Launching a new TV channel is a chancy business. Having God on your side is no bad thing. Life OK's brief but fantastic journey is testimony to that. In two short years, it has become the country's fourth largest Hindi GEC (General Entertainment Channel), beating old timer Sony for 15 weeks in a row. Having Shiva backing it may have been one of the reasons.
Life OK was introduced in December, 2011 to replace the floundering Star One (launched in 2004), which had failed to get off the ground. It continued to struggle in the 30-45 GRP range, earning the network Rs. 75-80 crore per year. Life OK and Star One have little in common except that the arrival of one coincided with the departure of the other. While Star One intended to be a metro-centric youth channel, Life OK wanted to take advantage of the spread of television into small town India.
Explains Sanjay Gupta, COO, Star India, "Star One wasn't sharply positioned. It didn't make much sense to either viewers or advertisers. There was an opportunity to talk to conservative India, where people believe in the importance of tradition and family. The revenues of Life OK are much more than five times those of Star One. It has the potential to be the next No 1." It has been delivering 150-170 GRPs in recent weeks.
Based on research, the Star India management took an important call: to introduce a new GEC without the 'Star' prefix. They wanted viewers to believe that this would have a different set of stories from the ones on Star Plus. Why 'Life OK'? Because the philosophy of the channel is to celebrate today without stressing too much about the past or the future. "I don't think Life OK would have been able to achieve this if it wasn't a part of the Star network, but going out with a different name has worked for us," says Ajit Thakur, general manager and business head, Life OK.
The channel had decided to do things differently from the very beginning. On the launch day, it organised an eight-hour-long Mahadev Rockathon at a Mumbai hotel, which could be viewed online. Many rock bands, including Parikrama, Agnee, Euphoria and Shaa'ir and Func, belted out a song each on Mahadev. Online, the content from the new channel was sandwiched between the performances. "It was a risk to put all the content out there before the launch, but we wanted to break the rules. Mahadev is a unifying God and we believed that blending this with rock music would attract the youth," explains Thakur.
The channel experimented with scheduling too. For the first four months, in order to get sampling, it telecast 20-minute episodes all week, instead of the normal 30 minutes. This served a double purpose: it could fit three episodes into an hour; besides, the smaller episodes meant a saving in programming cost.
Life OK also tried the concept of sutradhaar or narrator. It had Madhuri Dixit on board every day to explain why those stories were being told. So, for Saubhagyavati Bhava (a show around domestic violence), Dixit would remark, "Didn't he seem like the perfect man? What went wrong?" She was given the task of helping viewers connect with the concept of the programmes. "It was an extremely useful experiment for us. We did it for six months initially. We may get another brand ambassador after our next brand refresh, which is scheduled for the first quarter of 2014," says Thakur.
When it got off the ground, there was skepticism about the channel's big punt on 'Mahadev', a mythological show based on God Shiva. But it worked so well that they dared to schedule it at 8 PM, pitted against Colors' Balika Vadhu, which had dominated the slot since 2008.
Due to its dependence on animation and special effects, Mahadev is expensive to produce - about 40 per cent higher than the typical fiction show. On the other hand, it also fetches the highest yield, with advertisers paying Rs. 50,000-70,000 for a 10-second slot.
RS Suriyanarayanan, associate vice-president, Initiative Media, points out that the mythological series did wonders for Life Ok, which also succeeded in capitalising on it well.
The Newness of Content
Life OK is different from other GECs in two regards: one, it still hasn't succumbed to the temptation of running saas-bahu sagas or the regular soaps that are expected of a general entertainment channel. Two, the channel doesn't run movies, despite having access to Star India's movie library. Thakur believes that movies are a shortcut. "One does a whole lot of spends in promoting a movie. The movie appears just once and then the channel comes back to where it was. I would rather spend that money in shows which gather appointment viewing and remain on the channel," he says.
Other than Mahadev the channel was launched with seven shows, including Saubhagyavati Bhava, which struck a chord with viewers. Since the second half of 2012, the channel has experimented with four reality shows - Hunarbaaz, Laugh India Laugh, Welcome and The Bachelorette India - all of which garner mediocre viewership.
Till date the only shows to match Mahadev's popularity have been Savdhan India and Shapath, both crime thrillers launched in 2012. These have allowed Life OK to reduce its dependence on Mahadev: its share in the channel's total viewership declined from 29.4 per cent in October, 2012 to 14.7 per cent a year later.
Sushma Rajesh, head, content, explains that to generate audience interest in new shows the channel has focused on promoting the characters in each story, in its mass communication. "We are still focused on creating differentiated and fresh characters," she adds.
In trying to be different, several shows have failed. Thakur is refreshingly upfront about failure, "For every hit, we've had three misses. Either we succeed or we fail spectacularly," he emphasises, adding, "We love to fail spectacularly, as long as it is while trying something new and better." Anything that's not on TV currently could be Life OK's next project, according to Thakur.
Ad rates have been rising steadily as has the number of advertisers, from 30, in the beginning, to 200 in the last quarter. Of the initial lot, Shakti Bhog, the lead sponsor for Mahadev, and Idea have stayed with the channel right through.
