'Regional prime focus areas are Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat': UTV COO Vikas Varma

Fun loving, passionate, young and dynamic is how one can define UTV's COO of four months. A veteran in the advertising arena with 16 years of experience behind him, Vikas Varma has been the man behind the launch of popular brands such as Cinthol Lime, Chancellor Kings Cigarette, Panama Cigarette, Bonny Mix Chocolate, Blue Star Air Conditioner, Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd, Sony Entertainment Television, AXN, Channel V & Bandit Queen to name a few.

Varma, formerly the MD of Touch? Communications with expertise both in the brand building and advertising space, has wide-ranging experience with top ad agencies such as Frank Simoes Advertising, Madison Advertising.

As COO, Varma guides the TV division's business strategy and operations along with business development. In an interview with's Sonali Krishna, Varma talks about UTV's new vision and the productions planned in the coming months.

Recently, UTV has shifted its focus from being a supplying vendor to a 'solutions partner'?

I wouldn't call it a leap but just a natural progression. For me, its a natural path a production house should be taking. The shows that a production house produces for a channel, that product itself is a part of their marketing strategy. Therefore for us, we need to create shows that are in sync with their marketing endeavours making us a partner in their vision, strategy and production.

Earlier the channel would intimate the production house about the kind of show that it wanted. Then production houses accordingly adhered and threw up some ideas in tandem with the need of the channel. But what we do here is we share with the channel their long term strategy and based on that strategy we offer solutions. So it's more proactive than reactive. And I think therein lies the difference between a partner and a vendor.

The recent revamp in terms of structural changes that took place earlier this year, saw a lot of personnel that were brought in from the advertising (servicing) space. Why so and also expand on what the structure looks like now?

See, as far as creative and production goes there was never a problem with UTV per se. But, the basic relationship between a production house and a channel in a manner of speaking needs somebody to interface between the creative and the channel, somebody who understands the strategic needs of the channel and therefore compliments the needs of the channel in-house and ensures that the creatives are skewed towards that.

Therefore, the people who have come into UTV from the advertising field are essentially the client management people who are more into strategy, planning, understanding the clients needs and ensuring delivery.

The structure currently is me heading television content. Then Abhijeet Pradhan who is vice-president heading strategy and planning. Reporting to him are channel directors who will be handling different channels just as we have account directors. We also have incorporated a new division called RAW (research and analysis wing) which will look into data mining and analyse qualitative and quantitative needs as far as viewer demands are concerned.

We also have something called 'creative disrupters' whose basic role will be to come up with story ideas which have never existed before. These people again are creative but not from the television industry.

So would you say that this is the first time that a model like this has been used for a production house?

I know in India nobody has done it and abroad I don't care. If it's not then I should patent it. (Laughs).

You are looking at moving from 8.5 hours per week to 30 hours per week by year-end. How do you propose to go about this?

Most of my work is already done. I think we have already done 24 hours. So keeping our current infrastructure, overheads as it is and without any major financial inputs, we have basically been thought leaders coming up with something new and that has made us grow already by 300 per cent. This is also because of the number of new channels that have come up and also we were also able to capitalize on that opportunity because the channel management team was in place.

You have three main sources of revenue, (Content, Movies, Broadcast). What does the growth plan in terms of specific strategies entail for content?

My areas of growth in content are; keeping my Saas-Bahu's in place which is what is currently mainstream. Also, going international by providing content to international channels. Plus, a lot of shows which are going to be different from the regular saas-bahu's and the regular stand up comedies. It's going to be really cutting edge creative which is going to be the next generation programming which India will experience.

"Star is interested in content and good content as would any broadcaster would be. And they would go to anybody providing them with good content. It does not make any real difference as far as I am concerned."

With Star's stake now in Balaji Telefilms; how in your opinion will that affect UTV?

I don't think its going to affect us at all. Star is interested in content and good content as would any broadcaster. And they would go to anybody providing them with good content. It does not make any real difference as far as I am concerned. My job is to continue providing good content to my channels.

