AXN eyeing July premiere for Steven Spielberg?s Extant

MUMBAI: Launched in 1998 as the first 24x7 cable and satellite television channel in Asia dedicated to action and adventure programming, AXN continues to stand by its promise of delivering intelligent, edgy and high-energy content for an unparalleled entertainment experience

With programming encompassing the latest in action blockbusters, international hit series, reality and lifestyle sports programs and AXN originals, the channel enjoys a high viewership not just in metros but also tier II and tier III cities across the country.

AXN business head Sunil Punjabi spoke to Aashay Dalvi of about the channel?s programming line-up this year, its digital strategy and so on. Excerpts...

Q: How has the audience response been ever since the CBS acquisition deal?

At a macro level, the audience response has been very good. Take for instance, the two shows with which we launched the CBS catalogue i.e. Elementary and Beauty & the Beast. We have seen a fairly growing traction for Elementary while Beauty & the Beast has its own loyal audience. The first season of both the shows premiered sometime ago, with Indian audiences being exposed to Elementary for the first time. Initially, there were comparisons between BBC?s Sherlock and Elementary and people were vehemently opposed to having a female Dr Watson; something we expected.

The difference between the two is that Elementary has more investigation while Sherlock has more drama. This has led to a lot of people slowly getting accustomed to Elementary. So after the initial backlash, we have now seen tremendous growth in audiences, which has been very encouraging for us. We have season 2 airing right now and season 3 will air in September, very close to the US telecast.

The other good news is Hawaii Five-O will have a special episode featuring Mallika Sherawat, and you will soon see it in India. Blue Bloods, the fourth series that we?d taken up is also expected to do well since it is a very strong series. In the US, the show has done phenomenally well. We have also acquired Sex & the City, which we plan to air soon at 11pm. We?re giving it some rest now but once it begins, episodes will air back to back.

Q: Currently, you are airing Beauty & the Beast and Elementary five days a week. Will you be moving to airing them weekly to be closer to the US telecast?

We had two options, the first of which was to run the series close to the US telecast, but for viewers who are not familiar with the older season, that tactic wouldn?t have worked. So, we decided to go with option 2 entailing stripping the first two seasons and allowing viewers to binge-watch them one after the other. This would build enough anticipation by September when season three premieres.

Q: There has been no official statement from either CBS or The CW on subsequent seasons of Elementary and Beauty & the Beast. Can your earlier statement regarding the airing of season three of both series be considered official?

As far as we know, both Elementary and Beauty & the Beast have been renewed for sure. However, from the public?s perspective, you will have to wait and hear from CBS and The CW since I cannot speak for them.

Q: Programming-wise, what are your plans for the new fiscal year?

The acquired properties we would like to talk about are some of the big ones like 24: Live Another Day. On Thursday, Variety Magazine reported that the second most expensive ad in the US is benchmarked on 24, with half a million dollars for just a 30-second slot. The entire prospect of 24 has blown out of proportion and this season is set in the UK. Content wise, it is shaping up really well. We believe that it is going to be one very large tent-pole property for us.

After 24, the second large tent-pole property for us is Top Gear, with the new season returning in the month of July, which is where we have seen some tremendous amount of traction. We just had season 21 premiere in January and presently, only the core Top Gear audience is watching it though we want to get a much larger audience. Anybody who currently owns a car should be watching Top Gear, which is a fairly large population of the country by itself.

Also in July, we are trying to get another big property, Extant, produced by Steven Spielberg, which marks the TV debut of Halle Berry. We have the second season of The Hero and we plan to air all episodes of 24: Live Another Day at a stretch. While getting so much new content, the old content tends to get lost. So, while I want new content, the problem lies in scheduling and timing.

Q: AXN programming was earlier known for its male skew but over the past few years, it has been increasingly targeting the female audience. Was that deliberate?

There are two main changes that we?ve seen; one, there has been a systematic change in female consumption, and two, the female audience too wants the thrill factor while watching TV. Shows like Orphan Black, with a female protagonist, have helped us get more female viewership.

But whether we have become a female-skewed channel, we will never be that; we will remain a predominantly male-skewed channel. But, we have seen a lot women come and consume our content. The male vs. female audience ratio earlier was 70:30, but is now 60:40.

Q: Which programmes get more advertisers? Are there any emerging large spenders?

Fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) and telecom services form a significant share of the advertising spends. One very large advertiser that we?ve constantly been adding is automobiles, having already increased its share because of Top Gear. We believe it will be much bigger, going forward and it won?t be just auto but also auto accessories.

Q: What?s in it for these advertisers?

As an advertiser, the two main things you look for are a premium audience and a large brand fix, and we offer both.

Q: How do you plan to engage digital media to increase viewership of your channel?

We?ve now reached a stable point in the digital media initiative that we started a year and a half back. We had a couple of things to consider; the first being a consumer survey of social media and the second, connect, which has almost become equivalent to word-of-mouth. There is pre-launch and post-launch chatter that takes place. That is where we have been pushing ourselves on the digital front; what are people saying before the show is launched, and what are they saying after seeing the show. Engagement at the pre- and post- level helps us get loyalty for the channel.

Q: Which platforms is AXN making its presence felt in terms of social media? Do you plan to add more social platforms?

Facebook and Twitter have been our primary digital platforms. We have received more traction on Twitter than on Facebook. We have got a good response to a lot of good shows on Twitter in the last four to five months. We have trended many a times on Twitter; not just on the days of our premieres but even regular days.

As for the second part of your question, we don?t want to be jumping too many trains. We started with Facebook and Twitter a year and a half ago and we want that to mature before getting onto a new train. The amount of people engaging with us on these platforms is growing almost daily. We want to grow our hold on Facebook and Twitter for the next six to eight months, and we hope other things will follow.

Q: Do you have specific digital marketing strategies to bring out that extra special something?

We have MSE, which handles social media for us. Gone are the days where you used to pay for posts. Now, people are getting more agnostic towards such posts. So, last year, we had a Supernatural Thrillathon and a six city on-ground activation along with it. We did that again at the time of Sherlock to know what people thought of the content. We have seen the community of Supernatural grow nearly 50 per cent in the last year. We are not driving it; we have been only the facilitator in the process. So, the viewers are driving it themselves...

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