As broadcast industry recovers, why is the English genre lagging behind?

International content is likely to continue expanding its viewer base on OTT vs TV.

MUMBAI: There's no denying that 2020 was a rocky year for broadcasters, as the Covid2019 pandemic shut down filming, fresh programming grew scarce and ad revenues slowed to a trickle. Now, as the industry is on the course to recovery, it has emerged that one single TV genre fared worse than the others. Popular English movie channels, HBO and WB, have gone off air. Sony Pictures Network has discontinued AXN and AXN HD, while Network 18 shut down the standard and HD offerings of its English lifestyle channel FYI TV18.

In its recently released annual report, BARC India has highlighted that ad volumes grew by 34 per cent in the second half of 2020, with Hindi and regional GECs reporting a surge in viewership and reasonably better ad volumes. However, this was far from the case with English GECs.

Does that mean Indian consumers are not willing to watch English content anymore?

A recent study conducted by Zee Entertainment's English entertainment channel, &Flix and Nielsen paints a different picture – 177 million Indians watch English entertainment and movie channels in India. The market for Hollywood films in the country in 2019, according to the &flix-Nielsen report, shot up by 204 per cent since 2013, making it the second biggest genre after Bollywood. Then came the pandemic, and things went terribly awry for English GECs.

Television came across as a trusted medium during the lockdown. There was significant growth in TV viewership, led by more walk-ins as well as more time spent. The Zee English cluster of channels grew by 93 per cent (week 12 – week 22 vs week 1 to week 11, BARC data). &flix, the home of Hollywood blockbusters, had one of the most engaged audiences in mega cities, with 56 minutes (week 12 – week 22, BARC data) average weekly time spent on the channel. This, given the context of the lockdown, tells us that the audience found content on television compelling and comforting.

The Covid2019 pandemic has accelerated digital transformation across mediums. People who were once fence-sitters also made the switch to OTT platforms or connected TV as fresh content dried up on television. And the unprecedented uptake of OTT platforms during the lockdown period became a fatal threat to English GECs. OTTs with premium, licensed English content offerings are generally subscription-based, providing uninterrupted, ad-free entertainment to viewers, and the freedom to watch any show or movie anytime, anywhere – something that TV just doesn’t have.

Ormax media partner Keerat Grewal said, “English GECs started off in India to cater to an audience that was seeking access to international content. OTT platforms provide a wider choice for the latest international content in ad-free formats on SVoD platforms making the market extremely competitive for the English GECs. Adding to that, none of the big and latest international series are available on linear TV. International content is likely to continue expanding its viewer base on OTT vs TV.”

Notably, for most metro and tier-1 audiences, where the consumption of English-language content is highest, streaming is no longer a passing fad but a staple of their viewing habits.

While speaking to a news organisation, dentsu Amplifi India group trading director Sujata Dwibedy shared, “English is considered premium content on television, with only 1.5 per cent to two per cent of the audience viewing English content. The same audience has been shifting to other screens and they are mainly glued to the good content – it could be catch-up TVs connected on TV or any other screen or it could be global/ local OTTs. Additionally, all the big networks also have powerful OTTs with their TV content as well as their originals on the streaming platform. So, the success metric, as well as the strategy to succeed, must be carefully thought through.”

ZeeL premium channels business head Kartik Mahadev agreed with the fact that digital video platforms are here to stay. However, he believes today we live in an AND world, not an OR world. “Studies reveal that consumption of overlapped content between TV and OTT grew on television from 59 per cent pre-NTO to 82 per cent contribution post-NTO for sitcom, drama, reality genres. It naturally follows that navigation between screens is seamless and consumption on TV and digital is complementary in nature,” he explained.

English entertainment (Movies + GEC) on television caters to over 110 million viewers (according to BARC @ All India 2+ U+R, week 12 – week 22’ 2020). The lockdown has showed that viewers choose to watch television for the curated content experience it provides, to not just individuals but the entire family and English entertainment viewership grew by 45 per cent as compared to last year (BARC @ All India 2+ U+R data, week 12 – week 22’2020 vs week 12 – week 22’2019). All hope is not lost, as there will always be advertisers willing to associate with English GECs that allow them to connect with their TGs.

“The surge in TV viewership post lockdown tells us that television is the trusted medium of entertainment. Television provides youth-focused brands and premium brands the opportunity to associate with a premium subscriber base that is defined basis their content choice,” noted Mahadev. “This sort of content and platform synergy for brands to associate with is not available on OTT platforms where English content is behind paywall.”

Experts believe that original programming with locally-nuanced shows will help to bring in relevance from an Indian context. While marquee international shows bring the best of the world to viewers, locally produced content allows channels to add a new dimension from the Indian point of view.

Moreover, content availability growing across platforms leading to fragmented viewing has spawned a greater and a more central role for television. Curation of content on television that lends to co-viewing, making TV a great community experience for family and friends, could emerge as the big differentiator. The shift to content that is homogeneous in terms of themes and that delivers to a broader audience base is the way forward for the category.

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