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Vh1’s 10-year journey in India
MUMBAI: From an English music channel that aired 40 videos and was present in just three cities to a channel known as the home of English and international music that is interspersed with lifestyle, reality and other kinds of content. That has been the 10-year journey of Vh1.
In 2005 there was no channel that played English music. A few years before that, MTV became a Hindi music channel to focus on the mass market. Vh1 had the daunting task of creating a category all on its own and reintroducing audiences to English music.
According to Viacom18 executive VP, business head English entertainment Ferzad Palia, while the journey was an emotional one, it was not easy. “We were a team of a few people and in December 2004 we were given 15 days to launch the channel in January 2005. We launched the channel to re-popularise English music. For four to five years Indians had not consumed this kind of music. MTV had gone mass for good reason. In the early days we targeted audiences that grew up on international music in the 1990s.”
Palia noted that the channel initially skewed towards an older TG 25+. However, with time it started focusing on younger talent like Katy Perry and Britney Spears. “Today 55 per cent of our viewership comes from the 15–24 TG.”
Those were the days when MTV India was looking to expand its bouquet of channels. The company was headed in December 2004 by Alex Kuruvilla. He roped in Keertan Adyanthaya who became Vh1 India’s first GM in May 2005.
Vh1 was the third brand that MTV India launched after MTV and Nickelodeon. Earlier, Adyanthaya had a stint with MTV India’s arch-rival Channel [V]. “The brief at Vh1 was to create a destination for international music fans in India and grow the base of fans,” explained Adyanthaya.
Adyanthaya rightly noted that all the existing channels were focused on Bollywood music and some were experimenting with short- and long-form local content. “Fans of international music did not have an outlet to satisfy their need. Besides, Viacom had strong relationships with music labels and the market feedback was that international music continued to sell in stores.”
He further pointed out to the advent of direct-to-home (DTH) which was just beginning to take off and the platforms had the capacity to carry a high-quality channel. “There was an opportunity to launch a channel that caters to a special interest.”
Adyanthaya mentions an environment where fragmentation was taking place. “Channels were beginning to specialise in certain types of content. The existing music channels wanted ratings and ratings were driven by mass viewership which was driven by local-language programming.”
A matter of timing
Was the launch timing right? Adyanthaya said that at that point the team had felt that it could have been launched even earlier. “But now that 10 years have passed, a few months here and there don’t make much of a difference.”
However, Vh1 was not the only channel that the company thought of launching at that time. “We were discussing the potential of Comedy Central. But there were many changes going on at that point, including the merger of TV18 and Viacom and hence some of these launches were delayed,” noted Adyanthaya. Comedy Central was eventually launched several years later in 2012.
Humble beginnings and scaling up
Palia noted that Vh1 started its journey in January 2005 in three cities and aired 40 videos. “We spent the first 10 months putting the basics in place. We had to get our distribution right. I remember that close to launch the IRD boxes were in our office. Distribution in those days wasn’t easy. Delhi, for instance, had 600 cable operators. But we knew that we wanted to get Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore right.”
From 40 videos the number gradually grew. Adyanthaya noted that Vh1 had a library of music video’s which were 2,000+. “We would keep adding 10–15 new music videos every week. While we took cues on programming from the USA and UK, the strategy and scheduling were driven completely locally. There was a free exchange of idea and learning between the teams of MTV, Nickelodeon and Vh1.”
Before Adyanthaya came on board, Sanjeev Hiremath, who was MTV South Asia senior VP network development and later had the same designation at Viacom18, oversaw the launch of Vh1. He inked a deal with Zee Turner in 2004. Vh1 through a minimum guarantee (MG) became a part of Zee Turner’s bouquet in its early years.
“We offered Zee Turner a new genre. We handled carriage while they handled subscription. We replaced Trendz boxes with Vh1 boxes. That was how we got in although bandwidth in those days was limited. We managed to get salient distribution. There was some amount of scepticism at that time about whether this channel would work. Vh1 at that time was seen as a channel that offered more retro music. What we did was offer music that appealed both to older viewers and also to young viewers.”
Vh1, along with its other siblings, went to The OneAlliance (distribution joint venture between Sony and Discovery) in a few years when re-negotiations took place for MTV and Nickelodeon. For Hiremath channel placement was not a focus area. “The calibre of audience of Vh1 could access the channel because they had superior TV sets. We got on to DTH platforms like Tata Sky. We also did deals with cable.”
