A hundred football pitches can fit within the walls of the Forbidden City, said a deep television voice, gently rising and falling in reverence to the documentary subject on the National Geographic television channel. The camera slowly panned over the area to the strains of a mandolin, and the image turned black and white, all so slowly and so sleepily. The question is: who watches this stuff on a Sunday afternoon?
“Tell me,” says Rajesh Sheshadri, vice-president, marketing, NGC India (which runs National Geographic and The History Channel): “When you turn on your TV set, what do you watch first?”
“Sport. Always sport,” is the answer.
“And if you don’t find anything on,” he continued: “let me guess, you head for the movie channels?”
The silence must have been telling because he then said: “Exactly. You’re the viewer we want.”
Some would say channels such as NatGeo (as it is popularly known) has been successful. Even as the viewership ratings for once-popular genres such as general entertainment or sports fall, niche or speciality channels such as National Geographic, Discovery, The History Channel or Zoom TV have seen their fan club swell.
Discovery Channel, for instance, had a 14% share of viewership among English channels between January and March this year—the most for any channel across genres. Channels catering to specialized interests, trends indicate, have been more responsive to their viewers’ needs and this, along with a focus on what they are good at, has helped them prosper at a time when both television viewership and advertising have been under tremendous pressure.
The History Channel, for instance, realized that its image of a military channel was getting into its way of wooing otherwise inquisitive viewers. The channel executives, thus, promptly gave it a new direction last year—more focus on entertainment.
“We decided to present history in an entertaining manner,” says Nikhil Mirchandani, managing director, South Asia, NGC Network (India) Pvt. Ltd. The result: Since May 2006, the channel has added more than six million viewers and currently has more than 100 advertisers on board. Zoom TV, the entertainment news channel promoted by Bennett Coleman and Co. Ltd, also went through the process of self-discovery.
“We realized that our one-hour and half-hour formats were a bit too stocky. So we moved to more snacky formats. If you stumble on to Page 3 (a popular show on the channel), you will find each story to be a minute long,” says Suresh Bala, CEO, Zoom TV. The channel currently has 240 brands advertising on it.
The recent growth in viewership notwithstanding, the overall viewership base of these channels vis-a-vis other genres still remains small. That’s one problem these channels face. While going mass will definitely mean getting more eyeballs and, in return, more advertising revenue, it might also lead to a dilution in their brand equity.
Striking a balance between the two, says Sheshadri, is not easy. “We have tried to grow the audience, but have also taken a decision not to broad-base (our content) beyond a point. That’s the great marketing paradox,” he adds. Some dilution in content format, though, has helped.
“The general audience is more inclined towards entertainment. A lot of our new viewers, for instance, came in for our entertainment products, but then, eventually, they, stayed on to watch other programmes, too,” says Sheshadri.
For channels like NatGeo, The History Channel and Discovery, more than 90% of the content is produced outside India, but they are now working towards localizing their content. Aditya Tripathi, vice-president, lifestyle, Discovery Networks India, says Discovery Travel & Living has a number of local programmes that have struck a chord with consumers.
“We have started producing selective programmes locally. The Great Indian Wedding and Indian Rendezvous, which aired last year, were very successful, and A Matter of Taste with Vir Sanghvi will premiere soon,” he says.
Despite being niche, the channels have to compete with other genres to woo viewers. “My target audience is upwardly mobile, educated, fickle, with many interests,” says Sheshadri. “Anybody who competes for his or her time is my competitor.”
Bala has a slightly different definition. Seven months ago, his competition was music channels. Now, having overtaken them, he says, “News channels are on our radar.” His audience, he says, is roughly half male and half female, anywhere from 15 to 44 years old but more likely to be 20 to 34, and young, urban, upscale, and bilingual. And these are the viewers advertisers want.
A spokesperson for State Bank of India said the bank decided to advertise on lifestyle and infotainment channels just this year . “Frankly, State Bank advertises mainly on all business and news channels. We find some of our viewers on entertainment channels too. But then, we realized that quite a few young and high networth individuals were watching niche channels. So, we decided to pump in some bucks there,” he says.
The challenges notwithstanding, these channels are confident that their “different” positioning will help them prosper more. “What advertisers can’t ignore is our growing popularity. Television is no more about general entertainment,” says Bala. “It’s about specialities.”