Karnataka Opening Up!

In the last two years, the South Indian television market has witnessed much churn in terms of fresh investments and new initiatives. In all the languages combined, at least 10 new channels were launched during this period. In this two-year period, there has been one market missing all the action - Karnataka.

However, 2006 holds something different for the Rs 1.5 billion Kannada television market. Zee has made the first move by launching its second South Indian channel Zee Kannada, a pay channel, on 11 May. Not to be left behind, the Hyderabad-headquartered Associated Broadcasting Company Pvt Ltd, which runs Telugu news channel TV9, is targeting a July launch for its Kannada news channel - TV9 Kannada.

Exploring the news space further in the market will be Kannada Kasturi, promoted by chief minister Kumaraswamy‘s wife Anitha. The news channel is expected to launch by year-end.

Though the Kannada television market is the third largest player in the regional space (behind Tamil and Telugu), it, surprisingly, didn‘t help much in attracting new investments. While the Rs 1.25 billion Malayalam (Kerala) television space witnessed the launch of about five channels in 2005, Karnataka received just one single player, Udaya 2, a youth-oriented music channel from the Sun Network stable. And it required two outside players - Zee and TV9 - to bring some changes in the pattern.

"It has something to do with people‘s mindset. It looks like Kannadigas are not very enterprising when it comes to television. They are more involved with the film business. Also it requires a mammoth effort to make your presence felt in the market since you have two established players -- ETV and Udaya -- to compete with. Then, Hindi also attracts audience here," points out Shyamsundar, head of the production house Yantra Media.

Explains ETV chief producer Manvi: "The Kerala market is different from Tamil and Telugu because, here it is not a one-sided competition. Asianet and Surya are going neck and neck, but you have smaller players also making significant contributions. The market attracts fresh investments since it is open to all kinds of experiments and fresh programming strategies. In Kerala, new players are thriving on this confidence. Other regional markets are yet to deliver that confidence."

In that case, what is the strategy that Zee has zeroed in on to take on ETV and Udaya in Karnataka? The media behemoth had suffered a setback five years ago when it first entered the South market through Kannada with Kaveri TV through a joint venture with Asianet. Understandably, Zee has done its homework before making the second attempt as an independent venture now.

The preparations included extensive field research involving about 700,000 households to get its programming mix right. Soaps, films and telefilms will constitute 25 per cent of the channel programming. Gameshows and talk shows will make up another 25 per cent. As for the rest of it, there will be a stress on current affairs programmes, events and film-based shows.

Zee Kannada‘s positioning is in direct contrast to that of its southern sibling Zee Telugu. The one-year old Telugu channel targets the young upwardly mobile viewer segment, while Zee Kannada is following the traditional strategy of going for the mass audience.

"Being the second largest player in the regional space, you can afford to experiment a lot in the Telugu space. We had our options to choose our target group (TG) in Telugu. But Kannada is a comparatively a smaller market. Hence, the plan is to follow the traditional strategy," states head of Zee South Initiatives Ajay Kumar.

Most importantly, Zee Kannada will be making a conscious attempt to be very close to Kannada culture and retain the local flavour in its programmes. According to market sources, Zee has adopted this strategy from ETV Kannada.

"ETV‘s programmes are very local oriented and that is the channel‘s USP. Almost 95 per cent of the programmes are done by local producers. Zee Kannada seems to be following the same strategy by signing up a chunk of local producers. At the same time, Udaya follows a different gameplan as it explores the whole of South and Hindi as well (Balaji Productions)," says a source.

Shedding light on the programming strategies of the leading channels, both Udaya and ETV Kannada have created their own compartments in the space. ETV banks on serials and fiction programmes, while Udaya is known for its films and film based programmes. Udaya has three more channels in Udaya News, Ushe (film and music) and Udaya 2.

One common strand in any South market is films and this plays a crucial role in Kannada television as well. Acquisition costs for a blockbuster film ranges from Rs 15 million to Rs 20 million.

Knowing that having strong film content would matter a lot for the channel‘s strategy in the movie-crazy market, Zee Kannada has acquired a combo package of new and old films to create its movie library.

"Since the TG is the same, Zee Kannada will have a head-on collision with Sun Network‘s Udaya TV and its sister channels. In this context, having strong film content will be crucial," says a source.

"Though ETV Kannada acquires many good films every year, Udaya is ahead when comparing the number of films acquired," adds Shyamsundar.

Switching to the news space, we have TV9 Kannada and Kannada Kasturi gearing up to explore the relatively virgin land. Finally offering some competition to the lone player in the segment, Udaya News. Kannada Kasturi is still in the process of streamlining its strategies whereas TV9 Kannada is preparing the ground for a July launch.

Driven by the tagline "Close to your heart", TV9 Kannada is positioned as a young-at-heart, urban news channel with an international look and feel. TV9 has adopted its Telugu strategy for Kannada as well.

"We targeted the urban youth and women with TV9 Telugu. We are following a similar strategy for TV9 Kannada also. Within a short duration, TV9 Telugu reached an impressive position in the market, and we are confident of repeating this performance in Kannada as well," states TV9 chief news coordinator Rajasekhar.

TV9 Kannada is planning to create a space for itself in the film-crazy, entertainment-oriented market through efficient coverage and innovations. "The idea is to crack the market by providing something fresh. Kannadigas are used to the traditional methods of news delivery and presentation. Our attempt will be to take it to a new level, with a lot of innovations. The plan is to woo the urban crowd by offering them international standards in the local language," says Rajasekhar.

Inspired by the entry of new players, the Kannada television market is targeting a 25 per cent expansion this year. Market analysts feel that this would also inspire more local advertisers, including retailers, to try television.

"The ratio between local advertisers versus national advertisers is as low as 10 per cent versus 90 per cent in Karnataka. The television advertising here totally depends on Mumbai and Bangalore clients. We hope this will change with the entry of players such as Zee and TV9," says Shyamsundar.

"The market has the potential to touch even the Rs 2 billion mark in a short time. New players mean competition, but it is surely a good sign for the business," adds Manvi.

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