English TV channels see viewership shrink

English TV channels see viewership shrink

New Delhi: India’s non-news English channels always operated in niches, but now their viewership has shrunk even further. In the past three years, the viewership of English entertainment channels as well as English film channels has declined by nearly 30% and 27%, respectively.

The drop in viewership of these channels comes even as the number of cable and satellite television homes in the country has grown from 63 million to 75 million. According to TAM Media Research Pvt. Ltd, the TV viewership monitoring agency, the English entertainment space comprising Star World, Zee Cafe and AXN has seen its viewership shrink from 0.34% in 2006 to 0.15% in 2009.

English movie channels fared better, but not by much. Their viewership declined from 1.09% to 0.82%, though the latest figure is a step up from 2008’s low of 0.79%.

While the channels themselves say the methodology of calculating viewership is to blame for their seemingly shrinking ratings, others say it is a result of fragmented audiences.

“We are not well represented by TAM. It’s reach is limited and not representative of the entire country, so the share is small but definitely not stagnant. Once digitization is more widespread we will have a clearer picture in terms of numbers being reported," said Shruti Bajpai, country manager for HBO South Asia.

“Also, the access to the channel will be much easier for the consumer."

But a television executive and a media specialist say the performance of English channels is not surprising.

“The English entertainment and film genre has seen a dip because Hindi GEC and regional language channels have seen a significant growth. When audiences get fragmented, smaller channels get hit," says Raj Nayak, CEO, NDTV Media the advertising sales company for NDTV’s news channels. Manas Mishra, head, Mudra Connext, the media agency of Mudra Max, echoed Nayak’s view: “English entertainment was doing well when there were not as many choices for the viewer. With better content on Hindi and regional channels and reality shows that are more engaging, there are better alternatives for viewers to switch to."

The market has also changed, said another television executive. “Films is a title-driven business. How many big titles can you have in a month?" asked an executive at Discovery Network who did not want to be identified. Discovery, he added, has grown not just because the content is differentiated but also because it has a very popular Hindi feed.

Incidentally, TAM data shows that in the cable and satellite homes, the viewership of so-called infotainement channels such as Fox History, Discovery, National Geographic, among others, had also dropped between 2006 and 2008 but grew marginally in 2009.

Like Bajpai, other executives at non-news English channels, said digitization holds the answer.

“With increased digitization and spread of DTH (direct-to-home television service), people will be able to choose exactly the kind of programmes they want to watch rather than depend on the cable operators," said Rohit Bhandari, senior vice-president, AXN and Animax.

An executive at National Geographic channel, who didn’t want to be identified, said the trend of TV channels burning money to be in the so-called prime band—the first few channels aired by cable operators—has choked smaller channels.

Some English channels are trying hard to retain their viewers by providing English subtitles to circumvent the problem of varied accents. And AXN, brought to Asia by Sony Pictures Television International, is banking on reality shows and magic shows to gain popularity.

Bhandari said his viewers don’t necessarily have to understand English to follow shows such as Top Chef, Amazing Race or Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.

Though media planners say expenditure on English entertainment genre has declined by about 10-15%, television executives disagree.

Sunder Aaron, business head at Sony Entertainment’s English movie channel, PIX, said: “There is obviously a demand in the English movie channel space which is why we have grown both in terms of advertising as well as revenues since we started in 2006.

Nitin Vaidya, COO of Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd, that broadcasts Zee Studio and Zee Cafe, added: “There’s no drop in revenue. Instead, there has been a steady, healthy movement in advertising revenue."

Star TV Network, that runs Star Movies and English entertainment channel Star World, did not respond to Mint’s queries.