Television

'Zee Studio has concrete plans to beef up its original programming' : Sujay Kutty - Zee Studio senior VP, business head

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The fight among the English movie channels is getting fiercer as new players have entered the battleground. Zee Studio has decided to go aggressive this year by upping its premiere runs on the channel. The plan is also to launch an original show every month.

The focus this year will be to grow particularly in the smaller towns. Zee Studio is also launching a wap application to take advantage of new media opportunities.

In an interview with Indiantelevision.com's Ashwin Pinto, Zee Studio senior VP, business head Sujay Kutty talks about the challenges of the English movie broadcasting business and the channel's growth plans.

Excerpts:

With more players joining the fray, has the English movie genre seen growth in terms of viewership and advertisers?

As of now, there are seven players in this market. With the advent of new players, the quality and variety of movies on the small screen has definitely improved.

We will also see unique niches being created where you will have some channels showing big premieres and others sticking to popular titles which get ratings despite being aired many times like Terminator 2, Spiderman, Pirates Of The Caribbean.

So will you be increasing your premiere runs on the channel?

The number of premieres has grown considerably. We have 18 premieres lined up for the year with the likes of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Wrestler and How to Lose Friends - all close to their theatrical release.

Is that the key to growing your share?

Premieres bring an element of freshness to the channel and are definitely more saleable as the films have not been exploited earlier by other channels. Also, most of the satellite premieres we pick are scheduled very close to their theatrical release which helps in ensuring a quick recall in the viewers' minds and helps create buzz around them.

But isn't sourcing big title content difficult as market leaders Star Movies and HBO have the big studios behind them?

We buy content from all the major studios and have a great relationship with Disney, Warner and Sony. Also, we have done business with studios like Fox and NBCU in the past. Moreover, a lot of independent distributors have access to first runs. There are also cinematic gems from various festivals that we pick up.

Is a trend emerging to spruce up the English movie channels with original content?

There is a gap in terms of local content being done in this genre. Zee Studio has concrete plans to beef up its original programming. We will unveil our second product in October-November. A host-based quiz show around movies is on the cards. While talks are on with a number of production houses, it's a little too early to discuss the show.

The plan is to have one show every six months. If you do it more, then the novelty can get lost. We will get into many formats except reality shows. Original content helps connect with the consumers and opens up marketing opportunities.

'With newer players entering the markets and major studios coming up with their own channels, content availability will be a source of concern'

How successful have you been in your earlier endeavour?

As far as local programming goes, we already have Get Shorty, our short film contest for the audience. We ask aspiring filmmakers to submit their entries between 2-10 minutes in length. It is a four half-hour episode show. The filmmakers talk about their short film and why they made it. The jury includes personalities from the industry like Anurag Kashyap. Last time around 17,0000 viewers voted for what they felt was the best entry out of the 18 films that were aired.

We are planning the third season for this show and it goes on air later this year. Currently, we are planning more shows with the basic aim of involving our audience.

Your sister channel Zee Cafe tried localisation but the response was mixed. What lessons have been learnt from this?

On the contrary, local productions always create talking points and an instant connect with the audience. We have got a positive response to Zee Café's Café Mic Testing. The trick is to make the 'homegrown' content as interesting and unique as the shows we acquire abroad. With Café Mic Testing, we tried a unique blend of a talent hunt and a game show.

But doesn't your budget go up with local content?

It does! However there are different ways to do local content. You can create a huge programme like a GEC. For us there is no need to be extravagant and have a big budget. Our aim is to get to a specific audience.

The purpose is two fold. Firstly you create affinity for the channel among viewers by showcasing homegrown talent. Secondly you build local talent as a base that can be used for the future. The ad revenue that we earn more or less take care of programming costs.

While the share of Zee Studio has gone up marginally, it is still in the fourth spot among the English movie channels. What is the gameplan to bridge the gap?

Zee Studio has been in the third spot for more than three weeks now. Our strategy focuses on initiatives that help us create direct consumer connect. This can be done through out-of-home marketing activities, SMS, mailers and, of course, our film club.

