Disruption raise to Infinity: Ferzad Palia

02 Jul,2015


On Wednesday, Viacom18 announced its foray into the English general entertainment space with Colors Infinity, a 24-hour channel with the promise that 98 percent of the content showcased has never been seen before on Indian television. Colors Infinity will tag alongside its sister channel Colors Infinity HD. Although the channel hasn’t indicated a date of launch, trade sources tell us it will happen before July 2015 ends. The channel’s content is set to be co-curated by Bollywood majors Karan Johar and Alia Bhatt. In a freewheeling chat with Pradyuman Maheshwari and Dyanne Coelho, Ferzad Palia, EVP, Viacom18 and Head, English Entertainment tell us the how Colors Infinity came to being and why he thinks it’s going to be as much of a gamechanger as Colors was in 2008.


The news of the English GEC has been around for a while…

Ferzad: I keep hearing rumours from time to time about us launching many things. I’ve heard many of them over the last few years, some true, some untrue.


So for how long has it been in the works?

18 months. The fact of the matter is that this is a very elaborate project. When you’re launching a channel of this scale, there’s a lot of prep that goes into it, and that’s what has taken us quite a bit of time, the research, branding, acquisition of content, because we’ve gone and done a very unprecedented level of acquisition.


I can see that.  Very impressive, and some from competition’s stables also?

It’s an extreme market. That’s how it is. We syndicate our content to competition as well.


But of course the fact that you have Comedy Central for a while means you understand what works and what doesn’t?

While comedy is one specific genre and, touch wood, it’s done extremely well, better than all our expectations when we launched three years back, but this a very different market because you’re now catering to a very, very wide section of audience. You’re catering to somebody who is an action lover, who likes food, who likes magic… various things. That’s the true essence of a general entertainment channel. And getting the mix right, understanding the need gaps in the market today, and there are quite a few players as you know…


In the free as well as the premium space..

Yes, right. So the whole genre has been evolving a lot, but I think the main thing that we’ve seen in the last four years, has been this sudden boom of television series across the world, where even if you track social media metrics, TV series are getting talked about a lot more than movies. So TV is the new movies.We’re yet to see that change happen in India, but it’s rapidly happening and we’re seeing that very closely. So the timing couldn’t be better to enter into a space like this. And because you want to enter into a space like this, you’re coming several years after competitors have been here for a long long time. It’s important to get your A game out there.


So what’s the need gap that exists currently?

One big clear need gap is something that’s actually been created by channels like ourselves, which is that we keep getting annoyed by the fact that people are downloading content, but if you take a few steps back and see why Indians are downloading international content, one very important reason is that we are repeating the same shows that have aired internationally over the years, and we play reruns during primetime. There’s so much great content out there, but we’re not putting for the audience to see it. So the audience will go and watch it when they want to watch it. In some way, all of us put together are guilty. If a show starts in the US in September and you wait till the show finishes in May or June to air all 22 episodes in June, the consumer is not necessarily waiting for you. So that’s one very important need gap. Having said that, there is a very small fraction of a percentage of the viewers who want to go watch a show one hour after it has been aired in the US. That’s a very, very small segment. So if you keep that out, the broader base is saying two things to you. One is that give me content that the international markets are watching, talking about, and give it to me at a time when I want to watch it. You don’t take your own pace because you want to schedule it Monday to Friday the same episode at the same time, because that’s not how the West creates content. They create an episode every week. So if you’re not able to show it to me at that frequency, then I’ll go my own way and find my own way to watch it, and today there are various options for the consumer. The other thing that they’re saying to usis that we are watching the same content over and over again. That is the third issue that we don’t know what comes on what channel. One channel is showing a new season of the same show, another channel is showing a marathon of that Monday to Friday. So essentially reruns or library is an issue for one section of the audiences that is something that we will address in the way we schedule, in the kind of content that we bring. So one of the most important things in the channel is that almost 98 percent of our content has never been seen on Indian television before because there is so much out there. In the last five years, the number of TV shows produced in evolved markets like the US has gone up four times. So that’s how much content there is, but a lot of great content is not being shown. So somebody left the door open, and it married our objective of broadening our English entertainment cluster which in any case we’re very bullish about.


What got you to the name of Infinity?

There’s a certain imagery that you need to have when you’re an English language channel. I think it’s quite clear that the channel will be in English so there was no real need to go and say its Colors English. But Infinity to us is a whole philosophy and you’ll see that in pretty much everything that we do. Lots of which I can’t share with you right now. But you will see it in the way we market, in the way we schedule, in the sheer volume of content that we have, it’s infinite content. We will be doing a lot more around the word infinity which will give you a sense of the philosophy of the brand.


But don’t you think people have got used to watching software on their PCs or various devices. So Even though you may say it’s a small section of people, but that section is growing, isn’t it?

There’s no doubt about it and when I was saying that the section of the audience is very small, I was referring to the peoplewho want to watch it instantly after the US. Like I will not wait even one hour to watch it kind of people. That section is very small. The other section that you talk about which is the guys that we ourselves have driven to download, by not giving them what they wanted to watch on a preferred screen of their choice, that section yes has grown. Will it grow further? It could. Will we be present on other screens? In all likelihood we will. But will we reduce their reason to go and illegally download? Yes and that is the first step that we need to make. So it is a process. It’s not going to change overnight.


