"The new breed of viewer will be different and will want different things" : Star India COO Sameer Nair

Indian entertainment television's first name in programming has a theory. And as Star India gets set to celebrate Year Four as top dog in the broadcast stakes, COO Sameer Nair has one concern on his mind. Four years just about fits into his theory that the Indian viewer is ready for a change. Nair is pulling all the stops in making certain his network takes that creative leap forward so's all its bases are covered.

Nair expounds on what is on his mind as regards this issue which he views as critical to keeping Star ahead of the pack. He also dwells on how he sees things moving forward as far as advertising sales and distribution is concerned.

Excerpts from an interview to

Tell us about your pet theory of the four-year cycle and how it will impact the way you address programming issues at Star Plus going forward?

My thinking on the four-year cycle is that it's a good unit of time to deal with human beings' lives. They can be broken up very conveniently and neatly into four-year units. If we start from 10, between 10 and 14 your thinking is of a certain kind. Fourteen to 18, your thinking is totally different from 10-14 (school-high school). The same applies for 18-22 (college), 22-26 (working), 26-30 (you get married).

So when did you get married?

I got married on my 25th birthday, actually.

To come back to my point. Between 30 and 34, invariably you have kids. From 34 onwards, which why they say (when looking at demographics) 35+. By now, apart from a few fringe people, who have not yet followed my cycle, which is like 1, 2, 3 per cent, 97 per cent of Indians have gone exactly in this pattern and now at 35+, you have family and you're settled. Right?

At a work level (35+), you have pretty much arrived into what you are going to be doing for the rest of your life.

Now look at the entertainment life cycle. VJs are a great example. After four years on air, they pretty much lose their "coolness". There are a new breed of kids who have arrived and are probably looking for new faces that reflect their idea of "cool".

This point about VJs you have articulated before, but how are you taking this logic into the way you do your entertainment programming?

I would argue that between 2000 and 2004 (which is when Star has been on top), there is now a new bunch of people are entering these different age segments that I've described who may not be sorted. They may have their own desires.

Our lives have also changed. In 2000 India was not shining. In 2004, India is shining.

"All of the shows, individually, are being given attention. Last year it had got to a point that at many levels, it was getting too unreal"

All because of a good Monsoon?

Whatever. But the environment has changed. And things are different. And a new breed of viewers have arrived. So keeping the four year-cycle in mind, you can argue that maybe this new breed will be different and will want different things.

So really what we are doing is dealing with that possibility.

Like, if your complaint is about the sameness of the programming, I would say it is not (the same). In the last three to four months we have already embarked on a major re-engineering of everything. You don't have to change the show or take it off air.

You just take it 18 years ahead?

Not that at all. All of the shows, individually, are being given attention. Last year it had got to a point that at many levels, it was getting too unreal.

If there was a problem (on ratings) let them have a fight, or let someone get kidnapped. Those were the best ideas last year.

So now we're really lifting up everything. A generation leap is not a solution. You have to think more. You have to bring more value into the proposition. And I'm not saying let's stop telling saas-bahu stories. But you've got to bring more value into those stories.

Don't look for these short-term quick fixes. There's a problem and you say, 'Let's stage a kidnapping. Two-three weeks will get by.' That is no way to approach it.

What you're saying is get out of this week-to-week loop.

Yes, get out of that loop. You have to make a plan. And you have to be clear. About what you're trying to say.

The ratings have gone down 2 points. Then the reaction is, 'I've always maintained from the beginning that this character doesn't work. So, let's change the actress.' That's all a very knee-jerk reaction to things.

There should be a benchmark in terms of quality, thinking, creative process below which you can't go. If the ratings are not coming, then don't do the show but don't take that base benchmark to rock bottom to just get one bump on the number.

Which is why you get this comment from lay viewers, "Patha nahin, kya ho raha hai" (don't know what's going on).

Those are the kind of things we are reconsidering in a big way. Look for that real creative leap forward. It's not generational leap forward, it's a creative leap forward. Of really figuring out what is being done.

And it's being done show by show. And we're not going to make the mistake of throwing out the baby with the bath water. There are some shows that don't need fixing, so don't fix it.

Which are the shows that are okay as they are now, that don't need fiddling with?

Some of our half-hour shows. Like Kichdi, it's anyway funny. But I would argue that you have to fiddle with everything. There would only be degrees of fiddling.

Because everything is evolving. See, the thing is that a TV programme is a live brand. With each passing episode, the brand is evolving and changing. You have to keep that process continuously on because what happens is that the audience has evolved past you. So suddenly you become old hat.

"What I am telling everyone is to do it right. The numbers might fall in the short term, but if you've made the basic fundamental correction then you've got a much longer life span"

Basically, you want to strengthen the storylines.

For it's inherent strengths, as compared to a quick-fix. Which was the case in many ways. Which is why at one stage, whether you watched our afternoon shows or our prime time shows, the question could be asked, 'just what is going on?'

And now in this process, some shows will come through. And maybe, some will not. So there are shows where the programming and creative team will have to take the call, thus far and no further.

In this process, there is no such thing as chucking the producer off air. In fact, I've told most producers, 'You guys must figure out your own replacements.' Why should they get stressed that if the ratings are not doing well the channel will throw them out. Instead, if, for example, they have four shows on Star Plus, they should thinking on the lines that okay, here are three shows that will stay. What will I replace the fourth with? Who knows they might then deliver something better than anything they've done before.

So what I am telling everyone is to do it right. The numbers might fall in the short term, but if you've made the basic fundamental correction then you've got a much longer life span. You cannot live on a week-to-week chop-change, chop-change cycle because after a point you don't known what you're doing yourself.

