Prime, Love and Talking Business with Anand Chakravarthy

20 Feb,2013


Concurrent and simulcast are a few things that are synonymous to the Big CBS network. The latest addition to the network is the Hindi feed of the BIG CBS Prime, the male-oriented channel in its bouquet. As part of the ‘Talking Business’ series, Anand Chakravarthy, business head of the BIG CBS network,  spoke to Pradyuman Maheshwari and Meghna Sharma on how his channels are faring after digitalisation and plans for the year ahead.


It’s interesting to see you go Hindi with Prime… tell us more!

The starting point is actually looking at this trend of what’s happening in entertainment. In Movies there’s UTV Action. Many regional channels have brought in international content dubbed in local languages. Hollywood blockbusters are doing very well in Punjabi or Telugu. Then we saw Tamil and Telugu movies making a foray into Hindi GECs. The ratings for both were excellent. All of this adds up to a very simple conclusion that one, there is an evolution in audience taste and ability to consume content. No longer does skin colour, context of the movie have to be relevant for people to watch it. The appetite of the Indian audience has changed. We saw it starting with the kid genre moving to infotainment and movies and now ascending into mainline GECs.


So have you tweaked your content too?

Prime was always the male channel and Love a channel skewed towards women. So in terms of genres if you look at urban men versus mass male audiences, preferences are still in the space of action, crime and some genres like comedy. In terms of tweaking, we have finetuned the prime FPCs to include some genres which we believe have a universal appeal. For example, we bought back Bellator. When we launched Prime in English, Bellator was part of launch package and it did very well for us. Over time, we removed it and we said let’s bring it back because as we go to larger set of audience shows like Bellator will work really well. But we continue to have great shows at primetime. We have got America’s Got Talent’s latest season followed by CSI and 48 Hours. So, the genre is still male-skewed but the content is new. We have got brand new shows from CBS; 48 Hours has been on for 17 years and has won 17 Emmy Awards. CSI is a great franchise, it has always been. It is the largest watched show in the world. And AGT, which unlike American Idol and X-Factor has a broader appeal because it is not necessarily singing.


With BIG RTL Thrill, which targets male audiences in Hindi, now also available in metros like Mumbai and Delhi, do you see it as primary competition to Prime Hindi?

Thrill is still limited to UP and we are slowly getting it on other platforms as well. The way we see is that today the male audiences are very under-served as a population. The genres that men watching are essentially news, sports and movies. Now movies transcend men and women, so if you look at content for males, it is very limited. There are actually no channels which are focused at the male. This is perhaps the beginning of a trend. Are we the only channels which are coming in? Not necessarily. So, even if we are entering the space where Thrill exists, the fact is that it is an under-served market and there is space for more.


Are you also looking at other feeds like South Indian feeds?

Our premise is to start off with Hindi which will cover HSM. The second phase of DAS with 38 cities is predominantly HSM. With digitization, operators want more channels. And we come in as a channel which is not only English but also has a Hindi feed. The digital set-top box allows you to change languages; that’s something which will open up the opportunity. If I have to go onto analogue, I won’t be able to offer a language option. I’ll have to take a call – Prime only in English or Prime only in Hindi. DAS allows me to do that.


In terms of advertising, do you expect to attract different type of ads for Prime Hindi?

No! About 30 percent of ads on English entertainment channels are in Hindi. So while we talk of audiences in English entertainment channels, it is broadly SEC A and B. So the audience in the metros are very familiar with Hindi. There are some genres and categories which only advertise in English but there are many which are talking in Hindi. For example, the latest Axis Bank or the Quickr commercial. They are on English GECs and are all in Hindi!


Even for Prime Hindi, it is targeted at Sec ABC. It doesn’t go beyond this. The core audience will still be Sec A and B because it is not just pure visual. For instance, even if I’m watching CSI in Hindi, it requires involvement; it is not something ‘dekh sakte hai’. Because the content is not for instance say Terminator 3 where it’s just action so anybody can watch it and dialogues don’t matter much. So that’s what we are saying when we say Hindi feed versus pure play Hindi content which is like movies.


Look at all the English movies worked in India; Die Hard 5 has already released in Hindi and the posters are in Hindi and in English. The fact is that audiences are evolving and people are willing to consume content but it is only at the SEC A and B level.


December 26 was when the first ratings post-digitization were out. How has the story been for you in the last two months? We saw a spike in ratings initially but they went down. How are they now and what are the learnings?

