Cramped space, slow growth dog English movie channels

There is no shake-up at the top in the English movie channel space but a grim battle is being waged at the lower level as the new entrants plot their growth path with stronger content and distribution.

The segment leaders, Star Movies and HBO, have marginally lost their channel share in the midst of this competition, but they are way ahead to even feel challenged. Star Movies‘ share has dropped to 38 per cent for the first six months of the period ending June as against 42 per cent a year ago, while HBO has shed three per cent to stand at 31 per cent.

Three-year-old Pix too has fallen 1 per cent to rest on a channel share of 11 per cent, according to Tam data (Tam data, c&s15+ SEC A,B) for the six-month period. However, Zee Studio, fourth in line, has trekked upwards from 7 per cent to 9 per cent.

The only ranking change during this period has been the upsurge of WB, Turner and Warner‘s six-month-old channel in India, that has overtaken UTV World Cinema, which is also a new player in the field. While UTV World Cinema has a channel share of 4.8 per cent, WB is a hair‘s length ahead at 4.9 per cent.

The first half of the year has seen the genre stickiness inch marginally up to 10 minutes, a one pointer climb from the year-ago period.

According to industry experts, it‘s current films that gives English movie channels the ratings and pulls in advertisers. Tam data shows that for the six months while Star Movies and HBO had most of the top 10 titles, Pix‘s Slumdog Millionaire peaked at a rating of 0.33 TVR.

So, as maintaining consistent brand loyalty becomes a challenge, top and long existing players are fine tuning their strategies to attract more audiences.

Star Movies‘ focus this year has rested on enhancing its title choices for specific slots. It has also looked at giving viewers more opportunities to sample content that they can connect with. The aim is to make its flagship property, Friday Night Premiere, stronger.

Says Star Movies VP programming Jyotsna Vriyalaya, "Having brand loyalty in a genre that is so title driven will be a very big challenge. Viewers often sample the top two to three channels before settling on their favourite movie."

HBO has concentrated on blockbusters and expansion of its theme variety such as the Hollywood Premier League, while continuing with original programming like True Blood. In an effort to go beyond just titles to build brand saliency, HBO is looking at new show formats.

Says HBO South Asia country manager Shruti Bajpai, "The key to developing brand loyalty revolves around selection of titles, how well content is packaged, experimenting in terms of show formats, channel‘s on-air look and communication."

Pix business head Sunder Aaron notes that while the category is title driven, brand loyalty also develops among viewers of movie channels. "It‘s all about context. When a viewer identifies strongly with the movies shown on a particular channel, considering channel‘s presentation is comfortable and the promos and breaks unobtrusive, it provides a favourable viewing environment and eventually leads to a viewing habit."

Earlier, Pix was seen as a channel showcasing classic films. However, this year the channel has aggressively acquired titles from a number of distributors. The biggest was Slumdog Millionaire. With this acquisition, Aaron expects that there will be drastic change in how viewers perceive the channel over the next couple of years.

Says Aaron, "Pix‘s marketing helps to feature these newer titles in a bigger and better way than in the past. While we are flattered that channels are emulating or copying some of our on air strategies, we will continue to evolve the look and feel of the channel as well. This should help us continue to make up ground on HBO and Star Movies."

Also, in a bid to introduce more variety, the channel airs soccer action from the FA Cup. "We‘ve introduced cinema-oriented series to India that have perfectly fitted into the Pix persona, with shows like Hollywood One on One, and Inside the Actors Studio," adds Aaron.

Zee Studio faces the same challenge as Pix in terms of getting premieres. But channel business head Sujay Kutty says that there are a number of independent distributors who have first-run gems in their packages. He also claims that he has 18 premieres lined up for the year.

The channel has moved its primetime to 9 pm. April also saw the introduction of Sunday Noonatics, a slot for light entertaining flicks keeping the relaxed Sunday mood in mind.

Blocks or no blocks?

Well, apart from right title selection, placement and variety, the genre has also brought in the block-building strategy to attract target audiences. But with the introduction of blocks, the long-age debate also stands tall - do blocks work?

