Zee ups the ante in Punjab; market to shake up

Subhash Chandra is strengthening his arsenal in the Punjabi language market. Already armed with two channels, he will soon launch Khalsa World to narrow down the space for competing networks.

The 24-hour dedicated religious channel will have live Gurbani from the Golden Temple as its anchor programme, allowing ETC Channel Punjabi to have music, interactive and bigger entertainment shows. Zee Punjabi, on the other hand, will continue to have serials, soap operas and news and current affairs.

So why is Chandra launching such a comprehensive attack when he is confronted with weak rivals in a market that is, in any case, seeing slow growth? He has, after all, got rid of Lashkara which was emerging as a strong contender but couldn‘t withstand the might of a two-channel combine following Zee Telefilms‘ acquisition of ETC Networks in 2002.

Chandra can freeze competitors in Punjab not only with the strong hold his language channels enjoy but also the spread of his cable network in that market. Siticable is the leading multi system operator (MSO) in Punjab and is in a position to twist and turn the distribution of the weaker channels.

The Punjabi language channels are struggling to scale up revenues. MH1 (Music Hits One), for instance, has an annual turnover of around Rs 70 million while JK Jain-promoted STV Enterprises earns much less with its two channels Punjab Today and Balle Balle.

Even Zee‘s two channels - ETC Channel Punjabi and Zee Punjabi - made around Rs 240 million in 2004-05. In the first quarter of this fiscal, the scene is not much different, signalling a stagnant market situation.

So what justifies the launch of a third channel? Chandra is eyeing the international market where he can weave in programming across religious, music and soap genres for Punjabi viewers to rake in subscription revenues. In India, he can dominate the market and offer the three Punjabi channels on cable as well as the direct-to-home (DTH) platform.

The crowning property in this business model is Gurbani which Chandra telecasts live from the Golden Temple. This was with ETC Channel Punjabi and will now move to Khalsa World, which is slated for launch in September-end or the first week of October. ETC Punjabi will replace the live Gurbani content, which was the distinguishing feature of the channel, with more music and music-based shows. The morning Gurbani will, however, continue with the channel.

"Gurbani from the Golden Temple is our unique strength and assures us distribution of the channel. We also have the backing of the Zee Network. The other regional players in the Punjabi space are too small," says ETC Channel Punjabi and Zee Punjabi president and business head Rabindra Narayan.

In this difficult market where there is a huge spillover viewing to Hindi channels, the popular survival strategy has been to keep programming costs low. There is no appetite for soaps and the recipe for success has been music programmes, light entertainment shows and events.

Chandra wants to change all that. By pumping in money, he expects to raise content, generate higher viewership, and garner more revenues.

Last year, events formed a part of the strategy and programming costs went up. That didn‘t assure success. Though revenues marginally went up, net profit was hit. Admits Narayan, "A higher spend on programming and events led to an increase in operating costs. The revenues did not commensurately go up."

That does not mean that events are being abandoned. The scale, in fact, is getting bigger. "We will have an event every month. We, in fact, are doing bigger events this year. All this will culminate in the Punjabi Music Awards in February-March. Last year, we had telecast this live for seven hours. We are increasing our investments. This should be the year of growth for us. We are expecting a 30 per cent jump in revenues,"says Narayan.

An overseas presence and the focus on subscription revenues from these markets will allow Zee the flexibility to up the investments on its Punjabi language channels. But how will it shake up the market? What will the other players like MH1 and STV enterprises do? What are the programming initiatives? How will the game roll out? analyses the trends.

Zee‘s Punjabi channels to have bigger events and shows

ETC Channel Punjabi is making attempts to broaden the event programming category. The channel has associated with popular Punjabi producer-director Manmohan Singh and Yash Raj Films to conceive a special event around Singh‘s upcoming film Yaaranaal Bahaaran (starring Jimmy Shergill & Juhi Babbar).

From 12 September onwards, ETC Punjabi will start telecasting special capsules around the movie and the series will culminate on 30 September with a three-hour long on-ground event. Both ETC Punjabi and Zee Punjabi will telecast the event live.

Other than events and the channel driver property Amrit Dhara (the morning and evening Gurbaani), ETC Punjabi banks on various music programmes such as Punjabi Power Pack, Sada Top Ten, Jus Bhangra and Punjabi Spice. Celebrity chat, interactive shows and cookery shows are some of the other genres the channel explores.

