"We will have to think out of the box more on programming" : Sameer Nair - Star India COO

Sameer Nair, the chief operating officer of Star India, an arm of the Rupert Murdoch-controlled Star Group Pvt Ltd, can be a reticent man. Very unlike his boss and the company’s country head Peter Mukerjea, who always exudes charm. But at times, Nair can be totally disarming and charm personified. Even when most of his colleagues were away on year-end holidays and he was the one left to “mind the store.”

It was in one such expansive mood that's Anjan Mitra caught up with Nair in Delhi over a breakfast that turned out to be endless cups of hot freshly brewed coffee, followed by glassfuls of water melon juice.

Despite at times threatening to lapse back into his reticent self, Nair did give a sneak preview of Star India’s plans for 2004 and the way forward from a position of complete dominance of the Indian market for the fourth year in a row, courtesy Star Plus.

The distribution has to be further beefed up, the marketing team has to reinvent itself , the programming team has to do things “differently” and a new zing has to be added to ad sales. Otherwise, as Nair points out, complacency may start setting in, spelling doom. Excerpts from the conversation at the "power breakfast":

What are the plans, big and otherwise, for 2004 ?

There are some big initiatives lined up and most of them I cannot speak about. But what I can tell you is that if the year 2003 was a year of transparency (from the distribution point of view), 2004 would be the year of growth.

We are looking at targeting new growth areas, a new push for ad sales and doing additional things like looking at launching new channels.

What sort of channels is Star looking at launching?

I cannot spell out the details, but there would certainly be some new channels coming, especially in the light of conditional access system (CAS) showing signs of becoming a reality wherein niche channels would make sense and some newer mode of delivery systems lurking in the corners to break out.

By new mode of delivery, do you mean that Star’s DTH plans would finally fructify?

Well, DTH is something that I don’t look after. Still, it won’t be out of place to say that it is something that we are actively considering. There are certain issues that need to be sorted out (like formalising a tie-up with a majority Indian partner with the Tatas the frontrunner?), which, I presume, are being ironed out.

What sort of channels is Star looking at bringing in 2004 to India? Will they be third party ones like The History Channel or some from the News Corp stable?

It can be a combination of both the options. But as I said, I cannot talk about these launches. But we definitely want to launch some new products here.

Is launching of Indian language channels, like a Telugu language channel, also part of the plan?

Regional expansion is certainly on the agenda for 2004. Still, it is not very high on the priority list and such forays may come about towards the end of the year.

How do you look at Star Plus’ continued trek northward?

I would call that dominance, complete dominance. But in a way, such dominance of proceedings and the market can be self limiting too, because to drive growth we have to do new things, do things differently and set ourselves new challenges.

Like what?

Probably think out of the box, especially where programming is concerned. As I said, we have to do things differently and we are fine tuning these things. I firmly believe that people watch programmes and not channels. For example, we are looking at introducing new shows in new genres. But to do that, we have to find a time slot for the new fare, which we don’t seem to have.

So, what we are thinking of doing is to come up with new shows even if that means giving a rest to some successful shows and replacing them with new shows, for starters.

Which are the shows that are likely to be phased out and what would their replacements be?

The programmes that can be given a rest would fall in the weekly and half hourly slots. Some weeklies certainly can take a break, while we introduce new stuff. Maybe programmes like Krisshna Arjun. Then, we are looking at introducing a detective series in the true Sherlock Holmes style. This series would not be like a matchstick is found and the mystery is solved types. Though Indian, the weekly series would have all the elements of a classy, hi-end intellectual product. It is likely to be put on air towards the end of February.

Then we have lined up a comedy/laugh show that too will debut along with the detective series. Though such new shows would be part of our quarterly change, it’s the way we market, communicate and position these shows that would spell success or otherwise.

We certainly want to bring the popular Pop Idol show to India, but the logistics are still not working out for a show of that magnitude.

"I firmly believe that people watch programmes and not channels"

'Pop Idol'? We have been hearing about that for ages. It’s like waiting for Godot.

