HBO wins on weekdays, Star Movies woos weekenders

One of the most hotly contested battles being played out on Indian television screens at the moment is in the English movie space.

It‘s basically a two-horse race at the moment, but the battle for supremacy between Star Movies and HBO is growing fiercer by the day. Whether it was growing the weekend slot or coming with innovations on the marketing front, the activity was taken to the next level in 2004.

Go BIG over the weekend! That was the mantra the two channels chanted in 2004. HBO got the ball rolling in January 2004 with the Big One block. During each quarter, at least one megahit movie (like Spiderman) was shown in the block. Star Movies then launched its own The Big Two from October. This sees the channel air two big premiere movies back to back on one weekend every month. The channel was aiming to blow up an entire weekend.

‘Spiderman‘ swung the ratings for HBO

Tam data for C&S 15+ 6 Metros for 2004 paints an interesting picture though. As far as channel shares are concerned, in the weekdays primetime bracket (8:30 pm-11:30 pm) HBO has a share of 47 per cent. Star Movies‘ share is 43 per cent. Over the weekend (Saturday and Sunday) Star Movies commands a 50 per cent share versus 37 per cent for HBO. This could be attributed to the fact that though HBO got ahead in terms of branding big titles on select Saturdays Star Movies was able to attract audiences on a more consistent basis on the weekend. On the weekdays the fight is more close.

Weekday Share % Weekend Share %
HBO 47 HBO 37
Star Movies 43 Star Movies 50
ZMZ 9 ZMZ 11
Hallmark 1 Hallmark 2

In what could be interpreted as an attempt to correct the situation on the weekend HBO has upped the ante this year by announcing its intention to go big on select Saturday‘s in 2005 with The Big Saturday.

HBO had used the 15-44 demographic last year to claim that it was ahead. Quoting Tam data for the period September 2003-August 2004 SEC A,B,C 15-44 On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 9 pm to midnight HBO stated that it had the highest share of 1.08 per cent, maximum reach at 62.37 per cent. In addition people spent 48 minutes on HBO each weekend, which was more than the arch rival Star Movies.

Nonetheless the channel is looking to build up the weekend further. It will increase the number of Big Ones from five in 2004 to around 10 in 2005. HBO South Asia‘s country manager Shruti Bajpai stresses, "When we talk of a Big One it is not just about taking a title and slapping the moniker on it. Films like Spiderman are truly big. Our next Big One is The Lord of the Rings. If you look at the 15-44 category our Big One which had the lowest rating --- Charlies Angels II --- rated higher than the biggest rating that Star Movies‘ Big Two managed to get."

‘Ice Age‘ helped Star Movies enter the charts

A valid point. From this writer‘s perspective if you are talking about big in the true sense of the term then films like The Lord of the Rings, which is HBO‘s next Big One, define the term big. One cannot really compare Star‘s Bad Santa and Bad Company to the Peter Jackson offering in terms of scale. Having said that, the shares show that it is not just big titles but also variety that counts. As Star Movies senior VP content and communication Ajay Vidyasagar says, "The viewer wants a complete experience. We have done that by providing them with interesting fare even before The Big Two launched with stunts like A Date with Julia Roberts. It is also important for us to be consistent."

Last year Star Movies used the C&S 4+ demographic to score points. Vidyasagar said, "If you look at Tam data C&S 4+ SEC A,B you will notice that in 2002 we had a 10 per cent lead over HBO in primetime and all day. In 2003 we extended our primetime lead to 20 per cent. For 2004 we maintained this position."

When it came to BIG films though, it was HBO that led from the front. Comparing the the top five English films of 2004 (C&S 15+ 6 Metros) that HBO and Star Movies threw up, it was HBO that had the overwhelming lead.

