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Unravelling the regional riddle

Time and again, Indian television‘s regional space has puzzled our national television players. National expansion through regional entry has always been pondered on, but the attempts to crack the space were met with mixed results.

Zee made its first move in the late 1990s by launching regional channels in Bangla, Marathi, Gujarati and Punjabi, and then came Zee Telugu in 2004. Except for Bangla and Telugu, Zee is doing well in the rest of the pockets. Star has its presence in Tamil (Vijay TV) and Bangla (Star Ananda) among which the former is having a tough run. Having exited from Hindi general entertainment with the sale of SAB TV to Sony Entertainment Television (SET) India, Sri Adhikari Brothers is planning a regional foray through Marathi. Sahara has always been vocal about its regional plans, but the action is yet to come.

Among the national lot, so far, Sony Entertainment Television (SET) remained inconclusive about its regional plans. However, SET India CEO Kunal Dasgupta broke the silence last week by revealing his big plan for 2006: regional forays through acquisitions. Two regional markets that have caught the SET India CEO‘s attention are Bengali and Telugu.

"The company is aggressively eyeing the general entertainment space in the Bengali and Telugu markets and the deals should materialise this year," Dasgupta was quoted as telling a business daily. However, he is tight-lipped about the exact plans.

MARKET REALITIES - BANGLA & TELUGU

The Rs 1 billion Bengali regional television market doesn‘t look so inviting for a fresh player unless there are plans for a news channel. For example, out of the three new channels that went on air in the market in 2005, two belonged to the News genre. ABP-Star combine made its foray into Bengali market with Star Ananda and then Rathikant Basu‘s Tara Bangla split itself into two channels - Tara News and Tara Muzik (a musical entertainment channel).

However, if SET is going to make an entry into the regional market with a general entertainment channel, content would play an important part in driving the Bengali television business. With ETV Bangla having re-written the rules of content, competitors have been forced to follow suit. Sometime back, a Kolkata-based senior journalist told indiantelevision.com, "The way ETV has served up contemporary and well-packaged Bengali programmes, including news, is a case study in itself."



By and large, Bengali viewership (primary target West Bengal and also neighbouring Bangladesh) is driven by news and current affairs. The Hyderabad-headquartered ETV, for instance, has dedicated 20 per cent of its programming to news on the Bengali channel.



"The best way to penetrate the Bangla market is by identifying a niche space. The general entertainment space is cluttered, thanks to the hold that Hindi GECs enjoys in the Bangla market, especially in Kolkata. Niche channels and unique positioning hold the key," elaborates Essel Group VP Corporate & former Zee Bangla business head JK Ray.

More importantly, if an existing Bengali General Entertainment Channel (GEC) has to be bought out by SET as it did with the humour-centric Hindi-language SAB TV in 2005, what are the options? There are five Bengali GECs presently serving the market, ETV Bangla, Tara Music, Zee Bangla, Akash Bangla and DD Bangla, out of which very few look like selling out easily.

One unique feature Bangla television is its hold in the neighbouring markets. The Bengali audiences also comes from Tripura, part of Bihar, Orissa, Delhi, Assam and even neighbouring Bangladesh with the latter traditionally being a big market.

"The Bangla audience in Bangladesh is double than that of West Bengal. Bangladesh is certainly a lucrative market for us," says Broadcast Worldwide promoter Ratikant Basu, who is presently setting up an ad sales office for his channels Tara News & Tara Muzik in Dhaka.

Now comes SET India‘s other proposed target: the Telugu-speaking market, primarily in South India. Every new regional wannabe player would want to make a start with Telugu as it offers the biggest chunk of revenues in the South Indian pack (approximately Rs. 3 billion in terms of ad revenues).

Even Subhash Chandra stood by this theory when he re-looked the Southern space which let him down during the first attempt in 2000 when he launched GEC Kaveri. The innings was resumed in the Telugu turf with GEC Zee Telugu. If the success mantra for the Bengali market is news, for its Telugu counterpart it is Movies. The Telugu market does require strong movie titles to really make a splash.

