Shweta Mulki

"There's no reason why we shouldn't launch a new channel...": Raj Nayak

Back in 2008 when this JV between US media conglomerate Viacom and India's Network 18 Media and Investments was launched, it rose rapidly to the top and entrenched itself. Now in its ninth year, Viacom 18's Hindi GEC Colors began 2016 with a bang - spending three consecutive weeks at the top in January, although there were the ups (Naagin's stunning success) and downs (Comedy Nights with Kapil going off air). CEO Raj Nayak, who completes five years next month tells Shweta Mulki about what's in store. Excerpts:

Edited Excerpts

In 2011, when you joined Colors, your brief was to sustain the channel and increase profitability. What would be the brief today?

The pressure to stay up there increases. It is more challenging now, as in the last five years, the market has evolved and become even more competitive. So while we are focused on profitability and sustaining the brand, we are also looking at the white spaces that need to be filled.

What kind of white spaces do you see at present?

I can't talk about that much, but one of the white spaces is the movie channel, which we recently announced. In our existing business, if we see space for growth there's no reason why we shouldn't launch another new channel. It could be a GEC or a music channel.

Colors, the 11th Hindi GEC in its launch year, went on to became the fastest growing channel in the genre. Currently, where do you see the threats coming from?

In this business there is no first-mover advantage, and you have to keep reinventing everyday. There is always a threat. You keep trying to reposition yourself, and sometimes reposition the competition. Some things you do differently and sometimes you do different things.

We've been consistent in our thinking process, and try to be cutting edge with differentiated content. Nobody offers the spectrum of variety that we do. People may remember only things that have succeeded but there have been flops too. But we aren't scared to take risks. Recently we launched Box Cricket (it did not work that well in the previous channel).

Adopting existing properties, and turning them around. What is your code here?
"There's no reason why we shouldn't launch a new channel...": Raj Nayak
Our code is that we look at things with a different prism. When we take on something there is a certain style, a certain television grammar and a distinct non-fiction grammar that we bring to the table. We recreate, scale up and differentiate the property.

Content is something you can't put on a PowerPoint slide. I can't put it down to a formula, but yes we have aggregated some of the best creative people in the country. Take Bigg Boss. Every year, the challenge is make sure there's no fatigue, and that keeps us on our feet.

Post Naagin's success, will you stretch daily weekday shows to weekends?
"There's no reason why we shouldn't launch a new channel...": Raj Nayak
Others are doing it now but I don't believe that running shows seven days a week is good strategy. In the short run there may be gain, but in the long term this is not sustainable. There will be fatigue and it will be tough on the actors.

What viewers expect from us is variety on weekends so they get Box Cricket League, Mission Sapne, Comedy Nights Bachao and Naagin. Variety is our strength and we don't want to break that. In fact, we have a problem of plenty, where we've built cult properties over a period of time be it India's Got Talent or Jhalak Dikhla Jaa.

How do you work out your fiction and non-fiction break-up?

Fiction is on weekdays and non-fiction is weekends. For us, weekend fiction shows are like non-fiction because of their costs and the limited edition factor. We've extended Naagin, as we don't want the new fiction show to start during IPL.

The Comedy Nights saga... Are you happy with the replacement?

We are happy with it. Can it do better? Yes. But we launched a programme in a matter of just 15 days. We got it okay and will keep tinkering and tweaking it. At that moment we had to go with what we had, but we may change or add people.

Has your risk appetite gone down compared to the initial years? In the last six months, what are the programming risks you've taken?

e still have the appetite. That's in our DNA. We have made a lot of tough programming decisions - shifting Bigg Boss to the 10.30 pm slot, launching Ashoka as a one-hour show at 9 pm, making Comedy Nights a weekly, creating Comedy Nights Bachao and launching a weekend fiction show Naagin as well as Anupam Kher's chat show, Kuch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai.

Would 24, which is all set for its new season, also count as a risk?

24 was one show that made the south Bombay, south Delhi English-speaking audiences tune into a Hindi GEC - something that they would have otherwise looked down upon. In SEC-A it had good viewership. It took time for the masses to understand the concept.

I believe the upcoming season 2 will do well. I could have abandoned 24 and tried another show, but the trick is to take a franchise and build it. Yes, Season 2 is more expensive because of escalation and other factors. But three years creates a strong franchise, and then I can go to the board and say let's do another one. We needed to take the industry to the next level. The competition followed with such shows. We also do that sometimes. The herd mentality is a reality here.

How do you zero in on content selection?

