Getting the cricket-crazy Indian sports fan to watch the not-so-gentlemanly game of kabbadi would have seemed an audacious goal to many. Audacity, however, has become second nature for Star India. The country’s largest broadcast network conceived a TV-friendly format of kabbadi, got together a bunch of spirited investors and launched the Pro-Kabbadi League. While sponsors weren’t enthused by the idea, the fact that close to 400 million viewers tuned in to watch the game is likely to inspire them to invest in it in the next season.
Kabbadi wasn’t the only non-cricket league Star India launched. The broadcaster has committed more than $500 million in various sports ventures such as soccer, tennis and badminton among others. This, however, doesn’t mean Star has given up on cricket. On the contrary, it picked all the big ticket cricket events in the market by paying top dollars for them. In absolute terms, Star has committed close to $4.5 billion to cricket over the next five years. The idea is to amass eyeballs on cricket and then shepherd them to the new sports formats, Uday Shankar, the network’s CEO and the man spearheading Star to scale newer heights in the broadcast business, told The Financial Express two months ago.
It isn’t mere fascination with sports that got Shankar to invest heavily in sports, which, incidentally, is a small genre on television both in terms of viewership and advertising when compared with general entertainment. Shankar has a vision behind the move. General entertainment, the largest genre on TV that garners maximum viewership and attracts top dollars in advertising, has almost saturated. Besides, it is a segment where Star Plus, the flagship channel in Star India’s bouquet, has already established its leadership. Life OK, Star’s other channel in the genre, is also doing well. News is one segment that generates a lot of buzz but has a very small share in total viewership and ad pie. Besides, foreign investment guidelines in India do not allow Star to have a news channel of its own or even be a majority partner in one, the precise reason why Star India snapped ties with old partner ABP Group and exited the news business. Infotainment, kids and English entertainment still are small genres in Indian broadcast business. That leaves just sports. Sports is one genre, which, though seasonal, generates decent viewership and attracts advertisers whenever there is a game of interest on. It is also a segment where, so far, there was no clear winner. It is this empty slot that Shankar plans to occupy with his arsenal of sports properties.
This, however, doesn’t mean he has taken his eyes off the general entertainment genre. Star’s experiments with buzz generating, short burst programmes such as Mahabharata and Satyamev Jayate continue. “Star has continued to drive the leadership agenda in entertainment, driven by the belief that the power of storytelling moves the nation forward. One key route to success is disruptive content and marketing—the launch of Mahabharata re-introduced the mythological show to the youth of India and made it one of the most successful prime time launches in the last five years. Again, the iconic promotion of Satyamev Jayate saw an unprecedented level of engagement with over 50 million votes for change,” says Sanjay Gupta, COO, Star India. The network will soon bring a new show—India’s first mythology thriller called ‘Mahakumbh’— on Life OK. In an effort to produce ground breaking shows, Star has been working with the best minds in the industry such as film-maker Ashutosh Gowarikar (for television show Everest) and Vipul Amrutlal Shah (for a show called Pukaar).
Kiran Khalap, co-founder of brand consultancy Chlorophyll, says that in a category hypnotized by ratings, where the ratings system itself is in dispute, Star continues to be the thought leader and the archetypal hero.
It ventures into turbulent seas with original content and unusual time slots, the examples of which is kabbadi and long form reporting in the form of Satyamev Jayate.