We intend to partner with film societies to showcase cinemas across metropolitan cities as an extension of our movie club initiative.

In the coming times, we are also launching an application on Wap-enabled phones that will let viewers download our weekly schedules.

Tam data shows that the time spent on English movie channels has gone up slightly. Zee Studio has also grown slightly but not much. What would you say are the reasons for this?

With more channels entering the genre, a viewer has many more options to choose from. Moreover, viewers have a wider choice for entertainment that is not restricted to television alone. So the time spent is not likely to show a significant increase across any channel in the genre.

Going forward, do you see viewership growth coming in from the small towns and cities or would metros be the main focus?

There is potential in the small towns and cities as well. Our subtitling speaks to this segment of audience. It is about targetting people who understand English, but have difficulty following the dialect. Subtitling helps them associate what is being said to the story. We have, thus, built our second rung base in places like Jaipur and Gujarat.

What role has subtitling played in growing the channel's reach?

We pioneered the initiative of subtitling for English films in India, starting it as early as August 2007. We realised that English is spoken very differently in different parts of the world, especially when you take into account colloquialisms, local slang and even sentence construction.

Subtitles invariably aid the user in tiding over these differences and absorbing the film in its entirety. Post introduction of subtitling, our films have most definitely reached out to a larger audience base.

What is the focus area of Zee Studio this year?

This year our focus is on on-ground initiatives, Shut Up and Watch film Club (Saw) and Studio Nites, the movie song karaoke championship.

Saw is aimed at taking quality cinema to the genuine movie enthusiasts across the country in the unique setting of a bookstore. Meanwhile, Studio Nites are evenings of 'Karaoke,' conducted at popular restaurants and clubs celebrating "music from the movies". Here, patrons win prizes from the channel for singing along to movie soundtracks.

What are the programming initiatives you have taken in the recent past?

Over the last six months, Zee Studio has made constant efforts to bring its audience some great programming content. January saw three weekends with the telecast of High School Musical 1 and 2 and a back-to-back telecast of the two films with just one commercial break. To generate excitement around High School Musical, Zee Studio announced Music For Charity. This was an online auction of a guitar autographed by Farhan Akhtar, Luke Kenny, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Vishal-Shekhar on its official website, www.zeedio.tv. High School Musical had an instant connect with the younger audience.

Moreover, we created some properties keeping the audience's needs in mind. One of these was 'Two Timing' where we would telecast two movies of a popular superstar back-to-back. The other is the 'In Express Highway' wherein a movie and its sequel are telecast back-to-back with just one break on Saturday afternoons.

From 1 April, Zee Studio moved its primetime to 9 pm following research findings that a majority of the audience tune in at 9. April also saw the introduction of Sunday Noonatics. This is a slot for light/entertaining flicks keeping the relaxed Sunday mood in mind.

What can we expect going forward?

We plan on introducing new festivals every month to give the channel a fresh and ever-changing look. This month Zee Studio will air Desi Tadka, a festival of films with an Indian connect.

September will have a lot of family movies. Going forward, viewers can look out for a Woody Allen Fest, Cinematic Jewels (critically acclaimed films) and more.

In a genre that is title-driven, how big a challenge is it to build brand loyalty?

At the end of the day, content is king. Marketing initiatives go a long way in driving brand awareness - be it on-ground initiatives, radio activations, print ads, hoardings, mobile marketing. They all ensure that a channel enjoys top-of-the-mind-recall when viewers are surfing the box for English movies.
Some English film channels do programming blocks for different TGs. Others do not. What are the pros and cons of this?

Programming blocks work well if one has a large library of films targeted towards each target group, absence of which results in repetition. It does help in clear communication, though, and also appointment viewing.
To what extent have acquisition costs gone up in recent times with new entrants?

It all depends on what you buy, keeping in mind the RoI as well as the channel image. So the acquisition cost keeps varying every year.
What are the challenges that English movie channels face in India?

With newer players entering the markets and major studios coming up with their own channels, content availability will be a source of concern. However, one has to wait and watch.

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