Television

"Wholesome, family fare that addresses all sections seems to be in scarcity" : Apurva Purohit Zee TV president

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The Subhash Chandra promoted Zee Telefilms could not have been going through a worse phase. With TRPs of programmes failing to register in the Top 50 --- occasional silver linings notwithstanding --- for the last two years or so, the failure of new initiatives to rejuvenate a southbound network and frequent changes in the top management of the company, Zee seems to have hit rock bottom. Right ? But those who know Chandra well, say this may not be the case. He has the knack to bounce back.

Amidst such a scenario, being the president of the flagship channel Zee TV is not an easy job. More so, when the president has to report to a hard taskmaster, the chairman of the company.

But till date, Apurva Purohit, who joined as president of Zee TV in mid July 2002 hasn‘t done too badly. A management graduate from IIM Bangalore, Purohit has been in the advertising and media business for 15 years. Starting out in client servicing, she crossed over to the media function in mid-90s. She has, over the years, worked on clients like Colgate-Palmolive and Citibank. As the director of Lodestar Media, the media arm of FCB-Ulka, she is credited with leading the agency to the coveted ‘Media Agency of the Year Award‘ this year at the Emvies 2002. Purohit‘s mandate at Zee Network, besides leading Zee TV in India, includes co-ordinating the channel‘s growing overseas presence.

In what is her first full interview with the media, a guarded Purohit holds forth on various subjects relating to Zee TV in an interview with indiantelevision.com‘s Anjan Mitra.

As the president of Zee TV, how do you see the channel as of now ?

The channel has some excellent new programming that has been well received be it Kittie Party, Aati Rahengi Baharein or Lipstick. The Thursday Movie has made a decisive impact and the initial reports on the Sunday daily slotting are also very encouraging. We will wait to see if we are also able to attain our objective of making a fundamental shift in viewership cycles.

What, according to you, is the success rate of Zee‘s experimentation with programming slots ?

It‘s quite evident that much of programming in this country today is stuck with a certain template. Viewer inertia is more a product of programming that isn‘t too different across channels rather than any issue of excellence. As is evident, Zee TV is experimenting with products that are departures in programming and I am sure that the quest will yield dividends sooner rather than later.

What are the strategies that the channel is working on currently to see that Zee bounces back ?

The strategies as a group have been clearly enunciated. The focus is on programming excellence, higher shareholder value through operational efficiencies and a multi-pillar approach.

For Zee TV, the attempt is to redefine the parameters of programming, viewership and viewing. Quite obviously, the backdrop for a fundamental shift in the programming genre is ready. We are today at the same crossroads as in the past when viewing was defined at one end of the spectrum by imported soaps like The Bold & The Beautiful and at the other end by religious mythologies.

At that crossroad, the yawning gap was slowly filled by the first generation of soaps and sitcoms which had evolved beyond the gripping classical tales of Hum Log, Buniyaad and Khandan to become kitschy, filmy, melodramatic and found in the saas-bahu genre an enduring, relatable story line.

Where the first generation of soaps had focussed on environment issues involving society, polity, religion and the works, the current generation and genre is typically self-obsessed with the family and its endless twists of relationships with an affluent setting thrown in. KBC was a phenomenon rather than a generational change though the programming community did tend to get misled and head towards a surfeit of gameshows.

You mean to say that the rivals‘ programming strategy was flawed ?

I am not saying what you are trying to imply. But quite clearly, the monotony of the reign of the saas-bahu genre of soap is driving programming pell-mell to a fresh crossroad.

We (at Zee) have the lessons of 26 programmes launched last year, including southern best sellers like Choti Maa... and interactive programmes like Aap Jo Bolein...., biting the dust. We also have the success of the niches like Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hai, Kittie Party, Lipstick and Aati Rahengi Baharein to take a few pages out of. That apart, the genre of comedy epitomised by Shekhar Suman continues to yield audiences.

Zee‘s strategy, therefore, is to work up a shift in programming values that would break the monotony of viewing. Time after time, audience research shows that people would just like to get out of watching the eternal wrangles of saas bahus. Wholesome, family fare that addresses all sections seems to be in scarcity.

  "Where we possibly went awry was in not spending consistently on programmes and bunching our advertising around launch periods"

What, according to you, has been ailing the company which has resulted in the Zee channels slipping drastically where viewership is concerned ?

As is evident, programming has moved by generations. Zee had the upper hand in the earlier three generations of programming. The fourth generation change was led by the competition. We either ride the current generation of programming with blockbusters or make a basic shift in programming in appreciation of viewer monotony backed by inertia.

Unless we do this, we would be simply beating our heads against the wall.

