Television

'We are looking at localising further' : Sunder Aaron - Pix business head

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Pix is lapping up new movies to shed its image of being an English movie channel that showcases only classic films. Its most prize catch: Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire.

The channel from the Multi Screen Media stable, which is up against stalwarts like HBO and Star Movies, has been able to draw in a slightly younger audience base while having a wider age appeal.

Pix has also been flirting with sports properties to bring more sampling into the channel. It has been showcasing the FA Cup to grow its reach while trying to connect with brands to be constantly visible in the viewer's eye.

In an interview with Indiantelevision.com's Ashwin Pinto, Pix business head Sunder Aaron talks about the channel's focus in content acquisition and its growth plans.

Excerpts:

How would you describe the progress that Pix has made since launching three years back?

We have evolved over time in terms of the schedule. In the beginning, we had mainly library films. Today while library films are shown, we air current films as well. While we are not the number one English movie channel at this stage, we are in the top three.

How is the channel perceived in the market?

We frequently do dipsticks and studies from time to time to find out what is the perception of the channel. Data shows that we are skewed towards a younger audience. When we launched, we were viewed by an older TG 25+. Today, our TG is 18-44 years.

Earlier, the perception was that Pix shows all classic movies. That has changed with us bringing in current films like Honeydripper, I'm Not There and Slumdog Millionaire.

Pix has focussed on building up a current crop of films this year. What strategy has been followed in this regard?

We focussed on bringing in current films without losing the premise of showing very good films. We have to remember that just because a film is new, it doesn't necessarily make it good. Acquiring new films has helped boost our reach and increase sampling.

Slumdog Millionaire is our biggest acquisition and this airs on 27 June. This kind of acquisition sends a positive signal to the market. We will also air a film called Push.

Is variety a factor in acquiring titles?

While variety is important, we find that the action and thriller genres fare the best. We buy from independent producers and distributors; we also source some content from the studios. Studios are already selling to HBO and Star Movies. While this is a handicap, we are able to find other suppliers and also do studio deals. This year we acquired films from NDTV, PVR, MGM, Icon, Pathe, SPTI and AMG.

Our first and foremost aim is to find films that have good stories. We also focus on getting films with recognisable stars. Our aim is to improve the ratio of current films that we air.

In terms of pricing, what is the scene as far as English films are concerned?

With the economic slowdown, the entire industry has had to change their budgets. We are a smaller and specialised category. While pricing has not changed much, suppliers abroad are closing deals at lower prices just because they understand that channels might not be as successful as they once were due to the current economic situation.

'Acquiring new films has helped boost our reach. Slumdog Millionaire is our biggest acquisition. This kind of acquisition sends a positive signal to the market'

Has Pix been able to improve its viewership performance during the last six months?

We are looking to solidify our primetime slots as well as the afternoon bands over the weekend.

During the IPL we adjusted our schedule so that we could catch the audience after they finished watching a match. This has done well for us. In some weeks, we could catch up with HBO and even beat Star Movies in Kolkata or Mumbai. But we need to be more consistent.

Are you refreshing the look and feel of the channel?

We are looking at refreshing the look of the channel. We want it to remain fresh and contemporary. We are encouraged at the response Sony Entertainment Television has received after its repackaging.

Did the blackout of Bollywood films on multiplexes boost viewership of the English movie channels?

No! While viewers would have been at home, there are several viewing options. DVD sales went up.

What programming innovations is Pix coming up with?

We are looking at localising further. We are examining two to three concepts that can further build our equity. We have had success with 'Chicks on Flicks.' Unfortunately, as not many films were released during the producers' strike, viewership took a dip. Now that it is over, the ratings should pick up.

What feedback have you received for the film review show Chicks on Flicks?

It has done well. In a lot of instances, the two hosts have not agreed with their assessment of a film. It is completely non scripted. The girls attend press screenings. They have a passion for cinema which is key in making the show work. We engage viewers by giving them references of the clips that the reviewers are talking about. Now our hosts are permanent invitees of studios who release films in India.

Has Pix introduced thematic blocks to woo different audience segments?

While we have festivals, it does not pay off to have too many blocks. Then there is an inventory problem. If every Tuesday, for instance, you have a block dedicated to action, then you need to have enough movies in that genre. You could run out of content after a certain number of weeks and then start to duplicate.

