The Indian TV market is growing. Ratings are improved, there are more regional services and HD channels, streaming platforms are launching, and a new wave of 4G-enabled phones mean switched-on consumers want content on the move. Stewart Clarke speaks to the international channels in the market
The latest phase of India’s digital rollout has been beset by problems and much-delayed, but the rollout of satellite platforms and addressable set-tops has largely escaped earlier concerns channels’ had about cable operators underreporting subscriber numbers. With an improved, albeit imperfect, ratings system from Barc, which covers rural as well as metropolitan areas, the picture is much changed. In the earlier scenario, not only were subs numbers hard to come by, so was accurate viewing information. “We didn’t know who was watching,” says the boss of one channel group.
The result has been the segmentation of channels, which can now cater to local languages in different regions, as well as to specific interests and social groups.
Both A+E Networks and Viacom partner with local media group TV18 on their Indian channels, while the likes of Discovery Networks, Sony Pictures Television and Turner are industry stalwarts.
A+E Networks|TV18 is the upstart in the unscripted space, taking on Discovery and National Geographic five years ago with the launch of History, and it is among those moving more heavily into local programming. OMG! Yeh Mera India, which looks at amazing facts, figures and people from across the country, is its biggest local success, with season two launching soon. Another Hindi hit is Man Vs. Job. Surprisingly, given its hot climate, there is also a local version of Ice Road Truckers, IRT India’s Deadliest Roads, in which celebs tackle journeys on India’s most dangerous roads.
Avinash Kaul (right), president of A+E Networks|TV18, says the challenge now is rolling out more of the A+E channels, as well as pushing out more regional-language services. Crime and Investigation looks set for an Indian launch. “Over the next three or four years, you will see all of the A+E brands come into the country,” Kaul says. “The next one is probably Crime and Investigation. There are 177 news channels in India, each running several hours of crime content daily.”
Kaul also runs the news part of TV18 and says there is considerable scope for cooperation between this operation and a local version of the C&I net.
Sudhanshu Vats (below) is group CEO of Viacom18, which runs a 26-channel bouquet in India, twelve of which are big international brands from the Viacom stable such as Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon. It shook up the market with the launch of the Colors entertainment channel, since complemented with another local brand, Rishtey.
“There is a strategic thrust behind sharper segmentation,” Vats says. “There will be more regional language versions of channels, and we will also segment [target audiences] within the general entertainment channels.”
The effort to sharpen the programming on Colors has seen the introduction of comedy series to appeal to its core urban viewer. The opportunity to reach specific demos and interest groups will only increase as households get more TV sets.
Only an estimated 12% of homes have more than one set, but as that proportion increases, so do the niche channel opportunities.
Free-to-air digital is also emerging, and Vats estimates that India will move to a 70%-30% free and pay market over time, noting that Viacom is keen to play in both and has Rishtey and MTV Beats among its free offering.
“India is moving to a pay and free market,” Vats says. “With 20-25 million owning a free TV dish, there is the opportunity to do free-to-air, and we will have free and pay channels in entertainment, music and movies. There’s room to grow in free-to-air; it’s not present in all regions yet.”
Sony has been in the Indian market for 20 years, recently rebranding its local operations Sony Pictures Networks India (SPN).
Recent additions to the SPN bouquet of channels include Sony ESPN, Sony Le Plex and Sony BBC Earth, and it is in the throes of buying the Ten Sports sports channels business. Like other channel groups, segmentation is a priority. “Not only are television households growing overall, but existing households are growing more sophisticated in their tastes and viewing habits. This is why we are expanding both the variety and depth of our content,” says Andy Kaplan (right), president of worldwide networks for Sony Pictures Television.
“New channels like Le Plex HD and the upcoming Sony BBC Earth offer more upscale films and documentaries, while Sony ESPN and Ten Sports allow us to offer deeper coverage of more sporting events,” Kaplan says. “Our philosophy for our general entertainment channels, SET and SAB, is to create engaging and entertaining content that our viewers can connect with – shows for the whole family.”
That means shows including Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (Kaun Banega Crorepati) and Pop Idol on SET, and edgier dramas such as Breaking Bad and Orphan Black on AXN. SET’s local hits include The Kapil Sharma Show, Kuch Rang Pyar Ke Aise Bhi and Super Dancer, a new dance reality show for kids.
Sony’s Indian networks are also available in many countries outside India, targeting the worldwide Indian diaspora.
