Anirban Roy Choudhury

Karan Bajaj: Discovering Scale

An interview with the man credited with Indianising the Discovery Network and taking it to the masses.

When Karan Bajaj joined Discovery in November 2016, many assumed this proverbial outsider would make the network more Western than it already was, what with his experience in the United States for over 15 years, during which time he worked for companies like P&G, BCG, Kraft and Mondelez. On the contrary, Bajaj, senior vice president and general manager, Discovery Communications India, has been responsible for indianising the Discovery Network.

First, he led Discovery's foray into the sports space with the launch of DSport last February. With the recent launch of general entertainment channel Discovery JEET, with markedly Indian shows in its lineup, the network, known for shows like 'Man Vs Wild' and 'Bear Grylls' is making headlines today for a biopic on Indian yogi turned corporate tycoon Baba Ramdev. Come April and Discovery Kids will launch a new show, 'Little Singham', an adaptation of the 2011 Bollywood film Singham.

Mandated with achieving scale through purpose-driven programming, Bajaj has taken the expansion route to meet this end. Though traditionally a market leader in the factual entertainment space, Discovery only has about one per cent of the total TV viewership share, a statistic Bajaj is keen to change. Discovery in India generates revenue of about $80 million. Bajaj's target: to take that figure to $250 million in the next five years.

Bajaj has authored four life-inspired fiction books so far, 'The Yoga of Max's Discontent', 'Johnny Gone Down', 'The Seeker', and 'Keep off the Grass'.

Edited Excerpts

What was your first impression when you began your stint with Discovery in India? How does one go about scaling a niche product like Discovery?

I give credit to the people who ran the brand before me; it's a great brand. Doordarshan shared the findings of their research (commissioned by DD, conducted across all FreeDish households) with me few months after I joined; it said - the one brand that people from FreeDish households, that don't have access to cable, ask for, is Discovery... the other is Animal Planet. Most of them sample these channels at their workplace and then go back home and search for them.

Discovery as a network is unique in that it is different in different markets - in the US, Discovery has no presence in the sports genre but in Europe the biggest Discovery asset is sports (Olympics). So the network gives you the freedom to scale based on the need of a particular market.

Right, so what made you confident a GEC - of which kind there's no dearth here - can help you scale in India? How does one innovate in a space where content is already abundant?

I do not look at JEET as our entry to the general entertainment channel space... we're trying to create a new category in India. I never thought I was launching the 8th or 10th channel in the genre. Had I looked at it like that, I'd have done a competitive analysis and planned on the basis of what competition is doing.

I looked at it like this - the formats that aggregate scale on TV are daily appointment viewing, stories that have very long arcs... basically all top shows are long-running shows with 200 to 2,000 episodes each. They are dailies in nature and have characters and conflicts that are dynamic. Now Discovery as a network did not have all of that in its portfolio. And that's what we need in order to aggregate scale on TV.

We identified a gap - fact-inspired, purpose-driven entertainment content. That's the kind of content we decided to add value on TV with, in a space where already there's so much noise.

So now that you're no longer a niche network, are you ready to compete with Viacom18, Sony or Star? Or are the parameters of comparison still different?

Every network should have an ethos, and the 'Discovery ethos' is to add meaning and purpose to TV. That's what JEET is for... not to go out and compete with other channels or networks. If we just wanted scale, we would have acquired a network. But it's more than just wanting scale... we want scale with meaning.

If attaining that 200 GRP - or whatever that 'good GEC number' is - dilutes our ethos, we will not do that.

What's the purpose of Dsport, then? And where does it fall on your priority list?

On our priority list, we have JEET at No.1, then digital, then kids, and after that we will get into scaling up sports. I'm going to keep it this way.

DSport was meant to serve the 'super fans'. For example, there are golf fans who were under-served, horse riding was not served... DSport is meant to cater to them.

Does that mean you won't take the mainstream route to fight the sports battle? You won't fight for cricket rights, then?

India is a one-sport country and currently there are two players fighting for the rights. We are not going to be the third player to join the fight and inflate the already over-inflated value of this property... no, we are not playing that game.

You mentioned digital. Tell us about your plans on this front...

There are two ways to play the digital game: there's the broadcaster way - take all the content and put it up on a technology platform; and then there's our strategy - go after passionate communities like military, food, travel, auto/outdoor and create strong digital products for them.

When we go to advertisers, we tell them that consumers today are on multiple screens; we have strong products on TV and on digital, and we offer them exposure everywhere. There is no separate team selling digital versus linear. It's one team that goes out and sells it all as a package. We upload around two videos a day on our online military channel 'Veer'. The idea is to expand our audience base... we believe pricing will follow.

We go to an advertiser and tell them that it's not just about the 20 million they can reach through Discovery; instead, we have the same passion spread across 20 million on TV plus 40 million on digital. So advertisers can reach out to 60 million people. For that, there is a price. We are not selling impressions, clicks, views and TV spots separately.

