Will launch two OTTs before end of this year: Discovery India's Karan Bajaj

Will launch two OTTs before end of this year: Discovery India's Karan Bajaj

Karan Bajaj

MUMBAI: When Karan Bajaj was hired to take over and run Discovery India in 2016, he was an unknown entity to most in the Indian media business. However, he had the credentials: a best-selling writer, a yogi and good exposure to the consumer having worked with Mondelez and Kraft Foods in the US.

His mandate was clear: get Discovery India ready for the digital future and set it on a faster growth track. And he has: Discovery Kids has grown 587 per cent since he has taken over. All core networks are up 15-20 per cent and revenue growth has accelerated to high double digits.

One of his initiatives Discovery Jeet, a fact-based fiction channel - a new genre in the general entertainment space did not pan out as well as was expected and it did not generate the viewership it was hoped it would.

But Bajaj is not letting that drag him down – thanks to the support he has from his Europe-based boss JB Perrette. It has been back to the drawing board to recreate a new Jeet, even as charting a rapid growth curve for the other channels in the Discovery India bouquet. And he is no longer an unknown entity having carved a niche for himself in the media ecosystem. He clearly says - with a bashful smile -that it has been a “dynamic 18 months” and that he is going to continue to swing – read: take risks.

Indeed. His other punt – Little Singham – has done well for the channel Discovery Kids catapulting it up the kids TV ranking.

Indiantelevision.com’s Santosh Jangid and Ayushi Hirani got into a conversation with Bajaj to ask him about whether he was standing firm, and what he intends to do with Jeet, and on digital. And the boyish-looking lanky Bajaj was pretty candid about the learnings, how the network is evolving and where he sees it going in terms of programming.  Excerpts:

What is your overall Discovery strategy and plan for 2018-2020?

First, let me give me you a bit of background. When I took over, the overall intent was that if I look at how Indian consumers are structured, they form a pyramid. At the top are about 20 million households, who are with a premium DTH connection or a broadband connection.  And there’s this very seismic shift happening in those 20 million households, they are becoming completely internet enabled households. In 18 months, they will totally become the phenomenon we see in the US – the cord cutters. Their primary content consumption is via the internet.

The next 100 million are the linear TV viewers and they will have a second screen which is a smartphone. The remaining 120 million are entering the TV universe.

I looked at these three segments when I had come, and noticed that our business had a very strong propensity with the top 20 million households. And as I was going forward the way I had structured the strategy was that for the top 20 million households our entire delivery ecosystem has to become digital-first. For the next 100 million households, we have to create mass propositions. Like our current proposition is not local and mass enough is what I surmised. And the remaining 100 million households will follow the first two.

So if I look at the strategy of Discovery India it is more or less completely unchanged than what I had set in 18 months. There have been some wins, some hiccoughs, but the strategy does not change based on initiatives. So If I think of the top 20 million households, we had said that in digital there are two successful models: you are either an aggregator – that is you aggregate a lot of content like a Netflix or Hotstar - or the other one that is successful globally is the niche passionate community. So one of the most profitable American digital brands is a college wrestling app which aggregates only college wrestling content and charges $5 a month to subscribers with a million subscribers. That’s $5 million a month where the cost of acquisition of the content is pretty low.

The right of Discovery is to be an aggregator of passionate communities. We had said we are going to be the top community in auto, food, tech and travel. Because that is the Discovery right. I will never be the aggregator. I don’t want to aggregate movies or entertainment because that’s not the game Discovery does well. We are an aggregation of a lot of passionate communities of five to seven million people each. So when we arrived, we immediately tested a military brand called Veer. You will not have heard of this. By its nature I don’t want millions of people to hear of it. If you are a military passionate consumer today, Veer is the no 1 military brand within a span of a few months of launching it. It is growing 5,000 subscribers a day organically on YouTube alone. We are soon launching a food brand and the game is that we have a global library and we have local content on food. And I am anticipating that in a very short time, we will become a leader in the food digital space. The idea is that we will become the leader of these niche passionate verticals that are very strongly associated with Discovery.  And it is a very unique position to play in. Later on this year, we are going to aggregate the non-fiction communities into a single product platform which immediately becomes like the Netflix of non-fiction. Currently, we are delivering these communities content on social and telco platforms.

So that’s the top few million households to move to a digital ecosystem in a way that Discovery does very well.

Is digital your only focus?

On the second step on the mass TV side, we had taken Kids which was like a laggard channel on number 10. We have given it a mass-orientation because kids are usually driven by ratings, tier II and tier III towns by offering them Little Singham and recently it shot up to the number 3-4 position. Then we launched Jeet on the mass side. Jeet has not worked as we expected it to work –and this happens. But I still believe in a mass proposition – like I believe that Discovery has a right to play in the mass proposition. Would that mean more local content on the flagship channels, which we did successfully with Veer. I will continue to do initiatives around mass TV while pivoting digital.  I will see how I can create more mass IPs like Little Singham on Discovery Kids or Veer.

When is the Discovery Kids platform coming up?

Discovery globally is launching a digital platform. Kids is a big genre in digital. If you see the number one concern that parents have about digital is that it is not a brand-safe environment and Discovery comes with a very strong brand and it comes with a brand safe environment for kids.