While primetime is largely about local soaps and drama, big international franchises can break in. FremantleMedia has an office in India and, as well as having India’s Got Talent on Viacom18 channel Colors, sells in the finished versions of its big shows. Idol, meanwhile, is making a comeback on Sony with the seventh season greenlit, the first since 2012.
From a distribution perspective, sales have become more locally focused. “There has been a significant change,” says Ganesh Rajaram (left), executive VP, sales, Asia, at FremantleMedia. “The pan-regionals based in Hong Kong or Singapore have always done a lot of deals for the Indian nets, but now India is an opportunity on its own. The channels will now do deals direct rather than as part of a pan-regional agreement.”
For producers, a market of many hundreds of channels means a lot of homes in which to place programmes. The channels invariably retain rights, but work-for-hire can be lucrative. “It’s a volume game,” says Fazila Allana, founder of Sol, which has made 400 episodes of Colors soap Thapki Pyaar Ki. “Most channels have daily soaps from 7pm to 11pm, so a deal could be for 300 episodes, and that makes it attractive for producers.”
Koffee with Karan, the country’s most successful talkshow, is made by Sol, which Banijay Group (then Zodiak) bought into in 2008. It also makes The Stage, which is for Viacom18’s English-language net Colors Infinity. It was the first original talent show in English in India and highlights a growing opportunity for indies to look beyond the huge Hindi-language general entertainment sector.
“Fragmentation is huge because it’s an opportunity to make programmes in other languages,” says Sol’s Allana.
There is not a long tradition of importing scripted formats in India, although 24 has played on Colors, and the industry is waiting to see if Star’s adaptation of Keshet format Prisoners of War will rate well.
Digital and on-demand is a growth area. Sol is making an as-yet-unnamed original Hindi drama series for Alt Balaji, the OTT service being launched by the Balaji Bollywood studio. “It’s a love story, about an extramarital affair, and we are producing it like a film, not a daily soap,” Allana says.
Distributors say on-demand deals have started to make commercial sense in the past year, with Netflix and Amazon now including India in multiterritory deals.
Local services such as Viacom 18’s Voot, Star’s Hotstar and Alt Balaji have rolled out, as have other India-specific operations such as LeEco (fka Letv), the China-based tech company that has launched a streaming service and is licensing content. Netflix has launched and Amazon is coming soon.
The channel operators are roundly dismissive of the Netflix threat in a market where local content is king, and cord cutting is not an issue. While the US service is cheap compared with pay TV in the West, in India the reverse is true. “Cord cutting isn’t playing out here, and in the OTT world, when you can get 800 channels for about US$3, no-one is going to pay US$6-7,” says A+E|TV18 chief Avinash Kaul. “Netflix doesn’t have the type of content people want and would need to produce themselves to compete.”
Voot is Viacom’s own streaming service. “We have to offer content on different platforms, and need to tap into that via partners or do it ourselves,” says Vats. “With Voot, we started with an AVOD model because this sector is largely advertising led, and will be for the foreseeable future. In the medium term, if you get the price right, there will be subscribers, so we will look at SVOD and other models such as TVOD and freemium.”
Like other channel bosses, Vats does not expect Netflix to be a serious challenger in its current form. “They don’t have all of their own programming because they don’t have all of the rights, and they don’t have Indian programming,” he says. “We do 10,000 hours a year, and we won’t give it to an aggregator for a short-term gain.”
Others agree that Netflix and Amazon might also struggle to acquire the best local fare. The latter has been buying movies, but has not struck any significant TV deals yet ahead of launch. The localisation required in India is also a large challenge for international SVOD platforms, with the numerous local language options.
Siddharth Jain (right) is senior VP and managing director, South Asia, for Turner India. “These types of services have gained some success in certain countries such as the US because, unlike India, they are basically large, one-language markets,” he says. “In addition, many broadcasters have started to hold back content for their own SVOD platforms and catch-up services.”
Sony has launched its own OTT app, Sony LIV. “The infrastructure continues to be challenging for consumers to enjoy content seamlessly, but once this gets addressed, the opportunities are enormous,” says SPT’s Kaplan. “We were an early entrant in the OTT space and are seeing good growth in our user base as smartphone penetration and mobile broadband availability improve in India.”
