Marathi channels : Lots more get up and go, but still a hard slog

Till two years ago, prime time for Marathi channels in Maharashtra ended at 8:30 pm. Cable and satellite viewers, fed with small doses of Marathi shows, mostly music or drama based, shifted to mainstream Hindi channels for the remainder of the evening and blended with the rest of the C&S population in its viewership pattern.

For the last two years, the three Marathi players left in the fray after a shakeout that saw the likes of Tara and Prabhat die a quiet death have spruced up programming and tightened their belts. The result is compelling viewing, backed by strong marketing, ground events and show packaging. The fight, earlier restricted to competing soaps across channels, has moved to other genres - news on the Marathi channels is as good if not better than that offered on Hindi news channels. Festivals, inter collegiate competitions, talk shows, live debates - the scramble to woo the Maharashtrian viewer is getting intense. Is the gambit working?

Not really, say media planners. The actual share of Marathi viewership in major cities is not really picking up, except for the small percentage of traditional Maharashtrian households watching Marathi channels, says Mindshare investment manager Sharon Mishra. Marathi channels at best garner a viewership share of five per cent while a Star Plus boasts a share of 25 to 30 per cent in major metros in the state. And as the market grows, it is awareness of Hindi channels that is poised for a bigger growth, believes Mishra.

Stretching primetime

Avantika helped pull in viewers at a time associated with Hindi prime time

Yet, that has not stopped the channels from stepping on the gas. We have 67 per cent of Mumbai viewership, claims Alpha Marathi head Nitin Vaidya. He has reason to be smug. Shows like Vadalvaat and till recently, Avantika, cast in the typical family drama mould, have caught viewer fancy to an extent that Alpha confidently launches serials at Hindi?s primetime of 9 pm, a timeslot avidly fought over by Star, Sony and Zee. ETV?s Jagavegali sings a similar tune. Alpha went a step ahead by launching a show, Ghadlay Bighadlaya, that lampoons and comments on today?s politics, politicians and social commentary at 10:30 pm (a time when Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi airs) six months ago. The show scaled peaks of notoreity when political activists broke into Zee offices, gunning for Alpha?s programming officials. Ghadlay Bighadlaya, naturally, went on to become the top rated show on Alpha for several subsequent weeks.

While Mishra insists such programming stunts cause merely a ripple in the overall viewership of Marathi channels, channels continue to fight for both, urban and rural eyeballs. While Alpha rules the roost in most urban homes, ETV claims a lead in rural Maharashtra, particularly in the 100,000 to 1 million population towns. Says ETV?s channel promotions head Rajib Chatterjee, "Our advantage is that we are an FTA model. Plus, in semi urban areas, language plays a critical role in deciding viewer preferences."

Marathi channels crawl along for daypart viewership in comparison with Hindi mainstream channels (denoted in red)

One player that has had no problems with reach but is now facing problems about content quality is the Doordarshan run Sahyadri. The channel that underwent a sea change under the stewardship of station director Mukesh Sharma four years ago, zoomed to the top of the charts two years ago, but has plateaued in the last one year. Sharma himself admits that he has stopped competing with satellite chanels in the soap genre and is concentrating on family shows, talk shows and phone in programmes. This last genre, popularised by Sahyadri was picked up by rivals and taken to new heights, but Sharma is unfazed. "Sahyadri?s reach remains the best, and we made Rs 250 million in revenues in the last fiscal, Rs 50 million over last year?s," he says.

Top 10 shows in prime time across Marathi channels (25 April 2004 to 1 May 2004)

Channel Date Days Programme
Alpha Marathi 4/25/04 Sun ALPHA BATMYA
Alpha Marathi 4/25/04 Sun MRF MAHERCHI SAADI
Alpha Marathi 4/26/04 Mon MRF CHIKAT NAVRA
ETV Marathi 4/30/04 Fri FULL 2 DHAMAL
Alpha Marathi 4/30/04 Fri AVANTIKA
Alpha Marathi 4/29/04 Thu VAADALWAAT
ETV Marathi 5/1/04 Sat MRF MAZA CHAKULA
DD10 Sahyadri (Marathi) 4/29/04 Thu BATMYA
Alpha Marathi 4/25/04 Sun MRF MAH ERCHI SAADI
ETV Marathi 5/1/04 Sat MRF MAZ A CHAKULA

While he recently pulled out another ace in the form of a series of classic short stories commissioned to eminent film and theatre directors, to be launched shortly, media planners say the absence of a single person who oversees the quality of programming on DD accounts for its dismal position among attractive advertising options. While Sharma believes the revamped FPC (thanks to the government changing the satellite feed timings for regional channels) has given it additional reach and lessened confusion among advertisers, producers admit that the benefits of DD?s towering reach are overshadowed by its often didactic postures on the way shows are created.

