MUMBAI: Two giants came together around three years ago: the Los Angeles based CBS Studios International and the Reliance ADA group’s Reliance Broadcast Networks Ltd (RBNL)'s subsidiary Reliance Television to set up Big CBS Networks, which would roll out a bunch of niche channels targeted at various specific audiences. Three channels emerged: Big CBS Prime, Big CBS Love, and Big CBS Spark.
On 31 December 2013, the two parted ways and the shutters were downed on the joint venture, though Big CBS Prime and Love stopped getting carriage on DTH platforms and cable TV networks in November itself. At that time, when indiantelevision.com contacted RBNL CEO Tarun Katial, all he said was no comment but the channel spokesperson stated that the channels were being aired on platforms where carriage fees were not being charged and that efforts were being made to redeem the situation.
But the fact is that a large US studio exited from the channel business in India just as the new year dawned, though it continues to operate in India and has been striking syndication deals with channels such as AXN from the Sony Entertainment Television network, Star World from Twenty first Century Fox and Zee Cafe from the Zee Network.
RBNL officials say that the parting was healthy and happened mutually. Sources indicate that the two channels Love and Prime had eight employees and they have been absorbed in RBNL in other departments. Big CBS Spark Punjabi has been renamed as Big Spark Punjabi and the network says it will be focusing on regional channels going forward.
However, questions are being asked as to what went wrong with Big CBS Networks, a venture which conceptually held promise. Big CBS Love was the first Indian channel targeted at Indian women and Big CBS Prime at males, while Big CBS Spark targeted the youth. And they were the progeny of two powerhouses.
Industry observers offer several reasons for the failure. Among the first is that both RBNL and CBS read the international (read English entertainment) channel business wrong; it required a lot more investment than was planned especially in an era which required carriage fees. The distribution of the channels was limited to a few DTH platforms and cable TV MSOs.
Big CBS Prime, for instance, was available to 1.9 million viewers in seven metros in February 2013, Big CBS Love to even less. Big CBS Spark Punjabi however had its small bunch of loyal viewers up north.
Not enough distribution meant that the channels could not attract advertising revenues either, to make them viable propositions. With limited subscription or ad revenues flowing in, RBNL and CBS tried to expand the lower appeal of English entertainment by launching a Hindi feed in early 2013, hoping to take the numbers up to 10 million and become available in digitised towns.
But it was a catch-22 situation: funds were needed to get carriage deals to get it into homes, to get ad revenues, but those were not available as the bleeding in RBNL was not being staunched. And despite taking initiatives to raise funds from elsewhere it was not successful. Additionally, by then the Reliance ADA group had got itself into a bit of a debt bind. So it decided to put the screws on all initiatives that were leaking. The group decided to delist RBNL and to restructure it, allowing it to focus on more profitable initiatives like its radio business, regional channels, and TV production towards mid-2013.
Indications that things were not going right at even Big CBS Studios came when a decision was taken to shut down Big CBS Spark in June 2013.
Sources within RBNL state that the Big CBS executives did not probably have their pulse on the content dynamics of English entertainment amongst Indian viewers. The space has become even more competitive over the past year and a half with Sony, Zee Café, and Star World opting for very recent international programming. In fact, Star World Premiere airs blockbuster TV shows from Hollywood almost concurrent with their US telecast.
Compared to the fresher and more popular fare on these channels, the Big CBS content looked relatively jaded. All throughout, the content aired on the channels was not strong enough to generate a strong pull amongst English entertainment watching Indian TV viewers.
Indeed, while the two aired the latest from CBS like Stephen King’s Under The Dome, they did not have the latest episodes from the more popular Two & a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory at the start. They aired shows such as Dexter, Melrose Place, Ringer, Life Unexpected and 90210. Another example would be airing the hit HBO Original series Sex & the City (SATC), a show that aired on HBO in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, completely unedited, and then almost a decade and a half later aired on Zee Café, definitely edited, and then the reruns ran on BIG CBS Love. This apart, there were seasons of America's Got Talent, American Idol, and X-Factor, old episodes of shows that had already appeared on Star World like Rules of Engagement, NCIS, The Oprah Winfrey Show to name a few of the extremely popular series Other TV series such as Blue Bloods, Hawaii 5-0, Beauty & the Beast, Elementary, NCIS: Los Angeles, CSI (Crime Scene Investigation), which it ran are today on their way to AXN.
Finally, sources say the marketing communication also did not do the job right. "The channels did not manage to corner a space in viewers minds, like say even a Comedy Central has been able to," says a brand consultant. "Obviously, the entire brand and communication mix did not help in driving what was so special about the channels to consumers. The entire joint venture looked promising when it started, but it is the execution which decides whether a concept can become a successful product and that was lacking in the case of the Big CBS Networks venture."
A leading DTH CEO points out to Big CBS Networks' "choose your set top box wisely" and "switch to" ad and promo campaigns which sent out the wrong message to platforms at a time when it was seeking to expand its availability as examples of improper communication and relationship management. Says he: "All of us are in the business television, whether we are broadcasters or distributors or platforms or content creators. And we do give a little 'helping' hand to each other from time to time even though it's a cut-throat business where we have to achieve revenue targets. By running those campaigns Big CBS really upset many of those who could have been its 'helpful' distribution partners, and they decided to withdraw the 'helping' hand they could have given it."
Both CBS and RBNL have stated that the current Indian economic and television environment made it difficult for them to continue with the partnership right now - hence they had to part ways. Sources in RBNL indicate that both have options to get into bed together to set up channels in the future. We will have to wait and watch if they ever do so again.