Ten years down the line - barring a slight hiccup - Star is doing just as well. Its viewership ratings are way ahead of the second and third ranked Zee TV and Colors, respectively.
Taking an average of 24 weeks of 2014, Star Plus has a lead of 61 per cent over Colors and of 54 per cent over Zee TV, as per TAM data (HSM, C&S, 4+), provided by the channel. But all this wasn't achieved overnight.
Star Plus had started to lose its sheen. To counter the blow, the management first made some structural changes. Sanjay Gupta, COO, Star India took charge of Star Plus, assisted by Gaurav Banerjee (then VP and head, content, Star Jalsha), now the general manager.
Recalls Banerjee, "When I look at that phase (when Colors overtook Star Plus), I feel that some amount of jadedness had seeped into the channel. Colors came in with a different proposition and they told really good stories." The team started speaking to the consumers and realised that they wanted to see something different and interesting.
On the mend
As its core consumers, most of whom were women, started evolving, Star Plus started mending its programming to be in sync. The "bahus" were progressing. And while their families were still important to them, they they had moved beyond just their families.
Star Plus introduced shows like Pratigya (in December 2009) and Sasural Genda Phool (in March 2010) which gave a freshness, as well as confidence, to the channel. Pratigya was the story of a girl who would go to any lengths to fight for her rights. Suhana, the protagonist in Sasural Genda Phool, gets married into a joint family, but lives her life on her own terms.
"These characters became the first icons of Star Plus' new positioning of 'Rishta Vahi, Soch Nayi'," adds Banerjee. While Star Plus repositioned itself in June 2010, it managed to dethrone Colors in March. Since then, it has been a leader for most weeks, barring a few when either Zee TV or Colors occupied the spot. Since January, 2013, there has been no looking back except two weeks (week 4 and 43, 2013), when Zee TV gained a marginal lead.
During the second half of 2013, Star opened up a huge gap with its rivals - there were some weeks when Star Plus' ratings were as high as Colors and Zee TV put together. The channel invested heavily on its writers, storytellers, production and marketing to make a big mark.
The turnaround in fortunes came because of many reasons. Firstly, the fiction shows were created after rigorous research (they still are). It also made sure that the content was relevant. Secondly, the channel extended its prime-time offering from four hours (the typical prime-time band for Hindi GECs is 7-11pm) to five-and-a-half hours (6 pm-11.30 pm). Then, it extended its strong fiction programming to Saturdays too. The news shows made their mark too.
When Mahabharat was launched last year, backed by an extensive marketing campaign, it went on to become the 8.30 pm slot leader and also found a huge male and youth following despite it being the fourth version of the epic on Indian television after BR Chopra's Mahabharat (1988-1990), Chandraprakash Dwivedi's Ek Aur Mahabharat (1997) and Balaji Telefilms' Kahaani Hamaaray Mahaabhaarat Ki (2008).
Star's version was the only one to come close to the hit that BR Chopra's serial was. While the core story remained the same, the channel introduced Krishna as a sutradhaar (narrator) who linked the stories to issues of the day, making it more relevant for the audiences.
Twists and turns
The channel also started to focus on younger women. Star Plus, according to Nikhil Madhok, senior VP, marketing and programming strategy, is popular across age-group and gender. However, when the content is conceptualised and created, "a 22-24-year-old is closer to the person who we want to talk as our TG. We are female oriented as a brand because you can't be all things to everybody. Women are the glue that binds the family together," he says. Women's empowerment, their independence, their strength and their role in the family and society started reflecting in the channel's stories.
Akshara, the lead protagonist of Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, who was earlier shown as a housewife, transformed herself into a professional businesswoman, Sandhya from Diya Aur Baati Hum trained to become an IPS officer, Veera (in the show of the same name) too grew up to become a smart, ambitious girl.
Of people and time bands
Talking about the audience, R S Suriyanarayanan, AVP - Initiative, explains, "Star Plus does well with female audiences. But later, in the evening prime-time band, male viewership improves through shows like Yeh Hai Mohabbatein. Also, India is largely a single TV household and the control of TV before 10 pm largely lies with the women of the house. For other Hindi GECs, Sony is male dominant while Colors has a mix of audience. Zee TV is popular in Tier II cities."
Apart from Yeh Hai Mohabbatein, the channel also gets good male traction for shows like Mahabharat and Diya Aur Baati Hum. The male-female ratio on the channel is around 40:60. Yeh Hai… is the only original show at the 11 pm band in the Hindi GEC space (weekday slot). The other channels air repeats of their fiction shows at this slot.
While other channels have limited their programming within the 7 pm-11 pm time band, Star Plus went ahead to launch shows on either side of prime time. The second season of Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon?...Ek Baar Phir (August 2013) came on at 6 pm and Ek Ghar Banaunga (April 2013 to June 2013; replaced by Suhani Si Ek Ladki) in the 6.30 pm slot. At 11 pm, the channel airs Yeh Hain Mohabbatein.
