Not child's play

Zee Entertainment’s first big launch in four years is a kiddie channel. Will it help the network regain lost ground?

Like his father, Punit Goenka also likes to pepper his conversation with pithy Hindi sayings. Now, the Zee Entertainment managing director says wryly, “Doodh ka jala chaas bhi phoonk ke peeta hain [once bitten, twice shy],” to explain why the network waited four years for its next big launch after its youth entertainment offering ZeeNext flopped. The trouble with ZeeNext, Goenka says, was that the company “failed to understand that youth behave differently and it is difficult to pin them down with conventional story lines”. Now, the Subhash Chandra-promoted media company’s back with a high-decibel launch, of India’s first edutainment channel, ZeeQ, aimed at children between four and 14 years. And the earlier failure seems forgotten as Goenka talks about his ambitious target for this new channel.

The subscription-driven channel will go on air on November 5 and aims to have 1 million subscribers by the first year. That may not be easy. Subscriber numbers aren’t available for individual channels since they’re currently bundled into channel bouquets but most industry analysts agree that a niche channel may find it a struggle to get those high numbers. But if anybody could do it, it is probably Zee. The company already has close to 15 million subscribers between its two distribution platforms, DTH service Dish TV and cable TV distributor WWIL. “Getting 1 million out of 15 million in the first year may not be a problem,” believes Atul Phadnis, CEO of TV search guide What’s On India. 

The bigger challenge is to keep young viewers hooked. Zee is partnering with sister concern Zee Learn (which runs preschools and K-12 educational institutions across India) to decide the content for the new launch. “It made sense to partner with people who understand children better than we do,” says Goenka. 

But it’s easy to create content for the four to eight age group; beyond that, children aren’t one homogeneous group. “The education content that a 10-year-old will need is quite different from what a 12-year-old will need. For a TV channel to come up with age-specific content will not be easy,” agrees Ambika Prasad Das, founding partner of online learning company UbQool. Moreover, in an era where the internet offers on-demand content, expecting on-appointment viewing, especially by children, may be a trifle ambitious.

Das cites the example of Topper TV, a Network 18 and Educomp venture, which was created for the DTH and digital cable platform, aimed at high-school students. “Today, kids can access content whenever they wish. Topper TV has tried to create appointment viewing, which no longer works, especially in the education genre,” says Das.  Topper TV, too, is a pure-subscription channel, priced at Rs.60, which is Rs.10 more than the Rs.50 ZeeQ is expected to charge. 

Not surprisingly, Zee doesn’t see these issues as hurdles. Shubhadarshi Tripathy, ZeeQ’s business head, believes the Zee Learn association will help in building stickiness, although he agrees it will be a challenge. “We have a panel of experts guiding us on what will and won’t work with kids,” he points out.

Ups and downs

It’s not as if the failure of ZeeNext put a stop to the media company’s launches. In the past four years, Zee has been fortifying its regional presence and is now planning a Telugu film channel launch (see: Hits and misses). International expansion is also on the cards; the company recently launched Zee Alwan, its second Arabic channel and “the next destination is South Africa,” says Goenka.

Moreover, the broadcaster is working on the launch of a ‘new’ free-to-air (FTA) Hindi general entertainment channel — former Star CEO Peter Mukerjea’s failed venture 9X, which Zee had quietly acquired last year. Goenka’s tightlipped on how he plans to take the 9X brand forward. “Once digitisation comes, there will be a market for FTA channels and 9X will fulfil that need,” is all Goenka is willing to discuss.

He’s more forthcoming on the network’s flagship channel, Zee TV, and its ongoing battle for marketshare. Early this year and all of 2011 were particularly bad for Zee TV when its ratings dipped below 200. Now it’s clawed its way back to 233 gross rating points, although that’s still behind market leader Star Plus’ 274 GRPS. “Our storylines had become old; hence, the dip,” admits Goenka. The channel called curtains on non-performing shows and brought in new fiction and reality shows that helped boost ratings. Zee’s financials are also getting better. Ad revenue for Zee Entertainment in Q2FY13 increased to Rs.528 crore against Rs.394.9 crore a year ago, consolidated operating revenue grew 33.8% to Rs.953.5 crore while subscription revenue grew 36% to Rs.395 crore.

Industry observers say in its effort to maintain profitability, Zee doesn’t invest enough in creating and acquiring high-quality content the way its rivals do. Goenka doesn’t agree, of course, saying international content isn’t a necessary condition for high ratings. He points to Zee’s homegrown shows such as Sa Re Ga Ma Pa and Dance India Dance as evidence. Still, if Zee is to regain its lost ground, it will have to work on developing more engaging content, something it will have to do for the new channel as well. Then Goenka can add a new saying: “Mehnat ka phal meetha hota hai.”