'Indian television by & large lacks the art of crafting shows' : Vikas Bhal - Sony SAB senior vice president and business head

From the world of advertising to the world of television. That's exactly what Sony Sab senior vice president and business head Vikas Bahl has done. Now at Sab he has the enviable task of not only revamping the channel after a takeover by Sony Entertainment TV India in November 2005, but also look at revenue generation on the back of conservative budget.

Though the channel has a fresh lineup of shows only for one and half hour only, Sab is optimistic of touching 90+ GRPs by the end of FY2006-2007 as the programming lineup slowly expands.

In conversation with's Manisha Bhattacharjee, Bahl holds forth on Sab's revamp process and other issues like getting the right mix of programming to exploit the channel's brand identity.


Why don't you give us an overview of Sab after the takeover by Set India?

Well, the revamp of the channel is still on. From the time I joined, in terms of numbers, the channel has grown 300 per cent in terms of revenue and new advertisers on board. But admittedly the base of the growth was small.

On the revamp front, we are quite clear we wanted to gain from Sab's positioning as a comedy channel. But we did not want to stick to that as its only strength. The channel has its set of loyal audience who come to Sab typically for alternative viewing. And, that alternative viewing was by and large comedy, people who had grown sick of watching saas-bahu type of programming. But it was a fleeting audience, which came, saw his or her favourite programme and then moved on.

So, we realized that on the face of fatigue in viewership across general entertainment channels (GECs) --- most GECs, in our opinion, were falling in the same trap of having family drama --- our audience was pretty much the one that was questioning the kind of programming. Such a feedback also indicated that that a large base of audience was tired of saas-bahu syndrome and had no place to go and we were in a position to take a chance by getting into alternative programming.

What, according to you, would be viewer profile?

In short, people who are young at heart and have a younger mindset. Now this profile cuts across SECs and age groups.

So, Sab's viewers are not Gen X. They could be from a small town in Madhya Pradesh, South Mumbai to Jammu up north to Jamnagar in the West. The common link between all such viewers is their mindset, which is progressive and not regressive.

But Sab's first alternative viewing after the Sony takeover, Twinkle Beauty Parlour, was taken off the air suddenly as it failed to click. Comment.

That serial admittedly was a key project at that point of time. It was the first show after the revamp that was set in and we did an out of box marketing for it too. I think the channel got a lot of traction at the point in time. We followed it up with Left Right Left, which completely defined what we wanted to offer to the people and what they wanted to watch on Sab.

Twinkle Beauty Parlour was started with the aim of being 'destructive programming'. After Left Right Left was launched, we realized Twinkle Beauty Parlour was not conceived to be a `young' show and consciously we had to take it off. We are glad that the second time round we started connecting with the audience through Left… All these talks of understanding one's audiences' looks very good when stated, but the important thing is to convert them into reality.

And, normally reality can take time a lot of time. It looks like we are getting it right (on the programming front), but we still have a long way to go.

What's the 'reality' for Sab with new programming after Left Right Left?

The revamp is just about kicking off. Initial response from viewers and advertisers has been excellent. Sab's present channel share is six per cent, which grew from 1.5 per cent at the time when Sony took it over.

Sab, which was doing an all-day GRP of 23 to 24 last October, is presently doing 70 GRPs. Our channel is driven by 15 to 34 age bracket and those in 50 to 65 years age group.

Is Sab also looking at movies as a viewership driver?

Sab is not a movie channel, though presently the channel is airing films. The reason: fill space on the channel, while we figure out fresh programming. We also pick up a certain genre of 'light' movies that seem to have done well with audiences of all age groups --- films like Gol Maal and Chupke Chupke (comedies all).

Sab's brand identity is dictated by its programming. So if the brand is about young new India and we are sticking with that. Presently, 25 per cent of our programming is still very 'light', but in the process we do not want to lose our loyal viewers because they have been driving our channel for a long time.

'Twinkle... kicked off with the aim of being a destructive programming'

What's the new programming line up looking like after all the feedback on viewers?

We have Mohalla Mohabbat Walla launching on 13 November and Fame X on 24 November as the base line. A big difference that has been incorporated in the second season of Fame X that aired last year on Sony is that the contestants will not undergo any makeover.

After these two shows, we are looking at a show from Anurag

Basu, which likely hit the tube in about two months. However, I must point out that we have launched a few shows like Behanji, Ishq Ki Ghanti, FIR and Party and have retained Yes Boss from the earlier lineup. What we also did is try cleaning up Sab by setting in motion a phasing process for old programming.

You have roped in Anurag Basu (director of films such as Murder and Gangster) who is now more into film making? Is there not enough talent in the already existing TV market?

The same way we are trying to get those viewers on board who had given up on television, we are tying to get those professionals on board who have given up on television and had stopped crafting shows for television. We also have Timangshu Dhulia directing Mohalla...

What is important is that the directors of our new TV shows are not the guys who'll like to make the saas-bahu type of serials. It's unfortunate that almost all the GECs are going in that direction (of saas-bahu mush). But must admit that at the moment such serials are doing well businesswise --- a trend that we intend to buck.

Most popular entertainment channels depend heavily on Balaji Telefilms for shows. Will Sab also do that?

Yes, I agree with you. We are also in talks with Balaji, but hopefully the production house would be willing to do something different. Till now viewers had little choice (but to watch saas-bahu type of serials), but someone must not get swayed by the trend and create different programming. We are trying that at Sab. Writers who had stopped crafting for television are coming to us with ideas willing to do different things. They are not big names, though.

Sab lost out its biggest and most successful show, Office Office, to Star. What do you have to say on such a loss when the channel is trying to establish itself?