Zee Punjabi has its channel driver in a live interactive show Dial-E-Punjab, hosted by celebrities such as Bhagwant Mann, Jasmine Bhatti and Bobby S. Viewers can request their choice of songs either through SMS or through a toll free number. Meriyan Gallan Mere Geet is one another musical show the channel has put its faith in.

In its efforts to explore the non-fiction film genre, Zee Punjabi this year introduced a non-fiction cinema genre in its line-up. The docu-drama series Sajda- A Tribute to the Legends of Punjab - covers the life history of Punjab‘s great legends and unsung heroes.

Khalsa World will have regular programmes like Katha, Kirtan, Kavi Darbars and discourses, besides live evening Gurbani from the Golden Temple. The programming will include documentaries on Sikh saints. "Khalsa will have evening Gurbani live. We will also be having other religious programming including those shot from overseas," says Narayan.

MH1 popular on music, planning events this year

Positioned behind ETC Channel Punjabi in ratings, MH1 is a music and entertainment channel promoted by Mahendra Batla under the BCI Optical Group banner. The channel has synergy as Batla has interests in music publishing business.

MH1 has as its driver show Aawaz Punjabi, a music talent hunt show. The channel also has a popular countdown show called Total Fresh. Other top performers for the channel include Fundoo Five, You Are Welcome Ji and Ghuggi Online. The channel, which has been going slow on events, has a new strategy in place for this year.

"Last year we did just three events. From this year onwards, we plan to do one event every two months," says MH1 CEO Pradeep Gangal.

Balle Balle bullish on events

Balle Balle, a music channel, stresses on interactive music shows and events. News channel Punjab Today from the same stable is also targeting viewers from the two neighbouring states, Haryana and Jammu & Kashmir, with specific time bands of one hour duration each.

According to Balle Balle CEO and Punjab Today president Upinder Nayar, the music channel is getting bullish on events this year. Nayar puts the average cost of doing a live show at Rs 3 million, adding that programme cost is going to shoot up from September onwards.

"Our focus this year will be on live shows. We are planning to conduct one live show every month in different parts of Northern India. Artists from the UK, Canada and the US will feature in these live events. We are pumping in a lot of money now. The revenue will follow," says Nayar.

Top drivers for Balle Balle include an SMS-based music show Inbox and an interactive music show Non-stop Hits. The channel is launching two more SMS-based shows in the coming months. While the countdown show Hafta Vasool is planned for September, Online Antakshari will come in the following month.

Punjab Today‘s additional offerings include business news, events and sports programmes. Speaking about Punjab Today‘s near non-existent position that Tam ratings project, Nayar argues that the channel is thriving on its hold on the market and strong penetration levels.

"On the ratings front, Punjab Today may look like a silent player. But the channel‘s handling of people‘s issues is being acknowledged. This, coupled with the strong penetration the channel enjoys, drives its growth," claims Nayar.

How the channels fare in the ratings game

Zee clearly dominates the ratings turf with a channel share of 66 per cent between ETC Channel Punjabi and Zee Punjabi. ETC Channel Punjabi is a clear leader with a share of 50 per cent, as per Tam data (26 December 2004 to 13 August 2005, CS4 +, Punjab/Haryana/HP/Chandigarh).

MH1 stands second in the line up with a share of 21 per cent and in the close third position is Zee Punjabi with a 16 per cent channel share. DD Punjabi holds 8 per cent channel share followed by Balle Balle which has 5 per cent share.

The market should see a major turmoil after Zee Network launches Khalsa World.

Punjabi language players to explore outside markets for growth

Faced with a slow growing market and stiff competition from Zee, STV Enterprises and MH1 are exploring the outside markets. While the former is targeting a December 2005 launch for two news channels covering Haryana and Jammu & Kashmir, MH1 is eyeing both Hindi and international viewers.

STV Enterprises is targeting a December 2005 launch for the news channels, with an estimated investment of Rs 150 million. Promoter Jain told that the company was waiting for the uplinking licence from the I&B Ministry.

"We are also setting up our own teleport on an investment of Rs 50 million. By launching two more regional channels, we are looking to explore the untouched markets."

Meanwhile, MH1 is planning to enter the Hindi as well as international markets with channels MH1 Gold and MH1 International respectively. MH1 will have news and entertainment programmes in its proposed Hindi channel.

"MH1 Gold will compete with Hindi channels and will air news, current affairs and entertainment programmes. On the other hand, MH1 International will specially target natives of Punjab spread all over the world. The content will have an extra stress on the regional aspects", says Gangal.

The big question raised though is how the funds will be raised. And it will involve much larger operations, a totally different turf from what the regional players have been used to so far.

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