Colors airs four hours of original content on weekdays. Zee TV, 4.5 hours of original content, starting from 6.30 pm to 11 pm. The cost of investment is one factor that prevents other Hindi GECs from going in for longer time bands. On an average, for a regular daily soap, the production cost of one episode is Rs 8-10 lakh.
The next big move from Star Plus came in February, when it extended its weekday line-up to Saturdays. After Star Plus went six days a week in week 6 2014, it had a growth of 11 per cent (Week 1-5: 2512 TVMs, Weeks 6-10: 2597 TVMs).
Star Plus has been the leader in all slots from 6 to 11.30 pm (in Hindi GECs), except for 8 pm which is ruled by Zee TV's Jodha Akbar. Colors airs three of its shows - Sasural Simar Ka, Balika Vadhu and Madhubala on Saturdays as well. Post that, it has non-fiction/reality shows lined up. The other leading Hindi GECs depend highly on reality shows on Saturday and Sundays. But Star Plus broke the clutter with more strong fiction offering.
Says Banerjee of Star, "If fiction is doing so well even on Saturdays, why do you need non-fiction?" Explains Madhok, "Sustained success depends on two factors - content and the way it resonates with the society and how the channel is able to market and position itself. The marketing of the shows has also helped attract lot of viewers. Mahabharat was one of the most talked about campaigns last year. From the 3D print ads, to changing the name of Maharashtra Times (to Mahabharat Times), the channel had several innovations. There was an extensive digital campaign when Sandhya of Diya aur Baati… became an IPS officer.
Veera took a time leap in November last year. The track was driven by the marketing team. The show, which was widely followed by old women of rural India, wanted to shift the focus to young women of urban India. Radio spots were used to introduce Veera as a cool girl and a fashion icon.
Weak link in the chain?
If fiction has been the strong point for Star - in the past six months, at least six of Star Plus' shows made it to the top 10 list of most watched Hindi GEC shows - non-fiction did not actually stumble. The second season of Aamir Khan's Satyamev Jayate (SMJ 2), in March, helped build the brand further. In five weeks, SMJ 2 rated an average of 4.1 TVMs, compared to 4.5 TVMs (during the first five episodes of season 1).
The channel had also had successful season of Nach Baliye with Sajid Khan, Terrence Louis and Shilpa Shetty. The channel aired Masterchief India's kids' special for the first time ever titled Junior Masterchef. Ashish Golwalkar, non-fiction programming head of Star Plus says, "Our constant endevour is to challenge the status quo." There were failures too.
Mad In India (featuring Manish Paul and Sunil Grover, who achieved fame as Gutthi on Colors' Comedy Nights with Kapil), went under because of the lack of novelty and good script. Survivors India was another reality show that was a disappointment for the channel. It hasn't given up though.
A reality show with Yo Yo Honey Singh, India's Raw Star is on the cards. The show is a platform to find the "ultimate" performing artiste who can bring in a visual experience to music. And it has to be someone who can go beyond singing and create a distinct style of music, irrespective of language or genre. Somewhat like Star itself.
A Note From the Editor
The Star Plus story is a remarkable one of many ups and downs. Relaunched in 2000 on the back of Kaun Banega Crorepati, it had an amazing revival. It quickly introduced the 'K' serials and upped programming spends to lift the quality of the shows. Ratings rocketed.
Nothing lasts forever, though. After half a dozen years the formula had lost its magic and viewers were restless but the management had either run out of ideas or did not have the heart to let go of such successful properties.
Then, Colors was launched in mid-2008. With its mix of reality and other shows, it blew everyone's socks off, including Star's, which looked plain tired. Lesson: Success can become a curse. Colors could play with risk, Star would not.
Within a year, Colors was frequently beating Star Plus in the weekly ratings and, in one 22-week period in 2009, the newcomer beat the leader every single week. Old timers at Star recall that it was like a nightmare in which the team suddenly had trouble believing that they could recapture the old magic. Frequent management changes had already created turmoil at the Star network and that didn't help matters.
The channel went back to the consumer. The Indian woman had changed since the channel's launch. She has become more outgoing, more assertive than before in the face of tradition and she was no longer a city phenomenon - the change was evident in the thousands of small towns that were engrossed in television. Star rejigged the programming and repositioned itself.
Anticipating that the next battle lay in small-town India, Star began to focus early on the woman here. TV channels are maniacally involved with the TAM weekly figures but Star began to worry about small towns much before TAM placed its meters there. When these places came under TAM coverage, it helped Star.
The other thing that Star Plus' revival says is that fiction pays in the Indian television business. Reality shows create a lot of buzz but what keeps the Indian viewer coming back month after month is the good old-fashioned TV serial. It is hard to get people hooked to a story - but once they are, you just can't keep them away.