Television

'Our target is to reach the number one position in Kerala market within the next two to three years' : Sudhakar Jayaram - Amrita TV director & CEO

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Amrita Enterprises Pvt Ltd (AEPL), promoted by a group of investors closely associated with Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, launched Amrita TV in 2005 April on an initial investment of Rs 500 million. On the launch, its positioning as a general entertainment channel raised eyebrows. After all, the channel was named after Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, the renowned spiritual leader from Kerala.

The initial scepticism soon gave way to acceptance and acknowledgement as the channel made attempts to develop its own identity in the highly contested Malayalam language market. The icing on the cake came when Amrita TV made an almost clean sweep at the 2005 Kerala State TV Awards. Though yet to pose a real threat to market leaders Asianet and Surya, the one year old channel is now recognised as one of the strong players in the market by pundits.

At the helm of affairs at Amrita TV is the young and sophisticated director and CEO Sudhakar Jayaram, who has spent over 15 years in global organisations such as Bank of America and Infosys, USA, holding senior management positions. Jayaram returned to Kerala in 2004, responding to the motherland's - or rather the Mata's -- call, as he puts it. Amrita TV was about to launch, and as fate would have it, Jayaram was offered the top management position.

Not just that! He has also been given the responsibility to manage the Amritanandamayi Super Specialty Hospital at Kochi, Kerala. Entertainment and medicine stand oceans apart, but this youngster holding MBA, B.Tech degrees has made the task look much simpler. On the occasion of an Onam celebration Amrita TV conducted in Mumbai early this month, Indiantelevision.com's Bijoy A Kmet up with Jayaram.

Excerpts:

Amrita TV has completed one year in the Malayalam television market. Please give us a perspective on the journey so far?

Looking back, I would say the channel has done a decent job. Top of all our achievements, I would like to mention the 15 State TV Awards we won in our inaugural year itself. To make a mark, we have opted for quality content, which is youthful and vibrant.

We have in fact a three-pronged programming strategy in place. First of all, we have our share of unique channel ID programmes, exploring the programming segments untouched. We have got lot of accolades from the market on the quality of our graphics and the high visual standards.

Then, we tried to give a total new dimension to the market's popular programme genre, which included serials and other entertainment shows. Our strategy was to explore progressive ideas and thus distance ourself from run of the mill stuff. Thirdly, we made our best efforts possible to depict our culture and heritage through various non-fiction programmes. And the results have been very encouraging for a new channel such as Amrita TV.

What was your strategy to gain an identity in this highly competitive market?

It is a very competitive market, with market leaders (Asianet & Surya TV) commanding almost 70 per cent share. But, at the same time, this is a market where you can make a mark with innovative strategies. You need to spot the vacuum and work on areas which are still unexplored and then you will have a decent product with its own identity in hand.

Our entry strategy was to come up with a product, which is classy and vibrant, different from the existing products. We wanted to make Amrita TV very dynamic and also with full of life. And at the same time, it was very important for us to carry along the mass General Entertainment Channel (GEC) tag with entertaining and appealing content. The idea was establish our roots as early as possible.

The core team of Amrita TV is constituted by people who are well aligned with the market professionally. For example, the programming department is headed by noted film director Shyamaprasad. The news department is lead by noted journalist Neelan, who has over 35 years experience in electronic and print media. Getting such established professionals on board has also helped us position ourself really well and create a strong awareness in the market.

Which are the key factors that are driving this market? What are the latest market trends?

Kerala as one of the most challenging television markets in the country. The viewers here are very different and you just can't play with your strategies in Malayalam. I would say, if a strategy works here, you will be able to move it more confidently in the other regional markets.

Like any other television market, soaps, movies and news play key roles in the Malayalam market also. The prime time band is ruled by soaps on weekdays, while weekends are dominated by films, film-based programmes, non-fiction shows and programmes covering the music genre.