So that kind of idea is what they are launching the global Discovery Kids brand which is both fun and educational. With that platform I will use Little Singham which has done extremely well. I have all the global content plus the local IPs here which are of a lot of relevance.

So now the platform is ready globally. I am creating a timeline to import it here. By the end of this year, you will see a launch in the kids digital platform side and what we are tentatively calling the House of Discovery which is the digital product that houses all of these niche passionate communities in tech, outdoors, auto, military, wildlife, science, food, travel and all the other Scripps content that is coming up. So overall if I look at the strategy, I will say the business is more robust than it has ever been. All of our networks are growing double digits in terms of revenues despite the broader kind of noise that I hear around English genre. If you look at the viewership and ratings, Q4 vs Q1, every brand is up 15-25 per cent.

The core thought process that I had followed on the core premium network on the Discovery, Animal Planet, TLC side was that for these networks to have a long-term sustainable play, they have to be clear leaders in their genre. They have to have digital scale and they need to create local IPs, that are completely a must-have for advertisers and consumers.

We have strengthened our genre leadership and our gap versus competition. We are doing limited high-value perennial stuff where we have exclusive access. And hence we are doing well there.

What shows are in the pipeline for the infotainment genre?

On Discovery, I have the Air Force Academy in June. We have the women’s fighter pilots, which I am very excited about. In December, we have Siachen special which is a first ever of its kind. Plus we are doing a reality show on Discovery for the very first time. It’s called Real Men which is about taking around five civilians and putting them through a military boot camp. There is no winner; you are winning you over yourself and your ability to withstand what military does on a daily basis.  We are trying to create the concept of service over self for the young generation.

On Animal Planet we have very strong conservation drives like Project Cat. Last year, we took it on ourselves to double the tiger population and we used India – the Manas sanctuary - as a testing ground to do that. We had a dramatic increase in the population. So we will continue to support that effort and do local programming around that.

TLC with Scripps coming in has excellent thousands of hours of food content. So we will do local food around to supplement that global content.

Tell us about the strategy for replacing the local content on Jeet?

We are still working on it. If I step back a little bit, what was Jeet trying to do? The whole point of Jeet was: can you create a Discovery for the masses? It was a new category in the general entertainment space. We had not benchmarked against competition.  Our goal was to create fact-inspired fiction that is a story with a meaning and mount it at a scale that is very mass-y. We had always said if we can get 40-50 GRPs we would have a very differentiated channel. Unfortunately, that combination of content, marketing and distribution that you need in order to bring it to that level didn’t work out.  The connection did not get formed with viewers. So now with Scripps coming in, which was coming in alongside the Jeet launch, we are looking at all the new thousands of hours of library that have become available and seeing that is there anything that fits the same thesis that we started the channel with. We will look at content in the entertainment space with a deeper sense of purpose behind it. So we are working on the proposition that can we create an entertainment channel with the library that is available to us.

In terms of target audience, the pyramid structure remains the same, like I said that we are going for the next 120 million households as we go with the mass TG with both kids and Jeet. So if we are launching or continuing the same GEC for Jeet or dipping into the global library, we are looking at the vantage point of view of the mass consumer and can this work in a single TV household. And can we look at the thousands of hours of content, which is not the traditional Discovery library. The Scripps library is a good mix of entertainment. But nothing changes in that front. The only thing is we decided not to do any more local content on Jeet.

What about the existing local content on Jeet

Even when dipping into the global content, we will intersperse some of it with some of the local content that we have, as long as we have not overscheduled it. As long as we feel that some part of it has not been seen by consumers, it will be a mix of global and local content till the time the content reaches a wear out – till people have seen it enough.  The repeats will be aired in June when the first round of programming ends.

For promotional and advertising strategy, it will be the combination of both internal and external network that we have always done. We use our internal network very well because it is a very targeted pool and the same strategy that we did for Jeet. The Scripps transition will happen in Q3 and we will look at how we will schedule. The new content will be dubbed in English and Hindi.

What were your learnings from Jeet?

There are two kinds of learnings: first, we knew that it should be the perfect interplay of content, marketing and distribution. The reality of Jeet was that all of them had to work perfectly. It is somewhat easier to launch with the expectation of launching the number one GEC, so in that kind of GEC, you spend a lot in marketing, distribution. At a level like which is at a 6X scale of what we spent and then when you spend that level of marketing, you spend that level of distribution, you spend that much on content etc. your chance of success are still limited. GEC is anyway a tough game. But your chances of breaking out become easier because of the scale at which you are coming. With a proposition like Jeet, you have to be perfectly right because you are spending at a certain level of content, marketing and distribution to be at a certain level of performance. You have to get the Goldilocks model completely right. You have no margin of error. We knew that coming up with the differentiated content was a risk, but we also didn’t want to go the other route. The learning we have is that I am very proud of it. I am very proud of the team, the energy that the organisation went through, the efforts that they made, we took this risk and the energy that went into creating it. For 20 years we had produced just around five hours of programming and with Jeet we completely changed that. One learning is that we need to continue taking the swings. We are open for business and we will continue to take our swings.