Youth Inc.

Let the music play on

Young Indians still want their MTV, not just on television screens

In the 1990s, teenagers in the metros almost uniformly followed the same routine on returning from school or college: you threw down your bags and switched on the television. This generation didn’t want to channel surf, although having a dozen channels to flick through was still a novelty. You would stay glued to just one channel — MTV — and watch the latest music videos from the US, the UK, Australia and even China and Hong Kong. You were cool if you watched MTV, could hum the latest numbers, could describe the whacky filler ads (“…so this neon skull transforms into a hammer and pounds in MTV-shaped nails…”) and knew the latest fashion trends, thanks to hours of gazing upon VJs Danny McGill and Nonie. 

Two decades later, teenagers still watch MTV, but with a difference. They catch the shows they want on devices of their choice — TV, computer, mobile or tablet. They no longer watch American music videos — instead, they can choose from the latest Bollywood music promo, a reality show or a teen soap opera. But most importantly, they still choose MTV although there are similar channels now available on Indian cable. MTV’s share in the youth general entertainment genre has been a stable 33 GRP, although in the last few weeks Channel V has overtaken to capture the top slot, according to TAM Media Research.  

MTV India is a 50:50 joint venture between Network18 and the $14.9 billion media company, Viacom. In FY12, Viacom18 clocked a revenue of ₹1,584 crore and posted a loss of ₹112.7 crore. Aditya Swamy, the 37-year-old business head and executive vice president of MTV India, says the company is not only profitable, it has a 45% share of the ad revenue in the youth entertainment space. Other players in this segment are Star India’s Channel V and Disney’s Bindass. 

Musical chairs

When MTV came to India in 1991 in a licensing arrangement with Hong Kong’s Star TV, it wasn’t an Indian channel and made no bones about it. It took five years and the launch of rival Channel V for the American company to wake up to what would work in India. The audience for English music videos was minuscule and if MTV was to succeed here, it would have to adapt. It did. The channel reinvented itself as ‘desi cool’, substantially increased its local content and launched a nationwide VJ hunt in 1998. “The VJ hunt was one of MTV’s first whole-hearted attempts to reach out to the masses,” recalls former MTV marketing chief Vikram Raizada. “Young Indians realised that if they could think out of the box, there were immense opportunities for them. It made them connect with the brand enormously.” 

The hunt led to the ‘discovery’ of now well-known TV anchors like Nikhil Chinappa, Cyrus Broacha and Mini Mathur. MTV also started experimenting with genres outside its comfort zone (music, of course). Spinoffs of popular international shows such as Punk’d and Road Rules appeared in India and became immensely popular as MTV Bakra (practical jokes filmed on camera) and Roadies (a bike adventure reality show). It even got its first fiction show, Kitni Mast Hai Zindagi, made by soap opera diva Ekta Kapoor. 

Now, constant reinvention has become routine at MTV. “Our focus has been on changing the face of youth entertainment in India. The biggest challenge is to stay ahead of our consumers who are continually changing,” says Swamy. From 2005-06, the channel realised it needed to be available on multiple screens for its viewers’ convenience. MTV started airing the videos of some of its TV shows online and, by 2010, the channel had gotten rid of the ‘Music Television’ tagline from its logo — it was now ‘a youth entertainment channel’.  

Expanding the repertoire

Rishab Dutta, an ad executive, says MTV was a major influence in his teenage years. “I grew up aping the mannerisms of MTV VJs,” says the now 37-year-old, who agrees that MTV has been a forward looking and proactive channel all through. Dutta’s MTV favourite is Crunch, a 24-hour reality show exclusive to the channel’s online and mobile audience. The show tests the compatibility of 10 couples locked in a room for four weeks. “I was addicted to Crunch,” says Dutta. “In between meetings at office, I would often log in to find out what they were up to.” 

“Our audience extends way beyond the TV screen,” says Swamy. “Our Facebook page attracts 10 million users while the MTV India website has over 200,000 registered users.” So, now, “TV is just one of the homes of MTV,” says Swamy. In FY11, the channel did 50 live shows, including Sunburn and Coke Studio. Other examples of never-before youth entertainment include the ‘Nano Drive with MTV’, live on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook as India’s first ‘social streaming show’ — it features a 21-day road trip across the country. 

The company has also taken care to partner with other iconic youth brands to get even closer to its target audience of 16-25 year olds. Hero Motors is the title sponsor of MTV Roadies, in its ninth year, while Coca-Cola has a three-year co-production deal for Coke Studio, featuring live studio-recorded music performances set to air its second season. These deals also make immense business sense. Swamy says only a third of MTV’s revenues come from airtime sales. “The bulk is from long-term sponsor deals,” he says. Meanwhile, MTV India’s consumer products business is growing  across 15 categories such as apparel, shoes, bikes and lingerie. “MTV Roadies footwear clocked revenues of ₹6 crore last year,” says Sandeep Dahiya, head, consumer products, MTV. The channel has tied up with Crusoe for men’s innerwear and launched four models of MTV bikes along with Fire Fox. Why, it may even look at producing a film. 

“Life has never been more challenging for the caretakers of iconic youth brands,” says Swamy, but he is smiling. He has a good reason to.