GEC 2009: Changing trends and confused leadership

Year 2009 shall be a year to recall…if not for all, at least for the Hindi general entertainment channels!!!

Even through the recession fever, and the debacle of three channels, the Hindi GEC genre has roared to an eleven per cent growth over the previous year. According to Tam data for Hindi speaking market (HSM), the share of Hindi GEC, which stood at 34.59 per cent in 2008, has moved up to 38.39 per cent in 2009.

Despite a strong cricket calendar, audiences batted for entertainment content on the GECs. While daily soaps generated interest with their varied range of focus, reality content brought in male and younger viewers.

The fragmentation, led by Colors, helped the Hindi GEC ad market to grow. Says Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd (Zeel) chief revenue officer Joy Chakraborthy, "We expect the Hindi GECs to take away Rs 24 billion in ad revenues during FY‘10, up from Rs 19 billion a year ago."

A more conservative estimate would put the Hindi GEC ad pie at Rs 23 billion, miles away from the competing genres in the broadcasting space.

The genre did not just see ‘masala‘ content but also twists and turns in the ratings turf as Colors overturned Star Plus‘ nine-year monopoly to stay at the top.

Also, with recession being the talking tale for ‘09, the general entertainment space faced hiccups galore. And yet with them came intelligent designs that broadcasters and markets corroborated to fight back the downturn plague.

So how did the genre fair in the calendar year 2009? What were the major trends? How did the Top 3 channels - Colors, Star Plus and Zee TV - play the game? Did the economic downturn hamper growth plans? Read on…

A Bird‘s eye View

A major part of the year saw a raging ratings war between Colors, Star Plus and Zee TV as the channels used all the ammunition from their armoury for the great GEC battle. Be it staple fiction shows, reality, big movies, scheduling, marketing and promotions!

Source : TAM

As the GEC space opened up and audiences got more choices in terms of fresh programming and more channel options, the game was set to change in the GEC room with viewers asking for more. Competition increased as contenders for the top spots transformed as well.

Also, in the month of May, Sony Entertainment Television (Set) overhauled its programming. During the course of the year, Sony‘s old horses - CID and Aahat - delivered and the channel moved from 80 to 180 GRPs to occupy the fourth spot.

NDTV Imagine fought on and came up with Rakhi ka Swayamvar to grab its peak ratings. The channel gained in mindshare though in the ratings ladder it still has a long way to go.

Meanwhile, Sab, Sony‘s sibling channel, donned the family comedy hat and started experimenting with different strands within the genre to surge ahead of Star Plus‘ second GEC Star One.

The year also saw the death of Zee Next, while Real (a Turner -Alva joint venture) and 9X (launched by Indrani Mukerjea and Peter Mukerjea with a promise of nine times more) await a verdict on their existence.

Opines Lodestar Universal COO Nandini Dias, "Despite two channels almost on the verge of closing down and a couple of channels not doing well at all in 2009, the genre saw a growth in its market share. This is because the gap has been compensated by the top 3-4 channels in the genre, which have performed fairly well during the year."

Surge in Reality Quotient

Unlike 2008, when television predominantly targeted female viewers with high-voltage drama soaps, 2009 saw a huge surge in reality content in the overall GEC programming. And the format, coated with not just drama but controversies too, had an impact beyond its ratings. Result? Not just women but men too were driven to the genre. The share of reality shows, which was 4.3 per cent in 2008, increased to 6.9 per cent in 2009, a jump of almost 60 per cent (Tam data, HSM, for top five channels).

Source : TAM, Top 5 GECs

Elaborates Dias, "Unlike 2008, when the shows were more about Kyunki‘s and Kahani‘s that were mainly woman skewed, 2009 saw the launch of a slew of shows, especially reality that targeted both the woman and the men audience equally like Sach Ka Saamna and Khatroan Ke Khiladi."

