AXN - reinventing to stay relevant

The action is heating up in the English entertainment space, but action adventure specialist AXN is game for the challenge.And a challenge it is to keep the buzz going, more so in times when viewers are so spoilt for choice. And while AXN?s overall share in this space may have witnessed a dip since last year, viewers are clearly spending more time on the channel. An indication that the genre as a whole is expanding.

A look at the progress that AXN has made and where it stands today.

Ratings Scenario:

Tam data c&s15+ five Metros shows that viewers are spending comparatively more time on AXN. In March 2005 they spent 17 minutes on it compared with 15.27 minutes last September and 11.07 minutes in September 2003.

In 2004, during the prime band 8-11 pm AXN had a 57.1 per cent share among English general entertainment channels followed by Star World with 31.4 per cent and Zee Cafe with 11.4 per cent.

Data tracked up till 30 June 2005 indicates that so far this year, AXN?s share has dipped to 51.6 per cent while Star World has increased to 35.5 per cent and Zee Cafe is also up at 12.9 per cent channel share.

It must be pointed out that none of AXN?s shows have managed to breach the rating of 1 which was achieved by Star World?s Koffee With Karan. Also, for this year the average rating of the top shows on AXN has fallen.

A look at the top shows on AXN shows that programmes with a high T&A quotient is a hot draw for AXN. The Hot ?n? Wild band has done well with shows like Wild On and Bikini Destinations.

The top 20 shows on AXN

Wild On 0.65 Mummy Returns 0.46
30 Seconds To Fame 0.62 World?s Most Extreme 0.41
30 Seconds To Fame 0.59 Maximum Exposure 0.36
Beastmaster 0.54 Bikini Destinations 0.36
Extreme Variety 0.52 Ripley?s believe It Or Not 0.35
30 Seconds To Fame 0.50 Spiderman 0.35
Wild On 0.50 Guinness World Records 0.33
Guinness World Records 0.50 Mile High 0.33
30 Seconds To Fame 0.50 Extreme Variety 0.32
30 Seconds To Fame 0.48 Bikini Destinations 0.32
Ripley?s Believe It Or Not 0.47 David Blaine?s Vertigo 0.32
Fear Factor 0.45 Guinness World Records 0.31
Wild On 0.44 Celebrities Uncensored 0.30
David Blaine Magicman 0.44 Alias 0.30
Godzilla (dubbed) 0.42 Ripley?s Believe It Or Nor 0.29
Maximum Exposure 0.42 Guinness World Records 0.29
Fear Factor 0.42 Hollow Man 0.29
Worlds feakiest Foods 0.42 Bikini Destinations 0.29
Ripley?s Believe It Or Not 0.41 Hollywoods Greatest Stunts 0.29
Godzilla 0.41 Tremors 0.28

The programming strategy:

AXN?s programme mix is designed around reality shows, action shows, adventure shows and dramas. The strategy, as is the case with the competitors, is to constantly launch shows that reach a certain standard. If something does not work you move on to something else.

Its biggest properties are in two blocks - Prime Zone and X-Zone. Prime Zone, which caters to more discerning viewers, is where one can catch shows like 24 and CSI.

In fact, CSI has helped attract women to the channel because it is intelligent in nature. 24 meanwhile, broke new ground in terms of narrative with each episode representing an hour in the life of a secret agent. The only difficulty here is that if a viewer misses an episode then he/she loses the thread.

In the X-Zone, which is more mass based, it showcases reality shows like The Amazing Race and Fear Factor.

Earlier this year it aired the boxing based reality show The Contender. The show dealt with 16 boxers competing for the chance to win $ 1 million and go professional, Episodes ran less than 24 hours after their initial broadcast in the US on NBC. However, this did not help bring in the viewers.

And while The Contender has failed to find a spot in AXN?s top rung, additionally, even A list shows like CSI and 24 do not figure. Certainly, the channel has its work cut out to ramp up viewership for these high profile properties.

But what has been a safe proposition for the channel has clearly been the reality bandwagon. Speaking on the role that reality has played, AXN South Asia director marketing Rohit Bhandari says, "When we introduced reality television through Who Dares Wins way back in 1999 the other channels laughed at us. There was plenty of scepticism. Now a lot of channels, be it music or general entertainment, have hopped on board the reality bandwagon. We have all the major reality shows with us apart from an American Idol which does not fit our profile. Reality shows are what I would call ?big fish? programming."

With a view to make the best connect to the viewer, the channel constantly looks at innovative ways to schedule its shows. This has meant re-looking at when primetime shows should start. In 2003 it defined prime time as starting from 10 pm instead of 9 pm (working on the assumption that its core viewers get home later than 9).

