English movie channels bank on digitalisation for growth

English movie channels have seen an almost flat ad revenue growth in 2007. The challenge has also been to innovate programming slots even as viewers have spent less time on these channels. The bright spot, though, is the signs of maturity that the genre is showing. New players like Anil Ambani's Reliance and NDTV Imagine are also eyeing this space.

Star Movies is the clear leader in the segment with a share of 47 per cent, according to Tam data (C&S 15+) for 2007. HBO follows with a share of 30 per cent. After that come Pix and Zee Studio with shares of 13 per cent and 10 per cent respectively.

More interesting, though, is the time spent on English movie channels. Data shows that time spent has fallen with HBO showing the worst dip. Its share has gone down from 4.68 to 3.05 minutes each week. Star Movie's share has also dropped from 5.9 minutes each week to 4.91 minutes.

Players attribute the fall partly on the distribution scenario as more channels have jostled for space on clogged cable networks. This has meant higher carriage or placement fees. Then, of course, there is competition from other genres.

In terms of the top films of the year, HBO's King Kong with a rating of 0.75 topped the list. Star Movies' The Mythhad a rating of 0.47. HBO's Hindi dubbed King Kong took the third spot.

Facing an intensely competitive environment, it is crucial for players to understand their audiences better. The aim in some cases is to boost the non-primetime area and look at areas like presentation. Differentiation through innovation is also important.

Keeping all this in mind, Star Movies undertook various initiatives. It revamped the late night movies to cater to the male audience. It also focussed on the Sunday afternoon slot. Films that air are chosen so that the audience enjoys a relaxed weekend. Star VP marketing and communications Prem Kamath adds that the channel also re-looked the evening slots.

"The aim has been to bring in more family movies. In addition to that we also constantly feature film festivals like our X Men Trilogy during the year end, the Star Wars marathon, 15 nights of Bond to name a few."

Kamath attributes the channel's leadership to the focus on striving for variety without compromising on quality of offerings. So you have a serious film like Crash and blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean 2X Men 3.

And what of HBO? The channel's tagline for the year was Big! New! Most! HBO South Asia country head Shruti Bajpai expresses satisfaction in terms of how the plans were achieved. For this channel too it is a combination of raters like Mission Impossible 3, The Da Vinci Code, Batman Beginsand King Kong and critically acclaimed, path breaking movies like Brokeback Mountain and Syriana.

A lot of focus went into seeing that different viewer segments were tuning in at different slots. So Midday Matinee every weekday at noon was introduced. Wicked Hour which is every weeknight after the 9 pm movie was also launched. "In addition, HBO also caters to the youth with Whazzup every weeknight at 7 pm, a special family treat for the whole family in Family Sunday, an action packed entertainment package for the guys in "It's a Guy Thing".

HBO also revamped its on air look. The aim was to make the channel brighter and racier. Bajpai goes on to explain that there are new features like an On-air EPG of sorts, which offers the viewers a sneak peek of the upcoming titles in the next few days and a Countdown clock indicating the time left to watch the next film. Bajpai attributes the dip for the genre in part to the fact that more channels are entering other genres.

"According to me there are only two real players in this genre (Star Movies and HBO) and there will always be a toss up of who is number one and who's not. This is all a part of the game and we welcome it as it helps us stay on our toes. Ultimately the viewer benefits the most as he/she gets to see the best from the best," she concludes.

Still with more players coming in, there are signs that the genre is starting to mature. The feeling in the industry is that English movie viewing for non-blockbuster content is now starting to grow. A case in point is Pix. It launched in April 2006. The channel's business head Sunder Aaron says that the aim last year has been to get films that push its tagline of telling good stories. For the channel it does not matter when a film is made. The aim was also to differentiate itself through local content. Therefore in association with noted Hollywood producer Ashok Amritraj it started an initiative called Gateway. This gives an aspiring filmmaker the chance to make a movie with Amritraj.

The shows go on air next month. Aaron notes that the response has been better than the channel expected. "We have had one thousand entries to the competition, and you would be impressed by the quality and variety. We had a similar response to the Pix Short Film Festival. We have got a couple of other initiatives and programmes in development, so we are eager to continue with our strategy at this point, particularly because the Pix viewers are responding well."

The channel has more local ideas on the table which it will roll out later this year, he adds.

Zee Studio did two major innovations last year. One has been subtitling which even some rivals concede was a good move. That is because it builds more comfort with viewers. The other has been to show foreign films. This has been an area that has been ignored for a while by the English film channels. Zee Studio did, among other things, a festival with Palador. Films like the Mike Leigh classic Secrets and Lies as well as Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai aired.

Ad Revenue stagnates in 2007:

Data available shows that ad revenue plateaued for this genre last year. Star Movies made around Rs 770 million compared with Rs 740 million in 2006 and Rs 671 million in 2005.

HBO followed a similar revenue trend. The channel is estimated to have made around Rs 560 million last year. This was a slight increase over the Rs 557 million made in 2006.

Like Star Movies, 2006 was a better year for HBO on the ad revenue growth front as it only made Rs 436 million in 2005.

For Zee Studio ad revenue was Rs 238 million in 2007.

Pix, on the other hand, made around Rs 60 million in 2007.

Mediaedge:cia's Manas Mishra notes that besides Star Movies and HBO, the other two players are starting to find their own level. Since Pix caters to an evolved movie viewer aged 25+ it makes sense for certain brands to consider it. He also opines that Zee Studio has managed to get viewers from outside the core English movie viewing demographic on account of the subtitling. As a result, it can become more diverse in its offerings with foreign language fare.

Digitisation to boost subscription earnings:

The key for these players is the spread of digitisation this year. With Bharti and Reliance launching direct-to-home (DTH) platforms this year, English movie channels are expected to get a boost in terms of subscription revenue. A channel like HBO, after all, is purely subscription driven abroad. The hope is that the dependence on ad revenue which is anyway small will decline.

New players eye the space:

Digitisation means place for new channels One of them will come from Reliance. UTV and NDTV Imagine are also entering. The focus for the last two is world cinema. NDTV will be doing a World cinema initiative called NDTV Lumiere. This will span not just the launch of a channel but also release films into theatres, home video as well as provide space for on-ground activation. The aim is to bring in a culture of world cinema.

Just how important subscription revenue will be can be gauged from the fact that NDTV Imagine CEO Sameer Nair says that the focus of NDTV Lumiere is entirely digital and it is not a question of counting TRPs to appease media buying agencies.

Aaron seconds this view. With the economy growing so rapidly, and the number of cable and digital television (DTH, IPTV, digital cable etc.) households increasing as well, the pie will undoubtedly continue to grow, he says.

By how much is the question. Positioning will also be key for new entrants. It is not just a case of buying titles and putting them on air; understanding, addressing and attracting English viewership is also important.

There is also the issue of digital cable penetration. If it spreads across the country, then many channels can come in. In case that doesn't happen, then carriage fees will stay a big obstacle.

Pricing issues on addressable platforms also have to be sorted out. Bajpai says that even DTH is still in an "everything for everybody" format and "one pricing system for all channels" kind of model. "Once these things change, the benefit will start becoming more apparent. Broadcasting business, after all, needs to be viable," she adds.

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