‘Being a 100% comedy channel is very difficult’

In February 2017, Sony Pictures Networks India (SPNI) handed over the charge of its second GEC SAB TV to Neeraj Vyas, the head of its Hindi movie and music cluster, after the exit of its long-time head Anooj Kapoor.

After taking charge of SAB TV, Vyas got into the act by revamping the channel in June. SAB TV got a new logo, tagline and a completely fresh line-up of shows to bring in new audiences to the channel.

The decision to revamp seems to have worked for the channel. The viewership has grown and newer shows are gaining traction while the tentpole show ‘Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah’ still holds the fort.

TelevisionPost.com’s Swagata Panjari caught-up with Vyas to talk about the progress made by the channel and to what extent has the revamp been successful.

How has the response been to Sony Sab post the re-launch?

The response post-revamp has been phenomenal. Unfortunately or fortunately we live in an era where rating reality has been fluctuating very dramatically, especially post the universe expansion by BARC. Though, BARC happened two years back every year we have seen a lot of fluctuation. Post the expansion in the universe in February 2017, everything is shrunk but at the same time, the universe base has gone up. The number of viewers has gone up but the ratings have shrunk. If we go by ratings than we have a long way to go, its work in progress but we revamped on 13 June and the growth since then is good. We have said very clearly that we got a lot to do and we are planning on offering a lot of new stuff. Our first step in launching new shows has been very successful.

What was the reason behind the re-launch?

After 10 years any channel across any categories need a periodic overall, it needs a refresh and fresh point of view. It is only because our viewers who were with us 10 years back have grown older. For instance: the 20-year-old who was watching SAB then is now 30 years old. So, when a consumer grows, his thinking and perspective change, and it is essential to keep pace with that change as we are very informative and ever-evolving kind of society.

While SAB TV is blessed with a huge loyal base of viewers who come and watch the channel. It was and is imperative that we infuse freshness into the channel simply because one has to widen their net in terms of attracting viewers. Our research and data was pointing us towards the fact that we have kind off stopped connecting to the youth to some extent and we are not seen as a youthful brand, a brand that can connect to a slightly younger audience. So that was our key concern and agenda behind the refresh and that set us up in trying to discover the new age SAB TV.

‘While SAB TV is blessed with a huge loyal base of viewers who come and watch the channel. It was and is imperative that we infuse freshness into the channel simply because one has to widen their net in terms of attracting viewers’

Why did the channel lose connect with younger audiences?

At a point of time, we did a lot of ‘me too’ within our own channel which was an error in our judgment because we had a successful formula we kind of tried to ape it which never really works beyond a point. I think the whole variety angle that we are bringing in, the innovation that we are bringing in is really working now. As I go to meet consumers and talk to people, I get to hear very positives response about the channel and if this is going to happen in four and half months then a lot can happen in a year.

How did the tagline ‘Haaste Raho India’ come about?

When we take a decision, the main issue is to find the purpose behind it whether you launch or re-launch it. A purposeless decision is like shooting an arrow in a dark. So we tried to check out the Happiness Index and we figured that India was in 118 and smaller countries were also much ahead of us. It was clear that India was not a happy place and there were various factors for that – from economics to social and cultural issue – there is a lot of animosity and negativity. We thought that if we manage to change few of that frowns into a smile we would achieve our purpose of making India happy. So we came with the tagline ‘Haaste Raho India’ and we needed someone to carry that message, someone who is a synonym to brand and the young TG. That is why we brought Varun Dhawan on-board because he, according to me, is like Govinda and Govinda sort of reflected SAB TV 10 years back. He was a big actor, massy, and very popular amongst classes and Varun Dhawan also has the same appeal.

How different are the new shows from the old ones?

The newer shows feature lead protagonist (male or female) within the age group of 25 to 30 years of age. In fact in ‘Aadat Se Majboor’, the average age of characters is 18 – 19 years. I don’t think SAB ever did a show which is as young as that, in terms of the protagonist. For instance: Tenali Rama is a 25-year-old boy, same is with ‘Sajan Re Jhoot Mat Bolo’. We have taken this conscious decision, we have been conscious in the way we cast and mounted our shows. Texturally, it was a sea change with new packaging and new environment. I think it was a very creative environmental drift in a way it was dressed.

Is viewership duplication a big challenge for the channel?

In absolute term, if we look at the ratings of ‘Aadat Se Majboor’ it is probably 0.4 – 0.5 TVR but if we consider the duplication of that audience with a show like ‘Tarak Mehta which is a 10-year-old show then the duplication is only 22% the rest is all fresh audience which was not the case earlier.

Tenali is another example, if you see from the numbers point the duplication of the audience is only 25%, earlier when we use to launch the show, the duplication of the audience with Tarak Mehta was in excess of 60% because Tarak has a base of an audience who come and watch Tarak every day. Tarak is a part of the family which is great for the channel; today no other channel can say that. We are really proud of that but channel needs new viewers, so that was one of the challenges.

Running a comedy channel is a very challenging task vis-à-vis a normal GEC? What is your experience?

Being a 100% comedy channel is very difficult. We have two issues one is the fact that India is the only country where we have to generate a daily soap show every day. People talk about Netflix and Amazon, we all are viewers of that but we must realise that nothing is beyond 30 episodes. One full season and they take 6 months to make those 13 episodes they have rehearsals for two months. If our people have that comfort our quality would have been 10X better in those budgets.

