Television

We will look for international, local collaborations and diversifications: Sameer Nair

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I had never gone away”, says the man who is credited with bringing KBC and K shows to the Indian television screens. Sameer Nair, after a hiatus of three years, is back at doing what he does best. He has been busy exploring opportunities in online video, e-commerce, film & television production, education, hospitality and of course, helped the newest entrant, AAP, into Indian politics.

A maverick as many call him goes by the philosophy – communicate clearly, be polite, be persuasive, sweat the detail, seize the moment and create not compete for what is already created.

As the new group CEO at the country’s biggest production house, Balaji Telefilms, he will work closely with Shobha and Ekta Kapoor to take it to the next level.

Indiantelevision.com’s Meghna Sharma caught up with him to know about his views on today’s audiences, their taste, Balaji’s success in gripping the viewers’ pulse and its future plans.

Excerpts…

You had the genius to select the content which caught the pulse of the viewers. How has that evolved? How do you keep abreast with the change in taste?

Television is dynamic. When we did ‘KBC’ and ‘Kyunki saas bhi kabhi bahu thi’ which went on air on the same night, quickly followed by ‘Kahani ghar ghar kii’ and ‘Kasauti zindagi kay’, it used to be half an hour weekly programming on three main channels – Star Plus, Zee and Sony. This gave viewers 90 choices to pick from. At Star our big strategy was to channel this to daily and changed the whole schedule, reducing the primetime viewing choice to five. Which others followed and continues to be even done today. It was a new concept then and people liked it. With Imagine, we got mythology into primetime which can be seen today as well.

In the last 22 years of Indian television, we have had a full generation of television – executive, creatives. When I started of in 1993, we were the pioneers then, and had only the legacy of Doordarshan (DD) to look back at whereas today’s generation has 22 years of television to study. So, in the last 20 years, there has been a lot of process especially in consumer taste because the country has progressed. Today we have 150 million television homes, 800 million mobile phones, internet, disposable income has increased and content has kept in pace with it because of the new talent entering the space. For instance, Colors has had wonderful success, Sab has created a special niche for itself and done remarkably well, production houses are doing well and coming up with shows like ‘24’ and ‘Yudh’.

Content has evolved and so have the people.

Channels do a lot of research, but what I feel is that research can only prevent you from doing a mistake. It can tell you what not to do and not what to do. Finally, what has to be done is done with meticulous details, creativity and the way a story is told. For instance, ‘kyunki…’ as a daily show was a good idea strategically, but people remember the story of Tulsi in the big Virani family. It is all about great stories, well told.

What is your role as group CEO?

Balaji is in a very good place and we have had a successful run of films as well as shows. I was doing a count and Balaji has 15 of the top 50 shows currently on the Indian television screens. There are a very few listed industries in this space and it is one of them.

And in the past six months we have been discussing the growth plans and one of the main take outs of those meetings has been that we should scale up the company. So, now Balaji will do more movies, more television, we will look for international as well as local collaborations and look for diversifications.

I have really come here to work with Shobha and Ekta Kapoor to do that.

Which verticals are you looking at for collaborations?

Could be movies, shows, formats or just partnering with an international company on specific projects. If there is a format company looking to set up a shop here in India or wants to do catalogue shows here then that could be an opportunity we would be looking at.

Between Ekta, Shobha and you, how are the roles divided?

Ekta is creative and she is great at that. Mrs Kapoor has been the operational backbone of the company, so I will work closely with her. And also with Ekta. The main aim here is to work together and look for growth opportunities.  

What in your assessment are Balaji’s strengths and weaknesses? And what are its opportunities?

Balaji has a very good team and they have produced some incredible work. So, if there has to be a weakness then it is to have craft a strategic plan and then execute it. At its current stage, the Indian television industry is at its best and has no weaknesses. But of course, one can always do better and look at different genres, show etc. But, I wouldn’t say that these are weaknesses but are opportunities.

As for the strengths, they are very strong on creative, production and have the ability to deliver. The talent in Balaji is phenomenal and there is a lot of ambition.  

What is Balaji’s USP- is it talent, creativity or the ability to know what viewers want?