This is an area where private channels have scored, often weaning away software makers who cut their teeth on DD in the 1970s and 80s.

The Urban Rural divide

Alpha Marathi head Nitin Vaidya - going for the small towns

For the satellite channels, it is now the fight for the retail advertiser which has moved into interior Maharashtra. While Chatterjee says there is a mainline team dedicated to national advtertising, there is a special cell for regional advertising, which delivers about 20 to 25 of the whole. The aim, ultimately is to get 50 per cent advertising out of the retail market, he says. Alpha?s ambitions are somewhat similar. The Zee subsidiary has appointed special representatives in five districts, including Thane, Kolhapur, Nashik, Nagpur and Aurangabad to tap retail advertising. The idea, according to Vaidya, is not just to come up with innovative programming untried before across channels, but to provide technical solutions to advertisers who have thus far shied from coming on board a television channel. The Alpha team has till date created over 70 ads for publishers, dairies and assorted jewelry stores in metros and small towns alike.

DD Mumbai station director Mukesh Sharma - taking the fight to a different level

It is the programming however, that has been the differentiater. Vaidya, a journalist, picked up the scent of news programming early on, although it was rival ETV that started the concept of hourly news bulletins on Marathi channels, with a focus on local news from remote corners of the state thrown in. Alpha has capitalised on the extensive Zee News infrastructure and correspondent network to now boast of news capsules that keep catapulting the channel into the top 20 shows regularly. It?s an even battle right now, with ETV?s eight bureaus statewide and Chatterjee claiming that with 35 years of newsgathering behind them, television news was just a logical extension

Talk shows have helped push the envelope in Marathi programming

"We don?t launch new shows in a hurry. A lot of research goes behind each programming decision," says Vaidya. A lot of research has obviously gone into the Alpha Marathi programming in the last two years. Apart from the Alpha Gaurav awards honouring excellence in the arts, the channel instituted the Alpha Mahakarandak, an inter collegiate drama competition and an ongoing painting competition for children in seven cities - events, all of which also translate into programming on the channel.

Sachin returns to DD with classic short story ?Dhind?

Slightly better budgets allocated to regional channels are also resulting in quality programming. Production houses like the Birla promoted Applause Entertainment are getting into production of Marathi serials, along with established regional production companies like Smita Talwalkar?s Asmitra Chitra. Those like Sachin Pilgaonkar, who migrated to Hindi shows after starting from DD Mumbai, is now keen to re-enter the arena.

ETV, which suffers partially on this score as a large part of the operations are controlled from Ramoji City, Hyderabad, still manages to weave special programming around festivals and events. Its core audience remains the females 25+ ABC TG, where Chatterjee says the channel is stronger than Alpha?s too. But as media planners point out, it is the ground activities that will finally help grow the share of Marathi channel, even if it is a slow growth. Activities like a paani puri competition held recently in Thane by Alpha is what will work in favour of these regional channels, believes Mishra.

Metro magic

While Hindi channels push the horror genre on Friday nights, Alpha?s family show ?Shriyut Gangadhar Tipre? does good business in the same slot

Chatterjee has a different view, however. "The viewership of Marathi channels has grown steadily in the last year and half. In Mumbai, we are the second option for advertisers. The gap between us and our rivals is not much, we are almost neck and neck," he says. But he agrees that Mumbai is a different market altogether. Agreeing with Mishra?s observation that advertisers in Mumbai and Pune have effective alternatives, Chatterjee nevertheless maintains that in terms of brand delivery, ETV remains a very effective option. The trick is to now remain clutter free while attracting the smaller advertisers to the channel. ETV says it manages to restrict inventory to seven minutes per half hour, with the average hovering around four to five minutes.

In the three years of its existence, ETV Marathi may not have zoomed past siblings ETV Bangla and ETV Kannada, but nevertheless, its ad growth has been 300 per cent in the last two years, with the last one year having provided the biggest impetus.

Alpha Marathi has been recording one of the fastest growths in the Zee bouquet, having recently made a pitch to media planners that it was second in viewership only to reigning Star Plus in places like Mumbai. Planners say such claims need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but the fact that Marathi channels are attempting to stand on their own in cosmopolitan metros like Mumbai and get the ratings is still creditable.

After running hard to stay in the same place, Marathi channels now need to think harder to outperform their Hindi rivals.

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