It has been a challenging year for the English movie and entertainment channels primarily due to BARC, which, as Sony Pictures Networks India EVP, business head English cluster Saurabh Yagnik says, underindexes the category.
The viewership numbers for English entertainment have shrunk more under BARC than TAM, he explains. They are at 15% of what the category used to be.
Yet, Yagnik is enthused about trends that were seen in 2016. For example, in the first half of the year Hollywood overtook Bollywood with successful movies like ‘The Jungle Book’, indicating the growth in the consumption of English movies.
In an interview with TelevisionPost.com’s Ashwin Pinto, Yagnik talks about BARC, the launch of premium channels to create a two-tier market and the impact of OTT on English movie and entertainment channels.
Q. How has BARC impacted English entertainment channels?
A. The viewership numbers for English entertainment channels have shrunk more under BARC than TAM. They are at 15% of what the category used to be. That is the kind of drop that we have witnessed. Consequently, we are finding that viewership is largely coming from easy-to-consume content and not so much from dramas and storytelling as we would like to have.
That is not a trend that you see in Hindi or in regional general entertainment. It is dramas that drive viewership. I am hoping that as we cross the bridge the measurement system will correctly reflect what is getting consumed. When you talk to people, it is not that they just want easy-to-consume content. They want popular shows, talked-about dramas.
There is a volatility in the market. We are not able to calibrate strategies on an ongoing basis. There is a confusion when you do well in the ratings. There is a confusion when you are not doing well. We use a lot of qualitative filters also to assess ourselves.
Q. How did BARC force channels to adapt?
A. I think that the BARC system has posed severe challenges to this category. Fewer and popular movies resonate with the audience the most. So, the whole focus of mainstream channels has been on only playing safe, mainstream movies. That is what the measured audience seems to be liking.
That is what you do on mainstream channels and I think that in some ways the industry saw an opportunity in the problem by creating high-definition non-mainstream channels that ensured that audience that are not only lovers of pure-play mainstream movies have a separate place to go to and watch movies that go beyond mainstream. So, we have been able to talk about premieres like ‘Spotlight’, ‘Foxcatcher’ and ‘Ex Machina’. However, the challenge on the mainstream channels continues and the measurement system underindexes the category. The measurement system has to reflect the correct size of the market.
Q. How did the market evolution allow players to launch premium offerings?
A. The growing HD households are typically affluent. We initially replicated the standard-definition channels into high definition. But what we also got as feedback from consumer focus groups is that there is a lot of focus on mainstream cinema from all broadcasters. As a result, we have seen channels experiment with offering content beyond pure play mainstream cinema.
We did that with Sony Le Plex HD. Offering a refined environment allows you the chance to not play a viewership led game. You can use qualitative filters to resonate with audiences who are otherwise tough to measure.
|‘The viewership numbers for English entertainment channels have shrunk more under BARC than TAM. They are at 15% of what the category used to be. Consequently, we are finding that viewership is largely coming from easy-to-consume content and not so much from dramas and storytelling as we would like to have’|
Q. How has the launch of premium channels broadened the market?
A. With channels like Sony Le Plex HD, a market for Hollywood natives is being created. They are not necessarily only consumers of Hollywood blockbusters but also consumers of movies with great characters, stories and critical acclaim. We have seen quite a bit of traction on the channel. Channels like this have created a two-tier market.
There is a mainstream channel offering and a multiplex channel offering. They cater to two distinct sets of audiences. One is for mass movies and they can go to Pix. The second tier is for the discerning viewer, and they can go to Sony Le Plex HD. They are limited in size, but I see a huge potential for them to grow as people start appreciating quality cinema. We positioned Sony Le Plex HD as a channel that is for a community of movie lovers.
Q. Refresh was another trend. How tough was it to stand out from the crowd?
A. In the English movie genre, there are many, many players compared to the number of mainstream GEC or movie channels. They are few in number compared to the English space, but a distinct segmentation has happened. An audience segmentation is also now happening in English. The channel is a brand and within that you have content. Each part, which I call ingredients, is very visible to the audience.
So, you need to work on having very compelling content and you also need to create an environment on the channel that makes it look clutter-breaking and different. Each channel has to stand out in some way through content and how it communicates its position to the audience.
On Pix we talk about the hot button of amazement in terms of size or scale, and we talk about critically acclaimed stories in an experience similar to a multiplex through Sony Le Plex HD. Each of our slots lives up to the promise of a Plex with a late show, late night show, etc. The whole look and feel is very premium like a multiplex. The brand has to get the ingredients right and create a differentiated environment. All the players in the category work on what makes themselves relevant and try to break the clutter compared to the others. For Pix, we did a deal with NBCUniversal which gave us access to some of the biggest blockbusters of the year. We have also tried to be extremely topical and thematic like when we celebrated World Aids Day.
Q. Has the problem of channel blindness been reduced in the English movie category?
A. I am not sure about the others, but for Pix it has. The blind test is that if I do not show the channel logo, will people still understand which channel they are watching? The whole mantra was to take Pixification to the next level, and we created slots that have a Pix-like reference like ‘Pix On Toast’ and ‘Pixathon’. We kept building on these properties to showcase our titles and ensure that it resonated with the audience. We are the only channel with a female voiceover to create a differentiation. So, if viewers hear a female voice, then they will know that it is only on Pix and nowhere else.