However, last year it decided to start its primetime programme block from 8 pm. It is worth noting that this move was not just for India but also for South Asia. So the likes of CSI, 24 and Alias were moved from 10 pm to 8 pm. Bhandari says that the aim is to cast as wide a net as possible. While the drama shows are ?small fish? at least as compared to the reality genre, they help maintain a high level of quality on the channel.

One of AXN?s high quality shows is the action packed 24

Earlier this year, it introduced a new block Platinum Showcase. This is where shows that are more niche and cutting edge air. The first show that aired in this block was The 4400. This show has a sci-fi bent to it.

While most of the show are American, the channel states that it is blind to the origin so long as the show has quality, is action oriented and is aspirational. If one was to look beyond the action label, the underlying quality to all AXN?s shows is aspirational.

Going Beyond TRPs:

Information available with indicates that the channel earned in the region of Rs 150 million last year from ad sales. Lodestar Media?s Arpita Menon says that advertisers use AXN primarily to target the male audience SEC A,B. Group M?s Manas Mishra says that, as is the case with the other niche English general entertainment channels, the loyal base is too small to get advertisers excited beyond a point. "Of course petroleum brands as well as the likes of Mountain Dew and Pepsi will be associated with it at one point or another as there is a brand fit. While brands like these buy AXN seperately, at other times it is bought as an add on when deals are done with Sony and other channels in the One Alliance bouquet."

The brain behind The Contender and The Amazing Race Mark Burnett

While AXN has managed to attract some women viewers, planners prefer to take Zoom in terms of a niche channel if women are the main target audience. Planners state that in terms of ROI, if one looks purely at the numbers, then one would never be able to justify spends. For any niche channel one should use the concept of Quality Rating Points (QRPs) and not TRPs. Here one looks at loyalty, stickiness and channel skew.

In terms of properties that are attractive Menon says, "The block that I call horror programming like Fear Factor is a good proposition. Also I like what they do with the reality genre in terms of shows like Who Dares Wins. Then there is the late night Hot ?n? Wild slot."

Contestants run an Amazing Race on AXN

Planners state that within the existing niche, AXN has its own unique space. It delivers better on the Male SEC A kind of audience compared with the competition. At the same time some shows do reach SEC B as well.

Therefore, for a typically male niche brand like Frenchie X, it makes sense to have a presence on the channel. Whether AXN gets selected over Star World and Zee Cafe is just a matter of choice however. AXN has a good duplication with the infotainment audience as it is aspirational. So now if a brand does not have infotainment in its plan then AXN can add more value by giving more incremental reach.

What is interesting is that Star World and Zee Cafe have a different TG for advertisers from AXN. Star World is seen by some observers to be more of a family channel compared to AXN which is seen as a strong vehicle to target men in the 25-54 age group.

That is not entirely the case with Star World and Zee Cafe where teenagers will tune in to see the likes of Friends and Caroline In The City.

However the flip side to all this is that observers feel that the way AXN is being run, the channel will not see substancial growth in ad revenues going forward. According to these observers, it is imperative that AXN is marketed and sold by understanding the need of the client and not just by selling the strengths of the channel. Sony executive vice president (ad sales & revenue management) Rohit Gupta maintains that the channel is already doing that. "We do a lot of brand integration with clients like Nokia and Samsung both on-air and on-ground. Due to our on-ground efforts (which will be discussed later on in this piece) we are able to integrate clients better as compared with the other English general entertainment channels. While I cannot give you figures our rates in the last two quarters have gone up quite a bit because viewer loyalty has grown."

A look at the shares of English entertainment channels for this year 8-11 pm c&s 15+ five Metros.

Share in the English Entertainment genre
Star Movies
Animal Planet
Star World
Zee Studio
Zee Cafe
History Channel
Discovery Travel And Living

Getting all Hot ?n? Wild:

One area that AXN has built is the late night slot post 11 pm which it dubbed the Hot?n? Wild band. This enabled the channel to push itself as a lifestyle brand, Bhandari states. As has been earlier stated, it is also one of the channel?s key properties from an advertising perspective.

This post 11 pm slot kicked off first with two shows Are You Hot? and Wild On. This saw AXN getting a shade bolder. The band, which was first introduced in 2003, constantly throws up new show concepts aimed at tantalising the senses. One show was the two part World?s Sexiest Commercials.

Viewers could also gorge on more late night escapism in the form of Bikini Destinations.

Hot ?n? Wild goes desi:

Arguably localisation through on-ground endeavours is where AXN has scored the most over its rivals. Group M?s Mishra feels that this is the best way for brand AXN to move forward in terms of trying to grow ad revenue. Localisation is the one area where clients have felt a definite reward in being associated. Reality shows were used as bait to give audiences a chance to live out their action fantasies. They were thus provided with the X-effect the tagline one can argue was inspired by the deodorant Axe Effect.