The USP is the storytelling. Ekta’s way of telling a story is what sets her apart from the others. The market is crowded and a lot of others are also doing a great job. It is not a monopolistic market. But Balaji is special.

A lot of famous faces have come from Balaji’s house. How is the talent management arm, Spark, doing?

I haven’t taken a look at it yet, but will soon do. I want to do some reorganisation with that arm. We at Balaji want to manage the talent in the country and look at growing more talent.

Lately, we have seen channels experimenting with finite shows. According to you, what is its future in India?

The market is already segmenting. There is a segment which will continue to watch the dailies and then there is another who will consume mythology and historical shows. But there is and will grow into a bigger section of audience which is interested in finite shows. So, there will be two distinctive audiences – you and your mother.

Niche is always more valuable. And with digitisation it will benefit the industry and the viewer as one can choose to pay for a channel showcasing only hi-end products. As this group grows, it becomes a business model.

The market is moving that ways and we are the market leaders.

Globally, there are firms like Shine, BBC, Fremantle who have spread their wings internationally. Do you think Balaji can be India’s Shine?

A lot of global companies which have come to India and come with their format catalogue which they are selling in India tend to be in reality and game show space. But we haven’t seen any international firm making any head way in the fiction space. The same thing applies on reverse basis. The west has been more advanced than India when it comes to television. The formats have done well there and since they are universal, they can travel across the globe.

What Balaji will look to do is to partner with them. The future of this business is creative collaboration rather than destructive competition. We are looking at more people to work for.

And we have already had a few offers to co-produce international movies into Hindi with a foreign partner. Maybe, later we could do shows as well and who knows set up a collaborated company in the future.

Earlier there was Balaji and Balaji alone, apart from UTV. But today we have Beyond Dreams, Director’s Kut, Swastik which are producing big ticket shows. Did Balaji let go of opportunities? Or was it the content demand that helped them crop?

It’s an expanding market and there is a limit to what a production house can do and should do. So, it’s just a dynamic market. There are too many channels and we need more shows so therefore more producers are needed to produce these shows.

It is a nice competitive space with good creativity energy.

Balaji did produce regional content for TV, will we see that happening again? What about venturing into regional films?

I have heard that regional market is going through a bit of turmoil and price points have really crashed there. So, we are looking at the regional market to work with the right partners. So, again the big focus in on collaboration.

Balaji has a lot of inherent strength and a lot of reverse so we have to see if we can collaborate with creative people there. We have an open door policy and anybody with a great idea can approach us. We are always looking for people to work with whether in television or films or new media.

As far as films are concerned, what is the strategy?

We have had a good run this year and the plan is to settle towards eight to 12 movie slates per year. So we will have to work really hard to achieve this because it will have to be across genre and across budgets. We have always done it that way and that’s why we have had films like ‘Ragini MMS 2’, ‘Mein Tera Hero’ and ‘Ek Villian’. So there is a lot of variety and we will be looking at scaling it up.

What will be Tanuj Garg’s role now?

The film arm is strong and has churned out fabulous work in the past. And will continue do so. Tanuj will be reporting to me.

Balaji doesn’t own IP. Is that what has kept its price at the level it is?

There is too much hype given to Intellectual Property (IP). The value of IP is when it has the ability to monetise the content. Movies have IP because after the theatrical release you can sell the broadcast rights to a channel and then re-syndicate it through DVDs.  In television, the kind of shows that are being made there is not much beyond what is in the first run. The channels are anyway syndicating it aboard.

The US has so much of IP because of the content available there. For instance, they can have a great run of a show like ‘Big Bang theory’ and then sell it in India because we watch it too. But the reverse doesn’t work for us. For example, we can’t sell a ‘CID’ there for the Americans to watch, but we will watch ‘CSI’. So, IP makes sense when your content can cross boundaries and still be consumed.

What is on the agenda for the next couple for years?

We are looking a long term strategy of growing the business. In the next three to five years, we should double or triple in size. That means more shows, films and some good co-productions.

The big agenda is that we are looking for creative people and companies to partner with and grow in inorganic manner as well.

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