So is that other screen version going to happen simultaneously for Infinity?

It will happen in due course, it will not happen simultaneously, but it’s something that we’re considering extremely carefully and weighing our options on.


What is the time gap you’ve planned between the US telecast and for you?

Starting in the fall season, which starts in the last week of September in the US, we will be going day and date which means a few hours after the US for multiple shows. And we’re also going to be scheduling it in a way which makes it easy for the audience to watch.


So it means our primetime?

That’s our part of it. The other part we’ll unveil in the days to come. So we will be going right after the US with some of the big series and in the interim we’ve got a whole new lineup which people have not consumed at all. First they come up to speed and post September we go day and date with those shows as well.


You mentioned how you’re going to have comedy, live entertainment and all that. Now some of that already exists on your other offerings. Is that going to possibly clash with Comedy Central/Vh1?

No, not at all. See the beauty of having clearly defined services, is that they will continue to carry the best of their services of their genre. The space that we’re going into is a much broader space, which consists of superheroes, drama, fantasy, crime, thrillers and will also have a sprinkling of comedy. So if you’re question is about cannibalisation, for starters, we aren’t here to cannibalise on the existing genre. Our aim is very clear, we want to broadbase the jar. We want to grow from the pie, we don’t want to eat from a small pie. In doing that will competition lose viewers to us? Yes. So we will eat from the existing pie. But our main objective is to grow a much larger base so that. You have people who are extremely English literate and their very comfortable with the language, but for reasons of inertia, don’t come to English entertainment and that’s one of the      things we found from our research that nobody has reached out to them. Even in the metros, of course we’ll be going beyond the metros in a long way. That’s one of our strategies to go well beyond the metros, because English has percolated. We’re seeing it in our existing businesses, close to 60 percent of our viewership is coming from the non-metros, which is massive. If you had asked me this five years back. I would have looked at you blankly.


But some of your competition is also now looking at that right?

So while we take the lead, we’re hoping that others will join us. It’s very difficult to build a category and an audience on your own. We can do with all the help, but coming back to the specific question on cannibilisation, that’s not the way we’re looking at this service.


Surely you’ll have a comedy show which you will like to have on Comedy Central…

But it’s not to say that it may not rest on both. While Comedy Central continued to do the best in comedy, there’s a lot of Comedy Central content that we can’t necessarily carry to Infinity.


What about Made in India content. You have Karan Johar so is Koffee with Karan going to shift?

We are looking at localised content in the English language that will definitely be…and I’ve always said, it is very important for us to create our own content, whether it’s in comedy, whether it’s in action, whether it’s in unscripted, etc.


You don’t have any local content on Comedy Central?

We have experimented, but not on a very large scale. We will eventually get there, but it’s a whole ecosystem that needs to be developed from writers to actors to production. And it all has to be managed in a cost that normally people are not used to working in, because that is how English entertainment is.


In terms of talent, now English theatre has a fair amount of decent talent.

It does, but comedy as a specific genre, the most important people in comedy content creation are the writers and without being either racist or abusive or politically very incorrect, a lot of our writers struggle to make content funny.


What about  the reality shows… will they be the international reality shows or are you also going to have Indian shows?

At this point of time, it is international shows.


In terms of sheer percentage of overall programming, how much will be Made in India?

Too early to talk about it. In terms of local content what I can tell you at this point of time is that we’re extremely serious about it, given that this is not just comedy, this opens up a whole new set of avenues for us to do local production and Hindi production in the English language. Will it be unscripted, will it be scripted? We’re working on various options right now, but nothing that we’re ready to announce as yet, it’s a bit far from there.


With your competition, some of the buzz-creating shows have been locally made. So obviously that’s something pn your mind.

See one of our main objectives is to create relevance, and more familiarity with the content. If you see when people introduced English subtitles on English content, it was a great benefit because you didn’t start losing out on the accent.  A lot of us can’t follow different accents. Sometimes it’s tough to pick up even for us. So where building relevance is concerned, that’s where the brand Colors comes in. That’s where Karan and Alia come in and that’s definitely where local production will also come in. Will it be a very large percentage of our programming mix? I don’t think so. At least not in the foreseeable future.


So on Day 1 do you have any local content?

We’re unlikely to.


Karan Johar not doing a show on Day/Week One?

Trick question. But there’s a lot that is a work in progress, which I’m not at liberty to talk about right now.


Tell us more about this co-curation bit. You’ll have done the research, what will Karan and Alia do as co-curators?

You’ll be surprised with how in tune they are.


That they may be, but…

Both of them are extremely insightful people. One is a content creator. The number of shows that he has actually suggested to us that we were not aware of, will surprise people when we reveal what those are, whether he’s caught them internationally, whether he’s caught them in flights, and similarly with Alia. They are very heavy consumers of the content. So.it’s a meeting of like-minded people.


Interestingly Alia Bhatt stands for various things. She’s young, she’s popular, but she’s also considered a little duh, na?

