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English GECs bet big on digitisation

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The early exit of BBC Entertainment and focus on target segmentation marked the English general entertainment channel (GEC) genre as digitisation propelled change in 2012.

Audience stickiness continued to be a challenge for the English channels, forcing them to ramp up marketing to ensure that perception fell in line with their product offerings.

In a digital environment, channels will have to increase their local feel and touch. AXN, which has completed 15 years in India, is getting more aggressive in the marketplace. The India operations is in the process of shifting from Singapore and there will be more local shows.

"Operationally, we will have the scheduling and programming move to India. We will thus be able to sensitise to the Indian tastes and needs. We will also be able to move to the market quicker and respond to advertiser queries faster," says AXN‘s newly appointed India head Sunil Punjabi.

The positioning of the channel also changed from the ‘heart of action and adventure‘ to ‘It‘s Thrilling‘. A survey was conducted in January 2012 and it was found that AXN viewers wanted content that went beyond action. There was craving for a deeper, richer and engaging experience.

Explains Punjabi, "Our aim is to broaden the genre. Our focus now rests on content that is high on energy and engagement. That is why we moved away from our action position to thrills. We have added layers to our strategy."

A part of this strategy is to provide light content early and then move on to the later part of prime time with shows that have substance. The aim: to evenly split between dramas and reality. Says Punjabi, "Unlike our competitors, we don‘t have sitcoms. Serious dramas are not their main focus. And non-fiction and reality shows comprise just 20 per cent of their content lineup."

Star World has been striving to bring shows relevant to the English content viewing audience. A case in point is the airing of the Australian TV series ‘Packed To The Rafters‘. And to make the show more relatable to the audience, Star World made Karan Johar the face of the campaign.

"From our Hindi and regional GECs, one of the biggest learning is that viewers seek life lessons from the daily soaps they watch. The issues faced by the Star World audience, the English speaking, urban Indian youth, is quite myriad and they don‘t get to see shows which reflect their life on TV. Our audience will be able to resonate with the issues faced by the characters in Packed to the Rafters and emulate the way they resolve the conflicts," says Star India senior VP, English programming Rasika Tyagi.

In March 2012, Star World created a block called ‘Crime At Ten‘ that imbibed the American style of showcasing programmes in a checkered format. The property showcased the latest seasons of crime shows, including ‘Dexter‘, ‘Castle‘ and ‘Criminal Minds‘ that aired on weekdays at 10 pm.

Big CBS, the JV between RBNL and US media conglomerate CBS, is pushing CBS flagship shows as well as adding layers through localisation.

According to Big CBS business head Anand Chakravarthy, DAS (digital addressable systems) is one of the biggest things to have happened for the genre. "With the first phase of digitisation having started, the genre penetration has grown substantially in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata - the three biggest markets for English GEC. Carriage fee reduction has also happened," he says.

But not everybody shares this sense of optimism. BBC Worldwide Channels was not willing to wait for digitisation to take matured shape. Two channels - BBC Entertainment and CBeebies - were shut late in the year. BBC Worldwide Channels, Asia senior VP, GM Mark Whitehead bemoaned the fact that India was the only country where they had to pay carriage fees. "The nature of the Indian market for pay-TV channels make the economics of running channels very challenging at this time. We have reluctantly concluded that we need to close our channels."

For those who cared to wait, wider distribution of channels is beginning to happen. A case in point is FX and Fox Crime, both uniquely positioned in this space.

Comedy Central, which has completed a year, is hoping segmentation would start paying in a digital form of distribution. Viacom18 Media senior VP, GM English entertainment Ferzad Palia says that he is encouraged by feedback received on Twitter and Facebook. "Even with digitisation, you need to get more English language speaking homes into the overall sample. We find that comedy works both with mature and new audiences. But there is room for improvement in terms of things like scheduling."

Converting Snacking into loyalty: To get viewers to stick on, some English GECs are trying out a better balance of content. Also, a stripped strategy is being followed which makes it easier for fans of a certain show to follow what is going on.

Punjabi says that the genre would continue to have this challenge of converting snacking to loyalty. AXN‘s strategy is to have branded slots which will help viewers to recall the type of programming on a particular time band. "Hence we are building loyalty on slots. AXN has the highest spread of programming genres and we believe we have a lot more to offer to our viewers."

Another way to building loyalty is airing seasons back to back. Before a new season kicks off, older seasons are aired. This helps market these shows and more sampling takes place. "But this strategy is not followed for reality content as that does not make sense," avers Punjabi.

Zee Network business head niche channels Anurag Bedi also feels that longer seasons of shows are key to building loyalty. "Longer seasons in prime time are what our current focus is on. Currently we have brought on ‘Numbers‘ on Zee Cafe which will air on the channel till its sixth season. Then we have ‘Gossip Girl‘ season four, five and six. Bringing newer seasons of the popular shows and understanding the viewership needs builds loyalty," he says.

Zee Cafe implemented the stripped strategy with the understanding that Indian viewers have a set way of consuming television, which is Monday to Friday. "The Indian viewers prefer daily shows and clubbing number of seasons together helps retain the viewer over a long period of time. Stripped format coverts snacking into loyal viewership," says Bedi.

Big CBS took the simulcast route to build stickiness. ‘X-Factor‘, ‘America‘s Got Talent‘ and ‘American Idol‘, for instance, were simulcast across the three channels. "Now we will no longer simulcast. We are building our primetime band," says Chakravarthy.

To increase reach and boost sampling, many channels in the genre air movies. Sporting properties are also seen as an opportunity by Big CBS Prime which shows martial arts and wrestling. Chakravarthy explains that movies are shown on the weekend. "Movies become a great destination for sampling the channels as they pull in a larger audience. They also offer good sponsorship opportunities. The aim of having sporting properties is to broad base the channel. Sports bring in both younger and older audiences."

The ad pie: English general entertainment channels raked in about Rs 1.3 billion in 2012.

Multi Screen Media president networks sales, licensing and telephony Rohit Gupta believes that shifting AXN‘s operations to India will help the broadcaster to work more closely with clients. "AXN has seen a 20 per cent revenue growth. We will be able to focus on shows that work well in India and offer more tailored solutions to clients," he says.

Palia claims that 150 brands advertised on Comedy Central. "Many TVCs are funny. So people on our channel are more receptive towards them as they are in a similar frame of mind," he said.

The Future: The genre can expect more channel launches amid digitisation as better distribution revenues are realised.

Chakravarthy expresses satisfaction that digitisation is forcing broadcasters to focus more on content. "Everybody is trying to bring in really good quality shows. The genre and the audience will gain," he says.

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