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Viacom18’s expansion in the English entertainment space in 2015
MUMBAI: When at the start of the year the English entertainment team at Viacom18 sat down for a meeting, it was clear that there was room for further growth in the space. While Vh1 and Comedy Central were cruising along well, it was also time for the launch of an English entertainment channel.
“The English entertainment bouquet at Viacom 18 was doing well consistently for a while. Vh1 was at the top of the ladder in its genre while Comedy Central was doing consistently well. But there was room to do so much more in the English GEC space, in areas which we hadn’t tapped yet. And we looked at this as a potential opportunity for us to grow and expand,” Viacom18 head English and youth entertainment EVP Ferzad Palia said.
“India is the second-largest English-speaking population in the world. There is a huge demand for English content on television. With seasoned players not living up to viewers’ expectations, there was a dearth of fresh, good content on television for the viewers. We aimed to make our English cluster the ultimate destination across genres. The focus rested on the three clusters of international music, comedy and fresh international content,” Palia said.
The game plan in 2015 was to disrupt the English entertainment market. Research and consumer feedback indicated that there was a need gap in the market. Audiences were provided with re-run content on primetime slots.
“This gap is what paved the way for Colors Infinity. We had the opportunity to redefine the genre and we took it,” Palia said.
There are several differentiators for Colors Infinity. One is that the channel targets the top 25 cities. In the past, this genre has usually targeted the top six metros. Another distinct difference is that for the first time, an English channel used celebrities not as mere brand ambassadors but to curate content. Karan Johar and Alia Bhatt were used in a deeper context.
“We positioned Colors Infinity as a mainstream English GEC, a destination where everyone was invited, and not restricted to a niche audience. India today has the second-largest English-speaking population where 55 per cent of viewership for English entertainment comes from rural sections, beyond metros. To reach out to this audience and to have a larger mass connect, Karan and Alia’s association with us as co-curators was imperative,” said Palia.
What did these Bollywood personalities bring to the new channel? They lent their individual brands of insight to the channel, Palia explained. Karan is the experienced storyteller who understands content and Alia is the voice of the current generation of viewers. “In collaborating with them, we spoke to a larger audience, ensuring that they relate to the channel and not regard it as a ‘foreign’ element’. The shows on Colors Infinity have not been seen before on Indian television.”
Johar brings in seasoned viewers while Alia Bhatt brings in the youth. “The programmes are not specifically targeted at just urban viewers. This selection of content is not there currently. The aim is to create a new age of urban television,” Johar had said.
During the curation process, there were disagreements. He said that he and Bhatt agreed and disagreed on shows. However, ‘Orange Is The New Black’ was one of their favourites. “We debated on shows. Should we include it or not? Is the show too niche, too dark? Should we push or tear the envelope?”
The programming strategy was designed to play a disruptive role. Capitalising on the binge phenomenon to become ‘essential viewing’ was also part of the plan.
In a bid to build stickiness, Colors Infinity screened three episodes of shows back to back in a day during primetime, Monday–Friday. Competition like AXN, on the other hand, telecast episodes of a show in a stripped format between Monday and Friday.
Colors Infinity did not limit the viewing experience to primetime alone. The concept of ‘essential viewing’ echoes consistently across the board with three episodes aired back to back in non-primetime as well, along with non-primetime specials.
‘Instant premieres’, which is the property under which current seasons are aired, is a slot in programming distinct from ‘essential viewing’, which is the property under which Colors Infinity airs three back-to-back episodes of new shows that people in India have not consumed before. “With ‘Instant premieres’ we air the current episodes on the day of the US telecast within a few hours, thus there is no binge-watching in this case,” Palia explained.
The channel launched with shows like ‘Orange Is the New Black’, a Netflix show about Piper Chapman, a woman sentenced to prison. Another key show was ‘The Flash’ about a man who gets superpowers after being struck by a bolt of lightning. In ‘The Big C’, a woman battled cancer while trying to find humour and happiness as well.
The new channel’s challenge has been to attract a larger base. ‘Better Call Saul’, for instance, is a spin-off from ‘Breaking Bad’. The challenge was not to just to get in viewers who know about ‘Breaking Bad’. It was also to get in viewers who do not know about that show. It was to introduce new viewers to English content.
Since the aim of the channel was to be more mass, it was important that the communication appropriately reflected that. For the launch of Colors Infinity, an exhaustive outdoor campaign across 15 cities was initiated with impactful innovations through print in 12 markets. High-frequency radio in eight markets, innovations in trade offices, 800 branded cabs and activations in over 100 colleges in six markets were done.
In addition, a toll-free number was activated where viewers in trouble could call ‘Better Call Saul’ on 1800 4195 500 for tongue-in-cheek legal solutions to life’s problems from Saul Goodman, the protagonist of the show. “We activated massive consumer engagement by leveraging more than 600 brand partnerships, where each partner extended unique offers from ‘infinite’ toppings at Baskin Robbins to ‘infinite’ luxury experiences at spas, theatres and restaurants and in high-end cars with Uber. These are only a few of the numerous innovations that were rolled out during the campaign,” Palia said.
In its localisation strategy also, the aim was to be disruptive and not be a me-too product. Palia noted that when one talks about original productions in the English GEC space, it has always been about chat shows. “Our motto at Colors Infinity has always been about disruption. Hence, we wanted to do something different. We realised that while there are a dozen Hindi singing talent hunts, there isn’t a single one for English music, even though there is a huge movement and market for English music in our country.”
