New Delhi: After languishing in second place for years, Hindi language general entertainment channels, or GECs, have nosed ahead of southern regional programming in all-India viewership as increasing competition and reinvention of content expand the market for a genre once derided by critics for its weepy saas-bahu soaps—family dramas typically featuring cruel mothers-in-law and long-suffering daughters-in-law.
According to data provided by audience measurement firm TAM Media Research Pvt. Ltd, Hindi GECs garnered a viewership of 26% in January-July, just ahead of the 25.7% share of southern regional channels broadcast in four languages: Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam.
Although the gap is extremely narrow, and may prove temporary, data show that this is the highest viewership share the Hindi general entertainment genre has seen in at least four years. Since 2006, its share has hovered around 22%.
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This isn’t a case of the Hindi GECs winning market share at the expense of southern regional channels, experts say. The launch of new channels such as Colors, NDTV Imagine and 9X, and the shift of content to include new programmes such as edgy reality shows may have at least partly attracted new audiences to the Hindi general entertainment genre.
Viacom Media 18 Pvt. Ltd’s channel Colors, just over a year old, has stirred up competition for the top three positions in the Hindi GEC space. Its most popular programme, Balika Vadhu, a serial on child marriage, broke through the dominance of the saas-bahu programmes that were the staple of all general entertainment channels. It is one of the top two shows in the Hindi GEC space.
To be sure, TAM Media Research’s own increased reach may have partly influenced the ratings. “TAM has increased the reach of its People Meter System, which may have led to the shift in the ratings,” said a Star TV spokesperson. “Therefore, we do not wish to comment on the specifics.”
The People Meter is a tool used to measure the viewing habits of television audiences.
Spokespersons for Colors couldn’t be contacted for comment.
R. Sreekandan Nair, vice-president (programmes), at Kerala-based broadcaster Asianet, says Hindi channels wouldn’t be able to dent the viewership of regional channels in southern India.
“The penetration of cable and satellite channels in south India is unbelievable, compared with other regions in India,” he said. “Therefore, we are expecting further growth for the regional channel in south Indian market.”
Interestingly, among the top 100 programmes beamed to households in the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, only Star Plus’ Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, a serial based on the concept of arranged marriage, makes the cut.
Sun TV, Gemini TV and Zee Telugu dominated the ratings in the south.
“On face value, it would look like the Hindi GECs have cannibalized the south regional channels’ viewership,” says Jehil Thakkar, head of consultancy KPMG’s media and entertainment practice. “However, the truth is that they have actually expanded the market. There is no large shift in share, but most of the growth is in other virgin markets that Hindi GECs have now touched.”
Experts say that while the south is fairly penetrated, the rest of India has huge potential for growth. Even Marathi-language channels have seen a steady rise in viewership of regional programming.
“GECs will continue to get a lot more competitive in terms of programming,” Thakkar says. “The increase in the competition among the Marathi channels is also an indication of the competition in the sub-national space.”
With increased competition in the Hindi GEC space, not only soap operas but reality shows have also gone through a makeover, says Ravi Kiran, emerging market leader, specialist solutions, Starcom MediaVest.
Kiran cites the example of Star Plus’ controversial Sach ka Saamna—the Indian version of the American reality show Moment of Truth—in which contestants are asked personal and probing questions while hooked up to a lie detector machine, and NDTV Imagine’s Rakhi ka Swayamvar, in which Bollywood starlet Rakhi Sawant chose her future husband.
Rakhi ka Swayamvar garnered a television viewership rating of 8.4 for the channel, the highest for any non-fiction show on any channel in the past two years.
“GEC is the mainstay of television. It has consistent viewership, so the importance of GECs in any language cannot be denied,” Kiran says. “In the Hindi GEC space, until the launch of Colors, except for Zee TV, there was not much focus on creating different content that people wanted to watch.”
The edge stolen by Hindi GECs over southern programming is “not about Hindi channels penetrating into the southern markets, but more of greater penetration of Hindi GECs in Hindi-speaking markets...”.
For advertisers, general entertainment channels have always been a medium to reach out to the masses.
“When the number of channels in any genre grows, there is also growth in viewership in that genre, so it is a natural phenomenon,” says Sundeep Nagpal, managing director, Stratagem Media. “There is no change from an advertising point of view, for advertisers every region is independently important, and every share of eyeballs is equally important.”
Kiran adds, “Every media planner looks at the entire picture and the needs of the advertiser, so if the product requires advertising on the GECs to capture that audience, then the ratings do not matter.”
According to Lintas Media Group, advertising expenditure on the so-called Hindi mass satellite genre in 2008 rose 33% to Rs2,438 crore from Rs1,829 crore a year earlier, despite a downturn in economic growth.
The south region satellite channels saw a 21% rise in advertising revenue to Rs1,906 crore from Rs1,576 crore.
“Advertisers have also stuck by the GEC space,” says Nikhil Madhok, vice-president of marketing and communications at NDTV Imagine. “Despite the recession in the last year we have seen advertisers come on board,”
The verdict is that GECs have been, are and will continue to dominate the market. Hindi GECs as a category will have to constantly innovate and strengthen its position to hold on to the top spot.
“In the past couple of years, after many years of similar content, competition brought about a whole new wave of innovation by channels that were trying to crack into the industry,” Madhok says. “Competition forced people to innovate. Hindi GEC has made a strong comeback in the past two-three years and to sustain it and for the genre to grow it is necessary that the innovation process grows.”
General entertainment networks also require high investment in distribution and content acquisition that’s key to determining their advertising rates, says Smita Jha, associate director of the entertainment and media practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
“So for the new channels that have entered the space in the past couple of years, substantial investments will have to be made to acquire the bandwidth to get the proper distribution as well as acquire content that will spike their ratings,” she adds.
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint