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More channels for Indian eyeballs

By Bipin Chandran and Jai Arjun Singh
December 13, 2003 13:39 IST
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It's an ambitious new offering aimed at middle-class Indian children. In January Turner International which owns Cartoon Network will attempt to turn bigger children into couch potatoes.

Its newest offering is named Pogo and it will be targeted at children between the ages of 4-15.

"Children comprise around one-third of the viewership but there's very little programming content targeted at them," says Ian Diamond, senior vice-president and general manager, Turner Entertainment Networks Asia.

Pogo isn't the only channel that's hoping to attract niche audiences in urban India. There's also the recently launched History Channel that's hoping to reach the same audience which watch channels like Discovery and National Geographic.

Cable operators in some parts of urban India are readying to launch CAS systems next week. But the channels don't appear to be waiting for CAS and its promise of more accurate viewership figures.

They are flicking on the links and going ahead with new channels without worrying about whether CAS will come into effect or not and what impact it will have on viewing habits.

Other local players too will soon be adding new offerings. The Subhash Chandra-promoted Zee Telefilms says it will launch three new channels -- a business news channel, a women's channel and a comedy channel -- some time in the near future.

The women's channel will be known as Zee Manasi, while the comedy channel will be named Zee Comedy.

According to senior Zee officials, the work on the channels has started and the business news channel will be along the CAS rollout while the other channels will be launched later.

Some new channels are making big bets on India. The History Channel, for instance, will invest Rs 25 crore (Rs 250 million) in its first year of operations in India. But it reckons that the investment will be worth it.

"Our aim is that 15 per cent viewership, 15 per cent of global revenue and 10 per cent of global content should come from India," says Zubin Gandevia, managing director, The History Channel.

Incidentally, The History Channel is one of the world's fastest growing television channels. It made its debut in the US in 1995 and it now has more than 200 million viewers in 70 countries.

The channel's programming includes a variety of topics ranging from ancient and contemporary history to military history, technology and transport.

Similarly, Pogo also reckons that India will be a key market for the future. Says Diamond: "India is the priority market the network in the Asia Pacific region and we want to bring the best of programming, innovative marketing stunts and events here."

In fact, the channel has already sourced content with Indian audiences specifically in mind. "For instance, there's a show called Ethelbert the Tiger, where the tiger's guide is a mystic named Dilip," points out Diamond.

Eventually, he says, the company might consider developing non-entertainment programming for Indian children.

The channel is also spreading its bets across all groups of children. It will, for instance, have a show called The Sleepover Club, aimed at young girls. This is an adventure series featuring five 12-year-old girls. For smaller children there are programmes like Walking with Dinosaurs.

Diamond says that Pogo is being positioned as a multi-genre channel that will provide comedy, drama, scientific and educational documentaries, and movies -- all with a focus on kids.

"We want to cover as wide a demographic as possible among young audiences," he says.

Localisation, inevitably, is already figuring in the plans for the new channels. The History Channel, which will be a pay channel and be part of the Star bouquet, will also be available in Hindi for certain parts of the day.

By June 2004 it will be available both in Hindi and English. History will also have local hosts as a part of its localisation strategy.

Do niche channels bring in a financial bonanza in the Indian market? There are divided views on this subject.

"The television channels have realised that there is a need for niche channels in India exactly the same way there is a huge market for niche magazines. Besides, there is also scope for channels as the conditional access system will be launched and channels with good content would be able to make money through subscription," says a television industry analyst.

Some niche channels are also clearly profitable even though they won't divulge precise figures.

Turner's Ian Diamond says Cartoon Network has over 75 advertising clients which have bought slots on the channel in 2003.

The larger advertisers, he says, have increased their commitments with Cartoon Networks by 50 per cent to 100 per cent in the last two years.

"Also, several companies have been signing Cartoon Network characters as their brand ambassadors. In 2003 alone we've inked over 16 promotional licensing deals in diverse brand categories."

Certainly, some local players believe there's room for more niche channels.

For Zee adding new channels to its bouquet is part of its strategy to rope in more viewers. It recently launched a 24 hour reality channel called Reality TV and a fashion channel called Trendz.

Reality TV, launched in February 2003, claims to be the first dedicated channel providing reality programming to Indian viewers and is targeted at the 16-34 year age group.

"We consider India to be a very important market in Asia and we are ramping up our marketing efforts in the country," says Shivani Berry, marketing manager, Reality TV Asia-Pacific. "The response to the ad sales has also been positive so far," she adds.

What do the advertisers feel about niche channels? "The market for any channel, niche or mass, is entirely a function of the content it generates," says Gopi Menon, vice-president, TBWA Anthem India.

However, he says it is doubtful whether a niche channel would be profitable in itself.

"The idea behind such channels is not so much to generate profits as to widen the customer base for the parent company," says Menon, adding that these channels also bring flexibility to media planners and advertisers.

Getting advertisers should not be a problem, says Menon, though of course certain types of products -- impulse buying like soft drinks and biscuits for instance -- are out, since they are for the mass market.

"These channels are more likely to target products such as washing machines and air-conditioners, whose manufacturers can be convinced that they need to reach viewers of niche programming," says Menon.

Some surveys, however, indicate that there's only limited scope for niche channels in India. The Horizon 2003 study by NFL for BBC World indicated that news and current affairs attract the maximum upmarket viewers on television.

Wildlife and cartoons were at the bottom of the preference list of the upmarket viewers according to NFL.

Nevertheless, lots of new channels are expected in India in the not too distant future. Disney is also expected to launch its channels soon and news channel Aaj Tak is looking at a new offering. So television viewing could, in the near future, be a question of even tougher choices.

  • The History Channel is investing Rs 25 crore in its first year in India and hopes to get 15 per cent of global viewership and revenue from here.
  • Pogo, the new channel from Turner International, aims to attract children between the ages of 4-15 with its varied programming.
  • Advertisers say niche channels add value to the bouquet being offered.
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Bipin Chandran and Jai Arjun Singh