The challenge is that while talent exists for English music, in India it did not have a platform. “We realised that it was time to bring this talent to the forefront. Thus, ‘The Stage’ was conceptualised.”
However, this is just the beginning. Creating localised content is the next step for the English GEC market as it reaches out to a broader base of viewers.
Like Vh1, Colors Infinity will have some amount of lifestyle content. This is in line with the channel’s goal of always looking to broaden and expand the horizon with disruptive content.
“In keeping with that creed, we have launched a celebrity-fashion chat show, ‘Born Stylish’, in collaboration with Grey Goose. The show is about the evolution of style, both on and off-screen, of stars like Akshay Kumar, Sonakshi Sinha, Fawad Khan, to name a few. In addition, since at Colors Infinity we do everything a little differently, we have a segment with international fashion icons like Jean Paul Gaultier, Anna Zegna of the Ermenegildo Zegna family, Massimiliano Giornetti of Salvatore Ferragamo talking about their inspirations and style statements.”
The push does not end here. The channel is in talks for more lifestyle shows across the bouquet, so there is definitely more in the pipeline.
A new position for Comedy Central
Comedy Central took a new positioning in 2015. Launched in 2012, the channel had carved a space for itself as the home for people who want to relax. Over the last three years, it had become the destination for light entertainment.
However, in 2015 the channel decided to take a broader positioning. The earlier tagline of ‘Laugh it off’ was replaced with ‘Your Happy Place’. The channel looked to evolve beyond just laughing out loud to becoming viewers’ channel of choice for feel-good and humorous content. The new brand positioning was aimed at resonating with today’s common lingo on what makes people happy.
“Since its launch, Comedy Central has been expressive and tongue-in-cheek while being irreverent and conversational. Now was the time to refresh our positioning to accurately reflect our programming and ideology, which is to be television’s premier destination where people find their #HappyPlace,” explained Palia.
Accordingly, more sub-genres within comedy were introduced. The aim was to go beyond just sitcoms. “Of course, there have been changes in content. We have widened the scope of the genre by introducing new categories of comedy into the line-up, especially a lot of reality-based comedy,” he explained.
The channel looked at bringing in a fresh take on its brand elements and content with this change. The new look has slick animation and an overall design package. The aim is to be easy on the eyes. Using the circle to signify locations and happy zones, these elements also help to highlight each show.
As part of its consumer engagement, Comedy Central ran a month-long on-air contest known as ‘Comedy Central What’s Your Happy Place’. Viewers won prizes every day.
A fun-filled ‘Happy Quest’ treasure hunt in Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru was conducted. Besides consumer engagement, Comedy Central focused on extending the concept of ‘Your Happy Place’ through on-ground partnership with various bars, salons and coffee shops such as Café Coffee Day, Gold’s Gym and Maroosh.
Viacom18 has never looked at ratings for its English channels because it feels that is not accurate for the English entertainment genre. That strategy continues. A change in measurement system does not matter. Digital platform engagement on avenues like Facebook, Palia feels, is a better measure.
“It’s a genre that is difficult to measure over a sustained period of time; there is never a trend. It isn’t about BARC or TAM. It’s about the audience and whether they want to be measured or not,” reasoned Palia.
Vh1 boosts offerings
On 1 January 2015 at midnight, Vh1 celebrated 10 years of being India’s premiere destination for English music and entertainment. To celebrate this milestone, the focus rested on growing the music offering with the launch of new properties like ‘Vh1 Awesome Afternoons’, ‘Vh1 Trending’ and festive music stunts. This was complemented by properties like ‘Asia’s Got Talent’ and ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. At the same time, the channel aimed to strengthen its already existing properties. The broader goal was to enhance the audience’s music and pop culture experience.
On the ground, Vh1 looked to take it to the next level. It has over 400 on-ground partnerships. “We strengthened our position by introducing 300 on-ground events in addition to the 100 college programmes that we have, reaching out across 19 cities to our two million core target audience,” Palia said.
Are a lot of shows simulcast on both Vh1 and Colors Infinity?
“It has only been ‘Born Stylish’ so far that has been simulcast on both the channels. In January, though, we are aiming to simulcast ‘The Golden Globes’ across all three of our English entertainment channels – Vh1, Comedy Central and Colors Infinity,” elaborated Palia.
The company has output deals with big studios like NBC, Sony and Warner Bros. In addition, it also has cherry-picked partnerships with studios like Lionsgate, Fox, MGM and Endemol Shine.
How big a challenge is content cost escalation given that a lot of channels want American content?
“The challenge is not Herculean as we fortunately share strong relationships with the studios and have managed to build a healthy line-up of great content from around the world,” Palia said.
The ad scene
For Palia, 2015 has been a much better year. “It has been a great year, definitely better than the last. In entirety, we’ve grown from a 41 per cent to 50 per cent market share with a 25 per cent growth in advertisers, especially with the launch of Colors Infinity, and we are expecting much more because of it. We are looking forward to an even better year ahead in 2016.”
Viacom18 believes that the English entertainment market has just started growing and there is a lot of empty space in it.
“So, I don’t really believe that there are enough players in the field yet. Thus, consolidation is not something we need to even think about right now,” Palia said.