People only see one side of it all. We said we’d be doing a Pop Idol in India and we would do that. For a show like that, one requires huge telephony support and back-up, which is still not very doable in India. If the infrastructure is not right, then the whole fun of doing such a show would not be there.

Remember, when Star Plus introduced the SMS facility for KBC (Kaun Banega Crorepati), so many messages came in that the whole network just crashed. We have gained the expertise of doing reality shows through the Pop Stars contests and shows, but for a show like Pop Idol, the infrastructure needs to be in top shape. We are looking into it.

Year 2004 would also see lot of cricket. The ongoing Australia-India test series, which would be followed by the tri-nation one-day series. Then there is the India-Pakistan series. Later in the year, the Champions Trophy is also lined up. Do you foresee an intense fight for ad spend between soaps and cricket and does Star India have a flanking plan?

As far as Star Plus is concerned, cricket need not necessarily mean a drop in viewership or ad revenue. Cricket is regarded as a typical male show and Star Plus’ strength is not derived from male audiences.

If you look at Star Plus’ growth, its share in the 9-11 pm time band actually grew despite the World Cup cricket in 2002-03.That’s where Sony erred as they did not have programmes strong enough to keep the cricket viewers with them after a match was over. So, what happened? The cricket match got over and people switched channels to Star Plus.

What I am trying to say is that cricket may not mean a major dip for Star Plus. However, having said that, we must have good enough programming, including new stuff, that would pull audiences back to us even if they have gone away from us for cricket on some other channel.

Since we are talking about Sony, what do you have to say about its new show 'Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahin'? It has shown that with good programming, one can take a shot at Star’s dominance.

Jassi is a great show and I am happy for Sony. Because it is doing so well and got into the top 50, it gives us some healthy competition. It would also make my team sit up, look at things and work out a new strategy. Jassi has been like an energy pill for us.

What’s happening on the distribution front since international reports say that Star would double its subscription revenue in five years time and it would be driven by markets like India ?

Having started off the transparency scheme in 2003, we would like to continue with it. We have set ourselves a target of increasing the Star Network’s subscriber base from the current 10-odd million to 14 million. It’s a tough target, but we’d like to end the year with a figure that is at least very near the 14 million mark.
"Because it is doing so well and got into the top 50, it gives us some healthy competition. Jassi has been like an energy pill for us "

Do you think that CAS, though its rollout is becoming a faint hope only, would help pay channels drive up their subscription revenue?

It certainly would. At least, all of us will know the actual number of homes that are watching mass entertainment channels. It would also mean that we would get our fair share of revenue, which at the moment is not coming to broadcasters because of still rampant under-declaration.

You are saying that CAS would drive up subscription revenue, but there is a feeling in the government and in certain quarters of the industry that Star is opposed to CAS rollout. Your comments.

Are we opposed to CAS? Certainly we are not. The Indian market is extremely large and we are of the opinion that for such a big market, things should be done in a pragmatic manner without rushing into a change in the set-up. It cannot happen overnight. CAS is really good for the industry in the long run, but along with its introduction, the consumers too should be empowered. Tell me, can you change your cable operator on the grounds of bad service? No way. For a technology like CAS to be really successful, the consumer too should be given other choices, apart from just a choice of channels that they wish to see.

Does Star have a plan if CAS is finally implemented ?

We don’t have a CAS or a non-CAS plan. We would continue to press for transparency (in the distribution side) by dropping our subscription rates, introducing new programming and have a sound marketing strategy around all these initiatives.

What are the new initiatives being planned on the ad sales side, since you head that team too?

Apart from the fact that we’d continue to be as aggressive as ever, we are putting in place a new system that would help us in managing our inventory in a scientific manner.

This new software that we have acquired would generate lot of data , which would help us in managing our affairs better. If that happens, we’d also be in a position to maximise and deliver greater value to our advertisers. We can help our clients do proper planning of the airtime based on the information that we would have on the inventory.

What is the overall growth that Star India is looking at in 2004?

We would do better than the industry average of about eight per cent. I cannot predict the future, but I hope that we clock a double digit growth in 2004.

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