HBO TVR Star Movies TVR
Spiderman 2.46 Ice Age 1.02
The Mummy 1.30 Predator 0.88
Stuart Little 2 0.98 The Magnificent Butcher 0.80
Cats & Dogs 0.91 Aces Go Places 0.79
The Mummy Returns 0.88 Jurassic Park 0.78

What do the media planners look at? That is the critical question. The affluent male audience 15+ is the primary target. First you look at the major Metros SEC A,B; then you go to the mini metros SEC A. Somewhere in between the major metros and mini metros SEC A come women, who for many clients are as important as the men.

Says Initiative Media (AVP) Manas Mishra, "They are present in large numbers. Children are not focused on by advertisers of English movie channels because they air a children‘s film like Lion King once in a while. Even for a family film like Spiderman the number of children that will watch it at say 9 pm would be limited by time band constraints."

Themed blocks gather momentum: One way that movie channels package product is through themed blocks which are either weekly or monthly. This grew more intricate with blocks being introduced over the past couple of years that went beyond primetime. In a recent interview, HBO Asia senior VP programming and promotion Quek Toi Mien had pointed out that HBO had laid special emphasis on the summer with the block Summer is HBO.

‘Juraasic Park‘ continues to bring in monster ratings for Star Movies

"The previous two years we had the Summer Action Marathon. For this year we grew the summer into a huge seasonal theme for the channel. We aimed at widening the target audience through blocks like Sizzling Nights. Then there was a special programming block for kids."

Star Movies on its part announced a revamp of its programming strategy in October which will continue in 2005. Besides The Big Two which amounts to 24 new blockbusters in a year, it also brought in new weekly thematic slots. For instance on Monday Nights it presented films of one big superstar. Then there is the $100 million hit on Wednesdays. Here you have films like Shrek and A Beautiful Mind.

HBO‘s Mien further claims that over the past few years HBO had started the initiative of having a theme every month. An example of that would be the Oscars month where it had From the Greatest to The Latest. "Other movie channels then started copying our formula". HBO has also looked to broaden the audience base by focussing on slots beyond the primetime band. A couple of years ago it introduced youth and women oriented blocks - Generation Me and Time Out in the afternoon and early evening.

Mishra though is less than enthused about the thematic concept. "There is a need for discontinuous change in the way the English movie channels approach editorial and viewership. They need to move beyond thematic blocks which have been going on for the past few years. To grow ad revenues further they will have to innovate by doing initiatives that nobody has thought of earlier and not just blockbusters and themed festivals."

"Innovation is the name of the game for these two channels in an increasingly fragmented market. It is important that they keep coming up with different ways to package themselves".

An interesting innovation from Star Movies in 2004 was the Opening Night concept. This special sees viewers catch footage from an upcoming high-profile film like I, Robot before its theatrical release. One programming initiative that has worked well for Star Movies over the past couple of years has been its Hinglish films block. Now every Thursday it showcases The Colours of India. HBO meanwhile tried its hand at dubbing. Films like The Mummy were aired in Hindi. Bajpai added that while there were no plans to do more of the same in the near future the channel was open to options.

The role of original series: While not a ratings driver, this continues to play a big role in the programming repertoire of the two channels. It also helps the channels position themselves as not simply airing one film after another. This first started in 2003 when to add variety Star aired Taken while HBO, after quite a while it needs noting, finally decided to bring in an original series with Sex And the City. HBO recently launched the third season of the Sarah Jessica Parker starrer.

HBO has an advantage here in that it has original content at its disposal. That has helped boost the channel‘s profile. What is interesting is that in an issue of The Week last year this writer read a piece which, while having absolutely nothing to do with television, used the show as a reference point for the aspirations of the urban woman. One woman said something to the effect that the only difference between her and those women was that while they were in New York she was unfortunately in Delhi. Clearly the show has done wonders in giving HBO an aspirational bent.

It must be said though, that HBO has enjoyed more success with the tongue ‘n‘ cheek comedy series than Star Movies had with the sci fi show Taken. The first season of Sex and The City in 2003 got an overall average rating of 0.22. Taken had a rating of 0.12.

Star Movies also aired the terrorism drama The Grid last year.