Adds Sony Entertainment Television business head Ajit Thakur, "2009 saw GECs experimenting with non-fictions by launching reality shows other than the usual singing and dancing format."

Thus, while viewers were subject to some new and interesting formats like Rakhi Ka Swayamwar, Sach Ka Saamna, and Pati Patni aur Woh, there were a few that failed to catch attention like Perfect Bride and Iss Jungle Se Mujhe Bachao.

Not to forget, some old formats did get bigger in their sister seasons like Bigg Boss, Khataron ke Khiladi, India‘s Got Talent and Entertainment Ke Liye Kuchh Bhee Karega.

Additionally, dance-and-music-based reality shows too saw their ultimate high points on Zee TV with Dance India Dance and Saregamapa (with kid anchors).

Says Star India EVP marketing Anupam Vasudev, "In order to appeal to urban viewers, we saw differentiation and innovation in the reality space. And thus, apart from the regular singing/ dance based shows, this year saw more experimentation with shows which created buzz for the channel and attracted a lot of eyeballs."

The Fiction Saga

Well, the year surely reaffirmed the fact that fiction shows are the staple diet for Indian audiences. Tam data suggests that the share of daily soaps in GECs remained 60.4 per cent in 2009. The trend, however, shifted away from the saas-bahu sagas and the K-series to more meaningful and issue-based programming.

"Television content has moved away from the unrealistic and over-the-top depiction of stories and characters. The focus is now on realism, socially relevant themes, positivity and family values," suggests Vasudev.

The trend was started by Colors and picked by all. Earlier in an interview with Indiantelevision.com, Colors CEO Rajesh Kamat had said, "There was a fatigue built in for the kind of soaps that were running on Indian television. We made disruptive and differentiated content our main plank. We were willing to take a calculated risk; our concepts were different and on the riskier side. But they worked."

Zeel COO and Zee TV business head Nitin Vaidya notes that Indian television saw an interesting turning point with a different kind of story-telling that emerged with newer shows. "Variants like Balika Vadhu and Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya Hi Kijo brought in an all-new flavour to the primetime," says Vaidya.

Source : TAM

The new breed of fiction shows saw historic high points in terms of ratings. The top highest rated fiction shows in the year, as per Tam, were Balika Vadhu (10.2 TVR), Uttaran (9.6 TVR), Bidaai (9.5 TVR), Yeh Rishta (8.1 TVR), Pavitra Rishta (7.1 TVR) and Naa Aana Is Desh Laado (7 TVR).

Avers Vaidya, "With subjects ranging from those of historical importance and social awareness to differential talent, Zee TV‘s shows have been appreciated and acknowledged across the nation. Each of our new properties yielded results and there was no show that had to be withdrawn during the year."

Adds Vasudev, "With competition heating up and the saas-bahu image that Star Plus had to shake off, we came up with a host of innovative, fresh and creative content to entertain our audiences this year."

Movie game heats up

For a major part of the year, movies acted as a differentiator for the leading channel in the GEC genre, adding to the spikes.

The movie syndication model allowed the Hindi GECs to spread their risks as they narrowed the window between theatrical releases and their TV premieres for new products. Explaining the movie syndication model, Dias says, "Unlike earlier days, when buyouts happened for the entire movie, 2009 saw buyouts happening in number of airings as the costs had really shot up during the year. So you saw films like Jab We Met running across multiple channels at the same time."

Cost corrections happened and the big bets on movies were taken by Colors and Star Plus. Some movies were aired even without breaks, facilitating weekends to see an upsurge in viewership.

It is interesting to note here that post the two-month standstill in movie releases due to the producer-multiplex tussle, Colors ramped up its movie slate and aggressively purchased the first airing rights of many recent releases including Blue and Ajab Prem Ki Gajab Kahani.

Scheduling strategy and break-free content

With competition in full force and consumers moving the stick hard, broadcasters surely did not want to kick their buckets soon. In a bid to maintain a steady presence, many channels reviewed their programme scheduling strategies and also began running break-free content.

