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Regional channels get set to waltz in the air

It's boomtime for vern channels, with television players realising that the vast resources of the country can be effectively tapped only by targeting regional audiences

Shamni Pande & Nita Jatar Kulkarni

Get ready for some more action in the country's television scenario. For, slugging it out for more viewership and ad revenues are not just the likes of Zee and Star Plus but some 38 regional channels. Add another 12 as the market rumours are predicting and one has a hotchpotch of channels jostling for space. All of them hell bent on recreating the magic of Sun TV and Eenadu. And, mind you, now the game is not just about TV rating and profits. The stakes are higher as, in the future, television players expect the Net to ride piggy back on their cables. No wonder of late we have been witness to many players doing a Bol Tara Re.

Besides, the sheer economics of trying to tap regional audiences is quite clear. There is money to be made out there. Well, if not now then at least in the future. As Ashish Bhasin, 35, President, Initiative Media, an arm of Lintas India, says: ``The growth of income among the middle classes is faster in rural areas? Besides, the transnationals, particularly, have realised that they have to tap the resources of the country which has a huge market, and this can only be tapped through regional channels.'' So, each of these channels is aggressively trying to influence the media plan of advertisers.

Not that the going is too easy, as the channels have to worry not only about rival channels but also ratings and marketshare. ``The INTAM data that we get captures the viewing habits of each and every minute of viewer-time and this gives us a lot of data to decide on the channel, and the time an ad should be aired,'' says, L.V. Krishnan, 31, Joint Media Director, Chaitra Leo Burnett.

The game is not just about TV viewership but also the product that is being advertised. The era of pan-Indian advertising is almost obsolete. A company trying to peddle sanitary napkins, for instance, would be better off targeting regional audiences. After all, those women who view Star Movies would presumably be already using it. ``If the objective is to convert users to switching to sanitary napkins then one should choose channels that reach the smaller towns. If the southern channels have come up, its because of the Hindi bias in channels like Sony and Zee. In fact, the education system is such that some people may not even know Hindi,'' he adds. Complan is another case in point: 70 per cent of its market is in two states--West Bengal and Karnataka. So, advertising in a mainstream channel would be a waste.

It is an uphill task anyway. Sun TV has cornered almost 50 per cent of the advertising revenue flowing south of the Vindhyas. Doordarshan has about 21 per cent of the advertising pie. Vijay TV is also growing ambitious: on the slate is a 65 per cent jump in ad revenues, which it hopes to get by selling better quality programmes. As Rohit Adya, 42, CEO, Vijay Television Ltd, says: ``We want more original content, not mere acquisition of programmes or movies. And we have an annual programming budget of more than 20 crore annually, spread over the next 2 years.'' So the channel is trying to offer alternatives to film-based programmes. Fresh genres like teen dramas, science fiction and interactive broadcasting has already caught the fancy of the audience. It feels that its biggest challenge is to get viewers, who did not have any choice earlier. Doordarshan, meanwhile, is also aggressively earmarking Rs 100 crore for content creation. ``We will be spending at least Rs 2 lakh on each serial. This way we hope to create enough programmes to support our gameplan for 24-hour regional channels,'' says Rajeev Ratan Shah, CEO, Prasar Bharti. The state broadcaster is hoping to cash in on his expertise in showcasing classics. After all, we have all seen at least one episode of Mahabharat and Krishna. As Shah says, ``There is a lot of literature in Bengal and Tamil Nadu, which we can tap into and come up with one hour-programmes split over 8 to 10 weeks. This way, an entire novel can be covered in 10 weeks. Besides, Doordarshan has at least 40 studios that are underutilised.''

So, who will survive? Can each region take so many players? Low entry-level investment of Rs 5-20 crore has already lead to overcrowding. ``Only two strong players can survive in a region. The others will be also rans,'' says Shah. Remember, the same thing had happened in the mainstream channels. Channels like TVI and NEPC just disappeared. Tighter programmes, better ratings, and a grip over audiences and advertisers, will matter. Big players who target specific audiences and yet have the potential of having a bouquet of channels will survive. After all as Rathikant Basu, 58, CEO, Broadcast Worldwide says, ''The potential to add channels on the transponder is more due to improvement in compression technology.''

Also, just an over-the-board comparison of advertising costs may not correctly reflect viability. For instance, the ad rates are different on Sony as compared to SUN TV. It is just a question of the right marketing. As Bhasin says, ``If you want to reach a national audience, going through different regional channels will be more expensive. If you want to reach a regional audience, going to Sony would be a waste. In fact, you cannot compare even Doordarshan's regional channels with regional satellite channels as people are not loyal to channels but to programmes. If a programme shifts from a regional channel to one of Doordarshan's regional channels, the audience will also shift.''

Not that the thought of sharing the advertising pie has deterred players. Ramoji Rao's Eenadu has already extended its presence beyond Andhra Pradesh. ``ETV Bangla is already on air and ETV Marathi will be on air any time now. We are also planning ETV Kannada & ETV Urdu,'' says Rao, 63, Group Chairman, Eenadu. And Kalanithi Maran plans an initial public offering to raise Rs 2,000 crore to braoadbase its operation. ``All this, of course, depends on the market. If the situation continues to remain depressed, we might be forced to postpone the issue,'' says Maran. Rathikant Basu also harbours plans of starting Bengali Talkies, a movie channel, and a local cable channel.

So, take a break from the idiot box and watch the regional channels do a tango in the air.

Who gets to hear more jingles...

Tamil Nadu:
Sun TV: Rs 110 crore
Vijay TV: Rs 20 crore
Raj TV: Rs 18 crore
DD Podhigai: Rs. 15 cro

Andhra Pradesh:
ETV: Rs 60 crore
Gemini: Rs 40 crore
DD (8): Rs 30 crore

Udaya TV: Rs 60 crore
DD Chandana: Rs 25 crore

Asianet: Rs 35 crore
DD (4): Rs 22 crore
Surya TV: Rs 13 crore


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