Talking Business | It’s gonna be Xmas for English entertainment channels: Rasika Tyagi

06 Feb,2013

 

Talking Business is our new fortnightly series of interviews with heads of businesses in various media companies. So although Rasika Tyagi is not the business head for the English channels of the Star India network, she has been holding fort ever since Saurabh Yagnik quit the organization to move to MSM Sony.

In a freewheeling one-hour chat over some well-brewed tea, the Senior Vice President and Content Head, English Channels spoke to Pradyuman Maheshwari and Johnson Napier. And, as you’ll figure, she does talk with much confidence (and conviction) on issues concerning her business.

Excerpts:

 

There has been much action in the English general entertainment genre thanks to digitization. How have your channels done in the recent past? (*See Disclaimer below on ratings data)

I think digitization has opened up plenty of opportunities and not just for our channels, which of course have seen huge growth. Our channels Star World and Star Movies were being well-distributed already. So I don’t think the upside of the digitized environment has been so much on these legacy brands; it has been rather on our newer brands. The Star network within the English category has grown by 15%. All our channels have seen positive trends post-digitization. While Star World continues its leadership; FX and Fox Crime have been the key contributors in the genre growth. The shares of these two channels have more than doubled post-digitization. FX has grown by nearly 343 % and Fox Crime has grown by 117 %

 

So did this happen because they are now being distributed better by you?

As far as I see it, I think it was availability that was stopping them from having a level-playing field. There is actually no reason why an FX cannot be at a similar rating as a Star World? Sure it is more niche so it won’t be as wide as FX, but the difference between the two channels  as it was pre-digitization did not make any sense. The only reason that happened was because FX was not as widely available. Now you see that the difference of availability has gone away the two channels could be compared almost similarly.

 

But you are Star India and you could’ve leveraged the distribution muscle from MedioPro… so why wasn’t FX more widely available earlier?

I think it didn’t make any business sense to us. In the pre-digitized environment, you didn’t need to spend a lot of money on analogue distribution. Frankly, if you see the possibility of recovering that money one would’ve surely put in that kind of money. For a new channel that is starting off and does not have as much as presence in the mind of the buyers, you were going to have to take it slowly. In Year 1, there is no way we would have recovered the kind of money that we would have had to pay to get it to the same distribution levels as Star World. Also, because of the fact that Star World and Star Movies have been around for a long time, they were being distributed without us having to invest a certain amount of money. But costs have been prohibitive for anything that launched a year-and-a-half or two years ago, which niche channels found extremely hard to recover… at least in the short-term.

 

Have these smaller channels grown at the expense of a Star World or Star Movies?

Star World has not lost… in fact we’ve gained.

 

So where have these viewers come from?

If you were to see the time spent by the viewer watching English entertainment, it is very small compared to other genres. I think that fraction of time spent has increased a lot more; it’s not gone from Star World to FX. It is: I will watch Star World and FX. This tells you that the propensity to watch English is so much more. … If 60% of the measured universe watches English and spends substantial amount of time on TV (1000+ minutes per week), of this, 1 to 2 hours is spent on channels within the English category (average time spent). These viewers are not new. They have always shown affinity towards good English content. Our Star network GEC channels have benefitted the most because our content line up is stronger. Similar trend exists in the movies category. All our channels have seen positive trends post digitization. Our #1 channel, Star Movies continues to lead the category with 30% share whereas FOX Action Movies has seen a 3000% growth.

 

That’s because it started off as a small base and is suddenly available everywhere and people are spending a lot more time watching it. That applies for other English movie channels who have all seen growth post-digitization.

 

Given that digitization has happened in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata in parts, what you are inferring is that the growth for your channels has come from mostly Mumbai and Delhi. Is that the case?

It is primarily led by Mumbai and Delhi but we have seen growth come from Kolkata as well. Delhi being a 100 per cent digitised market, we are seeing more growth there.

 

If this is the kind of growth you’ve seen from just two markets, what do you anticipate when Phase 2 digitization kicks off from March 31 2013?

It’s going to be Christmas! At least Christmas is going to come early for us… for at least those working in the English entertainment category. In this country we tend to talk about how many people and not about who watches us. Considering that we were considered as primarily being available in the metros in India, I have no reason to believe that people residing in towns like Lucknow, in MP, Punjab, South… do not want to consume English content? I think every city has elite English-speaking people who did not have English channels available because it was prohibitive for us to distribute in those markets.

 

You will now need to market yourselves in these cities and towns?