It all started in 2002 when it brought former cricketer turned TV host Mike Whitney down to India for the localised version of Who Dares Wins. It also held the Guinness World Records. The Whitney show reached a TV audience of 9.25 million people, which according to the channel represents 43 per cent of India?s total A class population.

One main reason for the success of the show was that it targeted the "average Ravi". The channel was not looking for experts performing stunts. It was looking to give the viewer a chance to experience the buzz first hand that it keeps talking about on air. Bhandari says, "Viewers were given a chance to actually touch and feel the brand. Who Dares Wins - India was one of our first initiatives because viewers were familiar with Mike and Tania on air."

In 2003, the budget for localisation went up by 50 per cent. The first initiative in 2003 was to find India?s Hot ?n? Wild couple. A search was conducted to find a man and woman who felt that they were hot and had what it took to host a TV show. The search took almost two months and saw 5,000 entries.

The winners of Hot ?n?Wild hosted (alongside Who Dares Wins hosts Whiteney and Tania Zaetta) the six city on-ground event Extreme Dhamaka. This was a combination of Who Dares Wins and Fear Factor.

According to Bhandari, the budget for Extreme Dhamaka was the same as buying two to three quality series from the US and airing it. What was unique was that everything from conceptualisation to post production was done in India.

Repetition a no-no:

AXN has been careful not to repeat itself. Its decision not to repeat Hot ?n? Wild in 2004 was governed in part by the fact that lots of other channels like MTV and Channel [V] were doing hunts of their own.

As Bhandari says, "We were the first to make a noise about the potential of reality hunts. Then the biggest players (read Star and Sony) started shouting loudly. For us to then try and outshout them made no sense at all. We have to be slightly careful when it comes to localisation. The viewer after all comes to us expecting something specific that he will not get anywhere else."

The channel therefore decided that for its next on-ground initiative in 2004 it would put a twist on the India-Pakistan rivalry with AXN Xtreme: India vs Pakistan Challenge.

Dual experience of brand AXN:

The earlier mentioned on-ground initiatives have helped the channel create two experiences. There is both an intended as well as an actual experience. The former is what you go through when you view the channel. The actual one is what you face on the ground. This year the channel is looking to do another local version of Ultimate Guinness Records. However it will not be pushing it as a reality show. but as an action show.

Marketing activity needs to be beefed up?

Having good content is one thing. Doing innovations to create the required level of awareness is another. This is where AXN needs to cover ground is the commonly expressed industry perception. Observers maintain that in order to get an increase in viewership that goes beyond a CSI which is already well known, the channel needs to market itself more. As an observer says, "AXN is being treated like an under dog in the Sony bouquet. None of the on-air programming is marketed at the desired level for viewers and advertisers, especially when you look at the kind of marketing innovations that Sony and Max do.

Jennifer Garner stars in the action pakced Alias

"Not many media guys knew about the scope of The Contender. In terms of revenue it was a missed opportunity. It could have been sold the way Koffee With Karan was sold for Star World i.e. by charging a premium and then offering spots on other shows as add ons. For this to happen the media fraternity needs to be made more aware about what is going on. For CSI:NY I don?t think that many potential people, be it viewers or media planners, are aware that a new version of one of its most popular shows is on air."

Bhandari expresses surprise at this perception though. "Whenever we have a big property we get in touch with clients a couple of months in advance. For The Contender we had sent a boxing kit to the agencies. We had over 60 billboards in Mumbai. One would have to be blind to have missed it. At the same time from the cost benefit ratio point of view it does not make sense to have a campaign going on for beyond a month. It is important to remember that there is a limit to the number of viewers that great advertising attracts for niche channels."

AXN as a tourism vehicle:

There is a certain amount of cachet that the AXN brand offers as far as associations are concerned. For this reason tourism departments of other Asian countries are waking up to its potential. For instance last year AXN teamed up with the Hong Kong Tourism Board to take viewers through a Bollywood Odyssey

Hosted by former Miss World Diana Hayden the show took viewers to Hong Kong locales that Bollywood film producers have made use of. Films like Company, Naam, Gumrah have all had important sequences shot in Hong Kong in locations like Victoria Harbour and The Peak. Prior to that AXN had organised the India Challenge event in conjunction with the HKTB. The winning team was then sent to Hong Kong to compete in the Hong Kong AXN Challenge.

Conclusion: Clearly AXN needs to find increasingly innovative ways to get the message out about the properties it has. After all in an increasingly fragmented market the viewer needs to be reminded about key properties. It would also seem that the channel would do well to more closely examine its ad sales strategy to better leverage the brand. On a more positive note it is on the right track as far as localisation through on-ground initiatives are concerned.

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