Rajat Sharma knows it will be a tough battle to be first with the news. India TV, the channel recently launched by the celebrity anchor turned broadcasting czar, is fighting for its scoops with nine mainstream news channels already on air.
Sharma's India TV with anchorpersons like politician Maneka Gandhi and journalist Tarun Tejpal must pull out all stops to stay in the game.
But Sharma doesn't seem unduly fazed by the competition. If industry rumours are right, he's contemplating an entertainment channel to compete with giants like Star Plus and Sony.
Sharma isn't the only who's hoping to start a new surfing craze on the small screen. Indian viewers will soon be spoilt for choice because everyone who is anyone is starting new channels.
Firstly, there are existing giants like Subhash Chandra's Zee and Star India. Then, there are powerful newcomers like Times Television which is planning a slew of new channels.
Look at the line-up. Times Television will go on air with what it calls a 'non-fiction premium lifestyle and entertainment' channel which will be called Zoom.
That will be followed by a spiritual channel to be launched by the year end. And Star which has already launched Star Utsav last month, is also looking at a premium entertainment channel called Star One to be launched in October this year.
Already Zee has been putting its plans into action. Its newer offerings include a 24-hour comedy channel, Smile TV, and a spiritual channel, Jagran, both of which were launched late last year. Zee is now also toying with the idea of launching a children's channel and a women-oriented channel.
Move to the kiddies section and the action is moving even more swiftly. United Television (UTV) is launching a children's channel Hungama TV in two languages and international giant Walt Disney is in talks with Star, Sony and ESPN-Star Sports to distribute three of its channels -- Playhouse, Toons and TDC by October-November this year.
Currently, Cartoon Network rules the small screen for children along with Pogo which was launched late last year. And to join this crowd in July, is Sony Pictures Entertainment Networks Asia's Animax, featuring popular Japanese animation, which will be distributed by the One Alliance (a joint venture between Sony Entertainment Television and Discovery Communications India).
What's causing all this hectic activity? Says Apurva Purohit, chief operating officer, Times Television, "As the television set moves from the drawing room into the bedroom and individual viewership (versus family viewership) increases, channels catering to individual interests like gardening or extreme sports will multiply."
Times Television will be a stand-alone channel as far as distribution is concerned and will be telecasting both channels on the Panamsat 10 satellite.
That's not the only reason for the sudden popularity of niche channels. Channels and media houses need to cut through the noise that exists on air currently and create strong differentiators.
It was Peter Mukerjea who put it bluntly in an interview recently. "Dipstick surveys," he said, "showed that while Star Plus does deliver the eyeballs, the profile of the audience did not attract all types of advertisers."
Star found that Star Plus was not a first choice for auto companies for instance. So the group came up with a premium entertainment channel, Star One.
Sharma hired market research firm IMRB to find what would pull in viewers. Research showed that viewers wanted a channel that would raise issues related to people.
"Our research and interaction with people in small towns indicated that the existing channels all have the same feel," he says. Which is where, he claims India TV will differ. "Our focus will be more people oriented."
One way forward -- which minimises risks -- is the route which Zee has taken. It has launched 10 new channels in the last months. But nine of these (Action Cinema, Premier Cinema, FX, Malibu TV, Platinum TV, Euro Sports News) are pay channels exclusively for direct-to-home viewers. Only one channel -- Smile TV -- is free to air on cable television.
Says Abhijit Saxena, director, international business who also heads Smile TV, "We found that sitcoms were a genre that have elicited tremendous response. So while it is a niche because its exclusively comedy, the appeal is mass." Adds an industry observer: "With niche channels, you can attract specific sets of audiences and advertisers."
Some channels are hoping to grab an affluent segment of niche viewers. For instance, both Zoom and Star One are targeted towards the upwardly mobile viewer based in the metros. The programming will be in Hindi, but Mukerjea claims it will be zippy.
Similarly, the target audience for both of Times Television's channels is the premium, urban contemporary Indian residing in 100,000-plus population towns. Research showed that this audience is looking for a Hindi option beyond serials, soaps and movies that was not available. Says Purohit, "It showed the need for a premium non-fiction channel."
Then Star Utsav, also free-to-air, airing mostly re-runs of popular Star Plus soaps, is aimed at taking revenue from the likes of SAB TV and Sahara Manoranjan. Setting up Star Utsav has cost Star Rs 4.5 crore (Rs 45 million) (less than the normal Rs 10 crore (Rs 100 million) to Rs 20 crore (Rs 200 million) that it takes to launch channels in India) including the transponder cost.
Star is also looking at channels down south either through joint ventures or acquisitions. It already has a tie up with UTV for Vijay TV and has extended that for distributing the children's channel, Hungama TV.
Says Mukerjea, "We have to spread ourselves and the south is attractive if we have to grow. In Hindi entertainment, while Star Plus continues to be the flagship, other gaps need to be addressed."
But will the consumer bite? Media buyers are extremely sceptical about so many channels -- niche or otherwise -- co-existing profitably. "It's too soon to tell whether such a huge demand will exist for a niche channel," says one Mumbai-based media planner.
It's an expensive gamble. Typically, launching a channel costs over Rs 10 crore for infrastructure, content and publicity. India TV was set up with an investment of Rs 70 crore (Rs 700 million), part of which was sourced from banks with the rest from friends and relatives.
It has hired a team of 300 people in addition to 150 stringers. Times Television will outsource 50 per cent of its programming while the rest will be produced in-house. Similarly, Zee will be producing most of the content for Smile TV in-house to contain costs.
There are other challenges ahead. The biggest is to convince advertisers about the new channels. Most of the channels are free-to-air, which means they depend entirely on advertising.
Media planners say niche channels usually sell ad air-time at less than half the cost of mainstream channels. The break even for each is estimated at two to three years. If this isn't tough enough, there's also the question of distribution.
India TV, for instance, has distributed 1,400 decoder boxes in 370 cities, primarily in the north and north-east. But it's still not available in many regions.
But channel heads are optimistic that Indian audiences are clamouring for more.
Says Purohit, "The Indian viewer has still not seen true fragmentation, which will happen only when the market evolves in terms of both technology and viewing maturity . It will become increasingly viable for such channels to flourish with the advent of addressability." If she's right the rush to go on air is only just beginning.
Additional reporting: Jai Arjun Singh