Star spangled banner year

2002 will certainly be different. That was what the competition were convinced would be the case at the start of the year. And why not? Kaun Banega Crorepati, the talismanic gameshow that had turned Indian television on its head when it launched in mid-2000 was ending its run. After 300 episodes, 3000 participants, 500 hot seaters, 60,000 studio audience and Rs 260 million prize money, KBC was taking a "seasonal break" (as the communications team put it). Star would have its work cut out to keep off the challenge of rivals Sony and Zee - both taking fresh guard - was the thinking.

The truth though has been that programmingwise, Hindi entertainment television's lead channel Star Plus ended 2002 with even more "blue sky" between itself and the competition than it had at the beginning of it. And there just seems to be no stopping the juggernaut as we go forward into 2003. The latest TAM ratings for the week 26 January - 1 February 2003 for C&S 4+, eight cities + UP, one million plus towns (the main Hindi speaking markets) gave Star Plus a clean sweep of the Top 50 for the first time ever.

And Star continues to set the agenda. At a time when some say that the World Cup is going to play havoc with viewership patterns, Star Plus has begun 2003 with the launch of five new shows - all of different genres. KBC may have been a once-in-a-generation TV happening. What followed has been about consolidating the audience base till it reached a certain pre-determined critical mass. And it was the saas-bahu sagas epitomised by the Kyunkis... and the Kahaanis..., which got Star that mass.

And it was not just about programming, but equally about selling its programming where Star scored over its rivals. It was also the year that the man who had been handling that brief with singular success, executive V-P Sameer Nair, was elevated to COO of Star India. The responsibility of managing day-to-day programming issues was handed over to "young turk" senior V-P Tarun Katial.

It was not all smooth sailing though on the programming front. After KBC came Kamzor Kadii Kaun (a re-make of BBC's The Weakest Link ), hosted by actress Neena Gupta. It failed but credit is due for taking the risk and doing something totally different. None of the Big B's good Santa act here. Audiences squirmed as Neena exposed the players' insecurities, their selfishness, their dog-eat-dog attitudes - the darker elements of game theory. Its brutal frankness was too much for Indians to stomach. Hardly surprising really considering that a show like KKK would have seriously got the goat of the "traditional" audiences who have made Star Plus their default channel.

What else did Star do of note on the programming front? Nothing much really. It rejigged plotlines of its existing shows and added a whole new bunch of one-hour programmes in the 9 to 10 pm slot vacated by KBC.

The story of Kyunki... took a leap forward by 20 years, moving into Generation Next. This did not seem to have too much of an impact on the basic mindset of its protagonists though. That remained the same. But it did pump up the ratings somewhat.

The year also saw the launch of several shows along with some unique marketing initiatives. In January, Sanjivani, a medical series, was launched. In July, a religious Sunday morning band with a culture show (Gurukul ), a mythological show (Jai Mata Ki - starring Hema Malini as the Goddess), and a pilgrimage show, Yatra was launched.

Shaka Laka Boom Boom - targeted at kids - launched in August in the 7:30 pm time band. Here again marketing played a very important role. A series of magic shows were held in schools in Mumbai and Delhi. For the launch of family serial Kehta Hai Dil, viewers were gifted family-photo-frames. Kumkum- Pyara Sa Bandhan, an afternoon soap, was launched with small kumkum boxes being presented to women travellers in trains & buses.

It was significant that of all the new shows that Star announced in 2002, not one was from the Balaji Telefilms stable. Star was clearly looking to broadbase its content sources, with other production houses getting big budget assignments coming their way.

"The year 2002 has been one of the most challenging years for Star Plus. It's been a year where Star Plus has showcased content for each segment of our audience and has innovated with content at every level. As we said, we have outdone competition and now the endeavor is to outdo ourselves," says Katial.

Says Nair, "2002 has been a most exciting and interesting year for Star. Star Plus continued its unmatched domination in Hindi entertainment, boasting of 80 of the top 100 shows; Star Movies emerged No.1 and Channel [V] is rapidly getting there. Star Gold successfully re-invented itself, from classic to blockbuster. Star Vijay grew in the highly competitive Tamil market, while Star World & NGC stayed on track.

HBO will obviously have something to say on that score but the fact remains that out of the Top 10 English movies of the year on the TAM ratings lists, Star Movies accounted for nine of them. Ask advertisers though, and most say both are running neck and neck.

Channel [V]? Well here's one case of lots of noise (around the launch of girl pop band Viva ) and debatable results. [V] still has some way to go before it can shake up MTV or even the likes of etc and B4U Music ratingswise.

Far more noteworthy has been the rapid upping of the ante shown by National Geographic in its bid to catch up with infotainment leader Discovery. The winner here of course has been the viewer. This is best exemplified by the Everest series that NGC is showcasing while Discovery plumbs the depths of the ocean with the Blue Planet.

But the big happenings of 2002 vis-?-vis the other channels in the network were the divorce proceedings initiated between Star and its content provider Dr Prannoy Roy's NDTV for its own news channel and the successful relaunch of Star Gold.

