There will be a ‘Mahabharat’ between TV & OTT: BARC’s Sunil Lulla

Lulla thinks that in order to survive, English GECs will have to rework their strategies.

MUMBAI: BARC India CEO Sunil Lulla is in a unique position, being at the helm of a body which is the only industry currency for the 3.5-billion-dollar television advertising market. Needless to say, it comes with a lot of responsibility.

Lulla brings over 35 years of significant leadership and domain proven knowledge, with ground-up experience in growing brands and building businesses. Having worked across media, brands and advertising, he has occupied leadership roles at MTV, Sony, Times Television Network, SaReGaMa, Diageo,, GREY group, JWT and Balaji Telefilms. Sunil maintains active interests in serving industry interests to foster the spirit of self-regulation and collaboration. He is an active long-distance runner, enjoys sailing and evocative conversations.

During an interaction with Governance Now’s Kailashnath Adhikari, Lulla talked at length about the impact of Covid2019 on the television and broadcast industry, key takeaways during the pandemic, television viewership, technology, advertising, and much more.

Lulla shared that the peak in television viewership has gone down compared to the pre-Covid2019 level, but it is slowly picking up. Said he: “We are more than 902 million viewing minutes, it picked up to one billion viewing minutes. As people are confined into their homes the lines have blurred between primetime and non-prime time. The prime-time hours of 6 am to 6 pm witnessed a major shift in viewing.”

With filming being halted during the lockdown, no production of televised content was happening, so the only option left with audiences was to watch news, movies and kids’ content. Hence, the news genre picked up pretty well – it went from seven per cent of viewing to 21 per cent, then back down to 14 per cent. Now it’s holding steady at seven per cent share of the category. Similarly, kids watched a lot of content before schools went online. Movies became big and once original programming started general entertainment channels (GECs) are back with higher viewership than the pre-Covid2019 period.

TV will continue to remain as the screen of the household, claimed Lulla, but the initial few months into the lockdown were difficult for the industry as a whole. While there was a peak in viewership, advertising went down. The gap has never been as difficult to bridge before. “However, now advertising volumes are higher than what they were last year, so the shortfalls that are present will not be as bad as expected,” he said. A whole new set of advertisers and brands have come in, health and hygiene products, digital, gaming, e-commerce, ed-tech became huge during this time.

In the middle of the crisis, digital has picked up fairly because of more mobile connections, higher data consumption, digital show launches. Also, despite being a difficult time period, the IPL has performed well both in terms of viewing and advertising.

Another aspect that Lulla highlighted is the stiff competition between television and OTT. As audiences are now moving towards online content it is believed that digital advertising will outgrow television advertising in the coming years. Lulla quipped that there will be a Mahabharat between TV and OTT.

“I think in 2020 in the US, digital advertising may overtake TV advertising but that’s unlikely  to be the case in India before 2030. It’s a question of quality service, quality of economy and what happens to the overall economy. It is not about OTT content or mobile screen. It is more about screen time. I think there will be growth in digital advertising. TV is not dropping, it is sustaining. Because if you want to reach the masses of India, TV is still the best medium.”

In the last few months, the duration of a lot of niche channels like English GECs and infotainment has witnessed a lot of turbulence, courtesy the pandemic and NTO. But the question that begs to be asked is: weren’t they already seeing a slow death?

Lulla explained that English is a sliver of the content pie, with less than one per cent of Indian audiences watching English programming. Later, the audiences started watching content on other mediums. So, in order to survive English GECs will have to rework their strategies.

Another challenge before the television is that it is too advertising dependent, which is not the case in the west, where there is a balance between advertising and subscription. But since cable service in the country is cheap, compounded by a price tariff regime, very few channels are going to make profitable money on subscription alone, Lulla concluded.

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