Funny thing, success

SAB TV laughs its way to the ranks of the Top 5 Hindi GECs, getting close to flagship Sony.

Every Wednesday is a day to die for in the television business — that's when TV audience measurement or TAM data lands on the tables of channel heads and advertisers. The show rating numbers tell all: whether the programmes are on track or not, whether they are delivering the desired viewership, if any channel has fallen behind competitors or gone ahead.

On the third Wednesday of this June, a collective whoop rent the air at the Mumbai office of SAB TV, a unit of Multi Screen Media (MSM). The figures showed that SAB TV had finally inched ahead of arch-rival Imagine, a general entertainment channel, or GEC, acquired by Turner in India from NDTV in February this year. And, surprise! SAB TV is also edging close to MSM flagship Sony Entertainment Television, or SET.

SAB's gross rating points or GRPs, after flickering way below Imagine, flared up to 101 in Week 24 against the rival's 94. After much back-thumping, hugging and a flurry of phone calls, SAB TV's top executives and its sales and marketing teams trooped out for an impromptu party.

The big deal? Finally, SAB TV had popped up among the Top 5 Hindi GECs. The pecking order put STAR Plus right on top, followed by Colors, Zee and SET. SAB and Imagine are in play and the very latest data also suggests SAB has held on to its northward growth.

GRPs are the sum of all the television rating points, or TRPs, which, in turn, represent a percentage of viewers out of the TV viewing universe in a specified market, time band and target profile.

The rating for just one week can hardly be enduring proof of success but, for Anooj Kapoor, Executive Vice President & Business Head of SAB, it is a vindication of the unique positioning he gave the channel shortly after joining it in 2007, when it was struggling with a GRP of 28.

According to N.P. Singh, COO of MSM, the channel's positioning makes it a "must-carry" for all platforms. "SAB appeals to the entire Hindi-speaking belt, but from a distribution perspective, it has helped us make inroads into markets like Gujarat, which were hitherto dominated by competitors," says Singh.

Kanta Advani, a former sales and marketing head of SAB TV, points out that the channel, originally launched by Sri Adhikari Brothers in 2000, used to have a lot of repeat programming. Later, after Sony took it over in 2005 and tried to change the programming, the channel suffered.

"It has finally found its groove," says Advani, now an independent media consultant. Viewers and advertisers had begun dropping off when MSM's management tried to make the programme more broadbased.

This view is being echoed by top media buyers as well. "SAB has a very unique niche in that it offers a density of humour-based programmes. This works well as it allows us to reach specific audiences, especially male," says Prasanth Kumar, Managing Partner of GroupM's Central Trading Group for South Asia. Ever since Kapoor put the spotlight back on "lighthearted family entertainment", SAB's GRPs have been growing: a 300 per cent, consistent growth over the last two years.

The Rate Race
SAB's growth has another implication, for its GRP is now close to the flagship's 125. Hindi GECs are lumped in two groups. In the first are channels such as STAR Plus, Zee and Colors that have consistently delivered with superior viewership.

"Sony is part of the first set. The second includes SAB, Imagine, STAR One, 9X, etc.," says Tarun Deep Kumar, Executive Director for northern India and Bangladesh at Starcom, a leading media buying unit that is part of Publicis Groupe.

What Kumar means is that while SAB and SET are close, they are really not. "The first big difference lies in the marketing and promotion support accorded to them," he says. For instance, SET's new shows such as Maan Rahe Tera Pitah, starting at 8 p.m., followed by Baat Hamari Pakki Hai and older shows such as Boogie Woogie garner ratings of 0.3-1.4 (see Slotwise Ratings and Ranking in the GEC Space).

Things look slightly better for SAB, which has Maniben. com at 0.6 followed by its top-rated Tarak Mehta Ka Oolta Chashmah or TMKOC at 2.5, Sajan Re Jhoot Mat Bolo with a rating of 1 at 9 p.m., Mrs & Mr Sharma Allahabadwale with 1.2 and Lapatagunj at 1. This also makes it comparable to Imagine, the channel it overtook recently. Not all media buyers are impressed by GRPs as a metric. As Punitha Arumugam, Group CEO of Madison Media, says: "We seek a programme's strength and viewership and do not like to get caught in a number game that can easily change."

Others, like Mona Jain, COO of VivaKi Exchange, a media investment unit, look at it differently. "Sure, SAB has a unique niche of humour, but its driver show is Tarak Mehta, whereas Imagine offers a lot more variety. So, I consider SAB when I want to reach a male audience in the Hindi belt," says Jain. The media investment unit leverages the combined scale of offline and online media for Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest, ZenithOptimedia India and Solutions Digitas.