But why can't digital be sold separately?

Digital can be sold separately, but from an advertiser's perspective it's not logical. Brands care about the kind of consumers you have, not the platform. Say, there's a brand that's interested in associating with military content, a linear team will go buy spots on the military broadcast on Discovery channel, and then a digital team will buy impressions on our military content online... that's not a logical way to monetise.

Why didn't you sell Discovery JEET in the same manner, given your content deal that allows Netflix to distribute your shows for a fee?

Because there is nothing called 'a passionate GEC community'... this is a community of people who watch entertainment content, and I want them to watch it either on TV or on an aggregator platform. For example, one of the most profitable digital brands in the United States is a 'college wrestling brand'; there is a niche community that loves college wrestling and pays to access this content. If you are passionate about e-sports you would go to a Twitch, but to watch Game of Thrones will you go to an HBO NOW, which is a very good brand? The answer is no. You would search for it on aggregators such as Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar... and that is why we decided to go ahead with the Netflix deal. It's the first time Netflix has a made a deal like this. Around the world, they usually cherry-pick content but with us they made a bulk deal because they believe in what we do.

There will be a TV-to-Netflix time lag, though. How so?

Yes, it will be delayed. Firstly, because it needs to fit Netflix's objective of binge watching. So we need to first have at least 25 episodes up. Secondly, a delay eliminates the chances of conflict for our advertisers.

You have decided to take a couple of your shows (Gabru - Hip Hop Ke Shehzaade and Man Vs Wild with Sunny Leone) off air for the time being. Why?

To be very honest, we did not expect the unprecedented response we are getting for 'Ramdev' and 'Saragarhi', and that is making it very hard for us to get a 'Gabru' right. Eight o'clock is a good slot and 'Gabru' was at eight, but it needs to be given the attention it deserves, with repeats throughout the day and all... we are not able to do that at this stage because of the prominence 'Ramdev' and 'Saragarhi' are getting. So we are letting these two shows and the wave around them settle down... then we'll bring 'Gabru' back and give it the attention it needs and the marketing it deserves.

But one can also assume you are running short of content...

Right now we are commissioning shows for January 2019. We just green lit a show which will air in February 2019. Also remember our up-linking is done from Singapore, so we need to be a month ahead of time always which is a great thing for us because that helps us plan better.

No, we do not have any shortage of content. Anything we launch, we launch with a bank of 25 ready episodes. For 'Gabru' I think we have all 40 episodes ready.

With the kind of investments you are making, by when do you expect to break even?

Our spending is very measured. We are not chasing big celebrities or blockbuster feature films. We are spending on content quality and if we manage to get the GRPs we are aiming for, the financial numbers will be great, because I believe brands would prefer JEET content to that on any other GEC prime-time shows. About breaking even all I can say is - we have a very tight plan.

What is Discovery's biggest challenge in India today?

The biggest challenge is to scale with purpose. It's easy to just scale, it's easy to just aim for purpose. It's the marriage of the two that's challenging. Our purpose is in place - that investment has been made. Now, we need to work on achieving scale.

This interview was first published in our magazine afaqs! Reporter on March 1, 2018.

A Note From the Editor

Few days before this issue went to press, we profiled the actor who plays Baba Ramdev on Discovery JEET, on a show about the yoga guru's life. The image we put on the homepage of our website was of Kranti Prakash Jha, said actor, jumping out of a glass window of a tall building, symbolic of the corporate world, and leaping out into the air with his customary orange robes flying about him dramatically.

Many of our readers may not know this, but Karan Bajaj, head of Discovery Networks India/South Asia, is something of a yogi himself. Karan, former P&G hand, routinely takes breaks from his professional world to challenge the material structures and mental constructs that surround us modern-day corporate creatures. Every four years or so he goes far away from his routine work life, to places that challenge him mentally and physically, like an ashram in the Himalayas, for example. "Long trips of surrender" is what he calls them.

During these sabbaticals, he pursues higher order goals like yoga, meditation and the art of detachment. "I wanted to be consciously goal-less and feel creation in its purest form," said Karan, about these breaks, in a 2016 talk organised by Google.

While the breaks have helped Karan professionally, writing has been a delightful by-product. The titles of his novels are pretty telling - 'The Yoga of Max's Discontent', 'Johnny Gone Down', 'The Seeker', and 'Keep off the Grass'.

Alas, our interview with Karan wasn't about his spiritual excursions. We spoke to him about the Discovery Network, that he's been credited with Indianising.

Every network, he feels, should have an ethos. The 'Discovery ethos' is to add meaning and purpose to television. Hereon, the challenge, he says, is to scale with purpose. "It's easy to just scale, it's easy to just aim for purpose. It's the marriage of the two that's challenging," is how the corporate yogi puts it.

Ashwini Gangal