In all our focus groups and in all the consumer interactions that we have had, our micro properties and our channel get readily recalled and recognised. Pix has gradually started getting more associated with having more blockbuster premieres, having a strong library and having micro properties that are easily understood. Our social media strategy is not only about providing information on what is happening on the channel. It is an ecosystem that offers a lot of information on mainstream Hollywood and talking the language of size, scale and talkability. We have created micro properties that pass the blind test on social media.
Q. You mentioned that channels are pushing premieres more. But most ratings come from library content. So why the big premieres push?
A. Premieres are what get talked about more. Library is what gets consumed more because of the sheer volume. Saying that your channel has great movies of the past is not good enough. When you say that you bring in the greatest, biggest movies of the present along with movies of the past, it helps build the brand proposition better.
Even for Hindi movie channels, the library gets consumed the most, but the moment you say that ‘Sultan’ is on the channel, then that channel is viewed very differently. Premieres help build channel equity and keep the buzz going.
Q. On the entertainment side, why is it becoming more important to air shows close to the US airdate?
A. You have a large audience set, the influencers, who want to see shows day and date. There are also the adopters who have to be introduced to older shows to consume the content. Bringing back older, popular shows also appeals to influencers, as there is nostalgia associated with old shows. It gives the audience the opportunity to consume episodes back to back.
At the same time, bringing shows close to the US helps fight piracy and creates relevance. You need to be relevant to an audience that is asking for shows immediately after it is aired in the US. If it is not available on TV, then it will be consumed illegitimately. You have to keep your channel and your offering relevant to that audience.
We are also focusing on leveraging the ecosystem of Hollywood a lot more closely. We are trying to bring Hollywood closer home. This comes through key talent interviews to build key characters over a period of time. These characters have to be known, understood. We organise interviews with top characters for our shows. We also try to selectively bring key merchandise here of movies and TV shows as a giveaway to ensure that there is a proper, thriving ecosystem around the content that we offer, which then helps grow consumption, awareness and overall buzz for the category.
|‘Channels like Sony Le Plex HD have created a two-tier market.There is a mainstream channel offering and a multiplex channel offering. One is for mass movies and they can go to Pix. The second tier is for the discerning viewer, and they can go to Sony Le Plex HD’|
Q. Are we going to see more local shows in English?
A. People have tried formats, but they have been more in the chat space. ‘The Stage’ (on Colors Infinity, Vh1) was about music, but local shows continue to be in that chat show space. Possibly an opportunity will come in the future, but you have to keep in mind that when people view a mainstream English entertainment channel what they are looking for is pure play international shows and not local content. How do you create a blend of local and international content is going to be a key consideration going forward.
Q. What impact is theatrical success having on TV consumption of English movies?
A. The more popular a movie is in the box office, the more popular it will be on television. There is a direct correlation. Great box-office success will have a great television success as well more often than not. If that is the case, then there is a lot of synergy between theatrical and television.
If the releases in theatres do well, you will see the rub-off happening. The whole pie and consumption will accordingly grow. It is a good thing. It is not that people have watched it once and now why will they watch it on TV? A lot of people might also not have watched it because television reach is definitely higher than theatrical reach, and the word of mouth then enables consumers to go to the TV.
Q. Could you talk about the importance of digital mediums?
A. The growing penetration of smartphones is providing broadcasters like us with the opportunity to stay engaged with viewers beyond television. Our focus on keeping brands relevant in social media continues to be a focus area.
Q. Is OTT a threat to English movie and entertainment channels?
A. I see it is an opportunity more than a threat. If I look at the overall landscape and you look at the US, television consumption has not drastically dropped. People have made use of the additional opportunities to consume content. If a house has an OTT service, it is still maintaining a cable television service as well.
In India, what you see is that the pricing arbitrage between cable television and OTT is not as stark as what you see in the US. Television is cheaper than OTT.
One of the big benefits that people talk of OTT is that people perceive it as being able to watch back to back. In the US, episodes air once a week while people prefer to consume back to back. We have provided omnibus opportunities for back-to-back content consumption. In India content is consumed in bulk. OTT in India will work synergistically with TV.
TV is here to stay and thrive. Possibly OTT will grow and help increase the overall consumption of content. Most networks have their own OTT service. They see a clear synergy where television and digital consumption feed off each other, and the content consumption opportunity goes up drastically. Linear television affiliates are focusing on value-added services such as on-demand, catch-up, linear streaming on any device. OTT is more beneficial as it provides additional opportunities for consumption.
Q. You earlier mentioned that English has more channels than Hindi in the GEC, movies space. Is there likely to be consolidation?
A. As long as you are able to create differentiation and as long as you can keep content segregated, you will be relevant to the viewer. But if you use your assets to just keep windowing content, maybe it might not be that sustainable a proposition.
It is about what proposition you create and whether you stay true to that promise. In our case, we are saying very clearly that between a Pix and a Plex we have created two distinct propositions. They can easily co-exist.
Q. Ad revenue growth has fallen badly with BARC. Is it sustainable given that there are so many players?
A. If you look at the FICCI report, it said that English has been growing at the rate of 15–20% adex over the last four years. This year has been an exception. The overall underindexation of consumption has impacted media buying decisions of a lot of brands.
But in the larger picture I see it as a short-term blip rather than a long-term trend. If you look at all trends, they point towards increased consumption of English content and not towards consumption going down. If that was not the case, then OTT players would not look at English as an opportunity.
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