I agree. There are two things to this: it’s not just about marketing that will indeed play a crucial role but also what you are doing to differentiate yourself in the line-up of seven movie and seven entertainment channels. Star World and Star Movies are easy brands to deal with. Like when I was doing a research and asking people about their preference about English movie channels it was heartening to note that they started by saying Star Movies and followed by other brands.

 

Was this across all age groups?

It was across all age groups, male/female, English-speaking viewers from Sec A&B. That was not what was observed with Hindi movie channels where the opinion was divided.

 

A fair percentage of your TG comprises teens. How strong are you there?

Yes, you are right. We are strongest among the 15-24 age group.

 

But this TG is also considered to be fickle with their choices. They hop on from one channel to another and be back to yours for a show of their choice. Is this a pattern you are worried about?

Absolutely not. What is my hope? My hope is that I am your first choice to start your search.

 

The reason why this is important and is not the case with the Hindi GECs where it took some taking to a dislodge a Star Plus from its #1 status. And because it is a younger generation, there is no loyalty to a media brand.

Whether this exists as much I do not know, but again I am hoping that I am able to start them to watch me now and build them to be my loyal audience when they turn 23-24. It is my job to build brand loyalty in them. I will try and get the best programmes because I will still try and get these audiences to play only me.

 

So more spends on wooing viewers increase in the digitized scenario?

I am not sure whether spends will necessarily increase, though there will be some gain but because of whom we are talking to, we are rethinking the mediums for promotion. For example, in the campaign we did for ‘Packed to the Rafters’ we only used our own channels and the rest of it was only done online. That’s because the 15-24-year-old TG is available on that platform and they spend a large amount of time there. I think it is a rethink that we are doing. If we put a masthead on Youtube, it is not just going to seven metros it is going across.

 

Is getting a Karan Johar to be your brand ambassador worthwhile considering the monies you will make from the show?

Yes, it is worthwhile because that show was going to come on air for 6-7 months. Could I have done that for a show of 22 episodes, Monday-Friday, which is one season in the US – and done for 22 days? No. May be I wouldn’t have thought of doing something like this. Also it is about relatibility of our content. Because they do not talk your accent or do not dress like you doesn’t mean that their issues are not yours.

 

I think for that barrier to break, we make it more culturally relevant to a larger set of audience.  That we managed pretty successfully. We started with ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ in September where we said a Meredith Grey is just like you. Her issues are your issues and she is grappling with what a 24-25-year-old would be grappling with. Just because she doesn’t look like you doesn’t mean she is not like you. It was an extremely successful campaign and it is today the No 1 show in the 10pm time band. That is also the reason that I chose a show like ‘Packed to the Rafters’ because it is all about relationships and something what Indian families go through. Our lives are changing in metro India and we do not know people pick up cues on what they want to evolve into…

 

What about the season lag issue that exists for shows on your channels? I guess the bigger competition is not a rival channel but the internet where the more newest season and/or episode is aired

Yes, downloading, Torrents, etc… I am very well aware of that. It is such a hard battle and my team and I fight this battle each and every day. We often sit and mull whether should we go a day-and-date with the US…but the point is that we keep trying. We had a whole slot called Crime @ 10 where we did 5 shows including Castle, White Collar, Dexter, Person of Interest and Unforgettables. We launched them exactly the same day and had the shows airing 24 hours after the US. That meant playing a different show every day of the week. In India, we are not used to watching television like that. People were finding it tough to remember the slot because they were watching 600 other channels in one day!

 

Yeah, Star pioneered that…

(laughs) Yes, but I was trying to tell viewers that you watch 600 channels in one way but you come and watch my channel in another way! That’s very hard and the point is that the US makes only 22 episodes per season. So when I have to strip something it only lasts 22 days, so when do I promote it, when do I get you used to watching it, etc. This was not working for the audience. We did enough work to find this out.

 

Yet you have a fair number of people who watch the latest episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ or some other American show on the web, especially in the two digitized metros.

If you haven’t seen ‘Grey’s Anatomy’, you will have to download 250 episodes. It’s kind of hard but I am not taking away from the fact the downloading happens. What we are trying to do is have a balance where we are saying: on weekdays, let’s show you shows together on the go and therefore six seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. But on weekends, I am showing you the biggest shows in the US. There’s a show called Arrow that has just launched which has done seven episodes in the US after they were going to take a seven-week break. So I started seven weeks after them, else I would have to tell people that for seven weeks there will be no episode of Arrow…

 

But the Star India with Uday Shankar as CEO has always done things differently. So I am sure you too change the way things are here…

Firstly, I think that it is slow progression. And also I think that we have changed over time. I come back to what I have said that if this is not your primary source of entertainment – if you watch me only for 15 minutes from the entire viewing time limit…

 

But there is a generation of people who just watch English entertainment.

