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Hot Seat

‘We need to find ways of making primetime bigger and more impactful’

Gaurav-BanerjeeGaurav Banerjee, the journalist turned content head turned business head, is busy shaping the future of Star Plus.

The first change he initiated soon after assuming responsibility at Star Plus in November last year was stretch the entire weekday primetime line-up of the channel to six days. The move has paid off. The channel has scaled to a new high, with a new benchmark of 700 million viewership week on week.

In his first interview after taking charge of Star Plus’ business, Banerjee tells TelevisionPost.com’s Gaurav Laghate why the channel has remained wary of regular non-fiction shows.

He says that the channel is making good money, which gives him enough headroom to invest in mega-budget shows like ‘Mahabharat’ and ‘Satyamev Jayate’.

Edited excerpts…

Q. In the four months since taking charge of Star Plus, you have made many changes in the programming. Why this was needed for the No. 1 Hindi general entertainment channel?

I think in terms of share, we have been in a very healthy position and the value that Star Plus provides to the advertisers continues to be strong. There is significant headroom now and the business is robust.

In the last six months, two big things happened for the channel. First, we came out with a breakout show like ‘Mahabharat’, which also brought in a different set of audience and pulled a lot of advertisers as well.

Second, there’s been a jump in our share in the most crucial TG. If you look at young women in urban India and the upper SECs (socio-economic classes), you’ll find that our share has really gone up. It’s not just about leadership but the fact that for this TG, all of the top shows are from our channel.

Q. But you do not currently have strong non-fiction properties. What about the male TG?

We are the leader when it comes to these demographics. We are the clear leader in SEC AB females 15–24. True that our share of male audiences has been a bit low as we haven’t had the biggest reality shows, but it’s not the case anymore.

Star Plus must go beyond its comfort zone built around family dramas. But we have now shifted focus to young romances, to women having professional ambitions and to a complex mythology which is also a political allegory.

Gaurav Banerjee, General Manager, Star Plus
“We don’t look at content through the ROI lens. We ask ourselves why the story is important and why it needs a certain kind of investment. If we keep doing that, the ROI will take care of itself”

 

Q: Even your competitors admit that your fiction line-up is strong but you lag behind when it comes to non-fiction.

I think the way we have categorised the content, it has been a bit of a straitjacket. I think Star Plus set the trend by doing ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ [KBC] in 2000. And that model is still being followed. Star Plus has lived by it and whoever has come lately has lived by the same model.

I think as the industry leader, it is again up to us to recast that model itself. Non-fiction has been about song-and-dance shows, which generally takes its inspiration from what has been created in Bollywood. It’s not the most imaginative, novel expression that can happen on TV.

We must really build on innovation. If you see it was Star Plus which did KBC. It was again Star which did the first big dance show ‘Nach Baliye’ and the comedy show ‘Laughter Challenge’. Not surprisingly, ‘Master Chef’, the first cooking talent show in a very big way, was also done by Star.

We have really tried to reset the terms of how and what we categorise as non-fiction. The only thing that we have not done and we have been wary to do is one more dance or singing reality show. This is because when we had done that in the past, it didn’t set the stage on fire.

Q. But you still have three non-fiction shows.

We definitely have three very big brands in the non-fiction space, which pull in very good numbers and a very different set of advertisers. These are ‘Nach Baliye’, ‘Satyamev Jayate’ (SMJ) and ‘Master Chef’.

If I compare last year’s ‘Nach Baliye’ with last year’s ‘Jhalak Dikhla Jaa’ (Colors), ‘Nach Baliye’ scored a higher average. Our ‘Master Chef’ also spawned many me-too shows on other channels. But ‘Master Chef’ was consistently better.

One way for us to define non-fiction is impact and I am yet to see a show with a greater impact than ‘SMJ’. This year itself, the issue we raised in the first episode [rape] have resulted in more than 1 crore (10 million) missed calls. I don’t know if any other show has this kind of impact.

Q. Coming to your Sunday programming, your widely promoted comedy show ‘Mad in India’ falls short on the comic quotient. Anything you are doing about it?

I think it is a work in progress. Even before we start planning on our next project, we need to take all the inputs to figure out how to make this show better. Honestly, I and my team are trying our best to improve it. We need to work on the writing to make it funnier and more meaningful.

Gaurav Banerjee, General Manager, Star Plus 1
“The single biggest trend that I see is that of the ‘nayi soch’ women. If you look at the last 10 weeks on Star Plus, you’ll find that for nine of those weeks the channel had the highest ratings ever measured in the history of Indian television. That’s a huge substantive shift propelled by the empowered young women of India”

 

Q. Hasn’t Sunday programming been a dampener for you? Even ‘Ishq Kills’ is yet to get eyeballs.

Sunday has been a bit of a problem for us for a while. We have to offer content that is different from what we have offered in the past and what others have offered.

I think ‘Ishq Kills’ is a great show and we have not been able to promote it as well as we could have. That always is a bit of a challenge for a big channel with so many shows and priorities. Also, a crime thriller, with an angle of love going wrong, is a new thing on Star Plus. So, it’ll take some time to build it.

