English GECs: Localisation and variety the road ahead

For the English general entertainment genre, 2007 was the year when they looked at increasing variety in their offerings and breaking out of a mould.

The aim was also to increase relevance in some cases through local shows. Besides, the channels brought in the latest shows at the same time as their US premieres.

Tam data for C&S 15+ shows that among the three channels - AXN, Star World and Zee Café - AXN‘s channel share has been well over 50 per cent. In August, it touched a peak of 66 per cent. Zee Café has managed to close the gap on Star World to an extent. In March, Star World‘s channel share was 34 per cent versus 24 per cent for Zee Café. In April, the gap came down, and for the month May Zee café overtook Star World. Its share was 21 per cent versus 15 per cent for Star World.

Since then while Star World has been ahead, the gap was close. This was until September. After that, the gap widened again. In December, while Star World has a share of 29 per cent Zee Café has a share of 13 per cent.

In terms of the top 20 shows, AXN has got 16 in that list. The top entry interestingly enough is a film Spiderman 2. Other shows that made it include Guinness World Records, Ripley‘s Believe it or Not and David Blaine.

Still, it is not as though all was smooth for the leader. In January, AXN was banned for a month by the I&B Ministry for what it termed as "objectionable content." The ministry had taken issue with the channel repeatedly telecasting such programmes such as World‘s Sexiest Commercials. The ministry found these programmes to be against good taste or decency that could adversely affect public morality.

AXN India business head Sunder Aaron puts on a brave face, saying that no corrective measures were really required as all programming conforms to Indian norms and guidelines for content. "As with any new season, we had new television series and programmes which we refreshed the channel‘s schedule with," says Aaron.

In terms of the highlights of 2007, Aaron notes that there was a strong mix of local and international fare. "We had the gorgeous Sameera Reddy host the second AXN Action Awards. This is an on-air award show that felicitates the action heroes from Bollywood.

"We also satiated the viewers‘ needs with the premiere of the internationally acclaimed series -Damages and new seasons for the loyal fans of CSI: Miami, Alias and CSI: NY."

AXN also strengthened its focus on the reality genre. The highlight here was the second season of The Amazing Race Asia. To break out of the mould, the channel aimed to showcase diverse content within the reality genre. So the likes of Top Chef, Top Design and So You Think You Can Dance were featured.

To hook viewers to its fare, two timeslots were created. "The Reality Stash" slot showcases reality content from 9 - 10 pm. This is followed by "Elite Weekdays," showcasing international drama series at 11 pm.

Aaron adds that the non-primetime band has grown in importance for the channel. "Our scheduling of programmes across non-primetime is also well-thought-out, keeping in mind the viewing pattern of our target audience."

He offers the example of "Elite Weekends" which is the non-primetime slot on Saturday and Sunday from noon to 3 pm. The aim is to allow the dedicated fan base to sit back and enjoy catching up on their favourite international series which they have missed out over the week. "We have, therefore, ensured they get to watch all the series back to back and have clearly positioned the band as - ‘Catch all the week‘s action on AXN Elite Weekends‘."

As always localisation plays a key role for the channel. Besides the earlier mentioned The Amazing Race Asia initiative, the channel also finished the shoot Magic Asia. This showcased two street magicians Chris Korn and JB Benn. Aaron notes that the show actually touches a chord with the real spirit of Mumbai and is slated to go on air in March this year. One show done at a pan-Asian level was the boxing show The Contender Asia. The show produced by the czar of reality television Mark Burnett emulates the original concept with Muay Thai fighters.

Over the years, localisation has been playing a huge role in positive brand-building as it showcases the channel‘s endeavour to identify and fulfill the viewers‘ needs. The main value is in sustaining a loyal fan base besides helping manage and create an ideal mix of original and acquired content that facilitates long-term brand-building.

Aaron attributes AXN being ahead constantly to firstly having a clear brand positioning. "I think that we follow the very basic principle of being absolutely clear of our target audiences‘ needs and showcasing the kind of content that they wish to see. We have also been dynamic enough to not get stuck in a mould and constantly showcase fresh and innovative programming. This prompted our move to broadbase our reality offerings. We have also been the only international channel to create so many original productions."