Aaron says that while the channel holds festival bands, it does not pay off to have too many blocks. "When you commit to certain types of programming for a slot, you are essentially creating a programming ‘strait jacket‘ whose proposition is not always easy to meet with the films in your library," he says.

Lodestar Universal COO Nandini Dias notes that one can schedule content in a manner to appeal to different age groups without necessarily assigning labels. "Having blocks can get you sponsorship revenue, but you also risk alienating the rest of the audience if you are not careful."

Offering a counterpoint, Bajpai says that it entirely depends on how a particular channel identifies its audience and devises its strategy. "HBO seeks its audience across segments and hence, to connect at a base-level, we do TG-specific programming blocks where we offer something for everyone out of our whole gamut of shows. With a relatively larger base of audience, for HBO this sort of programming format has worked well."

For UTV World Movies business head Sameer Ganapathy, blocks ascertain that genre and star themes are presented to viewers in an approachable manner. "Having said that, we do not believe in too many programming blocks as that really limits the scheduling and hinders variety."

UTV World Movies also aims to be present in all verticals of the business with the channel being the driver. So it has started releasing films into cinemas, like Waltz With Bashir.

"This brings a huge amount of saliency to the brand. We have the home video association with Shemaroo. We are currently the only channel in the genre that is truly 360° in nature," Ganapathy avers.

True, English movie channels are construing and establishing various strategies to come to the fore. But the one element that could still cause disharmony in crafting better reach and contact is lack of strategic ‘distribution‘.

According to Turner International India VP, deputy GM Monica Tata, apart from content what also helped Warner cut through the heap is distribution.

She says, "In just over a quarter, the channel is available in 13 million c&s homes, including digital and DTH platforms such as Dish TV, Sun Direct and Big TV."

Last year, MGM signed a deal with Star Den to get it distributed across cable and satellite and has also signed up over 500 cable systems.

According to MGM Networks president Bruce Tuchman, "We also debuted on Bharti Airtel in DTH. We have built a very wide and growing subscription base, as well as increasing our DTH presence."

Tuchman feels that apart from creating reach, distribution will also facilitate attracting revenues in India. "What is being seen now in India is an inflection point where targeted, niche product that super-serves specific audiences will have an incredible opportunity to build fans, loyalty and subscription revenue. We‘ve seen this elsewhere around the world, and we believe this is the direction that India is headed in."

What will, however, intensify competition amongst players is digitisation.

Dias opines, "At this moment, in an analogue era, some of the movie channels are at an advantage due to better placement. However, once digitisation spreads, all English movie channels will be one behind the other. A level playing field will therefore intensify competition. It will come down to who has the better titles at key timeslots."

Though the genre viewership is still skewed towards the metros, channels are also eyeing smaller towns to gain audiences. For example, Zee Studio has held on-ground initiatives in towns such as Pune and Ahmedabad.

Lintas Media Group Planning Sciences director Atrayee Chakraborty notes that in the distant future, viewership would come from the smaller towns and cities. However, in the short run, the movie channels need to concentrate on the metros as much still remains untapped here.

Revenue to slow down

The size of the English movie channel genre is estimated to grow to Rs 2.2 billion this fiscal.

Stung by economic slowdown, the industry expects the segment to see single digit growth in ad revenues this year. Says Chakraborty, "This genre would suffer relatively more as premium brands, durables and finance sectors, which largely advertise in these channels, have cut their advertising budgets."

Ratings and perception play a role in media-buying decisions for this genre. Offering further insight, Chakraborthy explains that while the TG is upmarket and skewed towards the metros, it also looks at channel affinity within specific segments in the TG for budget allocation. "HBO, for example, is more preferred by brands targeting younger, upmarket males. Star Movies, in contrast, attracts a wider audience base."

Bajpai is bullish on the genre‘s growth, "While there has been an air of caution in general across industries, it is also a fact that during a downturn advertisers tend to turn towards a strong product that is consistent, dependable and has a steady consumer base."

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