That’s a rarity. Around 99 per cent of my audience watch Hindi/regional GECs for primary consumption. Actually we have not found even one person who only measures and comes up in English and does not cross over to other genres.

 

So what’s going to be the way forward for you in terms of tackling this online immigration?

We are trying to do is getting all our content available online as well. Whatever we play on television we will play online and just take away the reason for you to go and download from any other place. Also it comes down to economics of business as well. Most people end up paying Rs 1 to watch Star World in a month; this content is made for millions of dollars every episode…I am just waiting to work out a business model that will give me the revenue that I need to go and buy the rights of these shows online and doesn’t restrict me whenever I want to play them online. So it has to make business sense to us.

 

By when do you see the ratings see-saw game stabilising itself?

When you say see-saw we do not really measure as the whole number is very small. We tend to look at only 4-week averages. There is not much see-sawing in 4-week averages and our two prime channels are always on top.

 

Any fresh targets being looked at for profitability?

For the newer channels, we hadn’t really set any ratings or revenue targets. We were waiting for digitization to happen. In fact, March 31 will open up and reveal a lot more of what is going to happen. We are all waiting with bated breath for that to happen. Our financial year starts June-July so in July we will set targets for these new channels because when they continue to rate the way they have been in the last two months, we are very hopeful that we will be able to monetise them as well.

 

Did you expect this growth of the niche channels?

I was prepared for growth; I knew the kind of content we showed was going to work but was I expecting 350 per cent growth for FX, I do not know? I was pleasantly surprised too and the time spent on FX is what has blown my mind.

 

Given the opportunities that are being thrown up by digitization what’s the next plan of growth for you in terms of new channels, more local content, etc?

Where next year is concerned, we are looking at making FX and Fox Crime bigger so that we deliver rounded entertainment to our viewers. We already have 36 per cent of the English GEC market captured with these three channels and we want to solidify and expand that. There are plans… digitization allows you to get more focussed. It really allows you to go much more specific in terms of what you intend to deliver.

 

But English movie channel are essentially about the library, right? Like Movies Now which has a fantastic library…

They are essentially a library channel. I see it differently with Star Movies looking  to premiere almost 70 new movies including movies like Snow White and the Huntsman, Prometheus, Battleship, Life of Pi etc. We have more studio tie-ups than any other movie channel in India. We believe that movie channels need to show you new content or premieres; that’s one of our prime responsibilities.

 

On Star World, how was the last year in terms of local content?

We tried experimenting with more Indian content last year than we ever had previously on the channel. We have a lot of learning to do as a team. We have gone from having no Indian content to having eight shows. Some we were very proud of and some did not run up as we expected.

 

Will we see a new season of Koffee with Karan?

Fingers crossed; we are trying to work that out.

 

With stricter regulations coming into play do you think you may have problems playing up risqué questions on air?

Not at all. Koffee with Karan does not fall under the risqué basket as far as regulators are concerned. While the last season had content that was risqué but not so much to fall in trouble with the authorities. On the contrary, I think the regulators have been good with English entertainment channels as they realise there is a different sensibility of audiences involved, I feel we have had a great level of understanding with the BCCC. Some stuff which they told me, I was in complete agreement with them on that.

 

In fact according to a report released by the BCCC, the maximum number of problems they faced was with the English entertainment genre…

Yes, they may have received a lot of complaints but how they have responded to it has been fabulous. We have made a lot of adjustments as well. One of the reasons that we hurried up and brought the FX beams to India was because of the problems they were facing which we agreed with. FX was being beamed according to Asia primetime and shows like Archer, Californication were coming at 8-9 pm in India and that was late night for Hong Kong and other countries in Asia. We thematically agreed with the BCCC that these shows were not right to be aired before 11pm. So we’ve had a good experience with the regulators.

 

What about other local shows. Will we see them back?

We have just completed Season 2 of Dewarists which has done very well. It’s mindblowing to be able to do content like this and work for a channel that allows you to do something like this. We are currently also doing Season 2 of Teacher’s Achievers Club, which we are very proud of. I wanted to tell stories of people who have been successful but started from very humble backgrounds. I believe we all have an equal chance to be somebody irrespective of what lineage you come from. This year we are doing it with Boman Irani. We also have another show called The Front Row with Anupama Chopra which is a year-long show. Hopefully we will do another show with Koffee with Karan.

 

And Simi Garewal?

We have not yet decided on whether we will do another season of India’s Most Desirable. We will take a call on that later.

 

*Disclaimer: Since TAM Media does not share viewership numbers with the media, all ratings-related data in the interview have not been verified by MxMIndia – Ed

 

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