A New Voyage

Discovery India is exploring a new frontier with the launch of its GEC channel. Can it create a niche in an overcrowded genre? 

It was some time in September 1897. A contingent of 21 soldiers from the 36th Sikh Regiment of the British Indian Army led by Havildar Ishar Singh, thwarted an attack by over 10,000 Afghan tribesmen in what was declared as a milestone in the Indian military history. More than a century later, this historical event will be revived on the small screen as a drama series titled, 21 Sarfarosh: Saragarhi 1897. And that’s not all, there’s even an 85-episode series on Patanjali Ayurved’s founder, Baba Ramdev. Fact-inspired stories such as these are being brought to life by Discovery. Not surprising then that its Karan Bajaj, who heads the India business is feeling the rush. 

“After staring at a word document for a year, you wait in anticipation with a bit of insecurity when your novel gets published,” says Bajaj, who also happens to be a novelist. The writer’s analogy reflects Discovery’s plunge into the general entertainment channel (GEC) space in a market that it entered more than two decades ago. This is also the first time that the American network has forayed into the GEC space globally. After more than a year of preparation, Jeet went live on February 12. This will be the 12th pay channel in Discovery’s portfolio, which comprises infotainment and factual entertainment brands such as Discovery, Animal Planet, Travel and Living, Discovery Kids, Discovery Science, and Investigation Discovery. 

Change in the script
Discovery, which was set up in 1982 in the United States, entered India in 1995. A dedicated infotainment channel was new for most Indians back then and that helped it created a niche for itself. Four years later, it followed the paid route. Over the next decade, a slew of other channels were added. In 2002, it formed a JV distribution company with Sony’s Sony Entertainment Television (SET) India. SET was the dominant partner (with a 74% stake) and helped Discovery expand into the countrywide cable network. Though Discovery has been synonymous with factual infotainment, as a category it bags less than 5% of eyeballs and even lesser ad revenue. That’s evident in Discovery’s topline, which at over #400 crore is just a fraction of the overall TV ad spend that stands at over Rs.651 billion (see: Still undiscovered). More importantly, four years ago, the infotainment category was jolted by two factors. First, a methodical change in 2015 by rating agency Broadcast Audience Research Council of India (BARC), that gave more weightage to suburban and rural markets, brought down Discovery’s score. Second, the advent of digital platforms and rise of content consumption over YouTube and other social networks, compounded the challenge. 

As a result, premium viewers switched to digital. According to BARC, Discovery lost 22% of the viewers over the past three years (see: Losing ground). “Discovery-dominated niche genres of infotainment and lifestyle have remained under pressure since BARC’s expansion in rural markets,” says Mihir Shah, vice-president (India), Media Partners Asia. English channels, particularly English movies and GECs, have also seen a decline in viewership ratings. Typically, FMCG companies base their media planning decisions on ratings, and they constitute a massive 60% of advertisement on TV. Hence, a change in pecking order puts a pressure on ad revenues. Frank D’Souza, leader, media and entertainment at PwC, says, “Broadcasters tend to offer advertisers a package or an offering in the form of a bouquet of channels to lure them. Discovery has all its eggs in one basket (infotainment). If that category slips, it affects the company financially.”

In its home market, Discovery was the early driver of cable subscription way back in 1980s and even pioneered the global expansion of its US content internationally. However, more than 30 years later, its subscription revenue in the US is declining. This explains why it’s looking at other markets more seriously than ever. A rejig in India’s management team last year saw Karan Bajaj being brought at the helm. And Bajaj is already scripting a change —taking the road unexplored with Discovery’s foray into the GEC space. 

The road less travelled
There are close to 250 million television households in India and Discovery wants to move beyond the top 20 million households that has thus far been its critical viewership base. The shift is also due to the fact that these households, which have fixed broadband and premium DTH connections. are aggressively consuming digital content. So, Discovery’s strategy is two-pronged – retain the existing premium lot and break into the mass viewership. The target is to tap the middle of the television viewing pyramid, which comprises around 120 million households. Bajaj believes Jeet will be the vehicle to reach the 120 million households. For premium end - “Our strategy will be to use a digital pivot to reach the top 15-20 million, who are digitally-savvy,” he explains. The GEC channel will have five hours of original content each day and secondly, Discovery will also adopt a digital-first model that includes four YouTube channels - Veer (with military content), Rise (by TLC with fashion content), an auto and a food channel.

Shah says, “The inclusion of rural markets in the rating system and ad rates for the infotainment genre being capped to compete with online platforms have necessitated recalibration in channel programming.” But with an already cluttered GEC space, where big broadcasters are ruling the roost, Discovery faces a stiff challenge. Currently, GEC has over 40 channels with Zee dominating the space, followed by Star and Sony (See: Movers and Shakers). Also, three put together are over 40 times the size of Discovery in terms of revenue. D’Souza of PwC says, “The GEC space is cluttered. Prima facie one has to be cautious, but a lot depends on the programming strategy.”

