Television

Bangla channels ride on news

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There was a time when DD7 or Indian pubcaster Doordarshan‘s Bengali channel was the only fare available to Bengali understanding audiences in the country, especially those residing in West Bengal.Though it was popular, riding more on Bengali films, rest of the content was nothing much to write home about. Then came the private sector entrepreneurs in the mid-90s who saw that the Bengali market could be exploited if more contemporary and well-packaged programmes are aired, coupled with innovative marketing.

Thus, began a movement in the television industry with as many as six channels on air now, and two new ones in the pipeline. Many industry watchers attribute this transformation in a sluggish market to the changing socio-economic and political factors in the state of West Bengal, which is evident from the fact that the seemingly small regional players are sharpening their survival instincts in a market, which may increasingly get dominated by national players.

Putting things in the right perspective, Broadcast Worldwide chairman and a former bureaucrat Rathikant Basu says, "Younger generation of leaders has brought in a change in the style of functioning. More people are hooked to entrepreneurship and `babudom‘ (bureaucracy) is fading away. The new generation is getting more adventurous. These changes are getting reflected in the media industry too."

While concurring with Basu, whose Tara Bangla is one of the bigger ventures, Channel Eight COO Umesh Roy Chowdhury is more effusive when he says, "Bengal is a happening market. During the last four years, the industrial atmosphere has undergone a major change. Nowadays, investment to the Bengal market is coming from the likes of Birla, Tata and Goenka."

But slightly cautious is a Bangla TV media professional Ajay Kumar. While admitting there has been a "significant growth in TV homes in West Bengal (WB) in the last three years," he says, "What is interesting to note is that WB is not anymore a Hindi-will-suffice market."

So how do these changes get converted into good business for the broadcasters? Alpha Bangla business head JK Ray feels that the growing consumerism is a good sign for the television ad market. Citing the example of cellular service provider Airtel expanding its network in the entire West Bengal, Ray feels the entire state is undergoing a consumer boom, which is a good sign for all-round business.

Though Kolkota is a big market and most of the advertisers are still glued there, other regions are also evolving as potential markets. The rural scenario is improving and the retail segment is booming, which has resulted in the penetration of TV channels going up," offers Ray as an explanation. Kumar also feels that the TV ad spends in the Bangla market is going to witness a big growth as the prospect of category expansion for all brands is good, which is getting a fillip from TV (advertising).

But growing consumerism and changing economic factors in the state cannot alone be responsible for driving the Bengali television market. Content plays an important part in driving the whole business. With ETV Bangla, one of the regional channels from a South Indian media conglomerate, having re-written the rules of content, others have been forced to follow suit. Says a Kolkata-based senior journalist with a national publication, "The way ETV has served up contemporary and well-packaged programmes, including

news, is a case study in itself."

No wonder, the Bengali fare being dished out by various channels include a variety of programming from serials having adult themes to chat shows, to game shows (some patterned on those aired on channels like Sony and CNBC-TV 18) to even some old-fashioned reality show where participants are made to undergo a series of awkward events in a watered down version of Who Dares Win on AXN.

But, not so surprisingly, it‘s news and current affairs that is bringing in the viewership, including ETV which has dedicated 20 per cent of its programming to news. Alpha Bangla has almost two hours towards news. The Bangla television market, understandably, is luring some of the national broadcasters who are flashing the `news‘ card. "By and large, Bengalis are very interested in politics and sports. Then their interest areas include lifestyle, glamour and fashion," points out Rathikant Basu whose Rs 110 million Tara Bangla offers six hours of news content daily and proposes a news channel "very soon."

Santhosh Jain-promoted ATN International is another regional player who is planning to introduce a news slot in its ATN World channel to survive in a fragmented and slow-growing regional market. The listed company is in negotiations with Chennai-based Win TV to introduce a news slot not only for the Indian Bengalis but also for the Bangladesh market.

According to TAM, news gains in the evening band in the Kolkota market.

News also provides penetration for general entertainment channels in markets outside Kolkata. The districts of West Bengal do not get coverage of local cultural and sports events. Besides, there is no Bengali news channel. "Movies can‘t replace news. They have different and equally strong viewership in West Bengal," says a media analyst.

