He is amongst a select lot of advertising professionals who have pole-vaulted over the fence to the broadcast side - and stayed there. In fact, not many recollect that Tarun Katial began his career at Saatchi & Saatchi as a media trainee. More might remember him from his O&M days when he headed TV media buying for the Mumbai office. The then Star India CEO Peter Mukerjea picked him up to work in programming along with Sameer Nair, and the rest, as they say, is history. From Star, he moved onto head Sony Entertainment programming, before heeding the call from the Anil Ambani-Amitabh Jhujunwala combine to help take the billionaire businessman's entertainment ambitions further under the umbrella of Reliance Broadcast Network Limited (RBNL).
It has been quiet a journey. He heads what is considered as India's most widely spread private FM radio network - Big FM 92.7 which has a footprint of 45 stations. Katial also handles a clutch of TV channels - Big Magic, Big Magic Bihar and Jharkhand, Big Thrill - the TV production wing Big Productions and the group's activation arm.
Despite arriving late in the broadcast TV game, Katial managed to forge alliances with US major CBS and German media megalith RTL. He launched channels in partnership with them quickly from 2010 onwards with the clear intent of building a strong network. The CBS joint venture unravelled end-2013 while the RTL one got unstuck a couple of months ago. Katial - with a sanguine look in his eye says "things happen, then they don't and the other way round too. But they are all a part of learning and experiences."
A firm believer of differentiation and localisation of content, Katial has been at the helm of one of India’s youngest media houses. It was this approach towards business that got him the ‘NewsCorp Achiever for Asia’ award and later led to him being included among the best in ‘India Today 30 on 30’ list. Katial's much older today and his hair has greyed in parts, but the man has retained his hankering, his drive for innovation and challenges. He got into a conversation with Indiantelevision.com’s Seema Singh and Meghna Sharma, to talk about his experience, his good moments and not so good ones too, and also about his future…
How has the journey been so far? The company has seen a lot of ups and downs, what do you have to say about them?
It has been an interesting journey. When we launched, all our competitors were at least five to seven years ahead of us, well established brands with not only equity, but also ad-consumer connect and legacy of their media house ownership.
But, we were neither a media house nor a recognisable brand. To add to that, our parent brand Reliance did not allow us to use its brand name, since that is a part of our branding guidelines. We didn’t have any legacy knowledge in the system either. So it was all done from scratch.
The team has almost remained the same, since the time we launched. The executive board of the company is also still intact. Right from deploying CAPEX to building a brand, an identity to positioning the brand, to winning small victories to larger wars, it has been an interesting journey to say the least.
In the last two years, the brand has really come of age, We realised that while we fought the marginal differentiation game, we had to be exponentially different to be able to succeed.
So we decided to position our brands to recreate every local market and that’s when we decided to go retro for our radio station in Mumbai and Delhi, regional in Bengaluru, melody in Chennai and largely Bengali with Hindi retro in Kolkata.
Today, I am quite proud to say that in most markets that we operate, we are either number one or number two, with a huge gap between us and our competitors.
You were a late entrant in the game, have you been able to deliver on the challenges? Which have been the areas that you have succeeded and areas which still remain to be tapped?
The initial challenges were basic understanding of the business to building a consumer brand to building a differentiated positioning and differentiated offering, then to be able to consolidate and work around it.
In the brand’s journey you are sometimes able to take risks and sometimes not, sometimes you are able to expand and sometimes you have to consolidate. And in all of that, I think a new brand is not at the same place as an established brand.
Radio lacked measurement and we have worked with the industry to introduce RAM. 70-80 per cent of radio spends, today, are in measured markets and advertisers are able to measure the ROI they get from radio. The coming in of measurement rapidly increased the number of brands that had faith in radio. What it also did was, it helped radio move away from being just a frequency medium to being a rich range medium and classic advertisers like the FMCG category started to rely on radio for their communication needs, which has been very good for the category and very good for us.
