There is a strong sense of deja vu at Zee TV's Mumbai headquarters. In July 2000, nine of the top 10 programmes on cable television were from Zee. Then came Kaun Banega Crorepati, archrival Star TV's smash-hit quiz show.
In a matter of weeks, KBC annihilated Zee, sending its television rating points crashing - less than a year later, Zee's programmes were nowhere close to the top 10 list and Sony TV had pushed it down further to occupy the No.2 slot.
But now, several failed attempts to connect with viewers later, Zee is finally out of the wilderness: between March and November its prime time viewership averaged 28.5 per cent compared with 12.3 per cent for Sony (Source: TAM). That makes Zee a clear No. 2, still a long way off from Star TV's 41 per cent but a huge leap nonetheless. Star insiders admit the channel has lost some viewership to Zee TV, but add that Sony has been the bigger loser.
The Zee story is looking better to analysts, too; after underperforming the market for nearly three years, the stock is finally doing well, and market capitalisation has more than doubled from the start of the year to Rs 16,600 crore (Rs 166 billion). How did Zee turn back the clock?
The same old story
What seems to have worked for Zee is, rather than trying overly adventurous changes, it stuck to what it does best.
In the immediate aftermath of KBC, the channel had launched its own gameshows - Sawaal Dus Crore Ka and Kam Ya Zyaada. Both sank without a trace and Zee quickly abandoned reality shows, turning instead to its usual soaps for survival.
For perhaps the first time, the channel invested in formal research into viewing habits and preferences. The findings underlined a truth the channel and others like it, already knew: the general entertainment genre is still largely a woman's sphere.
"Also, reality shows, even if they succeed, don't always bring in ratings. And until the subscription environment changes, we are dependent on ratings," adds Pradeep Guha, CEO, Zee Network.
Those associated with the television industry think Zee's decision was wise. Points out Lakshmi Narasimhan, national director, Group M Media, the biggest media buyer in television, "Unless a concept is dramatically new, it is difficult to make it work. So it it probably better that Zee stayed with serials."
Not that the focus on serials paid immediate dividends. It took close to two years for Zee to come up with a winner. That's because in the initial stages, the channel didn't spend too much on production and compared with the fare being dished out on Star TV, the quality of Zee's content was painfully shoddy.
Serials like Kamal, Kohi Apna Sa and Kittie Party came and went without mention. The tide really turned only in October 2005 with Saat Phere (latest TRPs: 5.1), followed by the January 2006 launch of Kasamh Se (TRP: 4.6).
Zee's approach to its serials has become increasingly sophisticated: content heads now research plots and storylines in detail, and are able to course-correct more frequently, at times even on a daily basis.
According to some estimates, the channel now spends around 60 per cent of revenues on transmission and programming, compared with 35-40 per cent earlier.
Zee's strategic shift is working - something even rivals admit. Says Kunal Dasgupta, managing director, Sony Entertainment, "A couple of soaps is all it takes and Zee has managed to get two hits during prime time."
Adds Farokh Balsara, partner and head, media practice, Ernst & Young, "The content has clearly improved. At times if you see soaps on different channels, without the logos it is hard to tell which channel you are watching."
Zee's success is as much a function of what its rivals didn't do as it is a function of what Zee did. While Star's Kyonki and Kasauti are still on top of the charts, none of its later soaps - Antariksh, Virasat and the like - have made it to the top 10.
"After KBC, Star has been living off its existing popular soaps," points out a media watcher. And Sony's Dasgupta admits that after two of its popular soaps Kkusum and Jassi - went off air in April 2006, there has been a vacuum.
The more charitable view is that other channels have bet big on reality shows and been disappointed - Sony's talent hunt Indian Idol was a hit only the first time, as was Nach Baliye (Star One); TRPs of Jhalak Dikhla Ja and Bigg Boss, too, haven't gone much over 3 (of course, Bigg Boss is relatively new).