But that‘s easier said than done. Existing players in the Telugu market don‘t leave much for newer entrants by way of titles. While a bulk of movies released every year in Telugu language are snapped up by Sun Network for telecast on its two channels, Gemini and Teja, the remaining are gobbled up by ETV Telugu. After Gemini and ETV, the channel which is banking heavily on movies is Maa TV.

In the Telugu market, where acquiring a blockbuster could cost over Rs 10 million, the latest trend is to make a collection of new movies instead of going for old ones. And, this is an area Zee Telugu failed during its initial launch in 2004. The channel‘s collection of classics fared miserably in the ratings.

Having learnt its lessons, Zee Telugu fought with Sun and ETV to acquire about 10 new movies on its second coming. As per the re-positioning strategy, Zee Telugu is presently banking on youth-oriented programmes and dubbed Hindi/English movies to chug ahead. Events also hold a lot of potential in Telugu.



Trying to figure out SET‘s possible acquisition targets in Telugu is not an easy task too. However, one name that might up pop-up would be entertainment channel Maa TV. According to reliable sources, the channel had earlier engaged in buy-out talks with Sun Network.

THE REGIONAL HUDDLES

What makes it extremely difficult for any new entrant to crack any regional market in the current circumstances? The answer lies in the way the market has been shared between the existing players. We have one big player taking almost 50 per cent of the market and then competitors sharing the rest of the pie.

Down South, except for in Malayalam, the viewership shares that Kalanithi Maran‘s Sun Network channels command in their respective languages are obscenely high and that makes it virtually impossible for any new player to make a confident entry. Looking at the other regions, Marathi is controlled by ETV and Zee Marathi, ETV Bangla is dominant in West Bengal and ETC Punjabi and Zee Punjabi together rule the Punjab.

Entry into the potentially huge South Indian language market comes with its own distribution problems as well. The concept of free to air TV channels is slowly evaporating from the Telugu space, at least. Telugu news channel TV9 CEO V Ravi Prakash says, "Returns from advertising are going to get stagnant now. The stress will be on subscription revenues. I think encrypted channels will drive the market‘s growth in coming days."



In that case, for any new entrant like SET that doesn‘t have a direct presence in cable distribution business, the initial task would be to get the distribution act right from the start. "For Zee Telugu, distribution is not much of a worry since we have Siti Cable present in Andhra Pradesh. This is one advantage we have," states Ajay Kumar who spearheads Zee‘s South initiatives.

Another important factor is the diversity that regional markets offer. The strategy that worked in a market won‘t probably work even in the neighbouring market. Look at Zee‘s example. After Telugu, the network is presently looking at Kannada and the plan is to enter the market in the 2006 fiscal. However, the conscious decision is to work out a fresh strategy.

"Kannada is a complex market though it is the least cluttered down South. It is totally different from Telugu in terms of viewer habits and for the same reason, we won‘t be able to follow the same strategy we applied in Telugu," points out Ajay Kumar.

STAR INDIA CAUTIOUS

No wonder Indian TV market leader Star India is ultra-cautious as regards scripting its regional expansion. The network is actively considering dubbing some popular Hindi shows in Bengali, Gujarati, Telugu, Kannada and Marathi languages for telecast on Star Utsav in the particular regions as special feeds. "This will give us an idea as to which show works in which language," says Star India COO Samir Nair.

In Bangla, Star definitely enjoys the advantage in running a news channel in association with the West Bengal print major Ananda Bazar Patrika (ABP) Group. However, in Tamil, Star Vijay is yet to create waves. As Nair puts it, "Star Vijay is giving an average performance, not too bad and not too good also. We are not satisfied until and unless any of our channel becomes market leader in that respective market. That applies to Star Vijay also."

Coming back to SET‘s case, Dasgupta obviously would need to keep in mind Star‘s cautious approach and the tough time that Zee Telugu is having in markets where existing players like Sun are not only well entrenched, but have the distribution muscle too to flex.

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