For Zee Café, the strategy has been different in that it decided not to focus much on local shows. In the past, it had done shows like Bombay Talking but the channel‘s business head Neil Chakravarti feels that Indian audiences are not ready for Indian fiction. The focus rested on showcasing the latest from the US. Since September, it started to bring in shows from the US at the same time as their premiere there.

The aim was also to pick and choose shows that Indians would find the most relevant. Therefore, four of the shows including The Big Bang Theory and Aliens in America have South Asian characters. The new programming strategy had been decided after six months of intensive research among Indian viewers who said they learnt a lot about new shows from the internet or sites like YouTube. They did not want to wait several months or years later to watch them.

Star World‘s focus, meanwhile, rested partly on the tried and tested shows like Desperate Housewives, Heroes and Ugly Betty. Complementing this were special events like Miss World and the Grammy Awards.

Star World tried to break out of the mould as well. To identify the need of the market it revamped its schedules. For instance, it created an afternoon slot for youth/women with shows like Bold and the Beautiful, General Hospital, etc. The block is called essential afternoons. Star VP content and communication Prem Kamath says, "We‘ve seen a change in the genre preference for English entertainment wherein comedy is the flavour of the season."

"We have strengthened our late prime slot with male skewed programming starting 11 pm. We believe that the day prime/early prime bands are equally important, there is a definite audience in these bands and our endeavour is to bring in quality programming to build these slots. For example we have a line-up of the best of comedy shows during weekday evenings," adds Kamath.

When asked as to whether Star World took any preventive measure to ensure that it did not suffer a similar fate like AXN, he maintains that Star World has a social responsibility and has stringent internal censorship guidelines prior to broadcast.

In terms of local initiatives, Star World has the property Koffee With Karan. The channel is exploring other local concepts.

Kamath says that on the advertising front, clients belonging to different categories like telecom, computers, mobile phones, electronics, financial, automobile, net portals are with it.

"English entertainment is evolving in India and more new audiences are tuning in to the genre. Clients find English entertainment a very important differentiator in the content arena and a strong association for their brands with evolved audiences. We have new launches every month and give a variety of programming mix to our viewers and advertisers that give a light viewing environment," avers Kamath.

At the same time, he concedes that it is really challenging to retain clients amidst a bouquet of channels in the English genre per se at the time of evaluating a media plan.

Star World offers customised packages to advertisers in partnership with their media agencies based on their brand brief. Packages consist of the shows that are associated with advertisers for sponsorships and a mix of other programmes that have synergies with the brand environment and commercial creatives. All sponsored programmes consist of sponsors commercials to derive strong brand connect with the association. RODP and ROS also form a certain component in the overall package.

From general to more specific entertainment:

As digitisation grows, more players are looking to enter this space. Last year, this genre got a new entrant in BBC Entertainment. As of now though the channel is only available on Tata Sky. The channel brings shows from the UK such as Spooks. The British sensibility is the starting point for this channel in terms of its USP. The programming strategy is such that there are horizontal and vertical strips.

In the evening, it is more family oriented. There are shows like the comedy My Family, My Life In Film so that viewership is widespread across the family. Later on, it gets more specific with shows like Waking the Dead which the channel says is a more realistic version of CSI. Murder mysteries are solved using the latest forensics technology and old-fashioned police methods.

At the same time, English entertainment will move from general to more specific. For instance, later this year, AXN is expected to launch another channel called AXN Beyond. The focus is on science fiction and the supernatural.

US media conglomerate NBC Universal, through its tie-up with NDTV, will launch two channels Sci Fi and Universal. The former specialises in science fiction, fantasy, horror and paranormal programming; the latter has movies and TV series in the thriller, drama, horror, crime and investigation genres.

More specific entertainment could come from E! which might launch in India this year. This channel focuses on Hollywood extensively through news and specials around the industry. The challenge for it is to find a distribution partner.

Viacom has a JV with TV18. If digitisation moves at the expected speed, one could see the likes of the male channel Spike TV entering the country. Comedy Central might also figure in the scheme of things. So expect a lot of activity in this space.

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