Again in the television business we were laggards. Every business takes time to find its strategy. We started from the English space and then decided to venture in the local language proprietary content space. What we’ve been able to learn and reconcile with this is that we want to be in the local space like we are in the radio business.
Television is a much younger business than radio and I think the success we have seen in the TV space in the past six months has been very good. With our Big Magic Bihar and Jharkhand channel, we are clearly the leaders. Whether it’s Big Memsaab, Big Bahuriya or Police Files, we have great content.
Also we are the only ones with local production capabilities in Patna and we have been able to build a new community of technicians, actors and producers there.
On the national front, while we started with Big Magic in UP, it was in April-May this year, with the launch of Akbar Birbal that we decided to take the channel national.
There are obviously challenges and we have a great distance to cover but I think the two month report card has been very healthy and positive. We have been able to launch a whole slew of content like: Uff Yeh Nadaniyaan with Upasana Singh, Raavi Aur Magic Mobile and Ajab Gajab Ghar Jamai with Himani Shivpuri and Sumit Vats.
We are going block by block, building on that channel. While today we have about 2.5 hours of original content, we would probably take it up to 3-3.5 hours by the end of this quarter.
We believe that regional content is the way forward. It allows you to connect with the audiences and stay centric to consumer’s needs. Also when you own the intellectual property, you can take it international, deploy it on digital and on various forms and fashions. So I think that’s really our strategy going forward in the television space.
Why did you think of starting a production unit in Patna?
We started our Patna operations four months back, as we believed that local and regional channels should be run from where they belong and a lot of the Bihar channels tend to run from Delhi or Mumbai. But, according to me, this prevents you from building a local connect or local relevance. So we decided to do shows which are locally relevant.
Big Bahuriya is a show which surfaces latent issues between mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws. It has done very well for us and it has all been shot in Bihar and Jharkhand and in the homes of people. Then, Big Memsaab, a studio based game show for women, is also based out of Patna. We built the studio and shot there, giving opportunity to local contestants, local people to come and take part. Similarly, Police Files is a very gritty, in-your-face crime show, where we work with real footage and real issues and crime scenes in Bihar and Jharkhand.
These programmes have been produced by local producers like Abhay Sinha, Amitabh Verma and Kamlesh Guthi Singh.
Are you looking at rebranding Big Magic Bihar and Jharkhand?
Yes. We are looking to rebrand and probably call it Big Magic Ganga. This should be done by mid August. We have already got the approvals for the same. When we rebrand, we will launch in a fairly big way.
Your business model earlier looked very lucrative, with TV, Radio, Production and Activation arm, how do you plan to keep up the whole chain to make it look more lucrative? How do you plan to synergize what is under you? What is your current business model?
Actually we have strengthened our approach a lot now. We have a strong activation business called ‘Big Rural.’ We probably are the only ones who do intellectual property work in the rural space. We have built some very good brands, like ‘Big Disha’, where we do rural career counseling, partnering with Gillette.
In fact a number of brands partner with us, through which we do hundreds and thousands of activations across schools and colleges.
We have also built a new brand called ‘Mele Ka Big Star’ and ‘Hindustan Ka Big Star’ where we cover large melas across UP, MP, Bihar and Jharkhand. Through this, we do a big talent hunt partnering with successful brands like Horlicks, Hero, Godrej and Emami among others.
We have built a very big property with on-ground activation called Close Up Antakshari. Also on the production side, we have done a lot of proprietary work. Like the Big Star Entertainment Awards and now the monthly Life OK Now Awards. We do different kinds of work under Big Productions.
So your business model still remains the same?
Yes it continues to be the same. But one of the differences we brought about in the business model is that instead of focusing on client specific activation, events or productions, we are now doing more branded content activation which has attracted a lot of clients. Through this, a lot of clients can partner and benefit rather than a single client carrying the cost. We have also built some single client properties. For instance, the Hajmola Chatpata No 1, which has a deep penetration in UP, was a success and we plan to do a follow up this year. In short, we have built some long standing properties rather than just activation.