Do you feel that public perception of Zee TV being a ‘down market‘ channel has to be changed?

We would rather focus on the viewer moving back to Zee programmes as preferred viewing because the channel image continues to be relevant to our audiences. Our research does not at any point of time indicate that the channel is seen to be either down market or written off.

But the `down market‘ perception abounds in the industry as well as amongst viewers. Most media planners opine this in private too. Is the company doing something to remove or neutralise this perception?

As stated earlier, viewer perception and predisposition continue to be positive. Every new initiative of the channel falls into a trial pattern from viewers of all channels. The issue of viewers looking at Zee as a channel for the mature rather than the young is being addressed through pacy programming, including Lipstick and Aati Rahengi Bahaarein.

The industry, including the advertising fraternity, says that Zee lacks effective communication and marketing strategy to back up its programming initiatives. Do you subscribe to this view?

On the contrary, Zee programmes have been effectively marketed and command a fairly high mindshare. But at the same time, we can do a lot to optimise resource allocations. Where we possibly went awry was in not spending consistently on programmes and bunching our advertising around launch periods.

Consequently, after an initial high and trials, the focus petered off. It is important for us to use our resources to maintain consistent presence right through, do more ground level promotions and use our own channel spread effectively.

"The monotony of the reign of the saas-bahu genre of soap is driving programming pell-mell to a fresh crossroad "  

Don‘t you feel that launching over 20 new programmes in a short span of time had a negative effect on viewers instead of pulling them back to Zee TV?

Not really. It made a non-happening channel into a happening one. Today, Zee is a much more talked about channel and the realisation seems to be growing that with a channel which is prepared to pull out all stops, including the ambitious Thursday Premiere, it is simply a matter of time before Zee returns to the top as few other channels have the same quantum of commitment to the Indian viewers.

But should so many new programmes have been launched at one go?

Agreed, it is like putting all your eggs in one basket. On the other hand, there wasn‘t really too much of an option. Most of the programmes belonged to an earlier era and were dragging down the image of the channel. The newness and freshness may not have got too many viewers but at least, the past and its hangover was firmly put behind. Viewers began to look at Zee to do new things, create fresh new programming and give variety.

Hindi blockbuster movies will certainly bring in the audience on Thursdays. But how will it help in getting eyeballs on other days?

The Hindi movies are part of a strategy to get viewership patterns changing from a simple Monday to Friday viewing. With Thursday Premieres now being telecast every Thursday, Zee TV is broadcasting its weekly primetime programmes starting Sundays, thus strengthening its weekend programming.

Has the company undertaken audience research ?

Our analysis of viewership data shows that the absolute universe of audience available on a Sunday is as large and as substantial as on any other weekday. We have, therefore, given audiences a good line-up for a Sunday evening, rather than having them chase sporadic viewing of niche channels or cable movies.

And, as stated earlier, this has already started working in our benefit. We continuously research our audiences. Zee TV recently conducted a research on ‘What Women Want‘ and on the basis of this research has launched many new programmes over the past few weeks.

Would you agree that despite having a beginner‘s advantage, Zee got upstaged by Star India which came up with better programming, marketing and communication strategies post KBC ?

Unlike products which can be judged in terms of market share where a purchase decision is involved in every consumption, television viewership has little to do with a first or second mover.

Similarly, programming the world over moves per generation. The channel which is able to read the winds and move on usually captures that generation of programming for itself. Subsequently, that generation becomes a fixed feature and a hygiene factor for all channels, not a giant killer.

It seems, then, that Zee TV failed to gauge the way the new programming wind was blowing. Right?

Zee was at the front on three of the (programming) generation changes, including the classic soaps, the sitcoms, the mythologicals. It missed out on one --- the family soap. KBC was a phenomenon and not a trend and it will remain so.

It looks like time has come for the next generational shift and at these junctures, in the television industry, history scarcely matters.

Has Zee learnt from its past mistakes and is the present core team aware of the mistakes which are not to be repeated?

If trying out new formulae is a mistake, the core team is willing to make more of them. The only real mistake was not to have kept abreast of the audiences at a point when a basic shift in programming content was underway. Today, Zee TV is a far more market sensitive entity which tracks audiences, segments, demographics, gender, age groups and viewer preferences with rigour and an open mind.

Apart from Zee TV, what does the core team have in store for other Zee channels? What are the plans for Alpha channels, for example?

Each channel has a distinct strategy and each channel head would be best to answer this question.

Where do you see Zee TV exactly one year from now?

As providing the kind of entertainment it was founded for: wholesome family entertainment which everyone can relate to; entertainment that is with the times; holds high social values and is quite simply on the ball.

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