Anirban Roy Choudhury

"We'll bring back bigger, better, bolder content"

The new managing director of Discovery Communications India has a tough task at hand.

Despite its rich history in India, broadcasting network Discovery Communications is going through a turbulent time in this market. The network has been looking to go beyond its 'niche' zone and scale up fast. To this end, the leadership has been taking 'content leaps' into realms beyond its mainstay of factual entertainment - the network launched a sports channel DSport and a general entertainment channel Discovery Jeet (now called Jeet Prime). DSport is yet to have its moment of glory and Jeet has all but tanked.

On April 1 this year, Megha Tata took charge as managing director, South Asia, and was handed the responsibility of bringing back the content mojo of the network. Tata, who brings in nearly three decades of industry experience, came in from English business news channel BTVI, where she led the India business.

In the past, she has worked with Star India, Turner International and HBO. From monetising news to helming international content, she knows how to make money in a market like India.

Key channels under the Discovery Communications umbrella include Discovery, Animal Planet, TLC, Discovery Kids, DSport, among others.

"We'll bring back bigger, better, bolder content"

The network reported a total revenue of ₹682 crore in FY-18 and ₹410 crore in FY-17. The expenses, too, surged by close to 100 per cent from ₹377 crore in FY-17 to ₹627 crore in FY-18.

According to the Broadcast Audience Research Council India's data for week 24, the network's flagship channel Discovery sits comfortably at the top slot in the infotainment genre, while Animal Planet is at number five. In the lifestyle genre, TLC is at No.3 below Zee's Living Foodz and Network 18's TV 18.

According to analysts, Discovery is the biggest contributor to the network's overall revenue. It's a brand that has survived many transitions and inspires trust.

Meanwhile, in a frank interview with afaqs! Reporter, Tata discusses her priorities and challenges.

Edited Excerpts

From business news to factual entertainment - tell us about the transition. And how did this role come about?

Through various avatars, I've experienced and represented all possible genres, but have never run a news network. So, BTVI was a very different role. When Discovery happened, I was the most excited person on the planet. Not just because I'm part of this global organisation, but because of where Discovery is in India right now - Discovery channel has been around for 25 years, Animal Planet has completed 20 years, TLC is 15 years old, Discovery Kids is nearly seven... it's a privilege to lead this network.

Right, but Discovery is perceived as a network struggling to monetise its content...

I don't necessarily agree with this perception. Discovery has had a very profitable existence in India and we are profitable even now. The distribution and affiliate revenue has been very strong... easily among the better ones in the country if not the best.

The ad sales front has an opportunity to grow further. FCT (free commercial time) has been a challenge - it will always be a challenge and that's not true only for Discovery, but across genres. I think the infotainment genre is very well equipped to bring about branded solutions and branded content propositions to advertisers, and that is where ad sales can grow. Take, for example, our branded content with edtech platform Byju's - we partnered with the brand for a school quiz show "Discovery School Super League", which helped both the app and us reach out to kids. Another branded content tie-up was with Mahindra for 'The Art of Getting Lost' show. We also partnered with the Government of India's Ministry of Tourism to do a show on 'heritage sites' and would like to do more such partnerships with brands and grow our ad sales.

Your predecessor Karan Bajaj was tasked with scaling up the network's operations in India. How would you articulate your biggest task?

One of the tasks is to bring the original 'Discovery DNA' back to the fore. By that I mean - we had pivoted into some different kind of content, but now we're going back to what Discovery originally stood for. This is true globally as well.

Second, I believe there is a great opportunity in the kids' genre. We will double our investment in Discovery Kids. Third, to survive in this space today, you need to have a digital proposition, so we will focus on our direct-to-consumer play by launching an OTT platform.

Let's discuss each of those in detail. First, what do you mean when you say you want to pivot back to the original DNA of the network?

Going back to what Discovery originally stood for means bringing back the bigger, better and bolder content, which is in the core DNA of Discovery... content that's in the adventure space. We want to bring it back to the fore of our offering.

We have unbeatable depth of content in our library - about 300,000 hours of content - to which we add almost 8,000 hours every year. So, I think that is really what Discovery will highlight in this market. Over and above that, we want to create bigger IPs for India, of the kind of content that's never been seen before. It must have the 'wow' factor. Some of that will be out in the coming months.

You want to double your investment in Discovery Kids. What about this genre makes it promising?

So far, Discovery Kids has been the fastest-growing kids' channel in the country. We'll double our investment in the genre, both in terms of creating more content under our existing IPs, as well as adding more IPs. Our local IP, Little Singham, has been a success and we've managed to do that with about 150-plus episodes; in the coming year we'll double that - it'll probably be one of the largest investments in the animation space for the kids' chapter.

What is inspiring about this genre is - there will always be kids in the country. One always needs to have a proposition for that category of audience. I believe one can use this content very effectively over a period of time, because, see, if a kid grows out of the genre, there is a new kid coming in the genre too... and the same story is relevant for every new kid that enters the genre. Kids' content, therefore, has great archival value. This is what makes the return on investment in animated kids' content high.