We look at all the shows on every other channel and feel that they look the same. So we say, 'Let's make ours look different.' We look for concepts that haven't been done before - like Udaan and its bonded labour theme - and test it out. We don't use research as a deciding factor but it is a strong tool aiding decision-making. Udaan was one show where research said it may not work. We went ahead, and it worked. We maintain a balance between research and gut-feel. When you are a leader you have the luxury of experimenting, and when you are not the leader you have no choice but to experiment.

You've announced a new movie channel, Rishtey Cineplex. Earlier, you have spoken about the synergy that Colors misses out on, due to the absence of a large network...

In the Hindi space, my competing GECs have a larger bouquet, and they have sports too, so the advantages are big in terms of promotion. Having 2-3 movie channels, GECs, and sports channels gives others the ability to cross-promote, and probably manage costs better because, in areas like movie acquisitions, they can amortise costs across channels. We can't run Colors Hindi promos on regional or vice versa.

What were your expectations from BARC's ratings for the rural market?

Our focus has never been rural. We want to be India's leading premium entertainment channel. Our focus is urban and LC1, the market with the maximum disposable income. That is what my advertisers want and we are leading there. If rural laps up what we offer, that's the icing on the cake. Rishtey's focus is rural.

Once digitisation is done, do you see lines blurring between viewership markets?

Eighty per cent of India is digitised. Almost everybody in the hardcore GEC space is equally distributed. So then it's a question of stickiness.

Will you increase programming hours to up viewership?

Increasing programming hours and throwing money away is the easy thing to do. We look at audience availability at a point of time. Once existing time bands are consolidated you can look at expansion. We have done that with weekends and, to a certain extent, with weekdays, where we've extended by half an hour. Star is still ahead in terms of programming hours.

How do you see your online platform Voot affecting your audience dynamics?

Digital has to be seen as another avenue for distributing content, nothing else. Will it have some original programing of its own? Yes. But we don't see that disrupting or eating into our TV viewership. When you go home you'll switch on the TV, not your mobile or tablet. Even if the content is free to the subscriber there is a cost for bandwidth.

Any new medium that comes in will grow - that will be incremental growth for us. As a broadcaster, we need to give the audience on-the-go a window to watch our content. Essentially, we are content curators. We distribute through cable and DTH, so digital is now another platform or delivery system.

You launched Colors in New Zealand. How are overseas revenues coming in?

It's growing but not at the pace we'd like it to. The global economy is not in the best shape right now. We've got a good team, and we've got IndiaCast (the distribution arm). We'll be launching the new movie channel outside India as well.

From a strong No. 2 to a firm No. 1 - what are your bottlenecks?

We focus on profitability. That can be achieved if we have the eyeballs, and a strong brand equity. Our content team works hard to achieve these objectives. In a competitive market there are many variables. To that extent, it's a daily fight.

A Note From the Editor

Eleven months back, around the time BARC's TV ratings began pouring in, our television correspondent warmed up to the otherwise dull task of filing her weekly report on the performance of Hindi general entertainment channels and shows, a section we call 'GEC Watch'. It's the kind of section that, by her own admission, ranks low-to-medium on the excitement scale. But all of a sudden GEC-gazing was fun; it was interesting to see the performance of these channels as per the then new ratings system. Colors was doing markedly well.

Post October, after rural ratings were introduced, Colors faltered a bit, then quickly got its mojo back. Its most noticeable streak was between the third week of December and the last week of January; it was No.1 for five consecutive weeks.

And the fun continues. Our correspondent still holds her breath each time the weekly ratings come in. Will Star Plus top? Will Colors top?

The success of Colors' weekend fiction show Naagin has a lot to do with this. Our interview with the show's protagonist Mouni Roy, first published in January, continues to gather digital moss every day, as her fans tweet and re-tweet the piece. For this Cover Story, we were this close to getting Raj Nayak, CEO, Colors, to pose with a snake around his neck, a la Lord Shiva.

Raj, Mr. Congeniality of the television industry, whose Twitter handle, @ rajcheerfull, has become something of a brand in itself, spoke to us about Colors' non-fiction grammar, tough programming decisions (Comedy Nights With Kapil has gone off air), his appetite for risk, his focus on profitability, and his competition (Star is way ahead of Colors in terms of programming hours).

By the way, Raj has been named Media Person of the Year at The International Advertising Association's recently held Leadership Awards. What's more, Colors has topped the Media and Entertainment category at our very own Buzzy Brand Awards.


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