Television

'Our persistent endeavour is to get DD its due rates, which should match the high viewership it has' : Vijayalaxmi Chhabra - Prasar Bharati deputy director general

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A day after Prasar Bharati deputy director general Vijaya Laxmi Chhabra struck an "unconventional" cricket marketing deal with Zee Telefilms, we requested an immediate interview and she showed no qualms about fixing one up for the very next day.

Fighting through numerous client meetings and bargains, Chhabra is a picture of professional satisfaction when she meets us finally, late in the evening.

"It has been a long but fruitful day," she offers proudly, while we nurse guilt feelings of having stretched her for another hour with a Q&A session. Determination and confidence personified is this senior bureaucrat who has a street-smart marketing brain ticking behind the officialese.

Over to Chhabra, in conversation with indiantelevision.com's

Bijoy A K.

You have completed six years heading marketing at Prasar Bharati. Looking back, what's it been like?

When we started under the leadership of the then CEO RR Shah, we had nothing to sell except the prime time news on DD-1. The journey began slowly but with a steady pace and the big break came when we successfully marketed the India-West Indies cricket series in 2001. The division offered to raise Rs 350 million and we went on to raise Rs 550 million. This strengthened the view that more revenues lie in direct marketing of events / properties on an in-house basis by DD. Then the division progressed to make Rs 1.8 billion from the 2005 Pakistan series and Rs 1.4 billion from the 2005 Sri Lanka series.

Thus we realised our strength and started selling feature films. During those years, neither good films nor good money was coming from private marketing agencies. This changed when the marketing division seized the opportunity of unlocking huge revenue potential on DD through the direct marketing of the films. Presently, we are generating Rs 10 million each from every Friday - Saturday film. Feature films have contributed Rs 1.10 billion to the revenues of Prasar Bharati during the 2005 - 2006 fiscal. Rs 3 billion has come out of cricket.

Then we took over the prime time segment from the private producers. The slot selling system was discontinued and we established this new system called Self Finance Scheme (SFS) in 2005. This way, we realised that we can generate three times more money than what private producers have been giving us through the old system. Presently, we have taken over 90 per cent of the prime time slots on Doordarshan and we are now in the process of establishing SFS in the mid-day prime time segment.

The team has been doing a good job. The Mumbai marketing division contributed about Rs 5.6 billion to Prasar Bharati's recorded revenues of Rs 12.38 billion during the 2005 - 2006 fiscal. So yes, it feels very good while looking back.

How did the market respond when you started the self-marketing initiative? How did the organisation support you?

The agencies were not used to the Prasar Bharati marketing system. They used to buy from producers. But once the industry realised our efficiency and productivity, the outlook underwent a change. The entire advertising industry gave us full support. The industry has surely benefited since we provide them a single window system -- which is very transparent -- for doing deals. The system is very much in place that, even a Rs 1 billion deal can be done in a single day.

In a government organisation, you really need the support of your seniors to conceptualise and implement new things. I was very lucky in this case. I got tremendous support and encouragement from my CEO KS Sarma and director-general Navin Kumar. They gave me full backing in all my ventures. Whatever I have done and achieved wouldn't have been possible without their support. My colleagues have also helped and facilitated me in all the different things we did, though there was bit of apprehension in those initial days.

What is the big idea for Prasar Bharati in 2006? Which are the new initiatives planned in terms of marketing and programming?

Now since we have recorded some good revenues, a major chunk of investments should be made in creating good qualitative content. Instead of churning out run-of-the-mill stuff and thus replicating the programmes dished out by satellite channels, DD should be making efforts towards establishing its identity in the market.

Personally speaking, my heart bleeds looking at the kind of programmes the industry produces and consumes. I really miss those Tamasand Buniyaad days. I believe that viewership and money shouldn't be the only criterion that one should take care of while producing shows.

But, at the same time, when I say good qualitative content, it also means commercially viable programmes. So speaking about the big idea for the new fiscal, Doordarshan wants to come up with really good qualitative programmes. Some good investments will be made in this sector. Lots of Indian classics are going to be produced this fiscal.

On the marketing front, the plan for this fiscal is to introduce and establish SFS in DD's regional Kendras. When we have the necessary know-how and the expertise, why we can't just do it? Of course, it will be a challenging assignment for us. SFS is already activated in DD Sahyadri. We are yet to finalise the next set of Kendras for this initiative. However, I feel that, SFS will pick up fast in Kendras such as Kolkata, Thiruvananthapuram and Bhubaneswar.

As decreed in the downlinking policy guidelines issued by the government, the revenue share for cricket -- between Prasar Bharati and the channel which holds the rights -- is 75:25 in favour of the latter. That means, Prasar Bharati will have to take a cut on returns from cricket, from now onwards. Hence, cricket will cease to be a major revenue driver for Prasar Bharati. How would you handle this challenge this fiscal?

That is part of the dynamics of the market. It is obvious that with no telecast rights in hand, DD wouldn't be able to generate the same kind of revenues. But we will try to overcome this handicap by effectively operating SFS. Prasar Bharati is looking to acquire 100 per cent of the slots to bridge the gap it will be losing out on cricket.