What plans on the DD front?

We are currently doing Meher on DD which is doing exceedingly well. And we are trying to get another show on DD. But as far as I personally, am concerned, I have tasted blood with Meher. It's a great revenue generation source for us. I am now pitching for a comedy on DD.

How does the scene on the regional programming front look? Tell us a little about your initiatives on foraying into the regional programming side?

We are talking to a lot of regional channels including Bengali channels. For the last one month we have aggressively and proactively started creating content on the regional front. We have begun in-depth research in this arena.

So, what areas are you looking at specifically?

I am looking at Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. These are prime focus areas as of now.

UTV saw a high turnover this year in terms of personnel? What do you attribute this to?

I would be very worried if people stuck around for too long. I am coming from an advertising background; I mean high turnover is expected in the creative field. If one doesn't have a high turnover, then you will stagnate.

UTV you say has taken a paradigm shift in the way a traditional production house operates? Could you explain that in terms of the change incorporated internally as well as how it compares with other production houses?

We are not a production house anymore; at least internally we're not. How we position it and the results it will reap is yet to be seen. I am looking at providing content with a significant difference so that anybody who wants a cutting edge product will come to UTV. That's the paradigm shift I am looking at. My biggest pat on the back will be when somebody says that UTV has changed the way television production houses have operated.

Your nine shows on Hungama were anyway going to come to you right considering it's a UTV product?

No. Hungama called in a number of production houses and we all made pilots. Hungama then hired a research agency that did a quantitative research across India where children were asked to select the shows. And our shows were selected by the children and that's how we bagged it. And we did not get for any other reason.

"We are not a production house anymore; at least internally we're not. How we position it and the results it will reap is yet to be seen. I am looking at providing content with a significant difference so that anybody who wants a cutting edge product will come to UTV."

UTV is producing a show called Stuntmen of Bollywood for National Geographic. Also you aim at arriving at 25-30 hours of locally produced shows on National Geographic. Considering other production houses have also been called in what the strategy that you are adopting?

Yes, we are pitching to NGC and are looking at getting more and more shows in there. Strategy is simple, good content. NGC knows what they want and have been in the business for many years.

Is there also anything new you are trying out on television this year?

We're creating absolutely mainstream programming. What I am trying to do is finding out what that mainstream programming is going to be. At the end of the day it's a TRP game. The whole attempt is to achieve more TRP's. For instance, Full Toss, a show on Hungama is a product never ever been done in the history of mankind. (Laughs). Sounds good but actually true. We have registered it and copyrighted it and also plan to sell this format internationally. This is basically schools getting together and playing inter-zonal matches all across the country which are going to be led by cricket stars. This is would look at as quite path breaking.

What is the UTV vision for the next few years?

Money, money, more money! (Laughs) But honestly speaking doing better programming and increasing our television content in the market place.

Tell me how programming content has evolved in the last five years and it means to production houses?

This is something that I am extremely passionate about. I feel that the Indian mindspace has changed in the past ten years. If we go back 10 years ago, India was in a state where was political bankruptcy, riots happening all over the country, stock exchange scams were on the rise, Kargil war happened and people were losing jobs, the rupee was falling. We went about our day to day activities hoping that we would retain our jobs, picking up the news paper was either Muslim-Hindu clash, Harshad Mehta scams or the bomb blasts which hit Mumbai, so there was a lot of hopelessness that had seeped into people. Life became insecure. That was when people went back to their roots.

At that point in time, TV brought in the joint family system, the mangal sutras, and the sindoor which gave some solace to people. But things have changed in the last 2 years, the stock market is booming and with the Indian currency doing very well. Indians are now comfortable with their Indianess not only in India but also overseas. So, is this about saas-bahu's? Maybe it is, maybe it's not. We need to question ourselves. If our mainline cinema is changing why isn't television content?

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