K K Kumar, managing director, Shakti Bhog Foods, says, "Life OK's Mahadev is very different and it has given us a lot of mileage. The content was promising from the very start and our decision has proved to be a good one."
Sunita Bangard, president, marketing, Idea, explains why the relationship has lasted so long: "For us, UP, MP and Bihar are major markets and the channel is talking to middle India in a big way here. The deliveries are efficient and their philosophy is similar to that of Idea. We target males as much as we target females, so within the genre, it was a better channel for us to be on."
Though advertisers are taking note of the channel, media planners unanimously believe that it will take some time for the channel to become a 'priority one destination' for brands. Suriyanarayanan explains, "While Star Plus, Zee TV, Colors and Sony are the reach builders, Life OK gives them reach as well as efficiency."
The programming mix of the channel caters to male audiences almost as much as it does to the female audiences, unlike its older sibling, Star Plus. With 48 per cent of its viewership coming from men, any brand that targets family or male audiences hops on to the channel.
V Balachandran, national trading director at media agency Motivator, suggests, that this might act against the channel too. "The content is mostly in the realm of mythology and thrillers, so they are still losing out on the female audience big time. So, if you take all adults, it's doing well. But if you have to segment it within the audience, it has a long way to go," he observes.
Another point of view is that Star India wouldn't want Life OK to grow beyond a point. Carat Media's media director, Piyush Srivastava, elaborates, "Ideally, it shouldn't become a 'priority one destination' since that will threaten Star Plus. The network would want to have a strong No 2, but not another contender for the No 1 slot. If there are two brands fighting for the same position, the focus will be lost. Today, Life OK can be sold as a reach builder, but if it gets close to the No 1 slot, they will have to de-sell Star Plus."
Star India's Gupta, however, is categorical: Life OK is free to compete with Star Plus - the two have to grow without worrying about each other. In fact, he further says, "It will have to grow bigger to come in the priority one bracket of the audience."
If Life OK has repeatedly overtaken Sony in recent weeks, why are its ad rates only a fraction of what the older channel commands? Karthik Lakshminarayan, chief operating officer, Crest Madison Media, says that advertisers are paying more for Sony because of a certain credibility and value which are over and above GRPs.
"Life OK is ahead of some older channels but that is only as far as the measured TAM numbers go," he contends.
Thakur denies any such plan. He says, "Marketing is likely to increase for at least the next two years, because we need to reach into more markets and keep talking to the existing ones. We are already on top in UP, but we have to focus on other LC1 markets in a big way. May be in the next 12 months we will be in all the LC1 towns."
He states that the idea is to not just claim market share in these markets, but also grab mindshare in a way that Life OK becomes the differentiator in the genre.
Prateek Seal, head, marketing, Life OK, concurs, "There is a lot of variety in the product we are marketing. It's tough to do and costlier as well. We have had a launch almost every month and that will continue. So, the marketing doesn't seem to be going down anytime soon."
The channel has close to 1.6 million fans on Facebook today, as opposed to 1.1 million in December, 2012, so growth is slower than before. "At launch, we did a lot of digital investment. Recently our digital spends have gone down, but we will correct it soon. We also want to build our own website," says Seal.
On its second anniversary, Life OK is clearly on a roll. Its line-up looks strong and with several popular shows on air, 200 GRPs may be the next barrier for it to break. With the way it is going, few will be willing to bet against that possibility.
Additional interviews with: Amol Mohandas, Allied Media and Vidyadhar Kale, Maxus
A Note From the Editor
Is the market ever so crowded that a newcomer can't break in? The television business really makes you wonder. The triumvirate of Star Plus, Zee and Sony ruled the GEC (General Entertainment Channel) waves and nobody, it seemed, could break into this cozy struggle. Until 2008 when Colors came along and barged its way to the top.
This underlined a belief that has been rampant ever since an anemic Star Plus turned from English to Hindi and revived itself with Amitabh Bachchan and Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC). Soon after KBC, Star got in the K serials from Balaji which kept viewers glued to the channel. So, the rule was formulated: for a successful take off, a GEC needs one hit show to launch followed quickly by at least a couple of programmes, ideally serials, which take up where the first show let off.
Similarly, Colors created big buzz with Khatron Ke Khiladi and rapidly captured that heightened consumer interest in the channel with Balika Vadhu and then Uttaran. Colors is among the top GECs even today, six years later.
Imagine TV got only halfway there. It got people talking with Rakhi Ka Swayamwar but couldn't stop the assembled viewers from streaming away because it couldn't find that one hit that could keep the flock together.
The success of Life OK is being similarly explained. First, it got Mahadev, unusually a mythological, to get the channel off the ground. It was heavily dependent on this one hit which accounted for almost a third of its viewership. However, it now has two other solid shows, Savdhan and Shapath, which have reduced the dependence on Mahadev to about half that earlier.
It has overtaken a weakening Sony but is still far away from the top three. The pace at which it has grown, in exactly 24 months, is astounding and it is a good question whether - or when - it can make it to the very top.
Sure, Life OK couldn't have got here without big brother Star's clout but it has nonetheless done many things innovatively - and its failures haven't deterred it. For that alone it deserves its extraordinary success.