What could also happen is that viewers think that you only have a certain set of films to dip into. The English genre does not have much appointment viewing happening and blocks do not help in this regard. There is a lot of snacking that takes place.

So how do you build viewer loyalty?

Viewer loyalty is a challenge that all of us face, particularly film channels that are title driven. In general, you create an environment that viewers find attractive. Then you frequently deliver films that suit their taste.

Would you look at dubbing and subtitling to boost reach?

No! Subtitling can distract the viewer. Many channels put incorrect subtitles illegally. They do not use the official subtitles from the supplier's side. They may not have taken the permission of the film's distributor to do this. If you watch some of these channels, you will see that the subtitling has been poorly done.
Pix started airing soccer last year with the FA Cup. Given the escalating costs of sports rights, to what extent does it make sense for a niche channel to showcase such programming?

It makes a lot of sense. When you want to grow reach, you need to bring in special events. We have done things like concerts. The good thing about the FA Cup is that it is not soccer every week. It happens on one weekend a month. Then the timings do not disrupt our primetime schedule. Also, the TG is a fit. So we increase sampling for the channel.
Are you looking at other sports events?

It has to be special enough to raise our profile. I am not actively going out there looking for sports content. We had aired a boxing bout with Oscar De La Hoya live a few months back.
Should there be a block for A rated content?

It would be good if this was to come in. Frankly, it is a question the content code has to take a view on. We will have to see what the CBFC comes up with. Some other Asian markets are more relaxed in terms of what is allowed. Others like Malaysia, though, are stricter.

What kind of marketing activities does Pix do to create awareness?

We do campaigns periodically around big properties. We will be pushing Slumdog Millionaire actively. We will have visibility in places like Planet M. We have also tied up with a hotel in Dubai called Atlantis. This will be in the shape of a contest and offers viewers the chance to live the life of a millionaire.

The other strategy is to constantly connect with consumers. One way is to constantly spend a lot of money every month. A better way, though, is to tie up with brands.

We are looking at tying up with restaurants like a Firangi Pani or a Sports Bar. We have a tie up with DNA. We are trying to do something with The Times of India. We are also tying up with out of home screens at McDonald's and Café Coffee Day where our promos run on a continuous basis. These will be yearly tie ups. We have a promotional deal with VH1. We are looking at one with MTV as well. To succeed we need to constantly be in the consumer's eye.

What about tying up with studies to promote theatrical releases?

This is an area that we are increasing our focus on. This is not restricted to just what Sony Pictures is releasing on the big screen. We recently tied up with Fox for the release of Wolverine where we had clips and interviews. We also do contests around upcoming releases.

The marketing, thus, is not just about films that we show. What we bring to the table when a studio wants visibility for a new theatrical release is much more than what a competing channel can offer.

How do you see new entrants like MGM affecting the scene?

The category is growing organically. Homes with television sets are growing by about 10 per cent. New channels are coming in, but the English film genre is about three channels - Star Movies, HBO and Pix. The rest of them are in a sort of jumbled up pecking order. MGM and Warner Bros, for instance, are coming in and spending money to get distributed.

The question is whether they will make the necessary investments to do what it takes to become a leading player. It requires a sustained investment on all fronts - programming, marketing and distribution. I feel WB will really have to step up; their campaigns will have to be sustained across the country and not just in a couple of Metros.

What about the impact of the economic downturn on the genre?

Obviously we will have to be savvy with how we spend our marketing dollars and also our programming budget. There is at the same time a flight to quality. While advertisers reduce their budgets, the top channels in each category are the ones that are in demand the most.

In a downturn you do not want to spread the money around too much. You want to go with what you know is safe.

On the ad sales front do you offer customised solutions in addition to spots?

We try to be creative at a time when clients want more added value. We have Fiama d'Wills doing a campaign in our 4 pm block on Sundays. We air films that target women in this block. We have also done stuff on the ground with clients.

We recently did a 'Hollywood Picks Your Brain' initiative and ITC was a big sponsor. This was done across six metros and one could win prizes like ipods. We are now looking at doing a similar initiative targetted at media outlets.

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