Concurring with D’Souza, Danish Khan, programming head of SET, feels that a clear segmentation is needed. “Expansion of ratings has helped us know what India watches. India is a vast country. It is impossible to create a show that will cater to everyone.” This expansion led to segmentation with channels deciding whom they want to cater to. “When we re-branded Sony in 2015, we decided it will be an urban-focused Hindi channel, which is aspirational and focused on the 15-45 age group. We only look at metros and 1 million plus population centres. So, if our gross rating point (GRP) in Mumbai or Delhi is over 200, it can be around 80 in smaller centres,” he adds. 

Clear path ahead
Keeping that in mind, Discovery wants to play to its strength by producing serials with the same sophistication that it brings to its documentaries. Launched in four languages — Hindi, Bangla, Tamil, and Telugu — the channel’s programmes will largely comprise stories of unsung heroes capped between 85 and 100 episodes. “There is a constant underlying theme of the underdog winning in our content. Be it the 85-episode biopic of Baba Ramdev, or the 21 Sarfarosh,” says Bajaj. Based on its research, Discovery decided that the story had to be dramatised for tier-II and -III markets. “The story is mounted in a very larger than life, soap-opera way. Nobody wants a sermon on how to win, all they want is a great story to watch,” adds Bajaj. Jeet will also feature Mere Papa Hero Hiralal, Gabru: The Birth of Hip Hop, a take on the music genre craze that has caught the fancy of youngsters across the country,  and Gangs of Mumbai, a series on the mafia in the country’s financial capital.

There have been attempts in the recent past to lure viewers with Indianised factual content. One example is the launch of Epic channel, which was supposed to be a GEC and a niche mythology storyteller. But Epic has remained in the infotainment category without capturing any major slice of the mass entertainment pie. “It will be an uphill task for any new standalone channel to break through the [GEC] clutter,” Shah cautions. Having said that he says there could be surprises. Ten years ago, Colors surprised and disrupted the GEC space when there were just three players. 

But Discovery’s Bajaj is confident of the network’s approach. “We were very clear that we did not want to add to the noise in the GEC space. Relationships don’t always mean a saas-bahu relationship. Even in reality – If I start another singing show, I don’t know what else I could add to it. But we do have a comedy show.” To rake in mass rural audiences, many channels over time have been operating on the lowest common denominator of content, resulting in a growing need-gap from urban and semi-urban markets. “It will be our endeavour to capture these unaddressed market segments through a sustained pipeline of original local programs. In that regard, the company has done well to take a multi-screen approach,” Bajaj says. However Khan of SET has his doubts as he quips, “I still see white space, in terms of content, but I see more white space in the premium segment, rather than the bottom of the pyramid.”

So can Discovery manage to attract a mass following with just one GEC channel? Zee Anmol and Star Utsav are the top GEC channels in rural markets with over 513 million impressions and 436 million impressions, Sony PAL is third at 377 million impressions as of week 52 of 2017, according to BARC. Similarly, in urban markets, Colors holds sway followed by Zee TV and Star Plus. Incumbent networks, particularly in the Hindi GEC segment are taking a portfolio approach. Zee TV, which is a cash cow, is flanked by Zee Anmol, which is free-to-air (FTA), and Zindagi which was premium. Star has a similar approach with Star Plus and Utsav and so has Colors with Rishtey. The idea is to offer varied content to a wider section of the audience and garner more ads.

In for the long haul
Though Discovery has not revealed how much it has invested in the new venture, Bajaj assures that it has been a judicious decision. “We are a very fiscally disciplined organisation. We spend money on content and story telling rather than ambassadors.” Without divulging numbers, Bajaj reveals that OTT players have also shown an interest in its programmes. “OTT players typically cherry pick one or two pieces afterwards. But multiple platforms bid for our content (Jeet) even before it was aired. So, from a revenue stream perspective we are on track.” 

The second plank of Bajaj’s strategy is to quickly ramp up its digital content consumption. Its new mobile-first channels Veer by Discovery was launched on January 26, 2018 and Rise by TLC will be launched soon. Discovery was able to bring nine sponsors onboard for its military channel Veer. Bajaj explains how the multiscreen strategy helps them. “On Discovery, we are doing 40 hours of military content as a daily linear channel catering to 20 million viewers. With the launch of Veer, we are tripling the reach of Discovery. So from an advertiser’s perspective, a bundled offering makes sense,” says Bajaj. Khan of SET, too, believes that although the dependence on ad revenue is going to remain in the near future, within that there is lot of scope for optimisation. “TV ads are not really optimised. Even today, prices are based on cost per rating point and not on the quality of GRP,” he says.

Not surprising then that advertisers see merit in a bundled digital-TV offering. Mayank Shah, category head, Parle Products, one of the advertisers on Jeet, says, “With increased media consumption via digital, you cannot be only on TV. You need to have an omni-screen presence, especially if you want to target the young audience.” Though Shah is convinced of the value proposition he still wants to play it by the ear. “They are trying to position Jeet for families and stay away from noise. But, we will wait and see the response to the channel.”

Discovery claims to have reached a viewership base of 100 million on the first day of Jeet’s launch. If that indeed is the number then that’s a good start. “We have very strong financial and GRP targets. Our plan is to scale up Jeet over the next three years, if it manages to delight the viewer,” declares Bajaj. In an industry where viewership turns fickle with every passing week, Discovery’s effort to win over a new set of audience will indeed be an arduous journey.