Well, we waited for five to six weeks post that, we have actually re-programmed our channels. In the first five to six weeks, two things happened: DAS and then the universe changed. So it took time for data to settle down and give us clear indications of what genres were working. And there have been some interesting changes. So if you look at last year and this year, we found that sitcoms have an equal amount of attraction among women. The data last year was clearly showing that it was male-skewed. Sitcoms didn’t have a large enough play amongst female audiences so that is why we had kept sitcoms out of Love initially. But when you see last data post-DAS, new genres have emerged which are more universal in appeal. We saw reality formats like American idol and X-Factor which were more female-skewed becoming more universal. So, the fact is that you have to be programmed on the basis of data you have. The data which one has will change as the universe changes, the amount of digital goes up. So, re-programming has just set in and I think over the next two-three weeks you’ll see the impact of that.


Isn’t that a worry that data got skewed in one direction in the first few weeks and then got changed to another direction later. And now we have the LC 1 markets…

LC 1 market doesn’t impact us but it certainly will impact all national channels. Unfortunately, the reality is that India is an evolving environment. TAM is far from perfect, everybody knows it, but in the absence of any other measurement, as a programming strategy, what do I do? If I do intrusive programming it won’t show up in ratings so I have to look at TAM data and I have to see what data is throwing up on the basis of what’s working and programme my channels accordingly. Today, honestly, broadcasters are not left with any choice and forced to build their programming strategy around ratings.


Doesn’t customer loyalty get impacted when you change programming strategy and timings?

Two of my biggest shows are Excused and SATC so we have retained them and not moved them at all. So it’s Excused at 11pm followed by SATC where Love is leading the genre. We have fine-tuned the earlier primetime. Pre-primetime is a big opportunity as per the new data. So, traditionally, primetime was 10pm to 12:30am, but between 7pm and 10pm and more importantly between 8-10pm there is also viewership that needs to be tapped into. Similarly, there are slots in the data which need to be tapped into. And that’s where we have kind-of rejigged programming in order to tap into emerging opportunities.


Any new shows coming up?

48 Hours is premiering for the first time in India and we have just launched it. AGT’s latest season has just gone live and the third one is the CSI Las Vegas which are all brand new. We will be bringing in two big shows now. One is Elementary which is the new Sherlock Homes launched in America in the Fall of 2012. We are going to launch it in March on Prime which will be followed by another new acquisition about which we’ll make an announcement soon. There are some very big shows which are being launched at the end of this year. One is a show called The Dome by Spielberg which you can catch online and which we are definitely going to get to India from the CBS table.


You just mentioned online – so how much do you get affected when your audience prefers to watch shows online?

We have just finished very extensive research in Nov-Dec which is both quantitative and qualitative, which threw out that there are various segments. One the segments in this bunch of people who watch more of content on their laptops than on TV. The only thing with this group is that they are very, very small in numbers. What will get them to TV is your ability to show content as quickly from the US as possible. So we believe that a great way to bring them in is to show some shows purely concurrent with the US. For example, American Idol is concurrent to US telecast; even Fox doesn’t upload the episode 48 hours after the telecast. It doesn’t justify to have a full-fledged strategy for them because it’s not going to get any returns, but we are doing things so that they do come in.


Tell us about BIG CBS Love…

On Love what we are doing is that though the content is female skewed, it is appealing to men as well. It will be the core eight metro-focused channel that we have in our portfolio, as Prime will become broader outside the eight metros and into HSM also. On Love, we have been able to build a very strong franchise with our shows like SATC and Excused. We have brought in comedy in primetime at 8-9, followed by the American Idol strip. So we have comedy followed by reality which has worked for us. We are launching the Next Top Model latest season next Monday. The drama slot is 10-11pm where we are going to launch a very big show called Beauty and the Beast (March 25). In March, we also bring in a new sitcom called The Game which is about WAGs.


Currently Grey’s Anatomy is #1, so do you have a counter for that?

Let’s face it, for a channel which has been around 14 years, it has made a great franchise in the market. So, whoever watches English GECs has grown up on Star World. Hence it does become an automatic choice to go to. And do we have a portfolio to counter them? Yes, we do. The challenge for us is to build a brand in the market. Star World used to dominate the 10-11pm slot which we have already eaten into. And they launched Homeland to outdo us which isn’t working for them. So we have a strategy which will help us to eat into their shares more.


While  there is a legacy of such channels, the younger set of viewers aren’t as loyal to English entertainment channel as they are to Hindi GECs.

The current channels in the market have been offering very ordinary fare for a very long time. The action has happened in this market in the last two years. Where have you seen content coming to India so quickly as the US until we launched? Now all the channels in the genre have upped the game, that’s why we have seen concurrent telecast on channels like Star, Zee, AXN etc. Everybody realizes that the audience doesn’t want older content any more, they want things which are new as they are available online. We will see an evolution happening.