Entertainment television at the end of the day is a great story well told. So either you don't have that great story or you have a great story but you're not telling it well enough.

Ok, let's look at a concrete example of a show going nowhere. 'Kahiin Kissi Roz'. It is transcending all limits of ridiculousness. But it is delivering the ratings so why worry, seems to be the thinking?

Which is exactly the point. That all things deliver ratings. When you've got to our level of dominance and our level of momentum. Of course it delivers the ratings.

So if you're doing complete lunacy and getting the ratings. Imagine what you'd get if you were doing complete sense.

Maybe they've just exhausted all ideas on what to do next.

Which is why I say, you've got to think harder. Which is why we are re-looking every show on air.

In the last four-five months, this has been increasingly the push forward. Across all the shows.

Can you identify any shows that have delivered that improvement?

A lot of all this is very subtle. It is not as if we've completely redesigned the shows.

There is no big change. You could almost say it is un-noticeable. But what I have seen in the last three months, is that the level of criticism has gone down. Which I regard as a mark of improvement.

Well, that hasn't happened with 'Kahin Kissi Roz' at least?

In a very short while you will discover, what will happen with Kahin Kissi Roz. Because, we're already into that discussion. We've already taken the decision that this is the way forward. And we've said it has to get done by May. Or it's finished.

When we'd spoken last on this issue (May 2004), you'd said you wanted to get your programming schedules in place, which more or less ties in to what you've been saying about thinking long term. How successful have you been on that?

It has not got to where I wanted it but it has improved.

"When you've got to our level of dominance and our level of momentum, all things deliver ratings. So if you're doing complete lunacy and getting the ratings. Imagine what you'd get if you were doing complete sense"

Could you quantify that?

If we were at 10 per cent, last year, we've got to about 45 per cent now. We've still some way to go but we're getting there.

Talking of programming initiatives, you'd told us in the beginning of January that you were launching a high production value detective and comedy series, both to debut together. What has happened there?

Both shows are going to enter production now. And they are going to be made ready. So that when we are ready to launch there won't be a mad scramble.

There is no urgency currently because with the new announcements we've made (Indian Superstar in particular), we're pretty sorted till July.

You're talking of creating a bank of programming here. What immediately comes to mind is that you're creating all these great shows and you may not have the place to slot them. Would not at least some of these shows provide content for the new channel which, according to the industry buzz, you are ideating on?

What channel?

Aren't you working on a new Hindi entertainment channel?

There is no such thing.

You have yourself said that you are looking at launching other channels, including regional ones?

That is there. There is ideating going on kids. We are in discussion with people.

What about Ravi Menon, formerly with Sony. Haven't you just taken him on board.

Yes, we've hired Ravi Menon.

I was given to understand that he's been hired to work on content ideation for Star's new Hindi channel.

No, no. What channel?

Okay let me put it this way. Doesn't another channel offer a wider platform to place interesting new programming that is having time slot problems.

That would be rather extreme.

What's the point of banking a high-quality comedy or Sherlock Holmes type detective series for a year for instance?

Not for one year. It's time will come. Which is exactly what I have been saying all this while. That we are working to plan in advance. So whatever programming shifts are happening, the further ahead you plan, the more you simplify everyone's lives. Because at the end of the day, when a show goes off air, everyone down to the spot boy's affected.

One point that Star Group CEO Michelle Guthrie had said, outside of DTH, was that there would have to be new ways to grow the advertising pie. So where do you see that happening?

One way that the pie will grow now is with the opening up of local advertising.
Will that really be a significant bump-up?

The opening up of new advertising avenues paves the way for new thinking. Because it opens a whole new range of advertisers or potential advertisers who up until now were anyway closed.
"If you look at it, television is regarded as an industry. Advertising, broadcast is an industry. Film, has now become an industry. But the cable business, no one treats it like an industry"
But aren't you confronting similar problems to that with new programming? Where do you put it? Because your ad inventory is anyway full.

That's not necessarily the way it works. Because you have a whole new range of advertisers, you can create new opportunities for them. That then creates a pressure on other advertisers, which can then therefore effectively help in increase in rates. And therefore improved management of your inventory. Because the pie itself expands.

Let's look at distribution now. Last year Star India CEO Peter Mukerjea has been on record as saying he would prefer that CAS is rolled out after July 2004. It looks like his wish is being more than fulfilled with even a July 2004 rollout looking unlikely. What is the distribution reality as far as Star is concerned as of now. Are you ignoring CAS totally going forward?

Not at all actually. See, we have always been pushing for transparency. Because we believe that if there is transparency in the number of subscribers it allows us to have a clear understanding of the business and how to grow it.

It is this lack of transparency that leads to all these problems that we have seen in the last one year. Some people saying CAS is the solution, some people saying Trai (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) is the solution, others saying something else.

What is your ideal solution? Pricewise, as well as growth of subscriber base-wise? At the end of the day, it is a fact that the middle - that's between you and the ground - the MSO, is having a problem from both ends. What we appear to be headed for is that you're going to kill one link, because it becomes a totally unviable way of doing business.

I am the first one to agree that the MSO is between a rock and a hard place. But I think that the cable business has grown way too big to be this kind of Wild West cowboy operation.

If you look at it, television is regarded as an industry. Advertising, broadcast is an industry. Film, has now become an industry. But the cable business, no one treats it like an industry.

But you have 40,000 cable operators across the country and the five-six big MSOs.

So going forward, two, three things will happen. Broadly speaking the market will trifurcate into DTH, broadband and rest of cable.

So multiciplicity of services that will be available as distribution platforms. And as broadcasters our interest is to be on all platforms. So that we continue to reach the consumers. So whether via CAS, DTH or broadband, we're okay with all of them.

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