Are you creating activations for your television channels as well? When will we see the transformation of Thrill? Also will it continue to being male skewed? Will it be in English?
We are in no rush to do more in our television space until we attain a critical mass market for Big Magic and Big Magic Bihar and Jharkhand. For us, the next big thing will be to Indianise Thrill and add local content on it as it is our second priority in the television space. We are currently in the consolidation space. And we also have the phase III of radio rights on our head. So, I think we need to see how much of bandwidth we have for television.
Thrill will be rebranded by end of this year and while comedy will be on Magic, Thrill will continue to have action. The content on Thrill will be in Hindi only. The whole point of a buyout from RTL was to start doing local content. We are working with some key producers in the space.
Are you looking at an English channel?
We won’t do English for some time now. We believe we want to be in the local IP space. We want to have our own IP.
Was this the reason that the joint ventures ended?
Our strategy is to be in the local content, local IP space. We want to be centric to the consumer and move around according to the changing trends and tastes. We want to be able to take the channels to different platforms. But in the English space, you are under the rental model. What we do after the license period gets over? What is your legacy in the space?
Why did you decide to launch the channel with international partners – CBS and RTL?
You learn with every category you get into. I think when we got ourselves into the English space, there were fewer partners, less competition, but over the three years the space became fragmented and crazy.
What is happening with Big Magic and Big Magic Bihar and Jharkhand and Big Magic International, post the breaking of the JV?
We now own all the content and that’s the reason we launched Big Magic internationally. We are now available in the US, Australia, Canada and are planning to launch in some countries, this year. UK is one of the targets and the talks are already on.
If you see the financial statement of this year, the company has done better as compared to 2013. But the network is still incurring certain losses. How are you looking at improving this - especially on the television side?
RBNL is in its investment phase on TV and it’s on the return phase on radio and that’s how we are balancing it. You need to have some initial losses for any network to grow. You can’t cut the investment short because there are loses in the business, right?
I will not define them as loses; they are investments. For any business to grow you need investments and we are happy to make investments in the TV business. We are happy to reap the benefits of the radio business. The radio business is close to Rs 200 crore plus, which is not a small number.
So, will you be pushing radio more?
Both are different businesses and have different sets of challenges; and we want to grow in both the businesses. And you have seen what we have done with Big Magic. We have been launching a new show almost every week if not every month and the kind of investment that is going behind content, marketing is quite incredible. Last week, we launched the new season of Uff Yeh Nadaniyaan. We have brought in new faces; we have upgraded the look of the show. So, at every step of the way we are investing in the content of the channel.
What kind of management reshuffle will we be seeing. Are you getting in more new people?
We have brought in more people to strengthen the team. On the sales side, we have created a vertical approach, keeping the customer at the centre of it. So we have done a vertical for single customers, a vertical for government sector customers, a vertical for key accounts, a vertical for corporate accounts and new business developments. So, we have a customer centric approach and we have got sales directors on all these verticals. We have got Gurudutt Jakhmola for the government side, Ajit Singh has been roped in for single accounts, Rajesh Mishra for corporate account side and Vijay Koshy on the key account side.
So, we have got four vertical heads. On the creative side, we have got Manisha Tripathi as the creative and programming head of radio.
Are you looking at fresh investments coming in to the company?
Obviously, we will make investments into our radio business as we go into phase III of licensing; we will definitely make investments in current licenses migrating into 15 years and acquiring new licenses.
And what about television?
Television is now at the cusp of breakeven, but we will continue investing in Magic.
What about the licenses of channels like Love? Will you be giving them away? Can we expect more channels in the future?
We will keep them. Currently, they are in the hibernation stage. We will be working with our three channels for now. And as and when opportunities come, we will tap into it.
How do you plan to get cash flow in the company? Why did you plan to delist?
For now, we are a delisted company and so we do not need to worry.
We didn’t want to live quarter to quarter and the promoter believed that he had great value in the business and so he should go behind it and give it all the investment it requires to give it a long term run.
