Wireless -The New Smart Money Spinner

Suddenly, the mobile phone has a different ring to it. Drawn to the tiny gadget like moths to a flame, broadcasters in India, much like their counterparts abroad, have realised the mind numbing potential of the mobile as an alternative medium to hook the viewer.

Wireless - the next Big Thing?

What started as a tentative trickle in 2002 initiated by music channels like MTV, etc, Aaj Tak, has suddenly turned into a flood in the last few months. With big brother on the block Star India threatening to let loose its own charged up version of wireless in the next few weeks, the wee mobile is now sending out signals of gigantic potential. And no one's immune to the fever anymore.

From zany ringtones to budget snippets, from voting for your favourite pop star to finding out the best deal going in the neighbourhood music store, everything is now just an SMS away. And while most broadcasters are currently content to drive interactive viewership via mobile, Star has taken an aggressive stance, proclaiming that it is its content that is going to drive revenue from day one. That it is Star CEO Michelle Guthrie's pet passion and has alrady reaped rich dividends in China adds to Star's ambitious plans in India.

Corporates, Internet sites and service oriented companies have already jumped onto the bandwagon, but it is television that appears to be poised for the biggest leap in the mobile revolution in the country.

The players

While Star with its proposed wide array of wireless services may be the biggest in the fray, several channels have staked their claim to being the pioneers in the field. Music channel etc toyed with SMS as early as 2002, calling it 'mobiletainment' and inviting viewers to send in birthday messages to Bollywood stars. Aaj Tak claims to have taken the lead in the news genre in its first year of operations by getting viewers to participate in SMS voting contests. Ten Sports has dabbled with SMS during the Morocco Cup two years ago, and Sony tried it during the World Cup last year. Even Cartoon Network has its long term sights in place - SMS oriented contests have been part of its strategy for over one year.

With mobile phone penetration increasing by leaps and bounds and the entry of CDMA which triggered an even faster growth, other channels have entered the arena, with results far exceeding their expectations. Business news channel CNBC TV18 entered the fray last month, and was overwhelmed with 30,000 SMSes on the day of launch. Its budget day SMS offer got the channel over 50,000 messages in five hours, and today the channel has a unique user base of over 15,000 and growing. Says an excited vice president marketing, B Saikumar, "The response was at least eight to tenfold of our expectations." The channel is now busy chalking up plans to introduce audio streaming, offering forex rates, bullion and international news on SMS, all targeted at developing the mobile as the 'third medium of delivery' after the channel's primary two - home viewing and office (out of home) viewing.

Saikumar is not worried about losing viewers to the mobile. Usage will build loyalty and will subsequently bring revenue, he argues. "Revenue is not the prime concern, although it will become a substantial factor in the coming year," he concedes. Sab TV president Kanta Advani agrees. "It is a very convenient form of connecting with the viewer and a good way of nurturing interactivity," she maintains. In the four weeks that the channel's Lucky Number 9 SMS initiative got off the ground, Sab's reach and connectivity have improved considerably. Advani, who believes wireless can become a profit making proposition within two to five years, says its best used for trying new programming concepts.

Ten Sports' programming and strategy head Peter Hutton has also gone on record saying that Ten will shortly leverage its wireless activity. MTV India has already spawned a separate cell to handle the mobile business to be handled by marketing head Vikram Raizada, and CNBC is putting the finishing touches on an advertising campaign to push its mobile initiatives, that will break over the weekend.

But the biggest plans seem to be in the Star kitty. A separate wireless business development division, under the stewardship of Sumantra Dutta, will be leveraged in the coming months to provide a range of services including exclusive content from the Star stable, mobile gaming (custom made Kyunki... games, to give an example) as well as help lines and info services. Star Wireless, as it is being termed, will work totally on and feed off television and radio, because the content and the ability to talk to the masses is available only through these media, which can keep reinforcing the message. There will be a large amount of non Star content that Star Wireless will provide, says Dutta. The other content offered could be linked to best deals, astrology, traffic, medical emergencies, logo downloads, wallpapers, mobile phone gaming... the list is endless.

Zeroing in on the target

Will India follow China's lead in embracing wireless with enthusiasm?

So, who are the channels targeting? For Star, it could be the man on the street, for CNBC the keen business follower. There's a mobile phone user to cater to each service provided. May 2004 statistics show that the number of mobile phones, including WLL (M), stood at over 36 million and their share in the total number of 79.4 million phones was more than 45 per cent. The number of mobile users in the country has exceeded the fixed subscribers in circles like Mumbai, Delhi, Chandigarh, Punjab and Chennai. The number of mobile subscribers is expected to total more than 100 million by 2005, thanks to some of the world's lowest call rates. Mobile phones are thus expected to overshoot landlines by the end of 2004, a fact that augurs well for broadcasters' wireless plans.