The pay channels all say that viewing tastes are evolving in a way that means programmers can add edgier titles to their line-ups. Discovery’s Naked and Afraid and FYI’s Seven Year Switch are both examples of shows on air that might have been considered too risky a few years ago.
Viacom18 has the local version of Big Brother, Bigg Boss, as well as international formats such as Fear Factor, another from Endemol Shine Group. Vats’ assertion that Viacom18 is at the forefront of the new risk-taking approach is backed up by developments in drama series Shakti (above), with the recent revelation that one of the main characters is transgender.
FremantleMedia’s Rajaram agrees that programming tastes are shifting, noting sales for UK comedies Cuckoo and The IT Crowd, and for Jamie Oliver and other ‘chop and chat’ cooking series, as a growing middle class gravitates towards lifestyle fare.
With the number of niche and thematic channels growing, key categories include female-skewing and kids nets.
In the female-skewing category, A+E Networks|TV18 launched FYI earlier this year, while Discovery is overhauling TLC.
FYI is available in Hindi, Telegu and English and rolled out with two local reality shows: Real 2 States Couple follows the lives of cross-cultural couples ahead of their wedding, and Rivals in Law is a local version of the Global Agency-sold Turkish format.
Kaul’s team has programmed the FYI service based on three core areas: food with Man Vs Child and Rivals in Law, home with Tiny House Nation and local series Small Budget Big Makeover (produced by Banijay’s Sol), and relationships with Seven Year Switch and Married at First Sight.
TLC has been a lifestyle channel for upscale urban viewers but is shifting to become a millennial-aged-women-focused net, with relationship-themed programming at its core. “In a sense it is in transition from a lifestyle to an entertainment brand,” says Rajiv Bakshi, vice president, female and family entertainment products, Discovery Networks Asia Pacific. “In India, lifestyle has been more genre-specific than female-specific, and lifestyle channels have become less unique as digital has come in.”
The retuned line-up includes Three, a dating series in which women share their experiences and offer emotional support to one another. Undressed has singletons strip to their underwear and go on a 30-minute date together in bed, while Love at First Kiss has single people kiss complete strangers, and if there is a spark, the couple in question go on a two-minute speed date.
“There has been an evolution in India, and middle-class women are not just equals, but are often the more important voice,” Bakshi says. “We wanted a channel that speaks to a 21-year-old woman in her own language.”
Viacom18’s portfolio of kids services comprises market leader Nickelodeon, and Teen Nick and local brand Sonic. The latter was rolled out to target boys with action-adventure shows, and recently benefitted from popular local series Shiva transferring from the core Nick service.
Kids is one area where international fare can do well – young viewers are not always bothered about the provenance of the shows they watch – and for Turner the top shows include Ben 10 and Oggy and the Cockroaches on Cartoon Network. Local hits include Roll No. 21(below), while locally-originated Chhota Bheem and spinoff Mighty Raju are arguably the most recognisable cartoon characters in the market.
Turner boss Jain also says a series of toon shorts it is working on – Lamput – has “huge potential for global export on Cartoon Network”. Turner added Toonami to its roster of kids channels earlier this year.
Telco giant Reliance has placed a big bet on 4G in India, offering heavily discounted data and handsets to get 100 million video-friendly handsets into the market by early 2018.
The Jio play app makes the most of the 4G phones with a TV service that claims Discovery, Sony, Turner and Viacom18 among its content partners. The latter is part-owned by Reliance, which owns the TV18 operation. “Smartphones have become more affordable, and video consumption will grow considerably,” says Viacom18 boss Vats.
The Jio launch spells growth at the low-cost end of the market, but not to the exclusion of traditional pay TV, execs working in the latter area hope.
“It’s a massive opportunity; 4G has taken the country by storm and will change the way that content is consumed,” says A+E|TV18 chief Avinash Kaul. “But there is also lots of juice left in linear. There is growth at both ends of the market.”
For Turner, 4G (or LTE), SVOD and better connectivity means new partnerships and new branded services. “With telcos like Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel increasing their 4G LTE coverage, it presents sizable opportunities for companies like ours,” says Turner’s Jain.
“Above all else, it means that we are no longer restricted to just linear TV platforms and can work with OTT and SVOD providers too, as well as offering our own products like the recently launched Cartoon Network Anything app [which rolled out in June].
“Turner is exploring partnerships with all the 4G players, and when they have their networks ready, we’ll be there with syndicated content as well as linear channels.”