afaqs!

The art of perfect timing

By Anindita Sarkar , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Media Publishing | April 30, 2012
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In television, a good scheduler is worth his weight in gold. Getting the right programme at the right slot is the difference between success and obscurity.

In 2003, Sony paid an estimated Rs 12 crore for the telecast rights of the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer, Devdas, which had already proved its mettle at the box office. MSM chose to air the movie at 8 pm on a Sunday (27 April) on Max. Interestingly, STAR Plus decided to telecast the Hindi version of Steven Spielberg's 1993 blockbuster Jurassic park just an hour before Devdas, on the same day. Guess what happened?

Devdas scored a TVR of 3.7 and ranked at No 42 in the Top 100 list while Jurassic Park leapt ahead with a TVR of 4.3 and was at No 33. According to industry watchers, Star Network would have paid just over Rs 4 crore for Jurassic Park.

perfect timing

That example serves to illustrate how scheduling can push a programme's success. It also showed how STAR Plus had understood the pulse of its Sunday audience and used it to wean viewers away just before those very eyeballs could have shifted to watch a much slower-paced Devdas.

In his book Media, Culture and Society, published 12 years ago, John Ellis of the Bournemouth University lamented the fact that scheduling wasn't understood fully by many. "If programmes are the building blocks of television, then the schedule is its architecture, defining the edifice that gives meaning to each programme block. For those who labour in the brickfields of broadcasting, the schedule looks like the last really creative act, the point of decision from which will flow all the basic parameters for the manufacture of a particular programme. Yet, scheduling has scarcely been studied academically, nor is it widely understood by those working in television itself. The schedule has been the great taken-for-granted of TV, perhaps because it just came about as a function of television's temporal continuity and co-presence," he observed in one of the chapters.

But that is changing now. The scheduler knows what he has to do if he has to combine whole programme units into an evening's flow, whole evenings into a week, whole weeks into a season, and whole seasons into a year. And the channels are backing him - or her - up. Channels which paid out millions to create the content they believed would spell success and spent even more on creating a communication strategy that would help them sell that mantra to viewers, came to realize one thing. More often than not, the mantra failed to work its charm on the viewers because the content was scheduled at the wrong time for the wrong viewer. So what are they doing about it?

Eyeball strategy

Vivek Bahl

P M Balakrishna

Shailesh Kapoor

Vivek Malhotra

Karthik Lakshminarayan

Sudheer KG

Amogh-Dusad

Krishna Desai

Scheduling is a strategic execution of a channel's plans to gain viewership. It takes into consideration not only the time of airing the actual programme but also a minute-to-minute break-down and a clear understanding of break patterns and viewing behaviour of the audience to maximise TRPs," explains Karthik Lakshminarayan, COO, Crest, Madison Media.

That strategic execution is critical since it is the final component that will help monetise the channel's content. Scheduling and research go hand-in-hand - the former is quite dependent on the latter. "A seemingly simple decision on what slot to give a particular show, is based on multiple factors like - whom will it appeal to? who is watching at that time? what kind of competition is there? what comes before and after? and so on" says Vivek Bahl, chief content officer, Imagine TV.

P M Balakrishna, chief operating officer, Allied Media, notes that given the fragmentation in viewership, there is a lot of research that goes into figuring the best possible options from choosing a time and day to actually airing the same. "All leading channels invest time and resources in doing extensive research on how to organize their content effectively for maximizing GRPs," he says.

Since scheduling is the last leg of the relay race in the chase for TRPs, it can make or break the way audience spends time on the channel. Minute detailing, supported by meticulous co-ordination, helps a channel garner its final GRPs. "Though content reigns supreme, maximising the reach and viewership opportunity for that content is increasingly becoming critical. Thus the role of scheduling becomes significant," says Vivek Malhotra, vice president, marketing and research, TV Today Network.

On their toes

While the objective of any scheduling strategy remains the same - to put up the right thing at the right time - the craft of scheduling varies from genre to genre.

In the case of a non-GEC or a non-news channel, the challenge is to manage 24 hours of a day with a limited annual supply of content. This calls for constant evaluation of the programme inventory and designing of innovative content packaging. Movie channels, for instance, have a fixed library that keeps adding content year after year, but the prices are so high that they cannot buy everything. It leads to repeats.

