Television

'Zee’s three English channels in the black in FY ’06' : Neil Chakravarti - Zee Telefilms senior VP and business head of English channels

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Zee Telefilms has been undertaking a restructuring for its English channels over the last six to seven months. One of the results of this is that Zee Café is doing local initiatives. Two such products have launched already --- After Hours, which looks at the latest happenings in the Mumbai social circuit, and Simply Style that is about fashion. Now it is going to launch its first soap, Bombay Talking. Starting on 19 November, the show will look at the glamour of Bombay from the point of view of an aspiring actress who looks to make it big in the film world after having done some sizzling songs in films and music videos.

But that’s not all with the English language channels from the Zee stable. Zee Studio, formerly known as Zee MGM, too is undergoing a programming change with the aim being to showcase blockbusters like the recently-aired The Aviator, which was based on the life and times of the flamboyant American entrepreneur Howard Hughes. If Zee Telefilms senior VP and business head of English channels (Zee Café, Zee Studio and Zee Trendz) Neil Chakravarti is to be believed, then in the near future the movie channel is all set to take on competition head on from HBO and Star Movies by airing one new movie daily. For movie acquisition, negotiations are said to be on with all major studios, including News Corp’s 20th Century Fox and Sony-controlled Columbia Tri-Star.

Apart from the English channels on which he’s upbeat, Chakravarti is also responsible for the convergence-related activities of the Zee Network. He has over a decade of experience across investment banking, operations and strategy in the US, Canada, and Europe. He is a certified public accountant (CPA) and has worked as an investment banker for JPMorgan, covering the Technology, Media and Telecom (TMT) sectors as well as a financial controller for the Jindal group.

In this interview with Indiantelevision.com's Ashwin Pinto, Chakravarti speaks on the state of Zee’s English channels and some initiatives that he has up his sleeves.

Excerpts:

How do you see the English channels from the Zee stable vis-?-vis competition?

Let me be forthright and say that though competition is tough, the three English channels from Zee are doing well. But that does not mean we will stop taking initiatives relating to them. We are in the process of unveiling quite a few of them even as we learn along the way. The idea is to try connecting with the target audience with the right products. I cannot speak for the past, but I can assure you that the future is bright.

Let’s start with Zee Café. Why this localization drive on an English channel?

We want to make Indian programming one of the hallmarks of Zee Cafe. We believe that there is a finite need in the market for original Indian programming in English. A lot of non-fiction has been attempted in the past. We are boldly going into the fiction space. The very fact that news channels are trying to get into lifestyle and social events and other forms of non-fiction content gives an indication that there is a mass of people who want to watch such programming.

The one advantage that we enjoy is that unlike a Star World or an AXN, both are great channels, the think thank of Zee is in Mumbai. Everybody gets together and we brainstorm on what makes sense and what does not. We decide what challenges need to be taken. The aim is to have enough Indian content coming out of Zee Café that viewers can see on a regular basis.

Made in India English programming has been tried out by TV channels to target Indian audiences unsuccessfully in the past. Why do you think Zee café will succeed this time round?

I am sure English programming must have been experimented with by channels in the past, but I am not here to talk about the past. We think that the time has come for Indians audiences to enjoy locally made shows in English. But these shows have to be mounted well.

Take Bombay Talking, for example. It is the first show of its kind on Indian television where viewers get up close and intimate with the sometimes unconventional high octane lifestyles led by Bombay’s swish set. There is tremendous curiosity about high society, the elite and their lives and it is this curiosity that the show is looking to tap into. Fresh direction, new faces and an intriguing and bold storyline will also capture the viewers’ imagination.

Zee Café already has a loyal viewer base, thanks to its unique programming. We are currently revamping our content by introducing several and exciting shows. Now, for the first time ever, a channel has taken the initiative to bring an exclusive English drama with Indian content to connect with the Indian audiences, whose preferred language may be English but ethos is still uniquely Indian.

I personally hope that it will drive viewership for the channel. I would hope that viewers come in at least once to watch the show and then decide whether or not it appeals to their sensibilities. I would also hope that the show launches a trend towards original Indian programming in English.

What is the type of audience that Zee Café is trying to target through such programming?

While the page three crowd and those interested in lifestyle happenings would watch the show, I think that the target audience goes beyond that. There are enough elements of the show that do not have page three dimensions factored in. There are elements that make the show worth watching from an emotional and from an audience connect standpoint.

It will appeal to people in the Metro cities because it has an urban ethos. At the same time I am sure that even those in small towns would be interested. In short, we are looking for male and female skewed audiences in the age group of 18-45 years.

However, I must reiterate that such programming cannot be shoddy productions. We have made sizeable investments in programmes like Bombay Talking, which we hope will have all of India talking about the channel. I will say that it takes a lot of investment for a niche English entertainment channel to try something like this.

'We have made sizeable investments in programmes like Bombay Talking, which we hope will have all of India talking about the channel'

Since you talked about investments in programming, would you tell us how much has Bombay Talking cost Zee Café?

I am not at liberty to talk figures. But let me assure you, the costs are significant.

How about a ball park figure to make us understand the type of effort that you guys are putting in?

