People are Viacom18's strongest competitive edge, says Rajesh Kamat

The mood is celebratory at Viacom18’s offices as it readies for its invite-only tenth anniversary bash at Mumbai’s NSCI Dome on the evening of 17 November. The Reliance-Viacom joint venture satellite TV network is ranked among the top five–and probably in the top three in the Hindi GEC space–in the country. It achieved this in a span of just a year of its launch in 2007  whereas others took longer and some even folded up trying to do so. It has maintained that position as it enters its second decade of existence under the leadership of CEO Sudanshu Vats.

The genesis of Viacom18’s explosive growth lies with the birth of its Hindi GEC Colors in 2008.  The man who was tasked with conceiving it was Rajesh Kamat, by the then Network 18 promoter Raghav Bahl, and group CEO Haresh Chawla.  A Star India veteran, Kamat was heading global studio Endemol India when he was handpicked for the job in a genre that was already hyper competitive. Along with programming head Ashvini Yardi he used three Ds (disruption, differentiation and distribution) to blaze a trail for Colors, which it continues to do even today.  He left the network in 2011 to become a part of  CA Media, a  media fund with his former bosses at 21 century Fox that has invested in a handful of media ventures. He has since followed up with another one last year called Emerald Media. reached out to the now Singapore-based Kamat to get his perspectives on the birth of Colors and what makes Viacom18 tick - even today.  He responded enthusiastically to our questions on the subject. Read on to share the excitement of one of the most in-demand TV and media executives from India.

Raghav Bahl chose you to run Colors, the first brand under the Viacom18 umbrella. Why do you think he made that choice? What were the challenges at launch time and as the company grew?

While there were many more capable professionals in the industry, I must admit that it was my good fortune that Raghav found me worthy of the challenge. I am thankful to Raghav and Haresh (Chawla) for having given me an opportunity to prove myself.

It is always a challenge to launch a new product in a market where the established players have been around for a while. To launch in a year wherein one has to compete with established players and multiple new GEC launches was an uphill task. We were clearly the underdogs and underdogs need to give it their 200 per cent to just get noticed. We were up against media giants that had the financial muscle as well as the marketing reach of their network.

While the journey was full of multiple challenges, the first was to put together an offering that we believed would get the sticky consumer to give up their loyal shows on competing channels. We had to disrupt the viewing pattern of a single TV household by offering every member of the house a reason to switch from their most watched show to ours. In a cluttered distribution environment, to get seen itself was one of the biggest challenges. And all of this had to be done keeping an eye on the budgets!

While we did launch successfully, the bigger challenge following that was maintaining that success for the long run all of which we achieved with our 3D strategy of differentiation, disruption, and distribution and an incredible team that executed that strategy to perfection.

What enabled Colors to achieve the success that it did?

Colors’ success can be attributed to a mix of disruptive and differentiated programming, accompanied by aggressive marketing and distribution strategies. Right from the launch, Colors broke the mould with its programming with shows like Balika Vadhu and Uttaran, which were differentiated social dramas and Khatron Ke Khiladi and Bigg Boss, which were scale reality shows scheduled in daily prime time. These shows, put together, completely disrupted viewing habits across single-TV households. In the same vein, our distribution strategy, too, was not just about making the channel available but also ensuring that it was seen. Hence, for Colors, we applied a neighbourhood strategy, wherein we were tactically placed right before or right after a leading GEC channel.

Our differentiated content, distribution and marketing catapulted Colors to the number 3 position in its very first week and the number 1 position, 9 months after launch, breaking Star Plus’ stranglehold on the position after nine years of unchallenged dominance. Colors continued its successful run for the next three years growing into a vibrant and well-recognised brand reaching 140 million households. But, in all this, the true measure of success for me was that Colors has been the only GEC to date to have reached a monthly operating break-even starting month 15 of launch.

You were the first CEO, when Viacom18 launched its first Hindi general entertainment channel in 2008 for two years and later promoted as the COO of the group. How would you define those three years at Viacom18? What were the nostalgic moments of that journey?

Viacom18 can be described as an organisation that breeds a spirit of entrepreneurship and believes in rewriting the rules of the game. It’s not always easy to offer complete freedom, an open culture, empowerment to people and yet continue to operate as a professional set-up with a high success rate. My three years at Viacom18 were amongst the best years of my professional life.

As for the nostalgist moments on my journey at Viacom18 …I must admit that there are plenty–finalising the name Colors, the debate on whether to go ahead with an English name for a Hindi GEC channel, the launch press conference in Bangkok pulled off by Sonia, Sandeep and Gogate, the weekly 3am calls on Tuesday with Ashvini and Vivek after the ratings came in, the constant debate with Simran on the inventory-pricing strategy, the now popular channel ID and music presented for the first time by Monica, the disruptive marketing plan by Rameet and Iyer, Cheryl helping us ensure that we didn’t go black on air in spite of late tapes, leading  the company into its first distribution joint venture Sun18 with the help of Gaurav, Dhananjay ensuring we didn’t get arrested in spite of all the cases filed against us during Bigg Boss. Each of these are moments that still give me goose bumps.

During your time at the company, Colors had a number of big-budget reality shows. In retrospect, do you think it was the way to go?

Yes, absolutely that was the way to go. In a heavily cluttered space, if you have to make an entry and get noticed, then you really have to create an impact. It was the reality shows like Fear Factor and Bigg Boss that put Colors on the consumers’ radar. These shows were mounted on a huge canvas and were critical for us as they helped the channel to get into consumers’ homes and get their attention. These shows also paved the way for consumers to sample our other shows like Balika Vadhu and Jai Shri Krishna, which would eventually be the shows that they consumed on a daily basis. The fact that these reality shows are still airing on the channel and rating well is testament to the fact that it was the right decision.

With the tenth anniversary of Viacom18 around the corner, what, according to you, keeps the company going?

Viacom18 led by Sudhanshu (Vats) and Raj (Nayak) is a network of firsts and has been a thought leader on several counts. Colors has grown from strength to strength in the past nine years and has been a real asset for Viacom18. Brand Colors today has become one of the flagship brands for the company and has now extended to multiple regional languages as well as English. The network has always encouraged differentiated programming and that I think is what keeps it going. But their strongest competitive advantage and biggest strength is the people who work there; a team of exemplary professionals who are exceptionally creative and gets the pulse of the audience, which helps them create the magic we see across screens.  

How did your experience at Viacom18 help you grow as a professional?

In my journey first as the CEO of Colors and then as the COO for Viacom18, I have had all kinds of challenges thrown at me.  Each of these challenges have only helped me mature as a professional and as an individual. While I had managed teams before, Viacom18 was my first experience at managing a board with two shareholders. I had to quickly learn the fact that success is not only about launching a successful brand but more importantly about how that can be translated effectively into building shareholder value. This really helped me move into the next phase of my career of being an investor in media companies.

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