"When there is addressability and when viewers can really choose, that will be the real test" : Sunil Khanna- Zee TV president

Zee TV president Sunil Khanna has a lot on his plate at the moment. The largest serving he has to manage of course being the nationwide movie talent hunt Subhash Chandra's flagship channel proposes to throw up come August --- India's Best -cinestars ki khoj.

Rs 1 billion is what Khanna says is being put behind the show, the ground event for which will traverse 20 cities and audition anywhere between 400,000 to 500,000 Shahrukh Khan and Preiti Zinta wannabes.

In a conversation with conducted at his office in Mumbai, the somewhat reticent IIT-IIM alumnus gives his take on this and other matters related to where Chandra's flagship channel is headed.


What momentum are you looking to garner out of India's Best for the channel per se?

If we look at India's Best alone as an event. The belief is that there is so much hype that is being created in 20 cities. It will be the first time for many to be on TV in the first place, added to the possibility that within 16 weeks their entire future may change. So there will be a huge amount of excitement. And the way even the final episodes have been conceptualised, it is bound to be interesting.

This event in itself is pathbreaking in terms of format and concept. Now any programme that becomes successful leaves some rub-off effect and that is what we expect in large measure from India's Best.

It's been four months since you took over the helm as president of Zee TV...

Three months actually.

Okay, three months. That is a good time within which to have firmed up ideas on where the channel is positioned and how you want to take it forward. So what's your take on that?

One thing is that you can't find magic solutions without doing a lot of research and putting systems and processes in place.

The first thing, your basics have to be right before you start trying out big things.

This means that whatever goes out on the channel, it needs to be of a certain quality. If Zee TV is launching a programme, people should be able to expect a certain quality and value from it. This is not to say that people have not tried all this earlier on Zee, but we are making a more systematic approach to the whole thing that's all. Because you can't replace individual instinct in this business.

Gut feel will always have a big role to play. Is that it?

What you can definitely ensure by doing a lot of scientific studies, is that your instinct is in the right direction. What we are doing is to treat television like any other consumer product. Obviously the difference here (in TV) is that the role of instinct is more. But at a broad level, whether it is to check the communication effectiveness of your promos or the response your programmes are getting, there are straightforward marketing principles that you tackle the way you do with any consumer brand.

That is one thing. The second is going back to the basic USP of Zee TV when it launched - 'Always look for innovation and try out new formats.'

That is our focus now. To try out new things and provide new formats of programming to our viewers. Some of those concepts are already getting crystalised and work has already started. You will see the results of that coming through in the next few months.

Does that means in terms of new shows?

New formats of shows. You can keep launching new shows. There has to be a certain kind of mix. It's not that whatever is there on television today is not working. They are working. But besides that, if you take the example of mature markets like the US, you find that the number one programme, which changes the positioning of the channel also, is rarely of one particular genre. Every year, the genre keeps changing, from reality, to fiction to thriller, etc.

As for Zee, we have a lot of formats that we have developed in-house and some where we are working with outside producers and which are different. Ultimately they all provide entertainment and they all provide viewer eyeballs. But the difference is in the approach, whether it is in telling a story or in producing a game show.

So the basic approach is going to be to offer conventional formats which are doing well but also provide new innovative formats.

So you say this will start getting delivered over the next three four months. From August on?

Maybe earlier. Maybe from end-June, early July.

What genres are you looking at? If we were to make a broad list outside the soaps, there is kids programming, mythologicals, crime thrillers, supernatural thrillers, comedy. Do any of these genres fit into your scheme of things going forward?

See, if you look at Zee TV as a brand. What we aspire to stand for is as a platform for progressive family entertainment.

That is the Bible or guideline for all our programming and marketing activities. This means that all concepts that don't fit into this guideline, even though they might be on its own a good concept, we are eliminating them. The approach has to be very focused. So whether we talk about kids, housewives or male-oriented programming, they all would broadly fit into the category of progressive family entertainment.

In terms of specifics, I won't be able to give out anything at this juncture though.

"Whether it is to check the communication effectiveness of your promos or the response your programmes are getting, there are straightforward marketing principles that you tackle the way you do with any consumer brand"

As far as your prime time goes, which is post-8:30 pm, or your weekend slots, are there any new shows in the pipeline?

