription pie. The concern we have is on implementation because of the lack of clarity and possibly the lack of preparedness by the industry. So we hope that it is implemented well but the thrust should be positive for us.

In a CAS scenario what will AXN concentrate on as far as revenue is concerned? Subscription or advertising?

Both will drive revenues. They are equally important streams. It is not in our genetic makeup to take the route of a premium channel, which has done away with ads.

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