Imagine is not sitting still. "The GEC space has seen dramatic swings. STAR Plus was lagging behind Colors and has fought back to the top slot in just two months. We were close to SET's performance some months back. Hence, one cannot make any firm prediction in this scenario," says Nikhil Madhok, VP, Marketing & Communications, Imagine.

Newcomer Imagine, headed by former STAR hand Sameer Nair, did cut through the clutter quickly with attention grabbing reality shows such as Rakhi Ka Swayamwar, which averaged a TVR of 3.3, followed by Rahul Dulhaniya Le Jayenge with a average rating of 2 and the controversial Raaz Pichle Janam Ka, which took off with 2.5 and settled with a rating of over 1. "Fact is, SAB is a regional channel with a big Gujarati following," Madhok says.

Point, Counterpoint
SAB's Kapoor contests this ‘regional' tag, pointing out that Tarak Mehta does not hog the limelight. "Tarak Mehta contributes to 25 per cent of our prime time ratings. There are five other shows at prime time that give us 1+ TVRs," he says.

Gujarat is certainly a strong market, but it is supported by viewership from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh. "In no way is SAB a regional channel. It is national in its audience and its appeal," Kapoor says.

Riding on this growth, SAB has actually doubled its ad rates over the last one year. According to media buyers, the spot rate for Tarak Mehta, which was below Rs 25,000 for a 10-second slot, has shot up to over Rs 50,000.

The day rates for brands seeking to build frequency have gone up to Rs 4,000 from around Rs 2000. In the past, Imagine's rates for top-rated shows such as Rakhi Ka Swayamwar have touched Rs 1 lakh, but the day parts hover at Rs 10,000 for a 10-second ad spot. These are just indicative rates as long-term advertisers and sponsors cut different deals that offer them vastly different rates.

Meanwhile, SET's popular and long-running show, CID, fetches a rate of Rs 2.5 lakh, while Indian Idol-5 has been inundated with advertisers willing to shell out up to Rs 1.5 lakh for 10 seconds, with the day parts at Rs 80,000. But the deal with SET is different: "The channel has an established legacy and CID and Indian Idol have offered ratings of up to 3. Hence, till SAB actually hits that high note and works at building a large base of successful programmes, it will continue to be dogged by a certain perception," says Kumar of Starcom.

Laughter Challenge
Not to be ignored is news that the original SAB founder Markand Adhikari wants to launch a competing humour and music channel called Mastiii. "SAB TV is a comedy channel, while Mastiii will be a combination of comedy and music with well-known comedians on board. This will differentiate, giving Mastiii a first-mover advantage," says Adhikari, Vice Chairman & Managing Director, Sri Adhikari Brothers.

Adhikari is known for coming up with low cost, successful programmes that he eventually sells to the highest bidder, as he has done with SAB first and then later with Mi Marathi and Live India, which got sold to construction conglomerate HDIL.

SAB TV's Kapoor is not unprepared, and is already looking for new programmes. "We are seeking to build depth with our core strength of lighthearted entertainment that is not regressive, but includes the entire family. That is why we are also trying to increase our female audience," he says.

Against an overwhelming male audience of up to 75 per cent two years ago, SAB TV's female viewers account for 55 per cent. But why would a channel want to mess with a good thing? Advertisers do seek the decision-makers — i.e., men — and reach out to SAB on that strength. "We appeal to the entire family — women being an intrinsic part of it. This shows the universal appeal of our content while other GECs don't appeal to male audiences as much," says Kapoor. Besides, GECs are in any case reach-based platforms aimed at wooing the housewife.

But, as Sudarshan Rajan, an independent media consultant, says: "The activity on GECs for large marketers is between 36 and 48 weeks a year. Women control the major chunk — 83 million C&S households multiplied by Rs 1,500, the average grocery bill per month means a big business opportunity." In fact, the universe of women viewers has increased by 53 per cent in the last one year for all GECs.

Given the challenge, SAB is losing no time on spreading its base. It has already unleashed a new show called Papad Pol late June and is also working on distribution and marketing. It hosted SAB Ka Mela in Ahmedabad, a family fair attended by 27,000 people. It has a radio promotion, SAB Ka Damadji, in which a "damadji" or son-in-law invites questions from women and answers them via jokes and funny anecdotes.

With Hindi newspapers even running cartoon strips based on SAB's popular shows, the channel is seeking to enter the Guinness Book of Records as the only channel to air comedy-based content round the clock. With all this, "it is not unlikely that SAB will sustain its ground and outstrip competition and also SET," says a veteran media buyer.