Palia noted that in the first four years the focus was on eight to 10 metros. “Mumbai and Bangalore took to Vh1 quickly. Delhi took longer, but in recent years it has really picked up as a market for us. In 2008–2009 we decided to expand the reach of Vh1 into the smaller towns and cities. That is when we saw traction from places like Pune and Chandigarh which we had earlier ignored. DTH helped us. We also did deals with digital cable. So we felt the benefit even before the first phase of digitisation was finished.”
Adyanthaya noted that the channel at launch aimed at an urban viewer, “meaning everyone who wanted to be 25. They could be younger but want to be 25 or older but who want to relive their younger days.”
Interestingly, for Palia carriage fees were not an issue in the early days. “When we launched there were only 175 channels. That made things easier. However, over the years the number of channels multiplied. We had to pay carriage as newer players were willing to pay to be carried.”
Adyanthaya noted that initially also the channel did have to pay carriage fees in order to get distributed. “But we always had very tiny budgets compared to other channels. We countered by creating a pull for the channel with influential and vocal viewers who would call the cable operator and demand the channel. We also came up with differentiated marketing campaigns for the channel like ‘Ticket2Ride’ and events like ‘Hip Hop Hustle’ and ‘Rock Rumble’.”
Hiremath agrees about the carriage fees being an issue as channel supply grew but he also emphasized the importance of relationships. “We had been negotiating with cable operators for channels since 1996. We built relationships with them over the years. Having said that, carriage fee was an issue with Colors. It was less of an issue with Vh1 once we had launched the channel.”
Adyanthaya’s focus when he was in the organisation was on tight cost control, a lot of marketing partnerships, good distribution pay revenues and a lean team. It is this approach that has stood the company in good stead.
The importance of on-ground events
Palia also noted that on-ground events played a big role even in the early days. “We did things like a jazz festival in 2005 when we brought down artists like Herbie Hancock. We realised early on that live was a powerful component to push the brand. In fact, ‘Hip Hop Hustle’ was an on-ground event before it became a TV show.”
Confusion over the Vh1 brand
In the early days besides getting the distribution right, there was confusion over what Vh1 was. Palia noted that some people called it Vhr. Others in the ad industry called it ‘Which One’. To overcome this misunderstanding, a lot of radio communication was used. In terms of marketing, the channel tied up with places like coffee bars and gyms.
“We did not have a huge budget that ran into several crores of rupees. We made sure that gyms and coffee bars played Vh1. That wasn’t difficult. We did deals with Barista and Café Coffee Day,” noted Palia.
Growth of Vh1 under Viacom18
There have been two clear phases in Vh1’s lifecycle. The first one was in the first couple of years which was about setting up the channel, getting the brand awareness right, getting the distribution right in the key metros and gradually increasing the number of music videos aired.
The second phase happened in 2007. That was when Viacom and TV18 formed a joint venture company called Viacom18. As a result, investments made in Vh1 grew. As mentioned earlier, it was in this phase that an effort was made to grow distribution beyond the eight to 10 metros.
Meanwhile, the content plan also seriously took off in 2007. “We created different genres like rock, pop, hip hop which at that time was unknown. The first two content blocks that we created were ‘Rock Rules’ and ‘Hip Hop Hustle’. We created new content on the weekends for mature audiences. We aired shows like ‘Vh1 Classics’. Then we targeted gym-goers in the morning. For instance, we aired cardio videos which gave people advice on losing calories through music,” said Palia.
Becoming an international channel
2009 was another huge year. In October 2007 Adyanthaya left the organisation, and by 2009 Palia had taken over. Palia realised that to grow and bolster revenue, Vh1 had to compete better with the English entertainment channels like Star World and AXN. For him the way forward was to have more long-form content.
Even in the early days Adyanthaya realised that content had to go beyond just music videos. This was key to create appointment viewing. “We were airing long-form content within six months of launch. We had a vast library of highly entertaining shows coming from the USA like ‘The Fabulous Life…’, ‘Pimp My Ride’, ‘Cribs’, etc. and they found an apt home on Vh1. We wanted to create appointment viewing.”