I personally feel that gems are created once and people should not try to recreate them. Office Office was a gem and in that sense it's a loss. Still, whether it can be recreated for a second season or not is debatable.

Today, we run repeats of Office Office and it delivers the same numbers as the new one on competition's channel. Without spending additional money, the old Office Office does as well as the new one. Creativity cannot be transferred.

'Repeats of 'Office Office' delivers the same numbers as the new one on competition's channel'

Is there any new strategy for selling airtime for day parts?

As the revamp process is still on, we are concentrating on building on prime time. Our prime, unlike the rest of the channels, begins at 8:30 pm and ends at 10 pm. So, we actually have only one and a half hours of fresh programming. From 13 November onwards with Mohalla Mohabbat Walla, we will have two hours of fresh programming. With Fame X launch the prime time band will be extended to two and a half hours. On Fridays, we depend on reruns.

The GECs closest to Sab like Star One and Sahara One have at least five hours of fresh programming on prime time, while our prime time is shorter. With just one and a half hour of programming, we are faring well and hopefully will pick up further with new shows coming on air soon.

From the advertising point of view, Sab's entire advertiser base has changed with an entirely new set of advertisers who have come on board in the last eight months. Earlier the advertisers who were not keen on being on Sab because of the previous brand identity and other factors are now looking at the channel. Presently, the advertiser base includes big brands like Pepsi, Nokia, Visa, Levers and Perfetti.

Sab's audiences are fragmented throughout the day. Being a channel undergoing a revamp, sampling of all shows happens across the day. So each time a show gets repeated, it brings in a unique audience. For instance, women who are not willing to give up their daily dose of soaps on other channels at 9 pm and skip Left Right Left on Sab catch up with the repeat at 2 pm next day. For advertisers and the channel this is a new set of audience base.

But repeats are done by other channels too and they too claim fresh viewership.

For established players, when they air shows at 10 pm they get all their audiences at that time and generally don't do reruns as they want to consolidate the viewership. We are not in a position to consolidate that way at the moment, so we spread our audiences through the day.

As the revamp is on, is Sab working with a lavish programming budget?

We have been very conservative with our spending right now. It is pretty much growing in sync with our numbers. In short, we have not gone and splurged money. That's why even after eight months (of Sony takeover), we have just three new programming. I do not know what Sab's earlier owners used to spend, but from last year there has been an increase of 40 per cent in programming budget.

The budget assigned to me hasn't been exhausted completely and it will be ramped up as we continue testing the programming waters.

Is Sab being sold to advertisers along with other Sony channels as a package deal?

No the channel is sold separately. For example, Sab is not being sold along with Sony as both have different and distinct identities, which will be retained.

Has there been a revision in ad rates of Sab after the Sony takeover?

The rates have doubled and the channel's inventories are full. At times, we have had to reduce show time to accommodate ads. The response seems to be good from the market, but admittedly the base for rate hike was small.

Target: As business, new advertisers on board was the target. The response from there is pretty much visible. The monthly figures that we need to achieve are pretty much there to get to our annual figures. In terms of viewership, with the kind of lineup we hold the viewership we expected we are very there.

Has the strategy of putting on Sab a Hindi language feed of cricket matches for which Sony has telecast rights helped?

The channel recorded an average ratings of two on all-day part for all India matches in the (just concluded) Champions Trophy, which was as good as the ratings obtained by (terrestrial broadcaster) Doordarshan. The cricket feed has been incorporated largely to get Sab's distribution act in place and is being used as a marketing device. This will help the channel bring in newer audience to sample our new shows.

What are the plans leading up to the cricket World Cup in 2007?

As per the strategy, cricket matches will be available on Set Max and Sab instead of on Max and Sony. We expect the audience coming on to Sab for cricket will remained tuned in for other shows.

What is the target that Sab has set for itself in terms of channel share and revenue?

As far as channel is concerned, the target is to take the GRPs up to 80-90. We are already clocking GRPs of 70 and with new shows coming on air we are likely to achieve our goal. With every new programme, Sab has received incremental audiences.

What is the road map for Sab?

The channel will maintain its positioning as a channel airing fiction. Though there will be booster shows like Fame X or probably something similar next year. We are not going to dabble in reality shows or events because we do not have the budget and, second, we have a strong fiction team whose core competence will be exploited to our advantage. The dailies will run from Monday to Friday.

When is the revamp process going to be completed?

The whole revamp process will take one more year. So by FY 2007-2008 Sab will have a healthy prime time and will deliver numbers too. By that time the channel would also hopefully have enough number of new shows that will reduce our dependence on repeats.

At the moment, Sab is a channel airing new programming only between 8:30 pm to 10 pm.

Branded entertainment seems to be new age mantra for the GECs to offer something different. Will Sab also look at this aspect of entertainment?

We are extremely careful about crafting television shows for Sab. I don't think branded entertainment works for advertisers unless integrated properly with the storyline. If Indians can learn from the James Bond movie experience about branding and integrating such initiatives with the storyline, then the result can be fabulous. If they can't, then there is a fear of killing the advertising product as well as the show.

Personally I feel we do an appalling job of it (integrating advertising with entertainment) most of the time. Unless we manage to do a quality job, it ruins both the show and the product(s). To top it all viewers hate it too.

Indian television by and large lacks the art of crafting shows right now. Forget crafting of advertising integration, the industry even lacks the art of crafting shows. I think if the art of crafting is brought back to television, viewers will love you for it.

However at Sab, we are hoping to do some advertising integration-related work as we did some work by employing unused footage of Indian Idol to create Indian Idol Tak Taka Tak. I think we did justice and a lot of crafting went into the creation of the property then.

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