'CAS may have been put off now, but addressability is something that is definitely coming' : Abhijit Saxena - Zee TV business head

Abhijit Saxena began his career with the State Trading Corporation of India, away from the media and away from the private sector. His first foray into the media came with a stint at the Times of India. He then moved to Zee in 1996. During his eight-and-half-year-long stay at Zee, Saxena has managed portfolios that ranged from marketing research to advertising sales to subscription sales to programming and to managing channels.

For Saxena, it has been a steady climb up the corporate ladder at Zee. Saxena had been handling international business (Asia Pacific) and syndication of programming, when he was asked to head the business operations of Zee English, Zee MGM, Trendz, Smile TV and MX Channel in 2003. Now the biggest of them all has landed in his lap - the position of Zee TV business head.


This interview by's Bijoy AK was conducted just before he took charge of Zee TV.


There has been a surge in niche channels in India. What according to you is the potential of the niche channel market? Do the RoIs justify the investments, especially since addressability as in CAS is still a pipedream?

As we see the Indian market is maturing - both in terms of content as well as viewer choices. The more you offer in terms of variety of content, the more he keeps demanding. Obviously, there is a limit to which a general entertainment channel can really provide in terms of the content. There are a lot of niche channels coming in to cater to the requirements of every niche audience. Ultimately, you will see the market getting divided into people who love watching specific programmes on specific channels.

As far as the RoI is concerned, yes and at the moment you would find it questionable. But as and when the market matures, it has to change. Though CAS may have been put off for now, addressability is something that is definitely coming. Obviously, with addressability comes people's choice that actually drives the niche channels. Yes, it may be very difficult for niche channels to survive for now but in the long run, as I see it, most of these niche channels will pick up. Because, apart from advertising and subscription revenues, there would be many other revenue sources emerging for niche channels. Ultimately all these will drive the RoI of niche channels.

Which of Zee channels is available abroad and how are they positioned?

The availability of Zee channels abroad depends on the markets. US has Zee TV, Zee Cinema, UK has Zee TV, Zee Cinema, Zee Music, Alpha Punjabi, Africa has Zee TV and the Middle East markets have Zee TV, Zee Cinema, Zee News, Zee Music, Alpha Gujarati. Different markets have different sets of channels depending on the tariffs and the demand for the channel.

Which is the best oversees market in terms of revenues and what is the revenue model for each market?

I would say that US and UK are the big markets. The revenue model as of now is primarily subscriptions. We have started getting very significant advertising revenues as well. And as we see it, the ad revenue alone should be able to not only sustain those ventures, but should give us a reasonable bottom line. Then the subscription revenues would purely add to the bottom line.

Zee Network launched a dedicated beam of Zee TV for Singapore on 1 June. You have been negotiating with the local cable service provider in Singapore to carry more Zee family channels, including Zee Cinema. What is the latest on this?

Singapore is a very very controlled market. Introducing any new channel becomes very difficult, because, there, StarHub has the monopoly and very limited capacity, and also given the fact that in spite of Indian audiences being quite significant, StarHub are under certain restrictions in terms of providing number of Indian channels. Hence, at the moment it is only Zee TV and we will keep pushing Zee Cinema and as and when it is possible we will put the channel on. Negotiations are still going on.

How is Zee doing in the UK, US, Middle East and the Far East?

Let me just say this that as far as international markets in general are concerned, Zee was the first mover in all these markets. It is not only because of the first mover advantage but because of us being fairly proactive that Zee is still the number one and it maintains its position with a good margin as well.

Speaking of free channels, FTA channel Sahara is popular in Hong Kong and Singapore purely because it is free. What is your take on this?

Sahara may be an FTA channel, but as I said earlier, Singapore is a highly controlled market and in those markets it is not possible for people to simply put dishes and start accessing channels. There you can provide channels only through StarHub. In fact, there would be very few households who would have put up their own dishes and must be watching these channels. Hence I would really be surprised if Sahara was very popular in Singapore or Hong Kong - both in terms of market reality and in terms of technical feasibility.

'I am quite confident of Smile TV doing phenomenally well'

How much does your international business contribute to the overall revenue of the network?

Approximately 25 to 30 per cent.

