Laughter, the Best Medicine

By Anindita Sarkar , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Media Publishing | December 27, 2010
SAB TV, the 'second-rung' channel from the MSM network, witnessed an almost 500 per cent growth in audience viewership since the time it decided to go back to family comedy in June 2008.

No Rakhi Sawant. No Pamela Anderson. No big budget shows either. All this channel did was to serve up lighthearted stories day after day. Surprisingly, the consumers' appetite for this brand of comedy hasn't diminished.

SAB TV, the "second-rung" channel from Multi Screen Media (MSM), has witnessed an almost 500 per cent growth in viewership, since the time it decided to go back to family comedy in June 2008. According to TAM Audience Research (C&S4+, HSM), the channel grew from a 3 per cent relative share in that year to 5.7 per cent in 2009. It began 2010 with a relative share of 6.2 per cent, which had risen to 9.6 per cent by November. afaqs! traces the revival of SAB.

In good company

MSM's chief operating officer, N P Singh, believes that SAB, acquired in 2005 from Sri Adhikari Brothers as a comedy GEC, has become an important asset for the network.

"Having crossed the 100 GRP mark, SAB has moved up from a second tier to a first tier channel. Advertisers are seeing value, as more mainstream brands like Reckitt Benckiser (India), Cadbury India, Pepsi Co and P&G are coming on-board," he says. For the record, the top Hindi general entertainment channels -- STAR Plus, Colors and Zee TV -- average 200-400 GRPs.

While other GEC platforms have to constantly invest in high-cost programming (reality shows) to deliver similar GRPs; SAB's model remains a low-cost one. "For example, Sony's current GRPs can be largely attributed to Kaun Banega Crorepati, which is in no way a low-cost investment," says Carat India's associate vice-president, Rajni Menon.

More important, SAB is profitable. According to estimates, the cost of running a channel like SAB is about Rs 100-120 crore, as opposed to Rs 350-400 crore required to run a top Hindi GEC. The revenues earned by a SAB TV-like channel would be in the region of Rs 140 crore; while that for a top GEC would be upwards of Rs 600-700 crore.

Industry sources put the approximate (overall) primetime programme rate on SAB at about Rs 40,000; whereas the primetime effective rate for 10-seconders is approximately Rs 12,000. The average 10-seconder rate across other day parts is Rs 3,500-4,000.

The other important reason for MSM to increase its focus on SAB is that, along with Sony, it gives MSM an edge in the distribution bouquet while negotiating deals with multi-system operators for better placements and better subscription revenues.

Nosing ahead

According to top media executives, SAB has steadily become the leader in the second rung Hindi GEC space; while adding to the overall might of the MSM network. The other players in this space are Imagine, DD1, STAR One, Sahara One, STAR Utsav and Zee Smile.

Says Zubin Tatna, national director of planning agency, Mediaedge:cia, "Consumers switch from soaps, serials and reality to comedy. As a result, SAB has seen increased viewership." Tatna points out that SAB offers variety in programming; while being cost-effective and giving eyeballs to advertisers in Gujarat and Delhi, where it has a strong foothold. According to TAM, Gujarat contributed 11.84 per cent to SAB's overall audience viewership for the period January-November, 2010.

Navin Khemka, senior vice-president, ZenithOptimedia, says that SAB finds relevance, because it is a family channel. "When families sit together, it's a good time to make brand decisions," he says. According to SAB's executive vice-president and business head, Anooj Kapoor, the channel had 30 advertisers when it was repositioned as a family comedy channel. Today, it has over 60.

Though MSM sees SAB as a tier I channel now, competing with the leaders in the Hindi GEC space, the industry considers SAB as the leader of the second-line GECs. "Though its dependence on its flagship property, Taarak Mehta ka Ooltah Chashmah has reduced (marginally), there is still a gap in numbers, content and programming. Also, in the past months, SAB's numbers have become a little unstable," explains a top media executive.

Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah, an issue-based satire that airs from Monday-Friday at 8.30 PM, brings in an average TVR of 3.2-3.5.

A laugh riot

Humour is what is running the channel, and it all started when Kapoor came in.

When SAB TV decided on the carte du jour that would be served on the channel, the first real challenge came when the producers and actors were brought on-board. At that time, for producers, the comedy genre represented sitcoms, canned laughter and over-the-top and stand-up comedy. Kapoor recalls, "When the actors were told that the channel was being re-clothed in comedy, the acts were extremely exaggerated."

Kapoor, himself a man with a keen sense of humour, was up to the task when he took over as business head in 2007. In a career that started in 1991, he has been a product manager (Colgate Palmolive), a creative director (with JWT, Lintas and Rediffusion DY&R) and has even started a production house. He had also been an ad film maker, and writer and director for TV serials, until he joined UTV for a two-year stint in 2003 as head - comedy cell.

When he joined SAB after a stint in Indonesia (writing serials for Indonesian TV), the channel was struggling at 28 GRPs. He steered SAB to 145 GRPs by pushing it as a family comedy entertainment channel.

"My team and I had to sit with every producer and actor to encourage them to think on the lines of the films made by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. We tried to explain the level of tonality that had to be maintained, where the humour had to be a part of a simple, daily family life scenario, and not forceful," he says.