Tell us about your OTT aspirations. What makes you confident about entering such a cluttered market?

Discovery, globally, is moving from linear to non-linear and India will have an integral role to play in that growth story. We plan to launch our OTT platform early next year. It will be an SVOD-cum-AVOD platform on which some content will be behind a paywall, while some will be available for free.

We are very confident about bringing a differentiated proposition, because we're not in the entertainment streaming space where there is a lot of competition. Globally, we have acquired Scripps Networks Interactive. We also have a deal with the BBC.

Recently, we partnered with news aggregator Dailyhunt to launch Discovery Plus (microsite) on which they can access the network's content - all short-form content. Consumers want to watch such content and they want it fast. We got 400 million views in less than four months, and have seven million users per month, on average. There is no better testament to the fact that people need and desire our content. Also, a lot of this traffic is coming from our regional language feeds. So, there is an audience that wants this content in a language of their choice, at their fingertips, and that is something our OTT platform will provide.

Discovery is perceived to cater to a 'premium' audience. What is your view on this and how does it impact reach?

Yes, English is for the premium audience; it is sampled by people from the top of the pyramid. But when you go down, then it's about talking to the audience in the manner in which they want to be spoken to. That's why I think 'languaging' of content will play an important role in reaching a larger mass of the country. Regionalisation is the name of the game; everyone is moving in that direction and we are too.

Discovery is already available in English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, and Bangla...and we're adding Kannada, Marathi and Malayalam. In fact, the way we schedule shows for Discovery Tamil is more like one does for GECs, not infotainment channels. So, besides creating language feeds, we will also customise the way we create these shows. This will help grow our presence in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities.

We cater to men and women between 15 and 40 years. Discovery is skewed towards men, TLC brings in more women, Animal Planet is familyoriented and Discovery Kids caters to kids and their mothers.

You want to create IPs in India - do you have the talent to create new, differentiated content? And from an ad rates perspective, will these shows make economic sense?

I wish I had a positive answer... I think the ability to make that kind of quality of content is a challenge in our country. That's why we have to figure out the best model to make that work, be it by supporting local talent or bringing creators from outside.

Of course, it makes economic sense; these shows travel all over the world. Discovery already did many such shows in India, like 'Breaking Point' (a show about the armed forces). We're making more shows, including a documentary on Divine, the original 'Gully Boy' and a show about Delhi Police.

At this stage, what is the revenue mix of the Network, which brand contributes the most and what is the distribution and advertising skew?

Discovery, the flagship channel, is the biggest contributor and Kids is one of the fastest-growing ones. We are a little more skewed towards the distribution revenue versus ad revenue at this stage and it is a healthy mix.

On the GEC front, do you plan to revive Discovery Jeet?

We have no intentions of bringing Discovery Jeet into the mix. It will play out its course.

Last, how much did TRAI's New Tariff Order impact you?

We all know that it's not fully settled... word is it might take a few months. Just like every other player, we, too, were impacted by the change in framework. Ours is a special interest proposition, so, it could have been worse, but we've had a very good uptake across markets. That's proof we're a strong brand. Our price point of '8 for the package was economical and worked in our favour.

While our reach might have suffered a bit, the time spent on our channels went up... which means engagement has grown. The time spent on Discovery went up 25 per cent - testament that it's a loved brand.

(This story was first published in our magazine afaqs! Reporter on July 1, 2o19.)

A Note From the Editor

As an average-jane '90s kid, who, growing up, watched as much television as the next child did, the first thing that comes to my mind when someone says 'Discovery' is nature, wildlife, animals and maybe even some amount of risk and adventure. In fact, 'Discovery Channel' - one didn't really think in terms of broadcasting networks as a lay consumer - was sometimes a metaphor and at other times a mnemonic for 'wild, jungle type shows'. Over the years, the network, in a bid to add variety to its offering, at some level, lost touch with its core... something the recently appointed network head Megha Tata is tasked with bringing back.

In any set-up, the fabric of the leader percolates down to the team and changes the way a company, brand, or as in this case, network, is perceived by others. Megha's predecessor Karan Bajaj was focused on scaling up Discovery Communications, something he tried doing by 'Indianising' the content; the biopic on Baba Ramdev might jump to mind here, but it wasn't the only show launched to this end. Before Karan, the reins were in the hands of Rahul Johri, under whose leadership the network aired a lot of its global content in India, making money in the process but playing what many call 'the conservative game'. What then is Megha's brand of leadership? What will become of the network under her astute influence?

We tried to find out over the course of a detailed interview. She spoke to us about the challenges facing her, her top three priorities going forward, the way Discovery is perceived in our market, the 'languaging' of content, and her impending OTT push.

While Megha is working hard to pivot back to the DNA of Discovery - content in the adventure space - we regret not asking her about her own wild, adventurous side... Megha loves bungee jumping, river rafting, sky diving and paragliding!

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