The number is the key

The SMS number or 'short code' is the key that links the broadcaster with its audience. Star has hammered its 7827 code deep into viewer psyche for the last two years, and is ready to unleash another promo blitz to create what it calls "consumer awareness" of the concept of wireless. Aaj Tak, too, recognised the power of the mobile early on and adopted short code 2424 (tallies with the tag line of being there, 24 hours) for its own. Sony, which earlier used the Indiatimes number 8888, has now developed its own, 2525, which is being used for Jassi as well as for its forthcoming Max Games, according to executive V-P and Max business head Rajat Jain.

CNBC uses the same short code as Sab, 3636, but Saikumar insists that not having a dedicated number is no handicap, once the viewer is clear about the information he has chosen to follow. Dutta however believes otherwise. 7827 is going to be drilled into the public mindset, as the 'short code of choice' for the masses, and the communication the channel will underline - 7827 has arrived.

Defining viewership

etc's SMS show revamped recently, citing increasing popularity

While Dutta says he does not expect wireless to drive programming, although international experience shows that it does help some, others says the business does help define and and drive viewership. TV Today vice president, marketing, Rajesh Seshadri says the responses Aaj Tak gets often help identify viewer demographics, and that these mostly mirror TAM data. Concurs Saikumar, "Since much of our viewership is out-of-home, the peoplemeters don't reflect actual figures. We hope to generate surrogate evidence of viewership through mobile." Advani too says that SMS has helped the channel identify areas of programming that were popular, since its mobile foray with talk show Kuch Diiil Se last year, and improving the reach of the channel. The initiative has also helped Sab to surpass certain rival FTA channels, she maintains.

Seshadri, however, believes in being conservative with the use of SMS as a tool of driving viewership. "We can put up SMS polls ad nauseum to heighten interactivity, but it can lead to viewer fatigue," he points out. Rajat Jain has another perspective, "We are not a sports channel that digs deep down into the definition of sport. We are into stretching the concept wider so that the sponsors, advertisers, the ICC get value. Sports channels which keep digging deeper and deeper into a sport are not expanding the viewership base," he told recently.

Disney too, has big plans up its sleeve. Says a spokesperson, "The Indian marketplace is developing quickly and represents strong growth opportunities for all of our businesses. We are taking a comprehensive approach to a variety of Disney business initiatives in India regarding an overall strategy, including opportunities for new media initiatives (eg wireless/ Disney Mobile)..."

Money spinner

So, are channels cashing on SMS as a revenue spinner? Most are cautious in their replies when the revenue potential of wireless is probed. With a 45 million mobile user base in the country that is growing by the minute, channels are sitting on a goldmine. The potential of the medium is as big as the imagination of the broadcasters. Dutta says Star plans to target a large subset of the 200 million TV viewers who happen to be mobile phone owners. In the next six months, at least 30 per cent of the market will be cornered by 7827, and by the end of the July fiscal next year, 50 per

Will shows like Sab's new SMS based show be the next revenue spinning gambit for channels?

cent of the market. Star has its plan drawn up. But for players like Aaj Tak, the strategy is different. Says Seshadri, "Our approach to SMS is different. Our strategy is to leverage the Aaj Tak and Headlines Today brands, rather than look at it as a major source of revenue." Yet, it is reaping dividends, indirectly. Aaj Tak's tie up with Air Tel for news updates already has a user base of 30,000 and a contest for the fledgling Headlines Today fetched one million responses in two days.

With an estimated 30 per cent revenue share accruing out of every SMS sent to the channel, channels are already making money. Already companies like TollfreeIndia have been offering value added services to Star, Rediff and Yahoo! at competitive rates. Channels are making use of airtime to effectively promote the wireless initiatives at minimum cost to themselves. Even the Star Wireless team will comprise just a dozen key executives handling the show, with most of the business done on alliances with multiple partners.

No one is still willing to talk about advertising that can be tied in with wireless services, but Saikumar admits that any such advertising, that can be taken up in the future, will have to be non-intrusive to be effective. Dutta says Star's Wireless will move towards a monthly subscription parameter, but right now, Star is focusing on developing mass usage of services that are offered, to check which are feasible and then put the more used ones into a package. But that's in the future.

Which could well be just a couple of months from now.

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