For a business in its early stage it is tough to live in a quarter to quarter manner. I can tell you, I have worked at News Corp in my early days at Star and if we were to live on a quarter to quarter basis, we would have never made the kind of investments we did.
Also, we didn’t list because we wanted to. We listed because we have a legacy of Adlabs being listed. Our licenses were in the erstwhile Adlabs which demerged into Reliance Media Works which then became Reliance Broadcast Network. We have actually never done an IPO.
According to you, which is the most ad revenue generating channel?
Big Magic is actually at a 100 per cent inventory fill and it is doing exceedingly well. But I think the one that has real big potential going forward is our Bihar channel. It’s a media dark region and a lot of advertisers want to penetrate that market. Also, it has one of the fastest GDP growth in India.
Are you looking at geo-targeting at any stage?
We had some options at doing geo-targeting with Big Magic because it’s very big in UP. We keep toying with the idea. With a 50 sales offices in the country for our radio business, it will be an easy task. But we haven’t really tapped into that yet.
Is distribution a challenge? Is it getting expensive now?
It’s not very expensive, it is actually getting cheaper. Digitisation has clearly made distribution democratised. Placement is still expensive but distribution is not. And if you have differentiated content then placement is not a key challenge.
In fact, we have had a reduction in our carriage fees dramatically over the years across the network and I can tell you that some of the DTH platforms have been very welcoming for our channels.
What is your budget for marketing on a yearly basis? Does it keep increasing year on year?
See, we have priority markets, where we invest heavily. Also, we have great advantage of having cross network between radio and TV. So, what people can’t buy, we can buy very easily. Most networks have to buy on radio networks like us, but for us that’s a very big advantage. So between network media and third party media, I think our budget will be close to 20-25 crore.
According to me as the channel gains popularity, its marketing spends reduces.
I can tell you, our radio market budget has come down substantially from the years we launched it. It’s a set brand. When we launched the show with Annu Kapoor we did not do any marketing because the content was strong. I think good content markets itself after a point. The word of mouth, the advocacy becomes so strong that you don’t have to knock on any ones door.
What made you change your whole content from recent Bollywood tracks to retro on Big FM? How big is your research team for both television and radio?
You have to give yourself some serious delta of differentiation, it can’t be marginal differentiation. And you have to take some risks and risks pay off eventually.
We have an intense research team, which comprises music experts and even university graduates who have done a post graduation in music. We won’t take such a risk without understanding the consumer’s likes, dislikes and choices. Even within the retro music we have serious segregation on timeless music and time-bound music.
Similarly for television, we work closely with Dragon Fly for a lot of research.
There seems to be a sudden rise of in-programme advertising? Do you also use this tool to advertise?
We do a little bit of it, but more in Bihar and Jharkhand because we have a game show on the channel and also because there is a lot of good opportunity there. But I still believe that you can’t make good content into a teleshopping network.
I think the consumer is becoming extremely discerning so you need to be smart about the way you do these things. What we did with Clinic All-Clear on one of our shows on Big Magic called Raavi was that we spoke about educating the girl child, while soft branding the product with the message.
Are you looking at doing more events apart from the current slate?
I think they need to make sense from a consumer perspective. You can’t just do them because you want to do them. You have to do them because there’s an insight in them. We currently have a slate of 20-30 events, which I don’t think is little by any standard.
Does the network make any content for only digital consumption?
We are currently not making content for digital only, but we are re-purposing a lot of content for digital. Like we do short stories of Akbar Birbal, only for digital. We have our own YouTube channel, where we condense interesting episodes and put on that channel. The content is such that it can be watched in about nine minutes.
Where do you see the network three years down the line?
The network will be very consumer centric, adapting to changes in consumer trends, very well differentiated and distinct, whether it’s the TV network or the radio network and building on insights continuously. For us consumer-centricity is the key and that’s what we are working on and that’s why we have done what we have done both in TV and in radio. You can’t win by duplicating anybody.