Zee, on the other hand, has capitalised on its musical talent show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, now in its 13th year. Zee Marketing Head Tarun Mehra points out that thanks to a continuous change in the category of participants, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa remains popular.
For instance, this year's Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Li'l Champs - a three-month long series with child contestants - started with a TRP of 2.7, climbed to 6 and ended with 11.1.
While trying to beef up the content, Zee has also focused on creating more hype for its shows. Mehra says ad spends in 2006 are up nearly 30-40 per cent over the last year.
"The advertisements in newspapers are mainly for the advertisers; a large part of the advertising budget is being used for below-the-line initiatives," he explains.
For instance, when Sindoor was launched in March 2005, boxes of sindoor were given away to "several lakh" middle-class women in Mumbai, Delhi, Indore, Bhopal and Ahmedabad; similarly, Dulhan was marked with the distribution of mehendi booklets.
"We need to reach out to the women who are our potential viewers and create a buzz," explains Guha.
But it's not just about reaching out and touching the target viewer - the channels also ropes in celebrities to draw in more viewers. Zee managed a first when it convinced Ekta Kapoor (the creative head of Balaji Telefilms, which produces most TV soaps these days) to talk about Kasamh Se on a private FM channel.
Actor Salman Khan and the casts of Dor came on the sets of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, while Shah Rukh Khan was the chief guest for the Li'l Champs finale.
"We need to outshout the competition," says Mehra. Zee is also paying more attention to its promos, whether on its own network or outdoors. "We have been careless in the past," admits Mehra adding "At time, the colours on the hoardings differed widely from those on the television promotions."
While it may tinker around with its shows, Zee's gameplan is to stay with the current programming mix, which centres on soaps. Guha says the channel has no immediate plans to launch reality shows - clearly Zee doesn't want to upset the applecart, not when both the audience and advertisers are happy.
According to Guha, spots for new contracts are fetching rates that are anywhere between 20 and 50 per cent higher than last year. What's more, unlike in the past, Zee no longer offers bonus slots on the network.
"During prime time we are getting double the rate that Sony is," claims Guha. Sony's Dasgupta refused to comment.
Group M's Narasimhan confirms that Zee is getting around 20-25 per cent higher prime time rates than six months ago, but adds that monetising the performance will take time because the majority of the deals are annual contracts. "It could take as long as three quarters," he feels.
Adds Sai Nagesh, executive vice president at media buying agency Insight, "We are recommending Zee and the increase in rates for spots has been around 12-14 per cent. From a media-buying point of view, we also take into account the interactive component of a show and we've found that the response to shows such as the finale of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa has been tremendous."
Ahead in the last mile
The Zee group is also beefing up its distribution network, picking up local cable operators and today claims a subscriber base of 250,000.
Ernst &Young's Balsara believes that with both a cable network (Siticable) and a direct-to-home service (Dish TV), Zee may be in a slightly better position than Star - for its part, Star owns minority stakes in a cable company (Hathway) and a DTH venture (Tata Sky).
"A controlling stake in distribution could be very important with subscription revenues expected to go up," explains Balsara.
With a view to strengthening distribution, Zee has decided to spin off the cable and DTH ventures into separate companies and bring in strategic and financial investors for both. That would also help the management retain its focus on general entertainment.
That may be more important than ever before. With Shah Rukh Khan signed on to host the third round of KBC, Zee will find it a challenge to retain eyeballs on weekday prime time.
The cricket calendar is also booked until April 2007 and advertisers are likely to earmark large portions of their budget for the matches. Guha is aware of the situation.
"Right now we're not going to be doing anything different, although we may experiment later," he says.
"KBC will rule for around three months," dismisses Dasgupta. Even that could be enough to put Zee in a bind. "If the channel is not nimble enough, it could lose the advantage it is building against Star," warns Narasimhan.Zee will need to think fast and come up with alternatives. Or else, this show could come to an untimely end.