What kind of new revenue streams will you be exploring this fiscal?

Our efforts will be to beef up the present system. Of course, DTH will play a major role as an additional source of revenue in the new fiscal. With more private players entering the arena, it will be a great challenge for us.

Speaking about other initiatives, we have already started selling scroll advertisements in our Low Power Transmitter (LPT) stations and High Power Transmitter (HPT) stations. Then, DD's first ever reality talent hunt show Kalaagaarz has delivered decently. We have also effectively explored the SMS domain through this activity. Kalaagaarz has fetched us about Rs 4 billion.

'Now since we have recorded some good revenues, a major chunk of investments should be made in creating good qualitative content'

How much do you target to garner from the ongoing India-England ODI series and the upcoming Abu Dhabi series?

No comments at this stage.

How did the Zee-DD deal to co-market the Abu Dhabi ODI series come through?

This is crucial for us as the deal would help DD-1 to protect its market rates. If I don't market this property, we will have to take the money that the rights holder gives us without any questions. We have spent four years establishing good rates for DD-1. All these efforts will go waste if we don't have a presence in the marketing campaign.

It is not surprising that Zee agreed to co-market the ODI series with Prasar Bharati. By associating with us, Zee is in a position to reap the benefits of our experience as an efficient marketer of cricket properties. And in its own right, Zee is a big name, and thus, we both will benefit from each other's expertise and experience. By selling the rights in one package through a joint rate card, we will be making more money. This is because, there wouldn't be any undercutting of the rates.

Will you be making efforts to strike a similar deal with Nimbus, which holds the five year India cricket rights?

It depends on the success of this initiative.

In a 2003 interview to indiantelevision.com, you had reasoned Prasar Bharati's decision to create a separate marketing division by commenting that the yield per 10-second spot for DD hadn't increased. Now, standing in 2006, please explain to us the progress you have made so far through this new system.

We have gone a long way since then. The best thing that happened is we have stabilised our rates. After Prasar Bharati has taken over the DD National prime time, we have not only stabilised the rates, but also have killed the trend of undercutting. All our bulk buyers have been giving us good rates. Now, as I mentioned earlier, the effort in this fiscal will be to come up with good qualitative content, which would obviously help us to hike our rates.

Hasn't the reported improvement in your Tam ratings inspired you to hike your rates recently?

We have not touched the cart at all. The effective rates of the channel have stabilised and have now gone up. I can't say we have hiked the rights outright since most of the deals are being done in bulk and for long term. However, our persistent endeavour is to get DD its due rates, which should match with the high viewership it has.

During an earlier conversation, you had mentioned to us the need for Doordarshan to promote its shows through publicity campaigns. How far have you progressed on this front?

Outdoors promotion is something we want to get into to promote our shows, but there is nothing concrete in this regard as yet. In terms of channel promotions, the service has been improved. We have structured all our on-air promotions now to give the best service to each producer.

Are there any unconventional marketing strategies you have initiated in the recent times?

Not many. The association with Zee to co-market cricket can be considered as one.

How would you rate the performance of DD's regional Kendras in the FY 2006?

I can't comment much on this since I am not directly connected with the regional operations, except for DD Sahyadri. Each regional channel is working very hard to deliver the best, though. DD's regional channels have been facing tough competition down South, since the C&S penetration in this region is very high - a fact we have to live with. Performance-wise, DD Sahyadri, which posted revenues of Rs 250 million in the just concluded fiscal, has been the highest grosser among DD's regional channels.

What do you have to say about dropping of popular programmes by DD's regional channels to adjust cricket telecast?

When you don't show cricket on DD-1, then there are complaints from viewers and court cases are filed. So, we are forced to show cricket on the channel on public demand. It is just a myth that we do it for money. Those slots that we are forced to drop during cricket also bring us money. Hence, it is not just money. Being the pubcaster, we will have to respond positively to people's demands, likes and dislikes and in whatever we do, we give priority to public interest.

Have you started marketing the three World Cup Football matches (two semi finals and final), which you will simulcast with ESPN Star Sports?

Yes, we have already sold almost 100 per cent of the inventory. We are selling a 10 seconds spot for Rs 60,000. The advertisers we have roped in include Hutch, Pepsi, Nokia, Onida, Tata Motors and Western Union Money Transfer.

Are you still part of the core team of All India Radio (AIR)?

Since I am focusing on the marketing of Doordarshan, I am not in a position to devote much of my time to AIR. However, I am part of all key policy discussions. Marketing-wise, whenever we do bulk deals and those relating to cricket, we always include AIR.

What is your take on the FM radio scene, which is opening up now? How would AIR cope with challenge from the private sector?

It is a welcome change. Both the public and FM radio players will capitalise on this change. Having worked in AIR for a very long time, I understand the power of radio as a medium. Private FM stations will face tough competition from the AIR stations in respective regions and vice versa. The competition will surely inspire AIR to perform better. So, overall, the changes will do a lot of good to the industry. Speaking about human resources, talented youngsters will benefit from this boom in employment opportunities.

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