Some of the big guns eyeing the Bengali news market are Sahara and Star News. While Sahara has been time and again stressing its eagerness for the news market, Star has already gone ahead with its launch plans of a news channel in Bangla. Both the networks are unanimous on the possibilities of news content in the West Bengal television market. "News works there (in West Bengal). News programming has been getting fairly good ratings," says Sahara Media & Entertainment sales, marketing and distribution president Satish Menon. Dittoes Star News brand director Keertan Adhayantaya: "The West Bengal market offers a lot of potential. We feel that a channel that telecasts national news and current affairs content in Bengali offers great prospects."

Though Kumar is not so optimistic about the proposed Bengali news channels ("there is scope only if the upcoming news channels resort to strategic positioning and innovative agenda setting," he feels) DD Kolkota Kendra (DD7) official Druva Ghosh says news channels are the best option in the West Bengal market at present. His reason: launching a general entertainment channel here may not be viable as competitors would be the likes of Star, and Sony. "It is a tough scenario. In this case, you need to look at niche channels and news is the best option," DD‘s Ghosh opines.

News or not, the fact that regional channels command supremacy in the top ten list in both the West Bengal and Kolkota market, vouches for the significance of such channels in the market. Sample this: TAM channel share data for the period 23 September to 23 October (TG: CS 4+): ETV (16.75 per cent), cable regional (12.98 per cent), Aakash Bangla (8 per cent), Alpha Bangla (4.94) and DD7 (3.58 per cent) figure in the top 10 list for the West Bengal market. In the Kolkota market, the top regional channel share goes like this: ETV (19.01 per cent), cable regional (10.64 per cent), Aakash Bangla (6.95 per cent), Alpha Bangla (5.22 per cent) and DD7 (3.9 per cent).

In the Kolkota market, regional channels gain in the morning and evening bands.

Why is it that Bengali regional channels --- in West Bengal, the total Bengali channel share stands at 34.1 per cent, compared to the Maharashtra market where the regional channels total share is 10.3 per cent, (for example) --- have fared pretty well compared to the Hindi language entertainment channels like Star Plus and Sony vis-?-vis other regional channels else where in the country?

Simply because the Bengali market is not restricted to the state of West Bengal. According to DD‘s Ghosh, the Bengali television market includes audiences in Tripura, part of Bihar, Orissa, Delhi, Assam and even the neighbouring Bangladesh with the latter traditionally being a big market for DD. Tara Bangla too has been strategising its programming keeping in mind the Bangladesh market and the channel has been carrying out various campaigns to tap the market share there.

"Bangla audience in Bangladesh is double than that of West Bengal. Bangladesh is certainly a lucrative market for us," Basu says, pointing out that Tara Bangla has a channel share of approximately 3 per cent in the Bangladesh market. According to Basu, The Bangladesh television ad market is estimated to be Rs 1.5 billion-strong; the West Bengal may be worth approximately Rs. 850 million. Basu claims that Tara Bangla holds about 5 per cent of the Bangladesh television ad market.

Is it any wonder that others like ETV Bangla and Alpha Bangla from the Zee stable have also started targeting the Bangladesh market, apart from trying to tap the Bengali expatriates as well? Tara Bangla, which is now available in the Middle East, South East Asia, South Africa and Europe, is slated to enter North America this month. However, the reverse osmosis too is happening with Bangladesh TV channels targeting audiences and market in West Bengal. Some of the prominent channels from across the border available in India include the national channel, Bangladesh Television (BTV), ETN Bangla, Channel I and NTV.

With such cross border marketing scopes and a steadily growing viewership, national and pan-South Asian advertisers, it seems, are still to fully warm up to Bengali regional channels.

Reiterating the point that the Bengali market is opening up, Basu says, "The common belief is that national advertisers get less return from regional channels when compared to national channels. But that is not true. Regional channels offer them much better value in terms of money and much better audience as it has been happening in the South."

According to Kumar, the regional advertisers emanating from within West Bengal are now getting progressive and aggressive and consider TV a must in media mix.

It seems that the time is getting ripe for getting returns on investments made in the Bengali television channels.

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