As I said, I cannot offer specifics but I can give you the approach of what we are doing. When we speak of family entertainment we have to keep in mind what are the kind of people available as potential viewers in different time bands.

It is very clear that in the afternoons, it is completely dominated by housewives. The TV remote goes into the hands of kids from 5 to 7:30 or so. From 8 o'clock onwards, the remote goes to the family. From 11 o'clock onwards, which may not be relevant for us at Zee TV, it goes into the hands of the male members.

Relatively speaking, our studies show that from Sundays to Wednesdays, people are tuned to watching certain kinds of programmes whereas they look for different kinds of programming fare on weekends.

So when we say female audiences dominate the afternoons, we are obviously looking at strengthening that band much more than what it is today. Similar is the case for the kids bands. We are seriously looking at how to strengthen our programming there and have a sharper focus.

What about your existing properties?

As for our existing programmes, some of the programmes have a very strong brand equity. Like Astitva. So the effort is to further strengthen that brand equity of the programmes that are doing well.

Any other strong properties?

Tum Bin is also getting a fairly good response after the reincarnation track was introduced. Lavanya (the latest in the Chausath Panne series) which was launched recently is doing quite well as too Hum Sab Bharaati.

Besides that, there are certain obvious gaps in our programming. For example we tried out Kaun as a thriller and the initial response was very good. Now the idea is to strengthen the thriller as a genre. So one is looking at what could be the innovative programming concepts in that time band.

What time does 'Kaun' air?

Kaun comes at 10 o'clock.

"Conventional routes of communicating about your programmes to viewers won't work"

So basically you will be introducing new shows in the afternoon, evening and prime time bands over the next three months. When will the first new shows come up?

June-July, as I already stated.

If one were to look at programming initiatives, there are three that come to mind in terms of having tasted some degree of success in the last two years - 'Thursday Premiere', 'Chausath Panne' and 'Astitva Ek Prem Kahaani'. One has not really had a feel of anything that has come up new outside of these three for a while. And now you're launching the talent hunt and all these new concepts. Why has there been such a big gap?

You notice something new when it becomes successful. There have been some interesting concepts that we launched but since they did not become successful, people did not notice them. Like Kittie Party when it was launched, it was a very different kind of look and feel. Somehow, unfortunately it did not get that kind of a success so it was not noticed that much.

Ultimately the test of whether you have tried right or not is if it succeeds.

Speaking of 'Thursday Premiere', what are the movie titles that you've acquired for the summer months and beyond. Any big films?

There are some good titles like Munnabhai MBBS.

Wasn't that supposed to be going to Sony?

No, it's with us.

What are the other good titles that you have?

There is Pinjar, I - Proud to be an Indian, Rudraaksh, Samay, Paisa Vasool, Tum, Fun2shh, Ishk Hein Tumse, Jaal the Trap, to name some of them.

But the big movie of the season for you would be 'Munnabhai', correct?

Let's just say it's a good movie. See, it is not necessary that a film has to be a blockbuster to work well on TV. In fact, some of the movies which have worked very well on our Thursday Premiere have flopped in theatres. Perhaps that becomes the film's USP because not many people have seen it. Next month we're showing Pinjar, for example.

If we see the last few months data, it is Mein Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon which was a theatrical flop that did much better business for us than a big film like Chalte Chalte.

If there is a good star cast and good music, and people have not watched it, these kind of movies can do much better than the bigger movies. Also the bigger the film the more it gets played on cable channels.

"All our surveys on the ground show that we have a very strong equity with the viewers and people would definitely like to have Zee"

You have been in distribution so I will take a slight tangent here. One area where Zee can really claim leadership position among Hindi entertainment channels is in the territories outside India, UK in particular. What do you think are the key factors for Zee's success abroad and are there any learnings from there that you believe might have a bearing on how you approach programming initiatives?

Wherever the subscription market has matured and there is addressability, that's also a true test of a channel's pull. Because here, when channels are broadcast or distributed through cable channels, so many variables come into play. Whether your audio quality is fine, whether you're on prime band, colour band, hyper band. There are other issue which come out, whether sample size of Tam is right, whether whatever ratings are coming are actually representative. Which is why, we, as an organisation believe that when there is addressability and when viewers can really choose what he wants to watch, that will be the real test.