On 1 November Star Gold did a complete makeover of its fuddy-duddy movie channel personae and announced it was ready to take on Zee Cinema and Max for the top slot. The fact that Max had distractions of the cricketing sort to worry about only served to help Star Gold that much more.

Within the first week of donning its new "nimboo mar ke" (laced with a dash of lime) avatar, Star Gold claimed to have beaten the competition on the ratings lists. While that assertion's difficult to digest, even "nimboo mar ke", its decision to dub English action movies (Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury and Jurassic Park being good examples) has scored well with viewers.

Not quite so smooth sailing, however, were the developments around Star's decision to break with NDTV and launch its own news channel in 2003. Former HFCL Nine Gold CEO Ravina Raj Kohli was brought in as president of the Star News division.

Kohli's entry in April led to a major reorganisation in the corporate structure at Star India. Chief executive Peter Mukerjea elevated Nair to COO but could find no "suitable" slot for ad sales head LS "Raj" Nayak.

That ultimately resulted in Nayak putting in his papers in September and deciding to throw in his lot with soon-to-be rival NDTV. Star took Nayak to court to prevent just that and last heard, was awaiting the final ruling of the Bombay High Court on the matter.

Nayak's leaving impacted the relatively smooth corporate tapestry at Star. Nayak's number two who was operating out of Delhi - senior VP Niraj Datta - left. So too did Rajnath Kamath, who was all-India sales head for Vijay TV as well as heading ad sales for the network in the south, along with some others. Kamath went over to NDTV as VP - ad sales.

Currently, Mukerjea has taken over additional charge of ad sales with three vice presidents - Kevin Vaz, Joy Chakravarti and Monica Tata (she's a senior V-P by virtue of seniority) reporting directly to him. Vaz handles Star Plus, Star Gold and Star Vijay, Chakravarti Star News and National Geographic (which he is already in charge of), while Tata heads Star World, Star Movies and Channel V.

Another happening on the personnel front in 2002 was the arrival of a new distribution head in ex-Zee man Tony D'Silva, who came on board after then incumbent Arun Mohan was asked to put in his papers.

While Star grappled with internal fissures, there was the bigger issue of getting government clearance so that the Star news project itself could get off the ground. A factor that didn't help Star's cause any was James Murdoch's blasting of CAS in his speech made in March at Ficci Frames 2002. It raised the hackles of then I&B minister Sushma Swaraj and the bureaucrats at Shastri Bhavan no end.

Uplinking permission is still pending but Kohli has been hard at work imbibing all the learnings that the Fox news operations has to offer while at the same time making sure it is in synch with Indian realities.

But that is still an issue that Star will confront this year. In 2002, the main concern remained how to derive the full revenue potential - both on the ad sales front as well as distribution - that being the lead network offered.

It was towards this end that Star Plus increased its effective ad rates by introducing a new category at the premium end and pricing it at Rs 510,000 per 10 seconds. The most expensive ad spot on the channel was earlier priced at Rs 400,000 per 10 seconds. Overall Star tried to push through a 20 per cent hike in rates and it came just ahead of the Champions Trophy in September. This was at a time when the fear among most sales execs was that with cricket taking a huge chunk of the advertising rupee away in the post-September and up to March period, just holding on to to the price line would be tough.

Star was also talking of introducing a multi-rate card system with different airtime rates for the various categories of products. That never went through and the word in the market is that to meet the stiff revenue targets that had been set for the new year (Star has a July to June fiscal), it was in fact forced to become more flexible with its rate card post-June.

So just what were the revenues that Star managed up to June-end 2002?

According to industry sources, this is the picture that News Corp's India operations offer:

*The Indian business achieved cash flow breakeven in 2001.

*Indian operations contributed a whopping 60 per cent of Star TV's annualised top line earnings for Asia of $ 450 million for the 12 months up to June 2002.

*Of the $267 million Star India raked in last year, 60 per cent of this came from advertising and 40 per cent from subscription.

*Revenues for the Star Network were $ 200 million with $ 67 million coming in from ESPN Star Sports (ESS).

*For ESS, $35 million came in from subscription and $32 million from advertising. ESS' income skewed towards subscriptions is obviously because of the all-India declared connectivity numbers that having cricket on the platform brings.

* Of the Star Network's $200 million in revenues, $ 140 million or 70 per cent came from advertising, with $60 million from subscription.

If the ad sales targets are stiff, there is even more pressure to raise distribution numbers. From the 6 million paid subscriber mark in June 2002 to 9 million by next June is what indiantelevision.com believes is the target, though the public line is that Star is aiming to double paid connectivity. Star also announced a new slab-based subscription rate card that brought the per subscriber cost down to Rs 30 from Rs 40. If the cable op doubled his declared subscriber numbers that is.

From where are these numbers to come? In the near term the biggest increases are expected from smaller towns and cities. In the bigger cities, a steady growth is what Star is realistically looking at.

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