The English general entertainment genre, although very small in terms of viewership, is showing consistent and impressive growth of about 25-30 per cent year on year for the past three years. With players such as AXN, STAR India and Zee flexing more muscle to grab attention, this number is expected to rise, post digitisation. Its niche audience is alert, aware and internet savvy. The channels in the genre are gearing up to cater to the audiences in a better way, with many television shows being launched parallel to or at least closer to their US launches.
Apart from Canada, all countries have American shows telecast months after they are launched in the US. So what makes Indian audiences different? One of the main reasons is internet penetration. With increasing internet and hence, social media exposure, the audience gets access to the pirated shows as soon as the seasons end in the US.
Kevin Vaz, business head, English channels, STAR India, explains that apart from availability on the internet, people ask for DVDs from abroad. "When you don't give the audience a choice, they will go to piracy. He/she is a global Indian and is aware of what is available where and which seasons of which shows are running abroad."
He adds that in India, broadband is not a very great experience and the viewers will always be ready to come for television as it is a better option. "Television is more relaxed form of viewing content. It's a family viewing experience," he says.
Advancement of technology and internet penetration results in piracy, which is a challenge these channels face today as the audience wants to see the latest seasons of their favourite shows.
It's not that the social media phenomenon is very recent but yes, the platform was earlier largely used for interacting with friends and not much for the fan following and brand-interactions. Sunil Punjabi, business head, AXN says that during the same time last year, AXN's Facebook page had 2,50,000 fans, which now has increased to 13,10,000 fans. "We have grown five times in the last one year. Obviously, interactions have grown phenomenally. We just announced Supernatural 9 launch date and it got about a thousand likes on the post within two days. The people are talking about it and are aware of what is going on in the US."
Interestingly, the audience base is also growing for the individual franchises. Consider Supernatural, which has been on AXN for a long time now. Growth in its viewership has increased the most in the recent season. Punjabi mentions that it's not just the metros, even Tier 2 cities are participating in the Twitter and Facebook contests. "The story is becoming bigger outside the metros and I think it's majorly because of the social media interaction. People are hungry for good content in time," he adds.
Vaz seconds this and adds that even the 1 million towns want to watch English content. "They are learning the language and for the first time, when cable is reaching the house with better picture quality, why not. Subtitling also has a larger role to play in this." Subtitling was included in the genre about 4-5 years ago.
Where did it start?
Zee Café aired The Jay Leno show, launched and aired simultaneously with the US in 2010. Other shows like Body of Proof, Make it or Break it, and Pretty Little Liars Season 4 were also launched very close to their US launches.
For AXN, the story started about a year back with analysis of audience feedback. "For the contractual delays, we went back to the studios and explained that without action, piracy is going to kill us anyway. This was an obvious way to grow the overall viewership of the genre," Punjabi explains.
To take care of physical delays, a digital delivery system was set up. Although S&P (Standards and Practices) to implement content guidelines was taken care of, it took at least one full day to see the content and do the edits. Also, subtitling needed at least an hour for a single episode.
After trying out all this, the channel could bring Supernatural within 20 days of its US launch, in October 2012. That was the first attempt. "We picked up shows which are popular and are being followed by the Indian viewers," he reveals.
There's a difference in the viewing pattern between the US and India. While viewers are habituated to daily viewing in India, abroad, almost all the prime time shows are weeklies. AXN was reluctant to make it all weeklies in a single shot.
The big leap for AXN was Hannibal, which was launched in India on the same day as in the US. A lot of people knew the franchise and with aggressive marketing, it did manage a decent sampling. That's where the first break came, six months after the channel started working on it.
STAR World, however, did it in a single go with the launch of six shows at the 10 pm time-band in September this year. Vaz says with reference to STAR's new channel, Star World HD Premiere, that audiences are ready to pay for quality content. He adds that a global Indian knows his favourite shows' launch in the US and has two options, either to go for piracy or get a DVD from a friend in the US. "We are giving him a better option," he explains.
There is a marginal increase in the acquisition cost of the shows when bought for a parallel or earlier launches. A media planner adds that since most of the international shows are bought for multiple seasons, the costs don't vary exponentially.
Vaz agrees that the cost is up for these shows. "Surely, anything that comes early will come at a premium, but I think it's worth investing in that premium and giving the audience the content that they want to watch. To monetise that extra bit, we'll have to find out ways."
However, Punjabi of AXN says that the major increase is the operational costs involved. "But that is the necessity of the hour today. Moreover, is there any special way to monetise it apart from the advertising and subscription? I would say no, none as of now."
All channels agree that there has to be a proper mix of daily shows (older) and weekly shows (closer/ parallel to the US airings), since there are audiences for both. The shows which are launched before they get over in the US, have to be weekly telecasts.
"I don't want to change all their viewing habits but give them an option for the same," seconds Vaz.
Broadcasters mostly agree that it is worth the risk up to a certain extent. For a big franchise with a huge fan following, it makes sense to bring shows closer to their US airing. "We have seen some traction and a lot of initial success in that space but I think the audience will need some time to mature," adds Punjabi.
He explains, "It is too big a risk to covert the complete schedule to weeklies. The genre is so small that the risk to reward ratio is significant and the impact can be long lasting. It's easier to bring the shows as they are in the US."
Also, it is pertinent to note that most of these shows are an hour long. So, from Indian FPC perspective, one loses two slots.
Advertisers, naturally, prefer the shows which are launched closer to the US airings. "Newness means more eyeballs and that definitely attracts the advertisers," says Zubin Tatna of MEC.
However, they still aren't ready to shell out premium for these shows, opine media planners. One can't monetise until one builds a critical mass. Citing examples from his own channel, Punjabi adds, "Voice is one of the biggest shows across the globe, and it makes close to 14 per cent of the channel's revenue. For Hannibal, Kenstar was the sponsor on the show and we got feedback that the brand has benefited from the association."
Media planners note that the ratings for English GECs even in higher SEC audiences are undifferentiated between original/closer to US launch and repeat programming as the numbers are in really small fractions.
Vidyadhar Kale, GM, Maxus, adds another perspective to the issue. "Essentially channels use this news (of running closer to US airing) to create buzz about the content," he says. "For sponsors, it makes sense to ride on such programming as the channels promote them heavily and in turn, sponsors enjoy better saliency with promo tags."
Channels can potentially charge higher rates for fixed spots in specific programmes and it's up to the advertisers to buy fixed spots or a RODP band.
Marketing is another problem with these shows since there are a lot of restrictions on how much promotional material can be released. But that's how the business is and the idea is to get the viewer excited before he/she watches the show, which that one poster should be able to do. Moreover, there is a lot of material available now outside that one poster. Video consumption is growing; there are news stories about the stars every day.
"Though we say that it's niche but it's a quality audience who is aware of the global activities. So I think though the communication is less, it's the best and it best exemplifies what the show is about," Punjabi concludes.