"Viewers are no more mere viewers they are our consumers": Rohit Bhandari

MUMBAI: A pioneer of innovation which has revolutionized world television with shows like Game of Thrones, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Entourage and many more, HBO (Home Box Office) competes with Hollywood through their diverse range of content on board. The network recently partnered with Star India for an exclusive programming agreement through which Hotstar and the network's other channels will have access to HBO’s original content.

With a brand new red and blue washed look, HBO will also launch an application. Rebranded by Turner  International from Turner Studios Atlanta, and the broadcaster is all geared up to invade the entertainment space with its popular content programming appealing to a larger and younger audience. The movie destination already has titles like Mission Impossible, Transformers Genesis, etc under them.

Speaking to’s Megha Parmar, Turner International English entertainment Senior Director and Network head Rohit Bhandari sheds some light on his journey with the network so far, the English entertainment space, what attracts the advertisers to the genre, BARC rolling out their rural data, and the way ahead for the channel.

Excerpts are:

How has been the journey so far with HBO?

It has been good as I joined at the time when HBO came into the network and it was quite new for everyone. From the WB channel, which is typically a library service to launching a channel where you have all the premieres, movies and good deals in place, the journey has been exciting. In the initial year, I had to understand what content we have and what content we can expect working with our content partners; understanding the way it’s going to take us in the next few years and what benefits it can do us. I think that was an exciting part in the first year.

In the second year, we saw a transition from TAM to BARC that shook up everyone. We are trying to understanding the BARC audience as BARC is yet to settle down. It was going through various phases - household data, individual data and then rural got added to it, but this has not changed our lives. We are still looking at the changes that will affect the system. And I think, once the TAM meters come in the panel, it is going to expand further and how does that help us is what we are waiting for. Once all this happens, we can say that BARC has settled down and that's when everyone will know where they stand from a genre consumption point of view or an individual channel’s point of view.

Out of the eight movie channels in India, we manage two – that is 25 per cent of the share. We want to understand the consumers better by knowing their motivations, what do they enjoy doing and how does he engage with you and as the consumers have evolved in such a connected world from an alphanumeric phone to a smartphone. This forms a great engagement as well as great distraction. We did our survey and based on the feedback we decided to do a revamp of both our channels. We decided to do something new and give something fresh to our consumers.

What gives the channels under you an edge above the competition?

There is no real edge at this point of time. The entertainment space is extremely competitive. Look at the overall situation right now, with only 5 to 6 big studios delivering big films. Some are real blockbusters films and some are the second grader films that come out. To settle in this big English movie space, you need a fair mix of both. At this time, we have a good mix coming from Warner and Paramount, our first pay partners, which we play on HBO and we plan to buy content from more studios so that we can have a complete offering and make up a number for our consumers. Our bit right now is to understand our consumers better, engaging with them and to build the gap from what they expect from us as a movie channel and what we eventually deliver to them, that is where we stand.

How was year 2015 for the English movie channels? Are there any bench marks or highlights of the year that you would like to mention?

I think it was a year of a lot of adjustments. We at HBO want to understand our brand better and are adjusting to what it stands for. Everyday is a new day for us where we improve ourselves from the previous day. It's a process of continuous improvements that we are working on right now. We are happy as well as unhappy and want to develop more. That word ‘more’ is what we are striving for.

How much does viewership impact advertisers and agencies when it comes to English movie channels?

It does impact the advertisers. Typically, a lot of the sponsorship only comes on big titles. Hence, it is important to have a right mix of both of performance and a big title. Everyone is trying to achieve that and so are we. 

Did the genre grow in terms of ad revenues from the previous years? Do you see a further increase this year?

Yes. There has been an increase from the previous years. I don't think there will be any drastic change this year. I expect it to be at the same range.

Do you see an increase in the subscription revenue with digitization?

The subscription numbers are growing up slowly. Compared to the increase that we saw in DAS I and II, DAS III has been a bit slow but as the year rolls out with big ticket events coming up, we are expecting the roll-out to be a bit more aggressive.

Movies Now, Star Movies, Zee Studio are often seen fighting for the top three ranks in the BARC data. How do you plan to invade the space?

As I mentioned earlier, there are only 5 to 7 studios sharing content across channels. Everyday the idea is to increase the ratings and that is what we are trying to do. We are trying to change at three levels. First, we are structuring our titles in a better way. Second, we are going to launch an app soon. The idea behind launching an app is to provide information. It is actually an engagement tool. The mobile phone has become a competitor to TV and especially when our core focus is in the age group of 16 to 30, we need to have that type of content. As you grow, your choice of a handset also grows – that is, your functionality improves and hence you start spending more time on it. The entire idea is to use a medium which the youth follows and is active on. The consumers should know what the brand has and what it is doing for them.