Malayalam television is ruled by the female audience. Even when targeting this segment through prime time soaps and other programmes, you need to alter this system a bit to help the market to expand. How will you do it? The answer is 'youth programmes'. If you can make programmes, that can rope in females and the youth at the same time, that would make some positive impact on the market.

Given that Soaps, Movies and News drive the market, what is Amrita TV's strategy to explore each of these segments in the best manner possible?

Our channel driver programme is a reality talent hunt show Super Stars, made on the lines of Indian Idol. This programme is doing well in the 8:30 - 9:30 pm slot and we enjoy a channel share in the range of 12 - 16 per cent in this particular time band. Then we have our dose of serials for the prime time band. As I mentioned earlier, we have made our best efforts to make our soaps stand out. We have made it a point not to manipulate the viewers' emotions through soaps. Our soaps are not emotionally far fetched, which give a lot of stress to the viewer. Our soaps are there just for entertainment.

Then we have our USP in our non-fiction programmes which are made in-house. These are mainly cultural programmes, which actually carry along our channel ID. We have our non-fiction programmes well spread out across the week. Our belief is that there is space for good, tasteful and nourishing content on TV, as people are coming back to their organic roots.

Then there is this biggest draw of the lot - Movies. When we launched, the lack of popular and blockbuster movies had crippled our weekend strategies to an extent. But the issue is being resolved now. In the last one year, we have acquired 15 of the 40 top Malayalam box office grossers. We have lined up two of the latest blockbusters for the upcoming Onam festival. Amrita TV has a library of about 500 movies now.

Having said that, I would like to point out that, Amrita TV will never bank on movies. We want to explore all the programming segments and movies are just a part of this strategy.

We have given a lot of stress on our news programming also. Amrita TV has a strong network of journalists across Kerala and Delhi, while stringers and independent reporters bring us news from the other areas and international locations. In the next phase, we have plans to beef up our news segment. We are planning to set up bureaus in all the hotspots of the country, including Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai.

On an average, how much you spend on programming per month?

Programming budget ranges from Rs 65,000 to Rs 200,000 per episode for soaps. We spend about Rs 20 million on our in-house productions per month.

'If a strategy works in Malayalam, you will be able to move the same more confidently in the other regional markets'

Last year, the lack of blockbusters in your kitty has seen you adopting the strategy of dubbing popular Tamil movies in Malayalam. Did the strategy work and will you retain this tactic in the changed circumstances? Also, is there any plan to explore dubbed Hollywood movies?

Yes, we have been telecasting popular Tamil movies dubbed in Malayalam - especially during festivals such as Onam, Christmas and Vishu. This has been an inspiring experience for us. Our decision to use popular Malayalam cine stars for dubbing has really helped us to pull it off. For example, we had Mohanlal himself dubbing for Iruvar, when it was dubbed in Malayalam. We will retain this strategy. Amrita TV will be telecasting two Tamil blockbusters dubbed in Malayalam during the upcoming Onam festival.

We have no plan to explore dubbed Hollywood movies as we believe that, Malayalam audience will only accept a theme, which has lot to do with the Kerala culture and heritage. On the other hand, Tamil movies serve this purpose really well.

Telefilms also is an area, where Amrita TV has proved itself. We have produced about 22 short films last year and have plans to do almost the same number in 2006 also. We have a strong team of creative professionals, who bring lot of quality to the table.

What is your take on the movie acquisition scenario in Malayalam?

The number of films produced in Malayalam has gone alarmingly down and consequently, acquisition costs have shot up. Acquisition rates have shot up by almost 60 per cent. Since movies are a crucial part of the strategy in Malayalam, you can never opt out of the game. Last year, we set aside about Rs 100 million for movie acquisition.

Event programming is evolving in the South Indian market in a big way? What is Amrita TV's strategy?

Amrita TV does not do many events. Our strategy is to conduct events with a relevance. Events should serve a purpose. In my opinion, the size and magnitude of an event is important and not the quantity. If you are doing an event, it should make an impact.