‘Being a 100% comedy channel is very difficult. We have two issues one is the fact that India is the only country where we have to generate a daily soap show every day

Can we replicate the same model in India?

We can’t because now the audience has gotten into a habit. It’s a fix and one must realise that TV in most homes is bigger than GOD, people may talk about digital but nothing is going to replace TV at least for next five years in this country. We got into a zone where people want the daily fix Monday-Friday. Saturday-Sunday is a floating viewership they will come and watch whatever they want, there is no channel loyalty on that day unless it is a great season of Indian Idol or Sa Re Ga Ma Pa. The Monday-Friday fix is a mad reality which is very difficult to execute.

Soaps yet have a benefit of changing character and audiences are okay with it. We tried all sort of experiments with our daily shows but I can’t do any of it in comedy because my characters are the life of the show, if Jethalal changes the show is gone. If somebody else plays Tenali, 80% chances are that the show won’t work. As the character has to be a good actor and the actor has to deliver good punches which are to be written by somebody else. So, comedy is far more difficult to manage. We have a zone which we have mold over last year. It is next to impossible especially in today time and age to set up a comedy channel. The reason being limited talent that we have in terms, writing, acting and other areas. It is a difficult zone to manage and sustain over a period of time.

Generally, Sony Sab shows Tarak Mehta Ooltah Chashma’s episode on repeat, it’s like binge-watching the previous episodes, especially during weekends. What is your strategy when it comes to airing repeats?

Tenali Rama and Tarak Mehta are two shows that we air on repeat. The idea is to limit Tarak’s repeats to a point and make sure that people sample new shows that is something we are looking at.

Are you planning to build your weekend programming?

Weekend programming is a very high investment game; it may or may not give you returns. If a celebrity show on a channel has come down to 0.5 rating than my Tarak’s repeat gives me 0.7 ratings on Sunday, so after a point, it doesn’t make sense. It is a high-risk game, there are shows which have worked like ‘The Kapil Sharma Comedy Show’, but the percentage of that is limited. We have to be judicious; we have a weekend plan for next year. But how we take it forward whether we do it piece by piece or all at once, these are the things we are working on.

Are you exploring any non-fiction formats, say a stand-up comedy?

New comedy formats like stand-up we will only do it if there is a good reason for us to do that. There was show done by some other channel on standup which didn’t work even with an involvement of a celebrity. Whereas, when it comes to showing like Amazon, well again, the talent has to be varied, also it is about writing. How many episodes can I manage, how much freshness can I generate every day.

It is difficult to do reality shows in comedy space we can do some game shows but let see we are exploring opportunities to do that but it gets limited by the genre. People come with a very clear thought of expecting fun. They come with the expectation that SAB TV is a relief it will make me smile.

What kind of ad growth have you seen post re-launch?

All of this has really helped us. The advertisers have taken up the channel with warmth and affection. Very importantly we have delivered immensely in the critical 15-21 TG which was the key objective of doing what we are doing. So we have seen a lot of new audiences coming in which make us really happy. We have had a great year, advertisement wise as well. Safely, I can say that we have had 15% ad hike over last year.

‘So we have seen a lot of new audiences coming in which make us really happy. We have had a great year, advertisement wise as well. Safely, I can say that we have had 15% ad hike over last year

With the re-launch, has the production cost gone up?

Investment wise, yes it is increased. Our cost of production has gone up. The quality of our shows has become lot glitzier and glamorous. Our marketing has also increased. We are visible across platforms especially digital. We are huge in digital these days.

Are you expanding your distribution footprint to new markets?

Distribution was never an issue for the channel. We are extremely strong in the western part of the country – Gujarat, Maharashtra, MP, and Rajasthan. We have a bit of an issue in North and when I say North, I don’t mean Delhi but UP. UP is a large state so it is difficult to cater to that market but we are making in-roads with ‘Tenali Raman’.

What are your plans for the channel for 2018?

For SAB, my plan is to consolidate what we have right now. We are planning to open new slots on weekdays very clearly. I see a potential of doing something very interesting probably late night at 10.30 – 11 pm slot. I am planning to come up with some cute naughty shows, not the vulgar and obscene kind because that is not the DNA of the channel but to do something on the 10.30 slot, which is a nice slot. Early evening is also something that we are looking at. And if the economy and environment is right we will certainly look at the weekend as well.

Will Sony Pal continue to have re-run content or are you planning original programming?

FTA is a new world by itself. It is a growing world and is growing faster than anything else. You have seen a lot of channels hovering around the 70 to 85 to 100 GRP mark. I think that is one genre which has more content being put up than any other channels. If you see the FTA channels, content starts from 6 pm for that set of viewers. I think in that terms they are pretty spoilt as they are getting to see so much but I think that is a very critical reality which has emerged. We see and respect the potential of that market, very clearly and if the need is we, as Sony Pal, might also create original programming for that slot.

Is SAB content the major driver of Sony Pal’s viewership?

‘Tarak’, Balveer’ and ‘Yaaro’ are doing well. We will be launching ‘Peshwa Bajirao’ by the end of January. We are planning to have a big launch. Sony Sab content is selected more because Sony Entertainment Television’s (SET) content for past few years -now it is changing a bit- but it has been urban-centric. Sony’s focus has been urban and clearly urban content doesn’t work with the audience.

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