In July last year, when Viacom18 announced the acquisition of 50 per cent stake in Prism TV, which owned and operated regional entertainment channels ETV Marathi, ETV Kannada, ETV Bangla, ETV Oriya and ETV Gujarati, the most frequent word used to describe the event was 'milestone'. That milestone culminated in the complete merger of Prism into Viacom18, recently.
For a marathon runner like Sudhanshu Vats - who turned up for this interview after a "boring" run that morning - the long drawn out wooing was par for the course since the market is very attractive.
Ask Vats what it is about the regional space that makes it so and pat comes the reply: "The headroom for growth." Viacom18's Group CEO calls himself an advocate of the regional broadcast space and is upbeat about its prosperity.
In the regional GEC space, Viacom18 is the market leader in Kannada, owns the only Gujarati channel, is struggling to make a mark in Bangla, has established itself as a strong No.2 in Marathi, and is among the top five channels in Oriya.
Close to 25 per cent of Viacom18's revenue comes from its regional business.
Well, 59 per cent of India communicates in regional languages, 40 per cent in Hindi and its various dialects and close to one per cent speaks English.
Historically, the measurement of TAM has been slightly biased towards the Hindi audience. Subsequently, the data tilted towards Hindi. BARC (Broadcast Audience Measurement Council) is already measuring a lot more regional viewership.
TAM urban data used to be about 28 per cent regional; with BARC, the number is 40 per cent. The arrival of BARC and its new data has underlined the importance of the regional market. The top three broadcasters - Star, Zee and we - all have a large regional footprint now.
Another change with the coming in of BARC data is that even in regional markets you have to take the rural audience into account. At every step, one has to look at what type of programming one has and whether it will work for both audiences.
The rate of growth in advertising in the regional space is higher than that in the national and Hindi spaces. If I were to give an index number, if Hindi growth is 100, then regional growth is between 120 and 140.
It's the same story internally as well; our advertising growth in regional is substantially higher than it is in the other spaces.
Another question that now arises for advertisers is - 'Are you targeting urban, rural, or both?' There are distinctions; non-fiction formats tend to work better in urban... no surprises. Similarly, serials work in rural and urban, both.
The advantages are clear: ETV was a pioneer in regional, so we got a footprint from a legacy and penetration point of view.
There were things we needed to work on; the incumbent company's own investment in those channels dried up after we initiated the acquisition. So others who came in as competition - as we all know, Zee TV followed ETV in the regional markets and Star followed Zee - started investing aggressively.
So when the acquisition was completed, we needed to invest in content and marketing to make the quality superior.
We took a customised approach in each region depending on the strength of the ETV brand there. We evaluated the pros and cons of the brand in each region and chalked out a route for Colors to come in.
In Kannada we focused on programming, as ETV, despite not being No.1 there, was doing well. So there the messaging was: 'ETV Kannada is now Colors Kannada'. But in the case of Marathi, we said 'Colors Marathi is here now' and emphasised very little on the ETV presence. In the case of Bangla, our attempt was to launch Colors Bangla as a new channel. We did not want any reminiscence of the earlier channel because it was really weak.
We are No.1 in Kannada, we are No.2 in Marathi. We are the only Gujarati GEC in the market.
But Bangla is where we suffered a bit. Due to regulatory restrictions, we were not able to do a surgical launch. We have fallen back and need to do some catching up there.
I believe there are certain types of shows that can travel from Hindi to regional markets, particularly non-fiction format shows. Today, Bigg Boss Kannada is a big program; we are now in the third season. We have attempted Bigg Boss in Bangla as well.
Similarly, we have adapted and modified Dancing With The Stars (Jhalak Dikhla Jaa) in Kannada and have sort of scaled it to the level of a regional programme.
Remember, these are expensive formats and the cost per episode is very high. Hence, we have adapted, not adopted, them.
Balika Vadhu is adapted for the Bangla market. We have taken Madhubala (Madhubala - Ek Ishq Ek Junoon) to the regional market. You get inspired by a series produced in Hindi and evolve it for regional. It's not strictly the same story but it is 'regional evolution'.
Let's index the advertising - say the ER of Hindi is 100, the prime time ER is 400 and the spot rate of Bigg Boss is 800-1,000. We are achieving the same in regional as well, from an Index point of view, but absolute numbers are different, as viewership numbers are different.
The good news is, in Kannada we have broken even and now make money on formats. The other good news is - we have done that faster than in Hindi, where we have taken five years to break even on formats.
Regional is a genre of its own. Each region deserves its own stories to be told. The idea is to capture the culture and ethos of that region. There can be one or two dubbed shows but you cannot run a channel on dubbed content.
We had a strong No.1 position; the eighth or ninth programme in our ladder would be the No.1 programme for the second guy. So there were quite a few programs/series that we wanted to do, but had no space within our network.
From a consumer point of view, there were a few untouched genres like thrillers and urban/younger rom-coms. We wanted to do that.
Finally, yes, it does give us additional inventory. We are able to monetise.
This is a strategy that leaders take. We have done it in Kannada, Star has done it pretty well in Bangla, Zee is trying that in the Marathi space.
From a socio-economic standpoint, or what we now call NCCS - A/B/C/D, there isn't much of a difference. For example, Colors Marathi HD - the No.1 HD channel, which at times, is No.2, just behind a movie channel - is bigger than any other Hindi language HD channel in the Marathi market. This is interesting because Maharashtra is a dual language market.
The natural intuition would be to assume that the Hindi audience in Maharashtra is an HD audience. But data shows that Marathi HD is bigger than all the other Hindi HD channels in the GEC space here. There are equally affluent people speaking regional languages and consuming regional content.
(smiles) Yes and no!
India is a bit of an 'and' market - everything that comes in adds to the viewership. You will not find a prey-and-predator scenario in India.
It has enhanced total time spent; if we look at GRPs it can be a little misleading but if we look at number of impressions, like million or billion minutes, we see that it is consistently going up because regional is going up.
A Note From the Editor
Before joining Viacom18, little over four years back, bossman Sudhanshu Vats was responsible for Unilever's laundry business in the South Asia region. Over his decade-long career as a brand marketer - during which time he worked on brands across categories, from tea to soaps and detergents - he oversaw the creation of over 200 ads.
For him, surprisingly, the transition from marketing tangible products to pushing intangible content, was not very drastic. Both jobs, brand head and broadcaster, involve identifying consumer needs and catering to them with relevant products, goes his simple explanation.
At present, Vats has identified the burning need for regional language content on Indian television and is going after the same, all guns blazing. Viacom18 is investing aggressively in this space, as are rival networks Zee and Star, and other regional players, particularly those present in the South. Vats expects to recover his cumulative investment in the regional space, in a couple of years.
"We have always played to win. We will extend our presence in more geographies, deepen and widen our footprint, and not restrict ourselves to general entertainment channels," promises a confident Vats, who believes the consumption of regional media will increase as the "heartland of India prospers."
That's not all. Though the determinants of the popularity of regional content are several, Vats highlights an interesting yet starkly simple one: "Someone who communicates in English or Hindi can be a regional viewer too." In fact, he foresees a lot of regional content being adapted for the Hindi-speaking audience.
On the advertiser's end as well, Vats predicts a marked increase in spends, in the days ahead. The rate of "advertising growth" in the regional space is higher than that in the national and Hindi space, he tells us.
At Viacom18 too, it's the same story - the growth in advertising is substantially higher for regional content than the rest.
(The original version of this interview was published in our magazine afaqs! Reporter on October 1, 2016)