President Francis J Underwood, in the latest season of the popular US drama House Of Cards famously said, “Let there be chaos!” And chaotic times are indeed ahead for the English entertainment and movie genres in the Indian television industry. The English genre had a challenging 2016, marked by a decline in TV ratings, according to the FICCI-KPMG report, The Promise Unfolds: Media for the Masses. Inclusion of rural viewership patterns in the BARC panel altered ratings of English channels, with some of them witnessing a drop, even as viewership for the genre increased in terms of the absolute numbers — 7.22 million impressions in December, 2015 to 7.67 million impressions in December, 2016 (as per the report). Moreover, with BARC updating its TV universe in March this year, viewership of English channels on Indian television has been impacted further.
Coupled with that, we have OTT players like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hotstar offering formidable content, further forcing broadcasters to get into the rat race of content acquisition. The same-day releases (concurrent with US premieres) are putting more strain on content costs, although broadcasters state this is not irrational. With changing consumption patterns and low viewership plaguing the genre, how are broadcasters ensuring long-term profitability?
The fault in our stars
Channel launches, including Sony Le Plex HD by Sony Pictures Networks India (SPN) and Movies Now 2 SD and HD by Times Network last year perhaps indicate the business potential of the English movies genre. However, problems are abundant.
Saurabh Yagnik, EVP and business head, English cluster at SPN says, “There is a lot of pressure on a niche category like English because of the measurement and indications that the size of viewership is significantly lower now than what it was earlier.” While the size of the English movie genre is currently pegged at 0.7% of the TV universe in India, the English entertainment genre has grown from 0.04% to 0.1%, as per BARC India. “Under BARC, the English movies genre initially saw a 50% drop, which has reduced to around 35% over 2016,” says Rohit Bhandari, senior director and network head — English entertainment, Turner International India.
However, during the last couple of months, we are seeing the performance of English movies as a genre improving and we are hopeful that this will continue,” mentions Rohit Bhandari, senior director and network head — English entertainment, Turner International India.
The growth and potential of HD channels in the two genres has also been impacted. In fact, Star India recently drew the curtains on two of its channels – FX and Star Movies Action as it didn’t make “business sense” according to a source within the company, and that there was cannibalisation due to an overlap in terms of content and audience. Speculation is rife that there are talks to shut down Star World Premiere HD as well. Meanwhile, FX HD will go off air on July 20, as per the channel.
A Star India spokesperson explains, “We relooked at our portfolio and sharpened it in a way that allows us to offer each consumer something unique. We are keenly aware of our consumer’s tastes and would seek to address any need gaps or virgin spaces in the future.” To address the measurement challenge, there is a buzz that broadcasters have been requesting for further segmentation within NCCS A, which they believe will help in attaining a sharper representation of viewership. “The numbers are down because the first cut of SEC is 31% of the population. Earlier, it was only 12%. One-third of the population is never niche. So at 31% you cannot get the understanding on these kind of genres,” notes Basabdatta Chowdhury, COO at Starcom India.
But BARC India has a different story to tell.”We have seen growth in the English genre. A same period comparison for the English Entertainment and English Movie genres shows a growth of 99% and 14% respectively. The growth is reflective of the changes in the society,” states Partho Dasgupta, CEO, BARC India.
The advent of VoD services has further resulted in a reduction in the hold-back period for linear broadcast rights with most films now being available on television within 9-12 months of the theatrical release. Vivek Srivastava, EVP and head of entertainment cluster at Times Network says,”OTT is an important spoke of the wheel, and it is here to change business models. I don’t think it will change a lot of viewership behaviour especially from an Indian standpoint for English movies.”
In a similar vein, in English entertainment, Colors Infinity aired shows like Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, Notorious, Timeless, etc within 12 hours of their US premieres.
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The long road home
Broadcasters believe that digital consumption is still in a very nascent stage and it selectively works across some specific genres, such as sporting events or iconic shows like Game of Thrones or House of Cards. While there are other challenges, awareness of content remains high due to various engagement initiatives. For example, AXN’s activity for the latest season of Sherlock where it tied up with Uber and the restaurant Social, giving a lucky winner the chance to watch the premiere episode, saw over 15,000 entries from three cities.
“The fact that we have been able to launch brands and build them successfully is a testament to the fact that it’s not a genre that is only perception-led,” adds Srivastava. “I certainly feel that there is under-indexing on the English genre. English movies as a category has been doing much better in India but that is not reflecting in television in terms of ad sales.”
Interestingly, agencies and broadcasters are still trading on the 15-40 age group segment instead of 2+ year-olds as provided by BARC. “We also look at reach in thousands and other metrics. We don’t look at 2+ data for planning, except for the kids genre. But multi-screen is a big phenomena and spends are shifting to digital,” Chowdhury states. Broadcasters, however, are not giving up easily and want to build on big ticket premieres. HBO plans to bring in new releases like Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and XXX: The Return of Xander Cage to keep viewers hooked on. Similarly, Times Network’s efforts will go towards keeping MN+ and Romedy Now fresh through content infusion, engagement, etc and building its property Movies Now 2.
For Sony Pix and AXN, it is about getting three elements of the strategy right – content and investment, innovating to break clutter and staying on top of the mind for viewers, and building a strong ecosystem around Hollywood and growing it as a category.