Ruling it with the Game of Thrones

08 May,2015


She has been among the early entrants in the broadcast space and has since grown to be one of the seasoned professionals in the business. But even as she’s accomplished in adsales, it was interesting to see Monica Tata take on mantle of two ad-free HBO premium channels. While she did not disclose subscriber numbers, HBO has been aggressive in the broadcast space and top-of-mind thanks to content on the back of the very successful Game of Thrones. So when we heard about the simulcast of Season 5, we reached out to the Managing Director, HBO South Asia for this chat. Excerpts from a conversation with Pradyuman Maheshwari and Dyanne Coelho:


Game of Thrones is indeed a big thing with you’ll this time given the simulcast and the overall marketing blitz.

When HBO Defined came into India, our proposition was of making it the Home of the Originals. So we want to bring all our original content, which we were not airing on the basic HBO channel. Thanks to the shift of content consumption taking place, clearly there was an audience wanting to appreciate and consume this content. By the time Defined entered the country, three seasons of Game of Thrones (GOT) had already happened. So we launched Season 4 last year, and although globally it was well-accepted, it was still picking up in India.


It’s now reached an all-new high in entertainment consumption…

Yeah, so we did one week from the US telecast launch last year, which was still a big thing for us. Clearly there was an opportunity there for us to fix that. Hence Season 5 became that big launch for us as well as in many other countries… 170, to be precise. We’re doing a simulcast from the US. That’s a first for India too, and that has helped hugely.


The leaks notwithstanding?

Yes, the leak notwithstanding. The reality is that, I think the simulcast is going to help some of those issues that regions around the world were facing with piracy. We’re strong believers and we’re absolutely anti-piracy. We are very strong contenders of bringing the content simultaneously, and diminishing the chances of piracy. So I think such initiatives will really help.


But don’t you think piracy has been allowed to flourish for so long that while it’s great to watch GOT on a bigger television set, people have gotten used to watching content on smaller laptop or tablet screens.

Not sure if I agree on that  because I think if you don’t give them a choice then they will look for other means and if you’ve not seen any better way to get it. Now if you’re being given the opportunity to watch it HD quality, 100% ad-free, in the comforts of your home at the same time as it’s being telecast in the US, I find it really hard to believe that that is not reason good enough for a consumer or GOT fan to sit and watch it at home and not to go through that whole exercise of being a pirate.


Being a person who has spent some of your best years in adsales, don’t you think a show like GOT would’ve attracted great advertising and but since it’s ad-free on HBO Defined, you are deprived of the revenues?

I’m going to be very politically correct on this, because fortunately or unfortunately, the world of advertising is driven by ratings, and if a show doesn’t rate at all, and if the ratings mechanism did not capture those ratings, advertisers were questioning its existence. And when the ratings are not happening, advertising is not happening, you start questioning its business presence. And that’s why I think original content never made it to the ad-supported platform. But I think that was a while ago, times have changed, consumption content patterns have changed, and I think these platforms like HBO Defined have clearly brought about that opportunity for audiences to consume. So at this stage right now, we want to promise to our consumer 100 percent ad-free originals and hence it’s on HBO originals.


How is the channel doing in terms of number of subscribers?

It’s good, in fact from the time we launched, we’ve grown tremendously, almost 10 times to be honest in one-and-a-half years. Our success tells the fact that there is an audience out there ready to pay for content, if you’re giving him/her the value proposition.


GOT of course has thrown up a lot of revenue-earning opportunities from merchandise, etc, also internationally. What about India?

No, we don’t have it here, it is managed out of our New York office. It’s a global merchandising initiative, so some of it does trickle into this market too.


Since your revenues depend entirely on distribution, are those monies taking good care of the kind of spends that you have?

Can’t talk about money, but, yes, overall we’ve had a robust business, and as a region, we function as a region, so as a region we’ve had a reasonably good year.


At what stage do you feel it would be hugely profitable?

I won’t comment on that.


Going forward are there any major spikes that we’re going to see in the kind of major shows that we’re going to have?

Game of Thrones is so huge you know, so iconic.


And after that?

You know frankly, every show that HBO brings is fantastic, but once in a lifetime something like GOT is created. It becomes a phenomenon; you don’t make such things all the time. This is a one-off. It would be unfair to sit and compare. It even made it to President Obama’s speech… These things just happen once in a lifetime. It would be unfair to compare.


Yeah, it’s also a challenge when you have something like GOT…

Yeah you can see the glass as half-empty or half-full and we are seeing it as half-full.. in fact full-full.


No but what do you do after that? What will you air after GOT Season 5 concludes?

You create more. There’s one GOT that happened and it’s not stopping. We’re on Season 5 and there is 6 and 7 which is being sanctioned, and let’s see what happens and how all of that plays out. None of us are aware how the production of that will play out. But there is so much more content HBO brings to the table, like the True Detective coming which is the second season of it. The first one was a four-part series which is now the second season is coming as well. So it’s going to be very interesting, iconic, maybe even award-winning engaging content coming out from the house of HBO.


Does a show like GOT bring in a new set of subscribers for you?

Yes it does. That’s why we focus our marketing energy on a show like that because it is a hook for us. This channel has a lot to offer, but when you bring a show, the kind of marketing activity we put before the Season 5 launch has shown a spike. So it helps.


Is there a number that you can share, a percentage in terms of growth?

No there’s no reference point. This is the first time we’ve put such a large focus on the GOT Season 5 especially with the simulcast aspect of it, because we did focus our energy on Season 4 and we did a good marketing job as well. But there was a slight disadvantage because it was a one week later, but this was something that was fantastic.


Is there some target you can quote in terms of number that you want grow by?

We always want to target growth on a regular basis. There is no number, because at the end of the day, the entire universe of digital homes is our universe. That’s the potential really, that’s the whole world out there. But how far can we go, how fast can we go.


Tell us about this news we read about Star India handing your distribution… is that happening?

I have no idea. No comments on that.


Given your own experience with the two HBO premium pay channels, would you says it’s a profitable route to take? Do you think other genres could also adopt it?

I think there is an opportunity for paid channels in the country. Two HD channels at Rs 99. It costs you 1000 bucks to watch a movie in a theatre, one day, if just a family of four goes to a movie, picks up couple of popcorn, something to drink… . Here you’re getting at Rs 99 a month and a fair deal of content, which is award-winning, fabulous movies in a 100% ad-free environment. I think it’s a no-brainer really. So there is an audience out there who is ready to spend, and Indians are ready to spend. I am personally a very big optimist on that front and hence the proof of the whole thing is that we made a success of a channel, a premium proposition which wasn’t existing.


But people in India have double standards on consumption. For instance, we see it with newspapers, where people don’t mind spending 10 rupees on peanuts or whatever, but they will not possibly spend that on a content-rich newspaper or magazine. People might spend on movies or going to a restaurant, but as far as paying for a channel….?

No, but people have paid. See, had I been making this statement without putting my money where my mouth is, then you can question it, but the fact is that we’ve done it. We came in at a time when it was questionable, digitisation has definitely helped a business model like ours and that’s the positive part that digitisation has helped achieve.


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