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AXN’s focus on tent-pole properties and 15% rev growth plan in 2014

MUMBAI: 2013 was a significant year for AXN. The operations shifted from Singapore to India, dramas were added and the weekend film content was strengthened as the channel strategised to mop up more female audiences without losing its male thrill-based status.

Sunil PunjabiAXN Networks India business head Sunil Punjabi promises to make 2014 an even bigger year with a focus on tent-pole properties. More shows will be aired closer to the screenings in the US. And while the channel used to earlier have new episodes of shows on Fridays, it has now created slots on Saturdays and Sundays as well.

Building on tent-pole properties

In May, ’24: Live Another Day’ will arrive, followed by a new season of ‘Top Gear’ starting July. The third tent-pole property, ‘Sherlock’, will make its appearance in the final month of the year.

sherlock_3_-_marquee - Copy“Our aim is to make tent-pole properties bigger by creating hype. ’24: Live Another Day’ is a big tent-pole property for us. In the US, the show has fetched $500,000 for a 30-second spot. The second tent-pole for us is ‘Top Gear’. What we have noticed is that petro heads are watching the show. Our aim is to have every car owner in the country watch the show. As a result auto companies have started advertising. The third tent-pole is ‘Sherlock’ in December. With the first season, we did not go all out and market it as we wanted people to first familiarise themselves with it. Now our efforts will be bigger. Each episode of this show is like a two-hour film,” says Punjabi.

Another area of focus will be building interaction and doing activation for the fourth tent-pole ‘So You Think You Can Dance’. “The tenth season did well. We want to grow the next season which kicks off in September. We are also looking forward to the next season of ‘Hawaii 5-0’ which will feature Mallika Sherawat.”

Current vs library content

the_voice_6_The number of shows airing close to the US window on AXN has gone up dramatically. “We used to have Big Thrill Friday. We have now added Saturday and Sunday. Shows like ‘Hannibal’, ‘Supernatural’ and ‘The Voice’ are all current. The number of current shows is up by 90 per cent compared to a year back,” says Punjabi.

On weekdays, AXN airs older seasons in a stripped format to allow viewers to play catch up. “A show like ‘Supernatural’ may have current episodes from October to May. A little later, we will air episodes of that season back to back. We aired back-to-back episodes of the first season of ‘Hannibal’ in November. The second season has just started airing close to the US date,” explains Punjabi.

supernatural_8The timing of the repeats is important. “We have a window for when we can repeat the show and this depends on what the competition is doing and what our priorities are at a given point of time. The weekend is where we air current episodes that get us newer audiences every night,” elaborates Punjabi.

For AXN, this strategy introduced last year worked with various properties from films to shows like ‘Orphan Black’. ‘Top Gear’ also added new audiences.

Viewership trends

AXN’s viewership is growing at the fastest pace in Delhi. “In Mumbai, we can do better and add more audiences. Kolkata is also big. After that come Chennai and Bangalore. The shift to TVTs has not made a difference in terms of numbers being seen,” reveals Punjabi.

More dramas has also meant more women audiences. “40 per cent of our audiences are women compared to 36 per cent earlier. They don’t just want comedy. They also want action, adventure and drama. But we are still a male-skewed channel. AXN’s brand positioning is clear. We are a male thrill-based channel.”

AXN is skewing increasingly towards the youth. “We are catching people young, which is good. While our core audience is between 18–34 years, the TG 18–24 is growing rapidly for us. A lot of volume addition is happening in the 18–24 TG. We are getting in content that they want to watch such as ‘American Ninja Warriors’,” avers Punjabi.

For AXN, reality works the best in terms of viewership return as it is agnostic. Around 55 per cent of the channel’s viewership comes from reality shows. As a strategic shift, AXN has dramatically reduced snacking content in the reality genre. “Snacking reality content gives us viewership but there is no relevance and quality in that audience. We have increased quality reality content like ‘Hero’. My proposition is a premium channel. If I air ‘Just for Laughs’, I will not get that kind of viewership. The split on AXN between reality and drama shows is now fairly even,” says Punjabi.

AXN’s Strategy Box

  • 55% of the channel’s viewership comes from reality shows

  • Reducing snacking reality content to improve quality audience

  • More dramas means more women audiences. They account for 40%, up from 36%

  • Increasingly skewing towards youth

  • More shows to air closer to the screenings in the US

Shifting operations to India

AXN’s process of shifting all its operations from Singapore to India finished in early October 2013. “We have a team of 20 people looking after different areas like programming, marketing, OAP. We are definitely more flexible. We are on the ground listening to consumers. This is really helping us. We are faster and are quicker to respond to the market.”

Challenges

In recent times, the English entertainment genre lost two players—BBC Worldwide which shut two channels and Big CBS, which pulled the plug on the joint venture between Reliance Broadcast Network Ltd (RBNL) and CBS.

Punjabi says that the genre will face challenges due to carriage fees and placement. “From a business standpoint, these are clearly the challenges. AXN has the first-mover advantage, though.”

The ratings issue: For Punjabi, the rating system means that the numbers for this genre are not properly reflected due to the small sample size. There is buzz for shows in the smaller towns and cities. But this is not being reflected in TV ratings. “My expectation is that with a larger sample size BARC will give the English entertainment genre better tools,” he says.

The ratings imbroglio makes it difficult to talk to advertisers. But Punjabi says that AXN will finish the current fiscal with revenue growth of 10–15 per cent.

Sourcing content at the right pricing: Content has never been an issue but getting it at the right price is. This is more so because the revenue potential for channels in this genre is limited.

“I think that international content distributors are also realising this. Increasing acquisition prices is not going to work from a long-term perspective. There is logical inflation growth that is happening but I see more stability coming in regarding the pricing of shows,” Punjabi says.

With regard to the content coming from BBC Worldwide, he says that AXN cherry picks because they have a lot of factual content that does not fit in with AXN’s content line-up. “We have shows like ‘Sherlock’, ‘Orphan Black’ and ‘Top Gear’ from them. We follow a similar strategy with CBS.”

No plans for dubbed content: Punjabi clarifies that AXN has no plans to launch a dubbed feed. “There is no point to it. With a show like ‘Sherlock’, the dubbing quality would become an issue. A show like ‘The Voice’ does not need a dubbed feed. ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ is about the visuals and not about audio. Dubbing will not make any difference.”

Local content: AXN has just introduced Thrillionaire Awards to hunt for the AXN Total Thrill Junkie [TTJ]. There are several categories like Thrilling Moments, Thrilling Premieres and Thrilling Series which will provide the winner an opportunity to be on the sets of ‘The Voice’ in Los Angeles. To participate, viewers who vote in any of the categories of the awards have to share the same on their social media pages. The winner will be selected based on the number of friends following or liking that particular post. Lisa Haydon will host the show on 28 March.

Punjabi says that this is more of a social media initiative. “When we look at social media, we look at doing things that will activate it. Social media is about conversation. We wanted to create a platform for viewers to converse about our shows. People chatter and compare shows using social media. So we felt the need to launch an awards show that will give people the chance to talk about the shows. Voting is a mechanism for people to voice their personal opinion about a show.”

The channel is looking at two more local concepts. “Anything that we do in this space will be about the viewers and not about celebrities,” he says.

More focus on digital marketing: Punjabi says that the channel has done a different mix of marketing when one looks at online versus the other platforms. “We are increasing spends on online. Earlier, we did more outdoor and print. While we still use those mediums, our focus on online has grown significantly. Earlier, online accounted for 10 per cent of our marketing spends. Today it accounts for 30 per cent. A lot of online that we do is about increasing segment viewership,” he explains.