How is Smile TV doing?

As far as Smile is concerned, the intention is to introduce original programming. We will be simultaneously introducing the channel on cable as well, so the moment Smile goes on cable, people can see a lot of original programming. We really see that quite a few people have actually used the Dish TV boxes to access the channel on the cable network and we have got a fantastic response on that, despite the fact that we haven't done any marketing.

Here, it is garnering GRPs which, from a general entertainment channel's point of view, may not be very significant, but it has started featuring on the rating charts. That is the case with library programmes - without any marketing, without any distribution. This way you can yourself imagine what the situation would be once we start our marketing plan, once we go into distribution seriously and of course, when we introduce original programmes as well. So I am quite confident of Smile doing phenomenally well.

What is the reach of the channel in terms of subscriptions?

We haven't started distributing on cable as yet. It is purely on DTH. So, at the moment it could be slightly premature to talk about the reach of Smile TV.

Indians tend to perceive comedy in different ways depending on the region. How well is Smile equipped to meet this challenge?

We understand that different regions have different viewpoints on fun and entertainment. We are taking care of that. Though it is a Hindi language channel, what we are working on is lots of concepts that take regional elements and regional flavour into those programming. Also, we intend to target different age groups with different kinds of programming.

Can the blame for the poor level of comedy thus far also be placed on the doorstep of the channels' programming departments who have displayed a lethargic attitude towards this genre?

I really won't say that there has been a very poor attempt at comedy or whatever but till the time you really give opportunity to individuals to really come up with ideas, produce stuff, how can you make a judgment on whether there is enough capability or not? Now when I launch this and give the opportunity to many producers, which I am doing currently, only then can someone really come up with new ideas and concepts. If I keep telling them that I want a sitcom after a sitcom, obviously it is only sitcom after sitcom which will actually come. And obviously, how many such sitcoms will really work?

As we have been encouraging both established as well as new producers to come up with new concepts, we have found that there has been no dearth of ideas, talent or capable people to execute those ideas. I am quite confident that this as a genre can really come up.

The saas-bahu element was responsible for one of the most successful comedies on Indian television Tu Tu Main Main. Do we need to look beyond that and innovate more?

As I said earlier, we will be experimenting with and exploring many new concepts for the comedy genre. I am quite sure there would be certain concepts which would do phenomenally well, and there might be certain concepts which are obviously not as great as what we had expected them to be.

Do you think that a localised version of any of the Western comedies like HBO's Sex And the City could be done for India or are we far too conservative for tongue 'n' cheek humour?

One could look at adaptations as well. Today we have adapted quite a few game shows from the international markets. Only one or two game show adaptations have worked. So, definitely I won't be saying that all adaptations would work. But yes, one can keep one's ears and eyes open to see how well they work in the Indian markets. The Indian market is completely different from the international one.

In terms of revenue, how was last year for Zee MGM and Zee English and have any targets been set for this year for the two channels?

In terms of revenue, I am not saying that I am fantastically excited about what they earned but what Zee English and Zee MGM really achieved last year was that they really came out as strong contenders in the movie and English general entertainment channels.

The good work we did last year with these channels has posed fantastic revenue opportunities in this year. So it might possibly be wrong to really benchmark it to last year. This year, we have pumped in lot of money to acquire many more films and much more programming as you must have also seen in the last few months.

A lot of programming has been changed and old programmes which have been repeated have been removed while introducing at the same time new programmes. The target this year is far higher as compared to last year.

Is the look, logo, channel ID of Zee English and Zee MGM going to change in any manner?

It is a continuous development process. I really would not say that it is not going to change. It depends on the market feedback. We will take a call on that some time in the next couple of months.

Could you dwell on how Zee MGM is being revamped?

We are continuously introducing new movies and that is what we intend to do. There are quite a few big title movies which are saleable even in the market.

So we have a three-pronged strategy: 1) We will obviously keep showcasing new blockbusters on the channel. 2) We will showcase big movies of the past as well, movies which have very high repeat value. 3) We will be doing lot of festivals around specific topics.

As far as the image is concerned, like I mentioned earlier, we will decide on it in the next couple of months.

