‘Narrative that OTT is taking away viewers from English channels tends to be over-exaggerated’

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The English entertainment cluster is a key focus area for broadcaster Zee Entertainment. It has three key brands Zee Café, &Privé HD, and &flix. While Zee Café is an English entertainment channel, the other two brands operate in the English movie genre. Zee Café and &flix target English speaking audience at a mass level while &Privé HD has a more premium positioning.

ZEEL English cluster business head Shaurya Mehta said that the English cluster is faring well under the TRAI’s new tariff order (NTO) regime. The broadcaster has created a dedicated English language pack priced Rs 15 for SD channels and Rs 25 for HD channels. The idea was to drive subscription through affordable pricing.

Mehta’s next goal is to see the network’s English movie channel &flix entering the top 3 position in its second year of operations. The channel was launched on 3rd June 2018 by shutting down Zee Studio. TelevisionPost.com’s Ashwin Pinto caught up with Mehta to find out about his plans and his views on the English genre.

Excerpts:

How is ZEEL’s English cluster faring post the NTO?

We are doing well. In terms of people subscribing to our channels, this is obviously a transitional phase. Broadly, when it comes to consumers and viewers subscribing to us we did research and found that 50% of viewers want to opt for &flix. Over 70% want Zee Café in their pack. While we cannot share complete clarity in terms of subscriber numbers and so forth in terms of the groundwork and research and studies that we have done the interest levels are extremely high and it is very satisfying.

Can you share some data on the kind of offtake that your English channels have seen under the new regime?

We don’t have enough data to indicate how consumers are choosing. While research might point in a certain direction the truth of what happens at an on-ground level might be slightly different in terms of how packs are being added. There is not enough data for us to ascertain the mode of pickup. But I would imagine that later in the year there would be more clarity.

Under the new regime has channel branding become even more important?

I wouldn’t say that it is more important than before. It was always important. Branding is always critical. Pre NTO, the focus was always on getting viewers to watch and stick on. What has probably happened post the NTO is the manner in which we communicate to consumers. We required some changes or evolution in terms of us reaching out to consumers a lot more directly. The way we communicated information about our channel bouquet has changed. But brand relevance and importance is as strong in terms of a priority.

What marketing activities are being done to ensure that consumers choose your channels?

We have done a few things in the past few months. We did the campaign ‘Where Is My Channel’ with Anurag Kashyap and Sivamani which has got 46.69 million views online, since launch. These were targeted views. The aim was to help consumers navigate through the choices that they had. The goal was to drive them to our English Prime Pack which is Rs. 15 for SD and Rs. 25 for HD including &Privé HD.

Is the pricing of the channels satisfactory?

At the moment, we are pretty happy with where we are. There are a lot of dynamics at play in terms of arriving at a price. We made sure that a pack or a bouquet offered a far better price point than an a la carte channel. We wanted to have all the English channels available at an affordable price point.

The BARC numbers for English channels have become an even bigger issue post the NTO. How do you see things playing out?

We are in a transitional phase. It is difficult to say how it plays out ahead but we are focused and know that this is a transitional period. We are looking at growing our subscriber base and have a large number of subscribers and having ratings from Barc.

BARC, of course, is a challenge because premium and English channels have a sample size that is said to be a lot smaller. So there is a high degree of volatility and fluctuation. But we do a lot of groundwork, studies, and research. We use this to a large degree as well.

Do you see OTT platforms as a threat as far as ad spends are concerned?

Players like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video largely do not have advertising on their platform. So the options available for advertisers on OTT who want the premium audience that we deliver are not that many. Whether advertisers have shifted out of English entertainment genre, I do not want comment on as it is price sensitive. What I would say is that we have seen good growth over the past few years. We aim to maintain a good level of growth being a part of a larger ZEEL portfolio. We’ve managed to bring over 130 brands on &flix within the past year

Also in a scenario when you ask consumers to choose channels is there the danger of them choosing OTT instead?

OTT is obviously here to stay and there is no question about the growth of OTT. It is an option for the consumer but according to a study that we did a large number of viewers still view TV as being a very relevant platform. The TV provides an entertainment space where you do not have to think a whole lot about what to watch. On OTT, you spend half an hour in the night deciding what to watch and by the end of it, you decide to sleep. The fact that TV provides seamless, well-curated entertainment will always keep TV relevant. Unlike OTT, TV viewing is all about families getting together to watch say an English movie. OTT tends to be a single screen, private viewing experience. OTT is growing but the narrative that it is taking away viewers from English channels tends to be over-exaggerated.

Has the strategy of replacing Zee Studio with &flix helped improve brand perception?

The move has been very successful. The goal was to be the premium destination for the best of Hollywood movies. The aim was to bring the largest number of premieres to the genre. We have achieved this. The brand has created waves. It has become a large moat within the English movie genre. If you look at December viewing which is pre-NTO and thus the numbers are stable &flix’s viewership was over 50% more compared to Zee Studios’ December 2017 viewership. On HD, the growth is close to 250%. Viewers have accepted it. They have embraced the brand. They appreciate the number of premieres on it.

&flix is not a top five player. How do you aim to get there?

On SD, we have been hovering around the fourth and fifth spot if you look at six Megacities. On HD, we are second which shows that it is accepted as a premium destination. The goal is to be a top three player on SD in the coming year. It is about the basics and having a great content line-up. Some of these things take time but we expect to get there in the coming year. For a channel that is a year-old, we have done pretty well.

How has the first output deal with Sony helped the English cluster?

It brought great content to the audience. Sony’s movie line-up has provided us with great blockbusters like ‘Jumanji’, ‘Venom’ and the coming year will also be incredible. This year, we will have premiers including ‘Men In Black: International’, ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’, a reboot of ‘Charlie’s Angels’ and a sequel to ‘Jumanji’. Some of them have been released theatrically.

Are other first output deals coming up for grabs? Is cost inflation a challenge?

I don’t think that I can address that. There is a market for content. The other channels have their deals. I cannot comment on when other first output deals will be available. As far as cost inflation is concerned, I think the situation is what is expected. It is not something that was not anticipated. Our growth from a business perspective needs to take that into account.

What are the key growth markets for viewership and where is the whitespace?

For English content, the largest markets tend to be urban areas. The six Mega cities form a large portion of it but all of urban India tends to be where the growth is available. In terms of whitespace, I would say HD. There is a lot of headroom available for more HD subscription if you look at those subscribers numbers versus SD. In this NTO regime, we will see growth in HD subscribers. As this grows, the opportunity for growth in English content consumption also grows.

Which are the English movie franchises that work well and have any of them seen a drop in terms of appeal?

Genres that do well include action adventure, superheroes. Franchises in this space drive channel viewership.

Is there an overlap between the libraries of &flix and &Privé HD?

The overlap between &flix and &Privé HD is not more than 15% in terms of content. A large part of &Privé HD’s library is independent. &Privé HD was launched with the thought of appealing to a niche audience. It is for viewers who want quality, nuanced cinema. It has a very unique audience. They are not necessarily the same as the &flix viewer. But in the past, we created a block where some titles of &flix also played on &Privé HD like ‘Alpha’, ‘Peter Rabbit’ and ‘Venom’.

&flix recently announced thematic blocks. How key are these in building loyalty?

The blocks were done so that audiences understand what content plays when. It allowed us to curate content better so that there is consistency in tune-ins. Under the ‘The Flix First’ block there is a premiere every week. Other blocks include ‘Flix Forever’ and ‘Late Night Flix’ which cater to a particular theme. This attracted audience at key timeslots. They play an important role in helping strengthen timebands.

Could you talk about the repeat strategy so that viewers can catch a movie that they missed but at the same time viewer fatigue should not be there?

We have a particular strategy so that we play the movie again so that people who missed it can watch it but at the same time fatigue should not be there. We try to keep the number of repeats a movie gets to a minimum. At the same time, we want some exposure for our movie. Repeats play in a different timeslot as the 1 pm viewer is different from the 9 pm viewer for example. We ensure that repeats do not go to the same viewer. There is also a certain rest period for titles to avoid overexposure. The system is pretty complicated. Over time, we have built a robust system.

How many premieres does &flix do?

We premiered over 40 films on &flix in the first year. In the first year of launch, we had premiered big titles like ‘Venom’, ‘Spiderman Homecoming’, ‘Hotel Transylvania 3’, ‘The Jungle Book’, ‘Jumanji’ and ‘Goosebumps’. You can expect around 30 premiers in the coming year.

Is there room for a channel that offers movies from across the world and in other languages?

There is a market for movies from around the world. There is room for it. There is an audience that wants quality cinema from around the world in its original form as dubbing sometimes does not do a movie justice. On &Privé HD, we had a block ‘The Unchartered Side’ which presented international movies in their original form and language with subtitles. We experimented with it. This segment continues to grow. I wouldn’t say that this audience segment is very large but I think that it is a growing one.

Are there plans to bring Zee Café under the & brand?

This is not something that I can say that we have plans for. It is a strong brand and it has resonated very well.

Is there going to be more focus on bringing shows on the same day, date as the US?

We already do that in a lot of cases. We will have a block ‘Along With The US’ from September where episodes of shows will air on pretty much the same day as they do in the US. But the reason why we do not do it for all the shows is that we also want to schedule content at a time when it is convenient for the audience to view it.

If you look at genres that work in English entertainment it is mainly about drama and comedy. Your comments?

Our research has shown that there is a pretty good affinity for reality content as well besides drama and comedy. Zee Café has a pretty good offering across all of them. There is a time when a viewer wants reality at other times the viewer might want lighthearted comedy and at other times the viewer would want good, engaging drama. It is not that a consumer consumes one particular genre. By having variety it helps keep the viewer engaged on the channel.

What is the challenge of running &Privé HD that mainly relies on subscription?

The aim of launching it was to attract a niche audience. It was never meant to be a mass channel. We are in a very comfortable spot right now with our three English channels.

Did you go to the L.A. Screenings and if so how does the content look?

I did go and there is great content out there. Some of it will be on our channels later in the year in September, October. The content is extremely promising and we cannot wait for that content to air. You will see content on our blocks ‘Along With the US ‘ and ‘Hollywood On Café’.


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