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Who defines prime time - Advertisers or viewers?

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MUMBAI: For those who have wondered and often cribbed about why popular channels have mostly nothing original to offer in the afternoon, and later had reluctantly resigned to watch re-runs of shows, The Content Hub 2016's session on ‘Redefining Primetime’ was the place to be.

The question of the hour was whether there is a need to redefine what we call ‘prime time’ on television. And who better to answer it than those who dabble in the general entertainment channels’ (GEC) prime time of Indian television i.e, Doordarshan ADG Mukesh Sharma, Colors CEO Raj Nayak, Balaji Telefilms CEO Sameer Nair, Reliance Broadcast Network CEO Tarun Katial and Havas Media Group CEO - India and South Asia Anita Nayyar.

Moderator for the session and Indiantelevision.com founder, editor-in-chief and CEO Anil Wanvari struck at the nerve of the issue by posing the pertinent question -- What defines the prime time of a Hindi GEC channel? 

While most viewers are oblivious to it, there is a whole science -- or as Nayak had pointed out during the discussion -- ‘pure economics’ to it. 

“The phrase ‘Kill for prime time’ is what we broadcasters are often heard using. As we don’t have the budget to program for all 24 hours of the day, we prepare content for five to six hours and that becomes our prime time. If we can get good traction for a new show during that time, it may also get an equally good viewership ratings for its reruns as well,” said Nayak.

“There isn’t anything fixed called prime time. It is how broadcasters define it. When we started off, 8 pm to 10 pm was prime time, then we stretched it to 8 pm to 11 pm, and now 6.30 pm to almost 11.30 pm is what we define as prime time. It is a question of content and the availability of a large section of the audience in front of the television. Therefore, by definition it is post evening hours,” he added.

With the advent of digital however, this staple idea of prime time is changing as the audience has access to entertainment media almost all hours of the day at their own convenience via the second screen. “The prime time we are talking about is a very TV thing. OTT audience is not defined by prime time although there are surges in viewership at certain times of a day. For them, anytime is prime time. But that ‘anytime’ isn’t a feasible option for advertisers,” opined Nair.

Getting into the crux of the matter, it is the advertiser who defines the prime time. Because depending on whether a show is coming on prime time or not, the advertising rates are decided. Throwing light on how premium rates for ad slots are determined, Nayyar shared, “The logical way an advertiser defines the prime is when there is content and there is an audience for it. A cricket tournament for example, which can happen at 4 pm in the afternoon will have traction and therefore will attract advertisers as well. So prime time is basically where the eyeballs are. From an agency perspective as well, we look at where and when content is viewed the most and that becomes prime time.”

On the prospect of growing the time band of ‘prime’ shows, Nayak retrospected, “There was a time when Doordarshan used to air only India cricket matches. When ESPN and Star Sports launched, none of the advertisers initially were willing to pay for the non-India matches and test matches. Until in 1996, during the Safari India South Africa series, we decided we will not sell any slots until advertisers are willing to buy it all in a package. For the first three days of the tournaments there were no advertisers. But things have changed now, haven’t they?”

One would think that going by the same logic of ‘viewers will lap up any good content,’ if creativity is not a hindrance with several content creators and writers waiting to get exposure, broadcasters can find reason in allowing relatively small budget shows to redefine a new prime time band with day part programming.

Television being an advertiser dependent medium where a 3 rating in the evening is worth 10 times that of the same rating in the afternoon, broadcasters, especially that of Hindi GECs find the stakes to be too high to take the risk.

“At Star TV there were some original shows in the afternoon time band, which got even better ratings than the evening prime time shows. While the shows worked, its return on investment did not because irrespective of viewership ratings, advertisers were attracted to only to shows aired from 6 pm onwards. The fact remains that the same advertisers, for the same rating at two different times of the day were not willing to pay the same price for the ad slots,” Nayak stated. 

This also paints a sad picture of the broadcast business in south India where there is an ongoing trend of remaking Hindi TV shows into regional languages. Producers are asked to create the same content for half, or even one fourth of the production cost that the same Hindi GEC show had incurred as advertisers are not willing to pay for that region, observed Nair.

“Down south they are remaking Hindi shows at approximately Rs 1 - 1.5 lakh per episode. In the Bengal and Marathi regional markets, it’s even lesser. All this brings me to the advertisement driven industry we have, which eggs on this unfair practice. This in turn makes me wonder how advertisers categorise their consumers in the market and where they place them in terms of ad spends,” said Nair.

Bringing a whole new perspective to it was RBNL’s Katial, whose comedy channel Big Magic is largely dependent on kids for viewership and ratings and therefore the channel’s definition of prime time also varies. 

“We have two channels, which are both very unique in their target audiences. One targets Bihar and Jharkhand, which are mostly dominated by semi urban and rural landscapes. People essentially wake up early and go to bed early, therefore 70 per cent of our GRPs comes from the morning programming. While infrastructure too plays a role, I feel it is our viewers who ultimately define our prime time,” Katial informed.

Citing another example of a non-traditional concept of prime time, Katial added, “On our comedy channel our entry point is kids. We feel it is a good way to expand visibility with mothers and other family members. Therefore we have to build a prime time where there are more kids available than others. Therefore once you define your audience and geography, you have your prime time.”

Taking a queue from Katial and concurring, Nayyar said that from a media planner’s perspective, there are times when it’s more efficient to buy an afternoon ad slot for an advertiser at a lower rate than prime time slots.

“For a client of ours, McDonald’s, we used to buy afternoon time slots because it was far more cost efficient. We were catering to the housewives and mothers, who watched TV shows with their kids. I feel that it rides a lot more on how broadcasters pitch or sell shows. I feel the media industry needs to come together and give the products what they deserve,” quipped Nayyar.

As the panelists dived deeper into the issue, several varying perspectives ruled the discussion, each leading to a different conclusion. However, media heads present on the panel unanimously agreed that even though Indian television was one of the cheapest markets for advertisers to operate in, it was undervalued, be it from talent or financial standpoint. 

The consensus was that rather than thinking of how to get production costs down, the way to bring a change was by coming up with ways to increase ad rates as well as by investing more in original content leading to more hours of it on television, which in turn would lead to a redefined prime time.

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