A movie channel could play a James Bond film or an Amitabh Bachchan blockbuster along with four-five other movies on a typical day. It could also choose to show a Bond Special at 9 pm for the whole week or the Best of Bachchan at 8pm on a particular month. "Packaging always has the potential to gain more than 30 per cent additional GRPs for a channel," says Sudheer KG, vice president, programming, History TV18.

Look at a genre like factual entertainment. It will be difficult for these channels to get fresh content regularly. Discovery, for example, may have licensed rights for certain content for, say, five years. And that content will be repeated over and over again. The scope for adding new content in a factual entertainment channel is much lower than in a fiction channel."The scheduling team will have to come out with an intelligent packaging in consultation with the ad sales and the marketing so that every last bit of content helps build the overall GRPs of the channel," says Sudheer. Meanwhile, in a genre like GEC, intelligent scheduling can create patterns that can change an already established television viewing experience. Consider the following trends.

Changing Times

Year 2000: Throughout the '90s, western-style plots dominated Indian soap operas and weeklies remained the norm. The odd one like Shanti (launched in 1994) - from the UTV stable - did introduce the idea of daily fiction on Indian television but that still remained limited to afternoon slots on DD1. In 2000, however, STAR Plus took the plunge and launched its first daily fiction Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi in the 10 pm slot, riding on the back of its most successful property Kaun Banega Crorepati at 9 pm.

Result? From then on, the concept of daily fiction not only grew big enough to become the staple diet of any given GEC, but India today stands to be the largest producer of original hours per week across the world.

Year 2005: Pitted against STAR Plus' growing popularity in the Hindi GEC space, Zee TV was losing ground. To win its audience back, the latter decided to launch a new fiction property, Saat Phere, for the Monday-Thursday, 9.30 pm slot. Zee adopted the omnibus strategy. It played back-to-back episodes of Saat Phere all through the day so that the audience could understand the storyline - and, hopefully, get hooked.

Result? While the omnibus strategy became a well-adopted tactic across the Hindi GEC space, Saat Phere cemented Zee TV's position and enjoyed a four-year-long run on the channel.

Year 2009: Scheduling was chiefly compartmentalized into weeknight fiction and weekend non-fiction. And then Imagine TV (then NDTV Imagine) decided to launch Rakhi Ka Swayamvar, a non-fiction reality show, at 9 pm from Monday through Friday. The show went on air on June 29, 2009 and opened with a smashing 4.1 TVR. Its finale drew in a TVR of 8.4.

Result? According to a study done by Lintas Media Group, Rakhi Ka Swayamvar delivered a 19 per cent growth in TVRs for NDTV Imagine and a 96 per cent boost to the channel's average ratings during that time band. Taking the cue, other channels too decided to schedule non-fiction during weekday primetime.

Art or science?

For some, scheduling is a dying art while for others it's the science that has taken refuge in art because of a lack of understanding the analytical aspects of the game.

How is it an art? The explanation is that a smart scheduling strategy differentiates successful channels from challengers and goes a long way in garnering GRPs. Identifying the relevant time bands and strategic placement within programme breaks across the day parts of the channel are critical to ensure visibility for the promotion of a new programme (or episode) and create awareness amongst its viewers.

It is also an art getting the right integration of content and packaging. This is what makes some shows a more enjoyable viewing experience than others and is a crucial element towards the making or breaking of many a channel. Scheduling also enjoys a slight rephrased definition where it is defined as an art with a science's responsibility.

Says Krishna Desai, director, programming, South Asia, Turner International India, "Apart from undertaking data-analysis to decide the schedule for a show, a scheduler has to pose an 'anticipatory' judgment regarding the target audience's reception and affinity towards the show. This understanding can only come if the scheduler is passionate enough to be observant about his TG and their mindset," he explains.

Almost everyone agrees that the person who is responsible for this mix has to exhibit the right match between his left brain and the right. "Scheduling has softer elements attached to it like knowing the exact nature of the content and a feel of what will work and what will not. It is also very rational and left-brain driven, with an in-depth understanding of consumer insights and hard data that will help infer what will work and what will not. There has to be a match between the two," avers Amogh Dusad, vice president and head, programming, PIX.