Palia noted that while the above-mentioned shows were not the “biggest of shows”, they were unique in the Indian context. This area was stepped up in a big way in 2009.
Audience research showed that having more international content that was different from what competition was showing was the way to go. A new tagline was introduced for Vh1—‘Get With It’. Lifestyle content and reality shows were introduced. In the 2009-2010 fiscal lots of new shows were introduced. There was even stuff related to Hollywood.
The channel tried to change the perception of being an English music channel. Now it wanted to be known as an international entertainment channel. For Palia the perception of Vh1 is better today as a result of this move but there is still room for improvement.
“In 2009 we changed our content balance to have a mix where 25 per cent would be long-form shows. The balance would be music. That balance remains today.
“We reinvented ourselves and innovated every two years. A big part of this process saw us getting more aggressive on the content acquisition front. An important thing that we did was buying the rights to awards shows like the Grammy Awards, the Golden Globe Awards, etc. Today we air an awards show every month. The only major awards show that is not with us is the Oscars.”
Vh1 regularly hosts contests which involve a lot of gratification. For instance it sends people to watch the Grammy Awards. “This kind of an opportunity is not easily available to people here,” noted Palia.
Today even within music Vh1 goes beyond just videos. The channel now airs more concerts and documentaries.
Bigger on the ground
Another area that became huge for the channel under the JV was on-ground initiatives. These were taken to another level with things like ‘Vh1 Supersonic’, a dance music festival in Goa which drew inevitable comparisons with Percept’s event ‘Sunburn’, which also takes place at the same time in Goa. ‘Supersonic’ aims to take advantage of the explosive growth of the popularity of electronic dance music (EDM) in the country.
In fact, Vh1 spent a major part of 2013 figuring out ways in which to grow the events business.
Many of Vh1’s events focus on the country’s talent. A good example of this is ‘100 Pipers Vh1 Sound Nation’ that was done in May and ran for 10 days across six cities—Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Pune, Kolkata and Hyderabad. The multi-genre music extravaganza aimed at growing the reach of Indian English music. In addition to organising events, Vh1 each week associates with four to five gigs.
Lack of competition
The one thing that disappoints Palia is that there are few players in the English music space. Apart from Vh1, only 9XO today plays English music. Big CBS Spark closed down in 2013 after Reliance Broadcast Network Ltd and US media conglomerate CBS called off their JV. Palia is aware that competition increases viewership for any category.
The ad sales strategy
As is the case with any new channel, Vh1 found that explaining to advertisers about a new category was not easy. Palia noted that the sales team spent a lot of time sitting down with advertisers to explain about Vh1’s brand power. “In this genre you don’t play the ratings number game. However, we were told by someone to put out a mailer on ratings. We thought about it and tried it. It got a good reaction and we do mailers even today.”
Palia noted that the channel has never sold 10-second spots. “People told us not to undersell ourselves at a low price. We were told to take the short-term pain. So we focused on building brand associations. Vh1 opened up innovation and integration when it came to doing deals with advertisers.”
He points out to creating brand associations in several categories like shampoos, auto, mobile handset manufacturers and even chewing gum. “This is how we were noticed in the trade. This strategy did put pressure on our sales team. However, I would say that today there is even more pressure. That is because today all channels approach advertisers and promise a differentiated sales approach.”
Adyanthaya noted that the channel in its early years took a few steps that helped. “We maintained a strong ASR (advertising sales ratio) and did not compromise even when it meant that we’re letting business go. We started a commercial-free hour in the primetime. We had a separate team selling Vh1 and did not sell with MTV or Nickelodeon.”
As mentioned earlier, the journey was not an easy one. It took eight years for Vh1 to break-even. “The good news is that we did not lose money hand over fist. We stayed the course. We persevered and today the channel is profitable. We did not go mass. People have appreciated us for that,” Palia noted.
Vh1’s 10th anniversary celebrations commenced at the latest edition of ‘Vh1 Supersonic’ on Goan sands last month where over 15,000 fans sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to the channel. This was followed by six mega-anniversary parties hosted on the New Year’s Eve by Vh1 across six cities in India, namely Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata and Hyderabad.
To mark the 10th anniversary, the channel will be hosting a month-long celebration on air for its viewers in January 2015 including special programming—a throwback-packed anniversary special month with the best of Vh1’s songs and shows.