In 2004, HBO added to its original series line up by airing Carnivale, which had elements of magic and the supernatural. Later this year HBO will take the original series initiative a step further when it airs the critically acclaimed series Angels In America. The challenge though will rest on marketing the show. The task before HBO will lie in choosing one or two themes that the series deals with, whether it is change that cannot be reversed or the need for tolerance and then building up the campaign on that.

Will the Indian audience take to the avant guarde stylings of the show?

Marketing endeavours move to the next level: When competition is fierce getting the message out to the audience is crucial. There are two aspects to this. One is promoting the product. The other is channel branding.

A good example of product oriented marketing is what HBO did for Spiderman. It did an integrated campaign in the first quarter of 2004 to promote the Big One slot. This covered all media. Online, a microsite was created. A contest for Spiderman which was run during the film got 85,000 responses. The Big One would have driven HBO‘s marketing budget by 15-20 per cent.

Star Movies meanwhile did a unique Die Another Day contest on New Years Eve. This was spread across Asia. The winners got to stay the Ice Hotel in Sweden. The channel states that the move allowed it to get a leg up over the competition. To get viewers more closely involved Star Movies also has the SMS A Flick initiative. That allows viewers to dictate the primetime film for Wednesday.

HBO also runs contests for its partner studios. For example it did a promotion around the third instalment of The Lord Of the Rings. This according to Bajpai "makes us partners in the true sense of the term. Even when we do basic promotions using the print media we make sure that our message cuts through the clutter."

An example of channel branding would be Star Movies getting itself associated with events to create on ground awareness. One of these was the first International Women‘s Film Festival (IWWF) in India in March 2004.

HBO meanwhile, tried new tactics to create product awareness. To push the second season of Sex and The City it unleashed a promotional campaign which included a book promotion around Candace Bushnell‘s book Sex And The City and special Sex And The City theme parties. An important promotional activity that both channels have been doing over the past couple of years to push the channel brands is advertising heavily in English cinema halls. The logic is that the upwardly mobile person who watches English films on television like this writer will also frequent the theatres. That will continue in 2005.

The ad sales scene: Mishra as well as other media planners spoken to agreed with data available that in 2004 both the channels made around Rs 450 million. The total ad revenue for English channels would be around Rs 1 billion.

In terms of providing value, the media planners put both of them on the same level when it comes to return on investment. It is a fact though that HBO has been able to stay competitive despite the network it is in not being as strong as the one Star Movies is on. While Star Movies like HBO is also sold independently, it can also use Star Plus as leverage from time to time to make advertisers consider its case if they have not done so already.

Information available with indicates that Star Movies‘ rates for primetime spots are higher than HBO by approximately 15 per cent. Therefore it is to HBO‘s credit that it has been able to match Star Movies‘ performance.

Appointment viewing grouse: One issue that media planners who put money on English movie channels have is the fact that appointment viewing is not happening. Viewing according to them happens on a time and convenience parameter. They however, concede that appointment viewing does happen to a degree on a weekend when the big titles air.

Mishra says, "Even when Star Movies and HBO do their Oscar band to cash in on the awards season the surge in viewership is slight. The number of people really interested who want what is still small. Therefore we put more money on a blockbuster as opposed to thematic blocks. If you do a comparison the thing is that Hindi movie channels have more blockbusters at their disposal."

Starcom senior account director Melwyn Gonsalves points out that four years ago it was a novelty for viewers to get on to a English movie channel. Now there are more options. Also repeats are happening more frequently. So appointment viewing is absent. It is a fact that four years ago when a high profile movie premiered it was only repeated after two weeks or sometimes after a month. That is not the case today.

Offering a counter argument, Vidyasagar says that repeats build volume. "Even if I air Jurassic Park today for the hundredth time I will get ratings. It is all about building buzz for a high profile product. We did just that when we premiered Die Another Day back to back on New Years Eve. I also don‘t agree that advertisers only target big titles.

"As far as themes are concerned when we get an advertiser to brand say a romance block he is sinking money not just into the big titles that are there but also into the theme." Bajpai meanwhile, states that the HBO Reminder Me service has received an encouraging response.

