Television

'2008 has been HBO's best year in terms of quality and quantity of programming' : Shruti Bajpai - HBO South Asia Country Manager

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As the television landscape gets more crowded with new entrants, the challenge for existing players is to keep innovating. HBO, which has bought out the stakes of its partners in the Asia venture except Paramount, still has exclusive licensing arrangements with Sony, Universal, Warner Bros and Paramount/DreamWorks.

Late last year, the English movie channel launched an anchor slot HBO Wicked Hour. The focus in this slot is on action, thrillers, suspense, sci-Fi and critically acclaimed movies for the late night male viewers. This is part of the channel's strategy to create new programming blocks to cater to specific TGs.

In an interview with Indiantelevision.com's Ashwin Pinto, HBO South Asia country manager Shruti Bajpai talks about the challenges that confront English movie channels and the pressure to focus on content and branding.

Excerpts:

Why did HBO buy out its partners in the Asia venture except for Paramount?

This was a management decision in keeping with HBO's expansion plans across the world. HBO wanted to further build on its strong position in the US. The majority equity stake in HBO Asia is a further testament to this expansion.

Does the channel now have to bid for new titles coming from its former partners?

We have exclusive licensing arrangements with Sony, Universal, Warner Bros and Paramount/ DreamWorks. This arrangement continues uninterrupted. This is the reason why we have such a strong inventory.

What are the challenges that are going to confront the English movie genre over the next few years?

The last few months have seen a spate of launches in the Hollywood/International cinema and there are some more expected this year. There is an intense amount of clutter in the overall TV channel space and the viewer is spoilt for choice.

I am of the firm opinion that channels with compelling and consistently 'winning' content will continue to flourish while the others will just about manage to survive at the periphery. Hollywood movies are beginning to grab a bigger chunk of India's huge movie market, traditionally dominated by Bollywood.

A larger Indian audience than ever before is viewing the Hollywood movies and the appetite for such content seems to be increasing. Breaking through the clutter and being able to hold on to the attention of the audience, which is usually short due to the ample choices available, will be a rising phenomena in this category.

How has HBO fine tuned its programming strategy?

HBO has been following the mantra of 'Big, New, Most' for Indian viewers. We have always devised innovative and topical themes around our movies, instead of fitting it in a "genre for each day" bracket. We do not believe in doing automatic repeats the morning after, like other channels.

Has HBO spruced up the content this year because of new competition?

It will not be wrong for me to state that 2008 has been HBO's best year in terms of the quality and quantity of programming. We have a supply of blockbuster hits that take center stage every month like Superman Returns, Ghost Rider, Happy Feet and Mr. Bean's Holiday.

In addition, we also air critically acclaimed movies and blockbusters that anchor the Saturday primetime slot at 9 pm. These have included Munich, World Trade Centre, Memoirs Of a Geisha, Blood Diamond. Upcoming titles include Spiderman 3, Surf's Up and The Pursuit Of Happyness.

What is also important is our focus on entertaining themes. These are conceptualised for the channel every month. They target different TGs and advertisers. Some examples of these are HBO Animation Fest, Mad About Diamonds, Fast Cars and Gorgeous Babes, HBO Earth Day.

Also playing a role are tentpole events. We did a Hollywood's Best initiative which featured Oscar nominated/winning movies, HBO is Summer during May and June, which featured Summer of 60 Nights. Here, a blockbuster movie was shown every night. Moreover there were also mini-stunts under the HBO is summer umbrella like Entrapment, Martial Arts Specialists 'Codename: SuperKids etc. All these have resounded with our target audience.

To add to this, we have looked to raise the bar when it comes to quality programming with original series like Entourage, the third season of which has just begun on the channel and themes like HBO- Movies with a difference that showcases movies that make us sit and think.

Have new programming blocks been created to cater to different TGs?

Our most current anchor slot HBO Wicked Hour was launched late last year. It focuses on action, thrillers, suspense, sci-Fi and critically acclaimed movies for our late night male viewers.

Right now, we are focussed on building this slot and also other key slots like It's a Guy Thing, Midday Matinee, Family Sunday etc. We are always on the lookout for creating new programming blocks to cater to specific TGs.

As the audience gets more fragmented in the metros, the challenge for English movie channels is to reach out to the smaller cities as well. How is HBO targeting these viewers who are aspirational?

Television is one of the biggest sources of entertainment for people across categories in India. Where the audiences have evolved, programming has also seen a huge turn around on the small screen. With the choice and variety on offer for the Indian audiences, the television industry today is booming. It is not only in the metros but also the smaller towns where there are potential viewers. What matters ultimately is the content that is shown - if the content is different and unique, it is well appreciated by the viewers.

The increase in multiplexes in smaller towns and the increase in global travel by Indians from all across the country have added to the familiarity with Hollywood movies and shows. HBO is a global brand and this helps in the affinity towards the channel.

How has the channel fared on the ad sales front?

The ad revenues are growing year-on-year. Turner, our ad sales partner, has done an excellent job to maximise revenues and also retain a number of advertisers exclusively on HBO.

'DTH is growing, but the format is still the classic 'one price for all channels' rather than specialised packages. This is expected to change as the market matures'

Has perception among clients about this genre improved?

HBO is perhaps one of the few channels that is more than just a channel; the brand gives a big boost to the channel's perception.

Also, English movies is a genre that our ad clients consume on a regular basis.

What are the kind of packages you offer clients that go beyond the 30-second spot?

We have different packages that are tailor made for different clients. One of our packages is the brand integration package where we seamlessly integrate the positioning of the brand that is being advertised into the theme for the month. We also have a lot of contests that we do for the advertisers that go beyond the 30-second spot.

Channels have started advertising on rival bouquets. Does HBO accept ads from other channels that are not part of Zee Turner or is there a conflict of interest?

We do accept advertising from other channels, but are careful in picking those that have the right fit. Some of the channels that have recently advertised on HBO are BBC Entertainment and English business channel UTVi.

Is HBO looking to boost its content around news shows to add variety to filmed content?

HBO has always believed in giving its Indian audiences the best of international programming and content across genres. We already have a diverse mix of blockbusters, all time favourites and original productions. In fact HBO is the only channel to have both the raters and the differentiators.

The third season of the show Entourage just premiered in late June and we have Big Love coming soon. Also, the recently-aired two part mini-series in the US, The Andromeda Strain, which is based on the best-selling novel by Michael Crichton, is going to be on our channel soon.

Does HBO do a lot of marketing and promotional activities to create awareness?

HBO's marketing and promotional activities have always looked to be innovative and clutter breaking. This year we have had many multimedia campaigns to announce our Summer line-up, our mega blockbusters and our shows.

We have a well planned strategy for the rest of the year, especially during the festive season of October-December. As we speak, we are running a multimedia campaign that includes a contest, to promote Spiderman 3.

The hope is that addressability will get a push this year with DTH (direct-tohome) seeing new launches this year. How do you see the distribution scenario evolving?

As new launches increase, distribution becomes critical. We are also hoping that addressability gets implemented in the right manner.

DTH is also growing, but the format is still the classic 'one price for all channels' rather than specialised packages and introduction of new tiers. This is expected to change as the market matures.

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