I think there is loyalty to shows. For instance, Friends used to be a great franchise at one point of time and there was great loyalty to that franchise. Same with Big Bang Theory, so when it moved from Zee to Star, Star did gain because people moved with the show. Even with a show like Excused, we have been able to build a franchise for it. Content on English GEC is episodic, thus you can watch one episode and come back after one week and still watch it. Hence, the viewing is also very different.


So, Big CBS Prime is going to be your pan-India English GEC like Star World or Zee Cafe?

Not really. Given the Hindi feed, Prime is going to give a footprint to the audience far more than what Star and Zee has. And Love will be purely eight metro channel whose audiences will grow from other markets as well.


What about Spark?

It is a music destination and it will continue to be so. But the focus is more on Prime and Love because every business has to decide what battle they want to fight? Where they want to focus your energy and investments on so that you can build a stronger brand. We have all the deals with big music labels and we continue to play latest music.


Apart from these three channels, do we see any new additions to the bouquets?

There is Spark Punjabi and that strategy is also being fine tuned. Will we launch a new channel? Not necessarily in the near future but we are considering new formats like HD which one would definitely look at in the near term because there is a growing opportunity because of digitization. But obviously it has to be viable business format because no subscriber is willing to pay money for HD. But it will change over time.


With Prime when we see Hindi settling down, we’ll think of other languages for Prime and take it to even bigger market space.


You have had some success with locally produced shows. Are you looking at doing more of that?

Certainly. Our aim to do one every quarter because we believe that there are areas in the Indian market that are still very relevant to the audience. Bollywood, sports etc is still very big part of appetite of this audience. So we have created properties which are evolved and appeal to their sensitivity like India’s Sexiest Bachelor or India’s Prime Icon.


Any star like Karan Johar?

Even in the current line-up of shows like Indian’s Sexiest Bachelor season 2 we have Sarah Jane Dias hosting the show. But about bringing in better known names? At present nothing is planned but you cannot rule it out. It’s a great opportunity to get the brand into people’s minds. We are exploring something in that space but it’s too early to make an announcement.


The marketing of English channels has been a mixed bag – some are majorly marketed, we are currently seeing billboards of Comedy Central’s Anger Management all over. Are you a believer in greater marketing spends?

Where you spend your money is what matters. And what are you advertising for. Is outdoor the best medium to talk to your audience? May be, may be not. We believe we have to use media smartly to talk to our audience. One cannot go splattering all over the city like Hindi GECs. I don’t believe there is ROI there. We look at relevant touchpoints. Digital is a very big space; one has to be very active in the online and mobile space. A lot of our promotions happen online and digital. We look at where this audience lives and go to. We do things at Crossword regularly, with Landmark, with Barista, with brands like Vogue, Cosmopolitan and we also do cinema very regularly. We choose the right kind of cinema properties we want to be available at. Given the competition today, one has to market itself aggressively. Given parity and distribution, now it is product and content that is sold.


The sentiment is the Big CBS is conservative in its approach in terms of promotions, properties etc. Is the perception correct?

I couldn’t say conservative. If you look at our spends today, compared to competition our share of voice is very high. We continuously do stuff – we might not do print ads but we continuously do beta stuff. Because we believe that the audience we are talking to is not the traditional one. Maybe people are reacting to one or two campaigns which the competition has done. To be frank, Big CBS has pioneered a lot of stuff which others have copied. We were the first ones to do concurrent so frequently and we were the first one to do simulcast. We were the first one to do strong digital integration for brands and do interesting contest where we send people to watch semi-final or finals of X-Factor and American Idol. Now others are copying us and doing the same thing. We forced a lot of brands to change their strategy.


You mentioned digitization becoming a big driver of the business. What do you anticipate in terms of revenue say in the next six months vis-a-vis advertising?

There will be a significant contribution coming from there. So a lot of platforms we are talking to for subscription money coming in and they are not actually saying no. A lot of platforms which have had us for a long time are recognizing their own ability for ARPUS. For example, DTH because we have done a lot of co-branded promotions with them. Like giving them first promos of a show, promoting their offers on our channels etc. So now when we are talking to them for higher share of subscription, they are talking to us and not saying no which was probably the case two years back.


Have you achieved your targets?

Not fully, but we are getting there. We have made a fair amount of progress from where we started. I think digitization has been a boost for us. We have seen a 15-25 percent growth in ERS already which was a struggle in the non-digitized days. Now every month we are able to up for rates and go closer to our targets.


And plans for the next year?

The biggest focus is to get Prime Hindi feeds into every single market in the country. The channel is moving from the core eight metros and making in-roads into other markets. On the back of it, we’ll make sure Love rolls out significantly in its reach. And we want to bring in big shows and we want to feed the market with the best content from the CBS table. Another area which will see a significant share is localized products which is relevant not only for audience but advertisers as well.


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