Trial and error

As the content-makers began to understand what was required, Kapoor and team were faced with another battle -- to sustain the number of episodes required for daily shows.

"Comedies with a linear storyline are generally made as weeklies worldwide. And even if they are dailies, the episodes are not more than 60-70. So, it was (and still is) a huge challenge to churn out episode after episode that had a smooth narrative flow. However, once the makers understood what SAB was being driven towards, we rapidly began to refresh our programming," Kapoor states.

SAB came up with shows such as Lo Ho Gayi Pooja Iss Ghar Ki, Main Kab Saas Banungi and Jugni Chali Jalandhar from June onwards, to capture the 8-10 PM band, Monday to Thursday. In November, the channel launched its first campaign, Asli mazaa SAB ke saath aata hai'.

The issue that kept challenging SAB was limited budgets. With a low-cost model, SAB had to brave marketing and distribution issues too. "We had to think of relevant marketing innovations and touch points. That's when Harjeet Chhabra (vice-president, marketing) and his team came in (in 2008) and got SAB into multiplexes and other family touch points at lower costs," says Kapoor.

Today, the channel is promoted across 70 Big Bazaar outlets, 200 multiplexes and gyms and restaurants. It also went on radio with a promo, SAB Ke Damaadji', and created similar cartoon strips in newspapers to promote the characters.

The promo and scheduling team also had a major role to play. "While the promos were smart and clutter-free with absolute accuracy that helped in clothing of the new message; the scheduling team did a fantastic job with the five- and ten-second break bumpers that created impact," says Kapoor. But keeping up the humorous act, while earning money, is not an easy task.

The challenge

SAB's biggest advantage is also its main constraint. Though it is earning profits with its specialisation in family comedy, the lack of reality and high drama stops many advertisers from coming on-board. "While SAB is profitable for MSM with its low-cost model and steady revenue structure, its basic limitation is that it has just one genre," says Manas Mishra, executive vice-president and country head, Mudra Connext.

Adds Menon, "Currently, though it is a cost-efficient investment for advertisers, SAB still doesn't deliver enough reach to be considered as an alternative to the current GEC options. Also, SAB's numbers are skewed towards the Gujarat area."


It is a story of change - and more change. Launched in 2000, in the comedy genre, by Sri Adhikari Brothers, SAB became a part of MSM in 2005 (reports put the cost of the acquisition at close to `60 crore) and was repositioned as regular second-rung GEC within the network. "We wanted to make it bigger at that stage and make it a flanking GEC for the flagship Sony Entertainment Television," explains N P Singh, COO, MSM.
However, that avatar did not go down well with the consumers. "SAB probably carried the perception of being a comedy channel. Subsequently, a survey was carried out which revealed that most of the India was between 20 and 25 years of age but there was no particular GEC catering to that age group. So we decided to give it a sharper focus and repositioned as a youth entertainment channel," says Anooj Kapoor, executive vice-president and business head.
While the youth positioning did manage to pull off a few good shows like Left Right Left and Love Story, MSM decided to replace them and show cricket on SAB in 2007 in order to improve reach and distribution. "We decided to show the cricket World Cup with Hindi commentary to appeal to the mass GEC audience as well. For 45 days, we had cricket during prime time," says Singh.
Unfortunately, that did not work well. Going back to the earlier serials too didn't help. The channel also realised that if it continued to play in the youth space, it would be limiting because youth had multiple entertainment options and most of them were out of home.
"In late 2007, we decided to go back to being a comedy channel since people still associated SAB as a comedy channel," says Singh. MSM also knew that it would not do to depend on its earlier viewership profile - a 70 per cent male audience. "India is a single-TV household country dominated by women. It was critical to get those women to watch our serials rather than the soaps that they are addicted to. That's how the comedy soaps came into being," says Kapoor.

Does SAB have a plan? "We realise that we have to get the reach of the channel up, because time spent on the channel is high and the drop in the break ratings (ratings during a break) is small when compared to other GECs. SAB's 17-20 per cent drop in break ratings indicates high stickiness," Singh explains.

To get there, SAB intends to improve on its prime band and colour band connectivity. The focus will be Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh and Himachal Pradesh.

"We will also be almost doubling our investments in marketing," reveals Kapoor. On the programming front, the channel has already advanced its weekday original line-up to 7.30 PM with two new daily magical comedies -- Ring Wrong Ring from Monday to Wednesday and Gili Gili Gappa on Thursday and Friday.

Says Kapoor, "What was missing was magical comedy (which has magical characters). So, we decided on these two serials. We plan to extend original programming to seven days a week, but initially, the thrust will be to push it till Saturdays. We are also exploring lighthearted family reality shows and telefilms that will be produced by and premiered on our channel."

Media pundits believe that SAB will not be able to go above 145-150 GRPs if it continues with similar programming. However, some numbers could come through spikes, by broadcasting movies from the Sony library. "It can exploit its properties on digital platforms, such as DVDs and mobile," says a SAB-watcher.

However, optimism reigns within the company. Rohit Gupta, president network sales, licensing and telephony, MSM, says, "SAB has a unique positioning and advertisers want to be associated with comedy. Our ad rates have been going up every quarter, and by next year, revenues could go above Rs 300 crore." That could start the tier 1 debate all over again.

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