Lastly, we need to understand from them what their expectations are and bridge the gap of meeting it with what we are providing. That’s a challenge. We are doing something like Batman versus Superman where we are trying to create unique experience for our viewers. We are trying to do that on the app itself. These are the things through which we are trying to reward the viewers for being loyal to us and also for engaging with us on the app. We are trying to have a slightly deeper connection with our viewers. 

What is key for the genre to garner advertisers’ attention?

Advertisers want a brand that talks to aspirational India. Within Indian space, English is considered as a minority language. From that perspective, advertisers look for a brand that delivers to this set of audience and continues to hold that edge in continuing to deliver the promise and that's what HBO has always done.

BARC had sometime back come out with rural data. Did that have an impact on the content strategy that was followed?

We look at the data from two perspectives. One, how does the advertisers view us and how the consumers view us. English entertainment initially used to be a four metro base than it became six metro base and then it became eight metro base and then became a 1mn plus based. BARC initially was concerned with urban India, a mix of upper and middle ‘Bharat’ of India. Rural as a metric is being recorded and reported to us for the first time in India. One would expect a number from the council. It has changed the dynamics of the game, but it still needs some time to stabilize its data collection and assimilation process. But as a core offering, I would not focus more on rural. From an English point of view, we will focus on our target group that lies ex-rural irrespective of BARC data. That is the market we will focus on and even our advertisers focus on. Rural is important for everyone but for our genre rural will not be so important.

BARC and TAM have collaborated. What do you have to say about that?

It's a good move. All the meters that TAM had are going to get added to the BARC panel. Whether it gets added uniformly across or whether they expand the panel completely is what we are waiting to hear. Eventually there is only one currency and that actually clears the air on everything

How is HBO attempting to redefine the movie viewing experience for the viewers?

The new consumers that we are speaking with, preference is to watch a lot of action content. Based on our research, a couple of key points that came out were that people watch TV because they want to reduce their stress, which is why most of us watch TV. At the second level, they watch English movies as a base to learn English language and hence subtitling becomes important. At the third level, it gives them an opportunity to explore a different culture. Lastly, with the special effects, audio effects or graphics that we use in award winning movies, the viewers want to watch something slicker slightly larger than life and have that entire feeling of grandeur. And that grandier-massier feeling is what we are looking for. There are two levels in which we operate; one is to provide content that your audience wants to watch and also provide content which educates them further about the entire genre.

Do you think the availability of movies and shows on digital platforms will take away the traditional tv viewing experience?

At this time I don't see it as a threat for at least the next few years. On TV the audience is growing on an ongoing basis with digitization and DAS III, and the base is only going to increase. On a larger level, the consumers have to mature to a certain level and understand the difference between TV and what the digital platforms are offering. At least for the next few years, I see TV dominating the space. 

In an era where people download content globally and the rate of download is very aggressive, is piracy a major teething issue for Hollywood movies?

This is a bigger question for theatrical guys. What happens is there is a window between theatrical and TV. Earlier it was 12 months and now it has come down to 9 months or 6 months at some places. That is a critical question for theatrical as they are the first ones on the receiving end. Piracy is when theatres get affected by the number of people walking in to watch the movie. I don’t see it as a threat for HBO as a brand.

Will we see a change in marketing with more experimental initiatives?

We work closely with our partners. We try to take ownership of the film right from theatrical to the time it premieres on the channel. It is typical consumer behaviour. Today, Batman v\s Superman are blockbuster movies which you would definitely want to watch. Once you watch it, there is a certain experience that you derive from the film and that is the same experience that we want to give our consumers when you watch it on HBO. Hence we try to keep the connection alive with them. Hence it is association with a movie at the theatrical level itself. 

What is the way ahead for the channel?

We are two brands. Our aim is to keep increasing our viewership share in the overall entertainment space. So currently we have 23 per cent of viewership. We are trying to push ourselves hard to be at number one. That is what I and my team is geared up for. Our aim is to push the envelope by doing new different things to expect a different result at the end of the day. We want to continue surprising our viewers every day. Viewers are no more mere viewers they are our consumers; they come up religiously every day to check what's happening on the channel like a consumer but also want them to treat HBO as a brand and what we try to do is brand HBO trying to surprise them by trying to do something different.

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