This month, we conducted a De-addict Kerala campaign, which was an on-ground activity to highlight the after-effects of addiction, stories of addicts, de-addiction centres, preventive and curative aspects.

I won't be able to give a low-down on the event budget as it varies from one activity to another.

What is the size of the Malayalam television market in terms of advertising revenues? How is Amrita TV positioned?

The size can be in the range of Rs 1.7 billion to Rs 2.2 billion. The market expansion is mainly driven by the retail boom that Kerala is witnessing presently. Hence, retail clients command a significant place in any channel's sales strategy. Also, the entry of new players such as MM News and Bharat TV can expand the market further. After Asianet and Surya, Amrita TV commands a prominent space in terms of value for money. Being a young channel, we are making our best efforts to better our position.

What is the plan of action for 2006 and what is your take on competition?

We target to reach the market leader position within the next two to three years. The first year's result has boosted our confidence tremendously. Now, we want to expand this clout. We are looking forward to the real battle.

I think the next five year strategy may be totally different from that of the past five years. New viewer habits will give shape to new strategies. The formulas are changing. You need to adapt yourself to the changing times and we are very strong in this area. Being a relatively new player in the market, Amrita TV has got the flexibility and the know-how to understand and accept any new challenge and this is our main advantage.

We have been constantly working on our content. We keep a tab on the market trends through research updates and studies. For example, before launching Superstar, we had done a thorough research on Sony's experience with Indian Idols. So, instead of letting the competitor's moves decide your next strategy, we have been making consistent attempts to know the audience pulse and bring new products accordingly. Keeping the viewers happy and filled is the real challenge. Competition is secondary.

Please comment on your progress on the distribution front? Have you managed to get as 100% presence in India by now? What is the plan for foreign shores?

We are now in the prime time band of the Malayalam bouquet across Kerala, placed near Asianet and Surya TV. We are also available in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore, in certain cable networks. We are working on this front and will be improving our availability across the country at the earliest. We are also available on the DTH platform Dish TV.

On the international front, Amrita TV is available in the United Arab Emirates and in the US. We have also signed a carriage deal with the IPTV operator JumpTV. Amrita TV will be entering Europe and the UK very soon. We are working on the plan.

Onam season, which contributes maximum to the kitty of Malayalam channels, is here. What is the tactic you have employed to market your Onam shows the best way possible?

Onam festival is the most crucial festival for any Malayalam channel. Amrita TV has conceptualised a slew of innovative programmes for Onam. We have explored all the areas of entertainment thoroughly to bring an array of quality programmes. These include telefilms, music shows, film-based programmes, talent shows and cultural programmes. As I mentioned earlier, we have a couple of latest blockbuster movies to drive the festival. We are well-prepared to take on the challenge.

What are the new ventures AEPL is planning in the next phase?

AEPL is planning to set up a separate division for feature film production. Though the business plan is still in its primary stages of evolution, the company is targeting a February 2007 launch of the initiative.

The plan is to enter into partnership with key stake holders in the market such as producers and distributors and offer our expertise in this field to launch feature film projects. We will be also launching solo projects as well, making us an independent producer. An important objective of the initiative is to solve the supply demand issue that, which is threatening the movie acquisition business presently. This way, we will be able to beef up our movie library with latest hits.

Then we have plans to launch more channel initiatives, but a concrete plan is yet to emerge. Our next venture will be a news channel - I can say at least that.

What is the role played by Mata Amritanandamyi in the channel's operations?

Mata Amritanandamyi neither plays any role in the channel's operations, nor is she involved in the business financially. We have a spiritual programme, conducted by Mata on our channel and that's it. But, we are driven by her vision and it gives us immense strength and courage to execute the strategies.

Though the ultimate aim of Amrita TV is not really commercial, the market demands such a stance. To stay afloat in this business, you need to position yourself as a strong commercial player and we are just doing that. However, our focus remains on adding quality to people's lives through human-oriented programming.

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