Have any marketing campaigns been planned for these two channels? Why are you so low key on this front?

They are done property-specific. So as and when there are big properties, we define the marketing and promotion plan accordingly.
How are the ratings and share of Zee English and Zee MGM compared to the competition?

At the moment, both the channels obviously reach out to a huge mass of people. But what we are very confident is that the share of viewership which we have and the loyalty which we have with a certain set of viewers will be maintained very strongly. There are people who are die-hard loyalists of specific properties of Zee English. There are die-hard loyalists of movies on Zee MGM. Apart from the big commercial movies, the best of the movies actually come on Zee MGM. So you will find a very loyal viewership. We will be expanding the viewer base in any case.

Zee MGM has decided to switch from old films to new films. Earlier the channel appealed to people who liked older films like Westerns. What makes you go for this new line up? Does it mean that Zee MGM hasn't been doing well because it aired old films?

It is the strength which we built over time as far as these channels are concerned and we are not giving up that strength. We maintain that strength in any case. But apart from that, the viewer base which is not coming onto the channel, that segment is what we will target with other programming and movies. It is all about retention and growth.

It was reported that Zee English has plans to change its programming schedule to include a fair bit of visual and variety shows. Could you please elaborate on this? Which are the new shows planned for Zee English?

Since we are targeting a larger audience base while retaining the loyal viewership that we have, so programmes like Friends, Will and Grace comedies that people really like to watch will be retained in a certain time band, may be for the 7-9 time band.

Then we intend targeting the larger audience who like watching international programming, but maybe is unable to understand the dialogues if it is a very dialogue-driven programming. Hence we intend to introduce a lot of visual-based programmes. There will be game shows, reality shows, action, adventure and many more. We will be disclosing the names once contracts are signed.

Could you give me an overview of the MX channel? What kind of movies? Who is watching? Are you repeating what is shown on MGM? What are the future plans for pushing the channel?

The MX channel is actually a channel for all international action films. There is this set of audiences who are interested in action. Hence we have launched the MX channel and that is its basic profile. There would be some films which are repeated from MGM, but the channel's profile is completely action. MX is on Dish TV and is catering to the niche requirement which is action - old and new.

How do you plan to overcome the huge disparity in viewership numbers between Hindi and English programming?

There is a language barrier, a profile barrier and a perception barrier. Taking all that into consideration, one would really expect and it is not absolutely unnatural that the Hindi channels get far bigger viewership as compared to English channels.

But if I look at English audience in isolation, there is a huge population in itself. I mean to say that the smaller size of English audience doesn't mean that I cannot have programming specifically for that language.

In the past few months has there been a shift in the programming approach of Trendz?

Trendz is about trends in life. We have expanded the gamut on the channel where we now not only focus on fashion but on trends in other lifestyle products as well. There is so much of style in India and, therefore, we are introducing a lot of Indian programmes. We will have a good mix of international fashion content, good mix of Indian fashion content and we will not only concentrate on ramp shows but we will do a lot of style-based shows.

How did the market respond to this shift in programming?

The excitement Diabolical created in the market has lured the advertisers to the channel now. Earlier we used to go to the advertisers for ad sales. Now, after seeing shows like Diabolical, the advertisers are taking the initiative to get associated with us. In fact, Trendz is the first Indian fashion and lifestyle channel which has got Indian advertising on the channel.

By the end of the year how many localised shows will Trends have? Which are the shows coming up?

The channel will be launching four to five shows, based on the local content, by the end of this year. The first one from this lineup will be launched within a couple of months.

Which are the production houses that you are talking with for producing original content?

There are quite a few. It is not necessary that I will always go to production houses. We are talking to independent producers as well.

Could you talk about the new international shows that Trendz has recently launched?

We keep doing a lot of ramp shows internationally; in fact, ramp shows are our primary focus.

What are the major events here and abroad that Trendz is looking at being involved with this year?

We will be doing a lot of other events as well. We are working on certain concepts. We will be associated with lot of events as we did with Lakme India Fashion Week (LIFW) this year. We did a very special feature on LIFW. We gave a completely different perspective of LIFW. Hence, whenever we do an event or cover an event, we give a different perspective of the whole thing.

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