HOW THEY DO IT

Most channels have enough content only for four hours during weekdays primetime and two hours during non-primetime. For weekends, the original content hours are again limited to four. The rest of the day is filled with repeats, fillers, tele-shopping or reaching out to international audiences. The channels that generate optimal ratings are those that spend time on understanding the audience flow and come up with smart scheduling.

There are two elements to scheduling - strategic and tactical. According to Shailesh Kapoor, CEO, Ormax Media, strategic scheduling is about deciding time slots for new programmes. ''Tactical scheduling is about scheduling repeats and movies, as well as controlling the breaks and the commercial time in the content, to gain an artificial boost in the ratings,'' he says. Some of the most popular forms of tactical scheduling are:

Block programming: when the network schedules similar programmes back to back. It is resorted to in order to keep the viewers glued onto the channel.

Cross programming: connecting two shows. This is achieved by dragging a storyline over two episodes of two different programmes.

Bridging: preventing the audience from changing channels during a junction point - the main evening breaks where all channels stop programmes and shift gear. This is achieved in a number of ways. The channel could have a programme already underway or show something compelling at a junction point, run a programme late so that people 'hang around' and miss the start of other programmes or advertising the next programme during the credits of the previous show.

Counter programming: a time period is filled with a programme whose appeal is different from the opponent's programme because it is a different genre or appeals to a different demographic.

Dayparting: dividing the day into several parts, each of which has a different type of appropriate content for that time. Daytime programmes are most often geared toward a particular demographic and what the target audience typically engages in at that time.

Hammocking: an unpopular programme is scheduled between two popular programmes - in the hope that viewers will watch it.

Hotswitching: eliminating any sort of commercial break when one programme ends and another begins. This could get the audience hooked into watching the next programme without a chance to change channels.

Stacking: develop audience flow by grouping together programmes with similar appeal and sweep the viewer along from one programme to the next.

Stripping: running a syndicated serial every day of the week. It is commonly restricted to describing the airing of shows, which were weekly in their first run. Such shows have to have run for several seasons (the thumb rule is usually 100 episodes) in order to have enough episodes to run without significant repeats.

Tentpoling: programmers bank on a well-known series having so much appeal that they can place two unknown programmes on either side hoping that the one in the middle will bring keep the audience tuned in.

Special themes: scheduled during holidays or creating theme weeks - such as Discovery Channel's Shark Week.

The right head

The scheduling head has to be somebody who understands viewership trends and is able to follow the migration of audiences across channels and within the network. He must have an insight into the overall positioning and focus of the content to create a resonance with the audience. It assumes more significance in the case of GECs and movie channels, which are always in a state of flux when it comes to viewership.

Most importantly, since scheduling straddles programming, marketing and ad sales, the scheduler must have the ability to be an organised individual to ensure that the marketing and commercial requirements are taken care of within the objective of making space for all requirements from a channel packaging.

The role of the scheduler is slightly different from that of a content research head or the overall programming head. While it is the responsibility of the programming head to create and drive the content of the channel - both from a long- and short-term perspective - the scheduler has to do more day to day management of the channel as his basic and core responsibility. He is a vital cog in the daily revenue build up for any inventory led organization and hence much sought after by the sales and marketing teams. Good schedulers need to have an analytical bent of mind, attention to detail and a penchant for numbers.

Planning ahead

There is an ever-growing need to schedule programmes carefully to maximize viewership. One channel's gain could mean big losses for another. Also, as digitisation takes root and research becomes more accurate, the return on investment will be quickly and easily measurable. It makes the scheduler's job that much more important.

However, there is a counter argument here too. Currently, the Indian content industry is getting into different forms of viewing platforms that are increasingly becoming available to audiences. Take for instance, DTH, digital media, Internet and DVDs. Many believe that as media evolves, scheduling is the one area that takes the hit as people watch when they want and the way they want to.

"With time, not too many people will watch live TV, except for events, sports and news. That makes scheduling an operator's job where all one needs to do is ensure the content is all logged in and available," opines Lakshminarayan of Crest, Madison Media. However simplistic that opinion may sound, it should give channels and schedulers something to chew on.

To download the PDF version of the article, click here.

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