Vidyasagar further argues that the family is being targeted. "In a break you will see an ad for plasma TVs and another for dog food." Gonsalves however, maintains that an advertiser who wants to target the affluent urban audience on a daily basis would more likely go to a news channel. "He knows that the news genre is something that people watch everyday."

Tam data indicates that ad revenues for English movie channels grew by over 50 per cent in 2004. However, as had been mentioned earlier, the two channels will have to come up with further innovations that nobody else has thought of earlier to sustain growth.

There is some good news for the English movie channels though. The planners opined that even with lifestyle channels coming in, the share of viewership for English movie channels will not be impacted. In fact National Geographic and Discovery are more likely to lose share this year, is the common view.

The distribution scenario: HBO returned to the Zee-Turner bouquet from 1 January, 2005 after three year‘s on the SET-Discovery One alliance platform. Zee is no doubt looking at HBO as being a channel driver for its second bouquet that includes Pogo. Therefore industry sources indicate that it was willing to pay a higher Minimum Guarantee (MG). Sony, meanwhile, bought MGM last year. So shelling out so much would not have made sense.

Information available with indicates that Zee-Turner paid an MG of $80 million for a five-year ad sales and distribution deal, up from $50 million it got from Sony.

Bajpai claims that HBO is available in 26 million homes. As far as Star Movies is concerned Vidyasagar says it reaches in excess of 30 million homes. "Star Movies was the first pay channel launched in India. Over the years we have developed a special relationship with the cable fraternity".

Both channels are strong drivers in the South which could be the reason why Zee Turner has not yet signed a deal with Asianet for HBO. If it is such a high value proposition then Turner can certainly act tough in terms of subscriber declarations.

Across Asia, HBO has emerged as the preferred channel for cable ops. When it came to best value for money 23 per cent of the 41 cable ops surveyed chose HBO. 13 per cent went with Star Movies. The data is contained in a survey which was conducted by Television Asia from March 2003 to May 2003.

A new entrant: Coming back to the Indian situation Sony needs to act soon to plug the gap left by HBO. Indications are that it will launch an English movie channel any time in the next quarter. The pinch is already being felt in that Sony-Discovery bouquet‘s rate had to be revised downwards to Rs 49.40 in 2005 as the price of HBO was Rs 5.60 per subscriber a month.

ZMZ is looking to ‘The Aviator‘ to shore up the ratings

A permissible seven per cent hike only puts the bouquet rate at Rs 52.85. Apart from MGM led titles what other offerings Sony‘s channel will offer remains to be seen. Of course Sony Pictures has an output deal with HBO.

While on the subject of distribution one channel that is looking to step things up in this front is Zee Movie Zone. ZMZ business head Ajay Trigunayat recently conceded, "While our channel is being watched a lot of networks don‘t carry us. When they do we are not on the right band. So that is something that the distribution team is sorting out.

Technically we are available in 18 million homes. Unfortunately we are being hampered by the lack of clarity in terms of reception. We are also weak in some of the key regions across the country."

ZMZ keeping the faith: Trigunayat goes on to state that the channel has acquired several high profile releases. "One of them is The Aviator. It will release into theatres on 19 February. We will air it towards the end of the year. Over the past couple of months we acquired around 40 high profile films from Miramax and other companies. We also acquired another 200 titles which are repeats that we are confident will do well as well as smaller films."

Dwelling on ZMZ as a value proposition Gonsalves says, "I would consider it only once I‘ve satisfied my basic media objectives through reach based channels. The role of the channel would be as a salience generator for the brand, through innovations & high frequency".

Conclusion: One thing is for sure. With a new entrant (Sony) coming into the market in the coming months things will get more competitive. As Vidyasagar says, "You can no longer afford to just sit back and rest on your past accomplishments. Our business is all about staying ahead of the curve."

This spells good news for the movie buff as each channel will go out of its way to make sure that it has the biggest and best titles. Also with more channels coming in the ad pie is going to get fragmented further. So it is not going to be easy to maintain a high level of growth.


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