Some of the stories we have put on air are very interesting and different. In terms of production values as well, there has been a noticeable improvement. As a channel, we should not look at content from the point of ratings only.

Both ‘Mad in India’ and ‘Ishq Kills’ are our efforts at setting a variety lens on Star Plus. They are a step in the right direction.

Besides, there will be a lot more variety in our programming on Sundays in the days to come. Even today, only on Star Plus you get an ‘SMJ’, ‘Mad in India’ or ‘Ishq Kills’. If you look at certain TGs, all of this contains very well. For example, if I do a cut on SEC A and males, the numbers are very interesting and healthy to look at. ‘SMJ’ is obviously a breakthrough.

Q. You have been investing heavily in shows. How do you find the right balance between investments, return on investment (ROI) and impact?

We look at these as big strategic decisions. At Star Plus, our principle has been to invest and create a big brand. And if that brand gets lot of love from viewers, the money will follow.

We don’t look at content through the ROI lens. We ask ourselves why the story is important and why it needs a certain kind of investment. If we keep doing that, the ROI will take care of itself.

We made big investments in ‘Mahabharat’ and in ‘SMJ’, the single biggest investments in fiction and in non-fiction respectively. And both have given Star Plus that extra sheen, the pedestal in the order of channels, which otherwise may or may not have been there.

Q. You have also shifted the primetime to as early as 6 pm. Is it because of the addition of LC1 towns?

LC1 is one big factor, but the answer keeps knocking us every time. ‘Saathiya’ at 7 pm is again No. 1. I think the 6 pm and 6.30 pm shows are also working well and we have not seen ratings like that earlier.

‘Saathiya’ would not have been so successful if we had applied the ROI principle. The same argument applies to the 11 pm slot as well.

I think our business is very simple. It’s about telling good stories and getting a lot of viewer engagement. For this, brands should be able to pay you good monies.

Q. But GECs have stopped making afternoon shows. Do you think the afternoon is not important anymore?

It’s an investment question. Where do you want to invest? If we decide to invest, let’s say in five more shows for the afternoon, a lot more money will be required for getting the research and graphics right.

A very big focus on quantity may come at the cost of quality. And that’s something we have to be very careful about. I don’t think the afternoon slot is necessarily over, but what I do believe is that we need to find ways of making our primetime bigger and more impactful.

Q. The programming on most of the channels has gradually changed from regressive to progressive. What are your views on this shift?

I am very happy and proud of this. It’s good for all of us that we are moving in a direction which is inspiring, and we are not creating a content culture which is retrograde, regressive and sleazy.

Q. What do you think of censorship?

We need to approach censorship very carefully. This is because we don’t want to create a system where some people with a lot of power pass judgement on creativity.

At Star Plus, we are very conscious that we are a channel for the family. We do not put embarrassing content.

Q. On the content front, do you think crime is the new trend on the GEC block?

In this industry, we are really in a hurry to spot a trend and make 25 shows modelled on that trend. I am not sure if any of that really works.

For me, a trend working big time should result either in a new kind of No. 1 show or a show featuring in the top 10 list. Only then can it be called a big trend.

The single biggest trend that I see is that of the ‘nayi soch’ women. If you look at the last 10 weeks on Star Plus, you’ll find that for nine of those weeks the channel had the highest ratings ever measured in the history of Indian television. That’s a huge substantive shift propelled by the empowered young women of India.

Q. But don’t you think the crime genre is getting big traction? Is it because the middle-classes are not feeling safe anymore?

Why should we be fuelling any kind of paranoia? Our job should be to inspire and entertain.

There was a time when crime shows used to be big hits. For a few weeks on, ‘Crime Patrol’ [on Sony Entertainment Television] was among the top 5 shows. There were certainly a lot of crime-related shows on news channels as well. I used to be with Star News [now ABP News] and ‘Sansani’ was the top show. But we are moving ahead of that now.

There is not a single crime show in today’s top 10 shows. If crime was very big, we should have had those crime shows clocking really big numbers. I don’t see that.

In the US, crime shows are big. They have shows like ‘NCIS’ which pull in more viewers than any other show. That’s not happening in India.

At Star Plus, we do one hour of crime in one week. There are many other channels where that number is huge. If crime is such a big phenomenon, those channels should be No. 1 and not us.

Q. How do you see the IPL impacting Star Plus’ viewership?

Last year also we were ahead of the IPL. This time, there is a change in the deck of cards because of the new teams. I suppose the advantage of this is the novelty and the disadvantage is that nobody anymore knows who’s playing for whom.

We are not at war with the IPL. We have also invested in the IPL. We will just ensure that our storytelling is good. The business will take care of itself.

Q. With the 12-minute ad cap, how much impact you have seen on Star Plus?

We have increased the rates, but it has not offset the cut in inventory. There are challenges on the revenue front due to the economy not doing well. It is a challenging environment which just puts more pressure to be more innovative.

Q. Your margins are very healthy, I suppose.

Our margins are very good and they allow us to invest back in content. We are doing well, making good money. I can’t give out the numbers, though.