Anirban Roy Choudhury

"We can't just chase ratings anymore": Neeraj Vyas

Business Head, Sony SAB, PAL and Sony MAX movie cluster believes its high time broadcasters thought about paid consumers' content preferences too.

Sri Adhikari Brothers launched SAB TV in 1999 as a Hindi comedy channel. In 2005, media conglomerate Sony Pictures Networks India acquired the channel and rebranded it to Sony SAB. It was repositioned as a Hindi General Entertainment Channel and later as a youth channel before becoming a GEC again. Despite the various rebranding exercises, because of the kind of content it aired, it was still perceived as a comedy channel.

In 2017, Neeraj Vyas, who was looking after the movies and music cluster, was given charge of Sony SAB. He positioned it as the 'happiness channel' and commissioned shows beyond comedy and according to the broadcaster's assessment, in the last five weeks, SAB was the number two channel among the paid Hindi GECs in India.

Neeraj Vyas, Business Head, Sony SAB, PAL and Sony MAX movie cluster is a firm believer that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India's (TRAI) New Tariff Order where consumers subscribe to the channels of their choice, will force the television industry to rethink its strategies. We spoke to him about this and more...

Edited Excerpts

There was a perception that Sony SAB is an extension of one particular show and caters to only Gujarat and the Gujarati audience. Have you managed to move away from that?

It is a thing of the past. Rajasthan is a big market for us. We have grown in the North. In fact, Delhi is one of the fastest-growing markets for us. We are big in Madhya Pradesh too.

When it comes to 'Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah', it is the Rahul Dravid or the Cheteshwar Pujara of the team. It makes sure that it blocks one end up and that is very critical. In today's reality, where there are so many options available across so many platforms, it would take something else to create a Taraak Mehta and I don't think it is possible. Having said that, we have created another world with Tenali Rama and Aladdin, which is different and has become more relevant than it ever was.

You said you want Sony SAB to be different from the rest... can you elaborate?

We want Sony SAB to be a brand that is meaningfully connected to the emotions of our viewers. In our little way, we want to make a difference. On a day when it is pouring non-stop and the roads are flooded and vehicles stranded, half the time you are on your phone in the office; you're trying to figure out if your kid has reached home. Then you come home and switch on your TV and you have a "Chudail", "Dayan" (supernatural characters and not the name of shows)... Is that the only form of television that is going to be available? That is a question we ask ourselves.

"We can't just chase ratings anymore": Neeraj Vyas

Sony SAB's factsheet

"We can't just chase ratings anymore": Neeraj Vyas

Source: Sony SAB's Press Release

We took it for granted that we will be in people's homes for sure and got stuck chasing ratings. As long as we got ratings and could monetise it, we were happy. I think the time has come for the television industry to wake up and look at TV from two lenses. While ratings stay an important part as we are in the business, with the NTO coming in, we can't just chase them and not care about the preferences of paid consumers. The consumer today has the choice to buy or not buy you every month, something which we were never worried about.

How do you think it can change?

We have to put out good content, wait for consumers to sample it, market the product smartly to the right people, and then hope to make the change. If we do not try and make a change, television is really going to have a tough time. The time has past when you called a production house, discussed a rough screenplay and then the set was mounted. With that, the pressure started building up, so you started airing promos and the show is on.

Look at the number of shows which were produced last year that failed to make a mark across channels. We need to be able to pick out the right shows, subjects and characters. We need to find writers who can craft certain characters in a certain way so that those characters can come alive. We will definitely need to spend a lot of time creating content.

How will Sony SAB differ from the rest?

The shows that we launch will be entertaining. We are not going to be preachy and bore consumers. We are here to entertain, but not with Naagins, Chudails, Dayans and other petrifying characters. Very clearly, we are not the main course; we do not have multiple expressions of content, but we are a desert in the mix and are happy with that as we are the only one.

How has the NTO impacted Sony SAB? What are the initial trends?

In the last 5-6 weeks, we have seen a resurgence like never before. Today, the paradigm has shifted as there are fewer channels in people's homes. Which means a person is watching only the limited number of channels he/she has subscribed to. The time spent on Sony SAB has reached a historical high of more than 160-170 minutes a week. Reach is down and it is down for all GECs, but it will all boil down to time spent which, according to me, is a big qualifier that will determine what people are watching and how much.

Do you think media buying should move from CPRP (Cost per rating point) to CPT/CPM (Cost per mille) and would that help you get more value out of your consumer?

I think it should have moved from CPRP to CPT/CPM long back. More than anything else, it would be a better way. Irrespective of this, the advertising rates need to go up because I believe we have sold far too cheaply for what we have delivered and for a very long time now.

The OTT platforms also speak a similar language, offering a different type of content... do you see them competing in the same space you are in?

If you look at all the work that has resonated in the west, keeping 'Narcos' aside, 'Breaking Bad', 'Friends', 'Raymond', 'House Of Cards' etc. didn't have excessive violence, nudity or abusive language, but they all went on to become classics. Our OTT shows are driven by the belief that intrusive, scandalous, voyeuristic work, which clearly does not have the family filter, work well on that platform.

We can already see that a lot of it is not working and going unnoticed. A lot of people are making a lot of shows and most of it is targeted at a niche audience. Now, if you look at 'Narcos', it worked because they managed to create one great character. Where are those characters? Whether you talk to the premium or not-so-premium audiences, the characters have to work. Both of us are in search of characters and the trick is who creates more relevant characters, especially for our country and our audience.

What according to you is a challenge for Sony SAB?

The challenge is to deliver the quality people expect from us consistently. That is very difficult because there is a serious dearth of creative talent around us. Not everyone can do our kind of shows. We need talented actors; we need seasoned creators and all of that is now divided and distributed on multiple platforms.