Business Today

Star treks on crowded turf

It’s still the leader in terms of eyeballs it attracts but STAR doesn’t dominate the way it once did, thanks to increasing competition from a clutch of new kids on the broadcasting block.

Anusha Subramanian        Print Edition: March 8, 2009

Programming matters more than personalities do in the hurly-burly of general entertainment broadcasting. That truism has held good ever since STAR India—the domestic arm of Rupert Murdoch’s Asian broadcasting arm, STAR TV—flagged off Hindi programming in 2000 with the blockbuster Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) on flagship channel STAR PLUS. Other chartbusters in the guise of family soaps sustained the surge in viewership, but the trigger for the renewed interest in STAR PLUS was undoubtedly KBC. More recently, Colors, the 7-month old channel from the Viacom 18 stable, rewrote STAR’s success story by launching with the eyeball-grabbing Fear Factor— Khatron Ke Khiladi with Bollywood heart-throb Akshay Kumar (although it never hit the kind of ratings KBC did). And the one-year-old NDTV Imagine, another general entertainment channel (GEC) headed by former high-profile STAR head Sameer Nair, is looking for that so-far-elusive Next Big Thing.

Rajesh Kamat CEO/ Colors
Rajesh Kamat
Perhaps it’s in the fitness of this rule of broadcasting that STAR India, the leader in terms of viewership, has arguably the lowest profile of all GEC heads. In May 2007, Uday Shankar, a former News Director at Aaj Tak (the Hindi news channel that’s part of the media group that publishes Business Today), emerged from relative obscurity, to take on the reins at STAR India, after the exits of former heads Peter Mukerjea and Nair. It was a baptism by fire, not just because of the duo’s departure but also because STAR was losing momentum rapidly at its flagship channel. STAR PLUS’ relative share in cable & satellite homes had plunged to 48 per cent by end-2006 from 60 per cent in 2004, and rival Zee TV had gained the most at its expense, with a 7 per cent gain in viewership, to 21 per cent, during that period.

Sameer Nair CEO/ NDTV Imagine
Sameer Nair
When Shankar took over, one of his biggest challenges was to shatter the misperception—externally and internally—that STAR was going downhill after hitting a peak. “Everyone was under the impression that we were an evolved company because we were a dominant leader in the Hindi market space. But it was not so. In a media market that is still evolving and where huge opportunities are still galore, we have only completed the first phase of capturing the Hindi audience market,” says Shankar. Adds Paul Aiello, STAR Asia’s CEO, who replaced Michelle Guthrie in January 2007: “The immediate task for Uday when he took over as STAR India CEO 18 months ago was to rebuild the team and stabilise the business. But more importantly, his long-term mandate was to work with me in planning and executing a growth strategy for the overall STAR India business that will allow us to continue to thrive and lead in the country’s ever changing media landscape.” The #1 slot is being protected with a programming overhaul and a new ad sales game plan.

Uday Shankar, CEO/ STAR India
Uday Shankar
Programming overhaul
Six months ago STAR decided to overhaul programming across its channels, but mainly at STAR PLUS. Timeworn “saas-bahu” soaps have made way for fresh shows like Yeh Rishtey, Tujh Sangh Preet Lagayee and Aap Ki Kacheri. Says Keertan Adyanthaya, Executive VP & General Manager, STAR PLUS: “We have been in a transition phase in the last six months. In our attempt to launch fresh shows, there have been some setbacks. But we are still leading the pack— Bidaai, one of our oldest shows, is #1, and Yeh Rishtey is #3.” The strategy has been to shift to primetime shows with a social message presented in an entertaining format (like Aap Ki Kacheri, which is hosted by Kiran Bedi, India’s first woman police officer). STAR’s biggest competitor, however, is the mint-new Colors which, with shows like Balika Vadhu and Jai Sri Krishna, is snapping at STAR PLUS’ heels. And Colors has only just begun. Says Rajesh Kamat, CEO, Colors: “We are not yet in most of the timeslots like weekends and afternoons. Also, our existing shows have more potential and we need to try and get the most out of them.”

It’s clearly a cut-throat market out there, as Nair of NDTV Imagine acknowledges. “With five or six key GECs the competition is getting stiffer and increasing. The competition now is slot by slot and show by show.” Nair, though, is quick to acknowledge that “STAR is still the boss,” what with five of its shows amongst the top 10 on Hindi GECs. Yet, the gap between STAR PLUS and Colors has narrowed (see box on GRPs), and the former will have to pull a fresh rabbit out of its hat to gallop ahead. Adyanthaya hints at something to this effect. “We have some interesting concepts in non-fiction that we are developing and by July we will announce some new shows.”

Regional foray
STAR India will pump roughly $100 million (Rs 420 at then prevailing exchange rate) into six Indian language channels. It now has a presence in Marathi and Bengali; in the south it already had a presence in Tamil. With a recent joint venture with Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s Jupiter Entertainment, STAR now has a presence in Malayalam, Kananda and Telugu. The next plan is to launch a Gujarati channel. According to TAM data for last five weeks, STAR Jolsha (the Bangla channel) has a relative share of 20 per cent as against leader Zee Bangla’s 35 per cent and ETV Bangla’s 30 per cent. In Maharashtra, STAR Pravah is #3 with a 10 per cent share, behind ETV Marathi (26 per cent) and Zee Marathi (52 per cent). Says J.C. Giri, Executive VP & General Manager, Regional Channels: “Our aim is to grow the regional pie and make it relevant across target groups.” Advertising in the regional genre is expected to continue growing at 15 per cent annually—despite the slowdown—although the problem is that the rates are stagnant.

The foray into Bollywood has also been after a prolonged wait. Fox STAR Studios plans to be a one-stop shop that encompasses film acquisition, development, marketing, production and distribution. The company is also exploring options in the southern language with JV partner Jupiter Entertainment.

mosimage Innovative ad strategy
On the ad sales front, STAR is attempting to draw on the strength of the network—which is all of 10 channels—and isn’t averse to integrating branding with programming. Says Kevin Vaz, EVP, Ad Sales, STAR India: “We give our clients full opportunity for branding. For instance, when Vodafone was launching in India, we integrated the brand within a programme. We also played one spot across all our eight channels at the same time. We gave them branding for one entire day by dropping all other advertisements for that day; Vodafone was the only commercial that played that day.” Future Group is another client that received a similar deal. “The idea is to make the STAR Network the platform for all our clients’ promotional activities,” adds Vaz.

mosimage The client-network integration, it would seem, has infinite possibilities that go beyond 30-60 second commercials. For example, one episode of Bidaai was shot at a Pantaloon store. Apparently, footfalls at the store showed a spike after the show as per a research STAR conducted.

Still, these are challenging times for STAR India. Murdoch will be keeping a close eye on Shankar and his India set-up. After all, STAR India—including ESPN STAR, and the distribution arms Hathway and Tata Sky— contribute around 70 per cent to STAR Asia’s consolidated sales, says Vivek Couto, Executive Director, Media Partners Asia. In recessionary times globally, India would perhaps be even more important for Murdoch. Now all Shankar has to do is to find something as big and as novel as KBC was nine years ago.

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