You will really come to know who is watching what. Is that it?

Which is why though on the ratings Zee is much below some other channels, still we have been the one saying that addressability is a must. Though going by the ratings some might have said that that would not work for Zee TV at all. But all our surveys on the ground show that we have a very strong equity with the viewers and people would definitely like to have Zee.

And that (addressability) could resolve a lot of those question marks that come around a show like Astitva, which gets us so much positive feedback but is not reflected in the ratings. It might not be a 16-17 TVR programme but it is definitely much better than some of the shows that are getting the ratings.

Even within Zee, Astitva gets equivalent ratings to some of the other programmes where in actual fact there is no comparison of the kind of viewership or feedback that we get.

So what the lead of Zee in other markets shows is that there is a huge equity for Zee and it always pays to have transparent market dynamics.

Looking at shows like 'Astitva' and new shows such as 'Lavanya'. They have worked in that they are able to reflect the aspirations and attitudes of women of today. But this seems more an urban female sensibility and the irony seems to be that it is in the Hindi heartland where Zee is strongest. Isn't this a bit of a contradiction in terms of what you offer your viewers?

This issue we have debated internally as well over the last two and a half months. I have been personally in distribution and if we talk about rural markets, Zee's distribution is the highest. And this has been borne out by NRS data.

The tricky issue is that if you are showing urban programmes, is it becoming aspirational for rural viewers or do they find it totally irrelevant? As long as they look at those programmes as aspirational ones and relate to the characters, those programmes still have a pull.

When we addressed the Astitva case to our distributors, the response was very favourable. In fact, for our communications strategies in rural areas, which we do through vans, Astitva is the driver programme. In fact the character of Dr Simran (Astitva's lead) is very well identified even in smaller places.

"One of the objectives of launching India's Best also has been to go closer to the viewers"

You are someone who came in to Zee with a strong grounding in distribution and marketing. But how has that worked to your advantage in terms of making programming decisions?

The quickest feedback, whether a programme is working or not, or if we take any consumer product, whether the product is really selling or not, comes to the seller; and then the sales team; and then marketing gets the feedback in any conventional industry.

The same thing is also true in the television business. When a programme is launched, TRP data comes after two weeks. But the feedback, whether it has worked or not, comes to the cable operator and the sales team within 24 hours. Having experience on that side gives you an insight into what is working and what is not working. So there is a huge value addition to that extent.

If there is one thing that Star and Sony do well is to give their programming initiatives superb back-up on the marketing front. That seems to be an area where Zee has not quite been able to match up. Is that a fair comment and if so, are you addressing this issue?

I think to a certain extent there is truth in what you are saying. And that's another learning of being in distribution. Which is that as competition has increased, you can't bank on conventional routes of communicating about your programmes to viewers. Like, if earlier one 60 cc or 100 cc ad in a Times of India or Hindustan Times used to do the trick, that's no more relevant, because everyone does that. Similarly hoardings are no more really that relevant. One has no option today but to really increase the pitch and support the program in very innovative ways on the ground. And I think in all our marketing campaigns from now onwards, that is something we would really focus on.

Of prime concern now is what are the innovative media planning we can do to go closer to the viewer. There is going to be a huge focus on ground events. One of the objectives of launching India's Best also has been to go closer to the viewers. When you go to 20 cities and create a lot of noise, promotions happening, taking feedback from viewers, etc.

While everyone talks of wanting good programming, for the advertiser the bottom line remains ratings. In an increasingly fragmented market, how do you manage to hold your rates for one and grow your ad revenues?

I don't think media planners are putting their money behind channels on ratings alone. The brand equity of a channel plays a major role in deciding whether a client wants to be associated with that channel or not. That's what is more important. The challenge we have is to ensure that Zee TV, as a brand, is a channel that people want to be associated with.

How much has the removal of the exporter requirement helped in ramping up ad revenues?

It's not made a major difference. One of the reasons being that there has been so much fragmentation in terms of regional channels.

Are there any other avenues opening up through which ad revenues can be tapped?

Ground events is one thing that is really coming out. There is definitely a huge opportunity with an event like India's Best for instance.

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