No, not at all. I think that everyone goes through a phase that they get branded in. As far as we are concerned, Alia is very far from that particular positioning that you suggest. She’s extremely intelligent, she’s super-talented, she’s extremely with the genre that we’re concerned with, she has a great pulse of the younger audiences especially, she hasn’t got to where she is at such a young age without having a pulse.


One more question I have on Karan Johar, is that over the years, he’s been associated with various channels, so is this a larger contract that you’re having or is this only for the launch?

This is not a typical brand ambassador kid of a relationship if that’s your question, where he will be a part of the launch and then never seen again. There’s a reason we’ve used the term co-curators. It’s not a fancy term that we’ve put out there. They legitimately have been co-curators. And where Karan specifically is involved, as an organisation we have a great relationship with him for many years, and when this opportunity came along, he was only very happy to be a more integral part of the family.


When you look at an English GEC channel, as in the case of Star, they’ve went go in for a premium channel and more allied offerings like action, etc. Some of it works, some doesn’t. Too early to ask, but will you’ll also look at variants soon?

We’d love to. To be really honest, with the amount of content that we have, we could well have started with two or three different channels at the same time. That’s the breadth of the offering that we have. But I think strategically, we’ve decided that since it’s the first time that we’re getting into English general entertainment, it’s important to establish the mother brand first, take stock in some time, and the definitely branch out into different variants if the need arises, if the market permits, if the economics work out. But at this point of time, the premium pay channels that you’re referring to, we couldn’t necessarily have started off with that, because that’s a very limiting space to be in currently with a few 100,000 subscribers at best. And that could well be what we do in sometime, when billing is more, and addressability is better and collections are better and so on and so forth. But at this point of time, obviously we first establish the mother ship and then take on from there.


So huge marketing effort, especially because you’re going into the mini metros..

Yes, it’s going to be a major 360-degree media plan, and obviously we’ll be doing certain impactful things in various markets to draw in the buzz. But no stone left unturned, just like we haven’t in content, we won’t here as well.


And with Karan and Alia..

Yes, they will a part of the marketing campaign.


And are you looking at flying down some of the stars of the international shows?

It’s possible. We’ve been approached actually by quite a few people who are interested in the Indian market, who actually will be starring on our channel. And there is a strong likelihood that we will see some of them come down in the future.


How’s the advertiser interest?

I think that we’ll start gauging a lot more now. We’ve tested waters and with the few people that we’ve shared it with, the response has been more than encouraging. But I think everyone realises the attempt, the need and they’re happy that some is coming in to try and change the game. So I am strictly buoyant about it.


The question of how it’s going to be different from others is the key thing that we need to understand.

I think the difference will be very stark once you see the service go live and once we announce our shows, etc. You’ll get an immediate sense of how it will be different.


I’m sure that’s a question that you’ve been asked… on why and how yet another English GEC?

Strangely enough that’s not the question I’m getting asked. The first reaction of everyone is that thank god you guys are doing this.



It is, across the board.


I thought people are happy with what they have.

But that’s on the surface of it. When it goes back, it ties in very closely to our research which said we are not happy with this. Or whatever the points were and therefore our need gap developed. See there are different kinds of consumers. There’s one set of consumers who are very heavy consumers of this genre, who consume it on TV and whatever you don’t give them because they already know about it, they go and download. There’s another set of consumers, which knows little about this genre, so whatever they are given, they watch and they either like or they don’t like the content. There’s the third set of consumers who know nothing about this genre. They’ve barely heard a sprinkling if ‘Ha yein English channel Hain, shows hain aur serials hain’ you know as some respondents referred to them. So yes, but that’s a very large set. Are they not comfortable in English? They’re very comfortable in English. It’s almost their first language, and they’re definitely mixing English with all the other languages that they talk in regular communication. That’s a big set of audiences there. So for the first set of people, all we need to do is announce our line-up, you’ll see instant reactions there. For the second set of audiences, we need to bring them on, to experience the kind of content that we have that is literally cinematic in experience, because we’ve got some very high-budget shows, shows which have been made on seriously high budgets.


And Colors is known for that right?

Colors is known for its success and for disruption. We won’t let you down on either. So I’m quite confident.


Disruption with international shows?

You’ll hear about it soon. I’m not just making tall claims.


How are the rest of the channels in the English network doing? Is there a need for reinventing or is…

I think some networks focus on it a lot more, on English as a space and some networks don’t focus on it at all.


By focus you mean investing monies?

It means investing monies, time, effort, all of it put together. Because this is not a genre where you throw money and things happen. It’s not one of those. Can you enter without money, no, but it’s a combination of understanding the consumer, understanding what will work, getting into the right kind of deals at the right time and then of course at the right price. Though some networks are less focused on their English brands, and there are some networks that are extremely bullish on English, and I think you would know.


And now are you saying that Viacom18 is going to be very focused on English?

Yes, if you see this will be the second launch in the last three years in English. So I think we’re demonstrating our full intent. Comedy Central was a massive launch and this is an even bigger launch. As an organisation, English is a very important genre for us.


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