Well, I’d say for a show like Bombay Talking, the cost is almost two and a half times more than a prime time show on our flagship channel, Zee TV. That would give you a hint as to how serious we are with local English programming. And, for a channel like Zee Café such investments can be termed big.

Are programmes like Bombay Talking being launched as the channel had got some feedback?

Feedback is a continuous process. Still, at the moment, we are undertaking a brand exercise for Zee Café (being done by FCB Ulka) that will tell us more about the channel and the type of programming that should be put out on the channel. There are certain perceptions about the channel and we want to pinpoint the reasons for them. This feedback will also go a long way in helping us to position Zee Café in its genre.

Isn’t the common perception about Zee Cafe that it’s a `repeat of itself’ channel?

That perception does not exist anymore. Certainly, our localisation is a major step towards innovating. The reason that older shows like ER, The Sopranos and The West Wing go on is because they have loyal viewers. We do not want to disappoint them. I am aware about the importance of being true to the audience who has been loyal to the channel for the past three to four years. These shows are all multiple Emmy winning shows that are also

headline shows in the US.

However, we have also seen that to attract fresh viewers, we need new programming line-up that is relevant to them. And, that’s why you are seeing programmes like Bombay Talking. However, at the end of the day almost every TV channel, except probably the news channels, depend on repeats up to an extent.

Though for the moment, we have three shows on the table covering fiction, fashion, lifestyle and social events, we will look at anything that we feel makes sense to the target audience. We have on our plate several ideas. We haven’t decided which is going to be next. It could well turn out to be a sitcom or even a chat show. We are very open to concepts at the moment. We

are talking to global format owners in this regard.

Another thing that I'd like to add is when we get India-made English programming on our channels, we are also targeting our international subscribers round the globe. Zee Network by far has the maximum number of subscribers overseas (over one million) and such English programming also caters to their needs.

But Zee Café, for that matter the other English channels from Zee too, has failed to create a buzz about its programming innovations. How do you feel new viewers will come on board?

I agree that we have to make sure that the audience comes and watches our channels. We have planned a series of marketing activities for Bombay Talking. We are coming out with hoardings in the metros as well as radio spots. There will also be print activity. Online we are creating a site www.bombaytalking.com. Besides giving information on the show and the star cast we are looking at doing several other unique things. One of them is creating a blog section where people can write on why Bombay should talk about them. The site will also give news on what is happening on the social circuit. There will also be a chat corner. Probably, the best three one liners can be taken to promote the show also.

And, such activities are not restricted to Zee Café only. The other two English channels also have similar activities lined up for them that you’ll see over a period of time.

What is the game plan for Zee Studio and is the parent company looking at getting a strategic investor for the movie channel as was the case earlier?

The game plan for Zee Studio is simple: show blockbusters and se whether they drive in the audience or not. On a more serious note, I must say that we have decided to take the competition head on. Zee MGM mostly aired old movies, while with Zee Studio the aim is to have fresh line up of films. We are in active negotiations with several US and British studios. Apart from talking to independents studios, we are talking to Warner Brothers, Universal, CBS/Paramount, Grenada, Buena Vista, etc. An example of the type of fare that viewers can expect from Zee Studio is The Aviator --- new, critically acclaimed and a box-office success. We expect to conclude major deals with studios for newer films between four to six weeks times.

Is Zee also talking to News Corp (Star’s parent company)-owned 20th Century Fox and Sony’s Columbia Tri-Star too for acquiring movies?

Why not? In the West it’s a tradition that companies from a big group carry out their own business deals. That holds goes for the Hollywood studios too. I cannot give details, but we are in talk with both the studios that you mentioned and whenever deals would be cut, they would be exclusive and country-specific.

Why don’t you detail the plan to differentiate Zee Studio from the competition?

Every Thursday, Saturday and in weekend afternoons Zee Studio has four new properties. The weekend afternoon showcase is called Absolute Studio. This is family showcase that has been created. Besides that we are coming out with 15 new films. Some of them have aired before but they are new to our channel. We are looking to create a library of independent films. These are films that are high in quality. They received critical acclaim though they may not have blown the box office away. But I’ll certainly not acquire a new movie for airing before six to nine months of the fare being aired on some other movie channel in India.

If you see our new properties, then it almost works out several new films every week. Now this activity is going to be scaled up at least one and half times very soon, which would make it almost a new film a day. This, I'd say,is really taking on the competition with big properties. Something like Zee Cinema does with big properties and it's a leader in its genre.

What if such innovations don’t pay off for the English channels?

At Zee, we are not looking at overnight returns on investments in the English channels. It’s a long haul game and we are willing to wait. I can say quite safely that the return on investments, as you said, will start showing on Zee’s balance sheet much later. We are ready to wait anywhere between 20-30 months time for experiments and innovations on English channels to succeed.

What’s happening with Trendz?

Lots. Apart from on-air programming, we are also looking at exploiting the Trendz brand for on-ground shows and events, which can also include an award show. By early next year, the Trendz-related events would crystallize. But we definitely want to further exploit the brand.

Lastly, how’s the financial health of Zee’s English channels under you?

We are a public company and the figures are there for you. All I can say is that the three English channels are in the black during this financial year.

Photos by SANJAY SHARMA/Indiapix Network

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