For starters, channels began pooling their full content strength onto the 7 to 9 pm band that appealed to the non-metro masses, attracting viewers from smaller towns.

Also, the 9-10 pm content was tailor-made for both smaller towns and metros to bring in an overlap of viewership. Meanwhile, the more urban-centric shows were moved to the 10 pm slot.

The second major change was the scheduling transformation of hour-long episodes. The concept was first sketched by Colors, as the channel asked producers to give a special one-hour episode in a month. The idea was to increase sampling and retain viewership.

The same design ran through Star Plus and Zee TV. "These are tactical steps taken to ensure viewers are retained on the channel and there is a seamless flow of audiences from one slot to another," says Vasudev.

Vasudev, however, believes that these tactical schemes cannot be sustained for long. "While one-hour specials give channels incremental GRPs, they do not impact much of the viewership in the original slot," he says.

Star Plus had moved one step ahead and extended their popular shows, Bidaai and Yeh Rishta, to seven days a week. However, as the model was not sustainable, they went back to four days a week.

Says Thakur, "Scheduling of specials is a practice done by GECs nowadays to get a spike. It‘s a stunt, a smart move but isn‘t sustainable in the long run. For five episodes a week, you have to shoot for 210 minutes. You have to shoot 50 minutes daily for such spikes and that isn‘t possible in the long run."

Ad volume grows

Hitting straight into the economic downturn, there was a huge concern at the beginning of 2009 that GECs would go through an ad slump and rates would tumble. That proved wrong and though rates were under pressure, ad volumes grew.

Says a senior media specialist from a top media buying firm, "FMCG, which accounted for about 38-39 per cent of the total advertising spend on the Hindi GEC space in 2008, moved up to about 50-54 per cent in 2009. It is important to note that FMCG looks at cost efficiency and spends if there is a return on investment. Automobile and telecom sectors were also big spenders and were looking for impact."

Adds Dias, "With FMCGs primarily spending on the mainline GEC genre along with a growth in the genre share itself, the GEC space has certainly seen growth over others. But it may have been a more polarised growth. In absolute revenues the top three - Star Plus, Colors and Zee TV - have had a much larger pie than Sony, Star One, Sab, and NDTV Imagine. Colors has surely yielded revenues, quite equivalent to that of Star and Zee."

The market seems to have eased and the last three months of the year have seen a big jump in advertising revenues.

Shaping up in Twenty10

The GEC space can be exposed to pressure points in 2010 amidst fragmentation and stiffening competition. The fight at the top among Colors, Star Plus and Zee TV promises to get bitter. And while Sony threatens to enter the top-rung, NDTV Imagine is readying to shape its destiny under a new owner in Turner International.

"If it is a fight amongst five strong players, then advertisers can make better use of the fragmentation. It is going to be a dog fight. But the GEC genre is set for growth," says a media analyst.

Agrees Vasudev, "Channels have to outdo themselves in terms of their offerings - leave alone outdoing their competition - to attract eyeballs and to keep them glued to their channel."

Media experts say advertisers will be willing to pay more in 2010 as the economy improves. "The GEC genre could post 20 per cent ad revenue growth in 2010. Hopefully, we will see clients willing to invest money in brand building. The channels, in turn, will need to reciprocate it with quality programming. Also we are slowly getting a sense that there maybe a fatigue setting in with respect to reality shows. Also believability is reducing. So maybe channels will need to look hard for the next thing now," says Dias.

As the overall GEC genre grows, Madison Media Group CEO Punitha Arumugam is optimistic that the profitability will also go up. "Since other genres have also started growing, 2010 will not see a very dramatic increase in the GEC genre revenues. The trend, instead, will be a fight over market share and every player will try to grab more eyeballs. But yes, profitability of the channels will increase due to renegotiation of programming and staff costs," she says.

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