Indian market flooded with niche channels

Insiders wonder if all the new players are diluting content.

MIPCOM 2007 news page

NEW DELHI -- Surfing through India's 300-plus-channel universe is like visiting a vibrant Indian bazaar: There's the omnipresent music, the colorful comedy-based talent shows, the perennial family-oriented soap operas playing out and, of course, plenty of cricket. Add to that the mushrooming number of news programs and the 100-odd channels waiting to launch, and it's obvious that the Indian TV industry is on a roll.

India has 112 million TV households, of which 68 million have cable, according to the 2006 National Readership Survey conducted by ACNielsen ORG-MARG. In terms of revenue, the $4.2 billion the industry generates annually is projected to grow to $13.1 billion by 2011, according to a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

As Hong Kong-based media research company Media Partners Asia (MPA) executive director Vivek Couto explains, "India is moving into its next phase or cycle of growth."

Nevertheless, Timmy Kandhari, executive director and leader of entertainment and media practice for PricewaterhouseCoopers, has a word of caution: "The industry faces two major challenges -- differentiated content and distribution. Though the advertising pie is growing -- with TV expected to attract the maximum share -- commanding viewership will be a challenge, which again depends on content. Therefore, content will be king."

Adds Couto: "There are near-term pressures, notably if distribution does not rationalize and digitize (thereby limiting subscription revenues), but the advertising base is up 20-30% per year. Audiences will be fragmenting, but there is no reason why a number of major new players will not be profitable after two to three years, when the market consolidates. It's a landgrab, but it has to be done."

While distribution is going through an evolution of its own, the latest numbers indicate the future for pay TV looks promising.

According to MPA, the Indian pay TV market will generate $10 billion by 2011, up from $4.2 billion in 2006, with pay TV penetration reaching 84% of total TV homes by 2011, with a projected 107 million cable households. Current DTH players include statecaster Doordarshan's DD Direct (3.5 million subscribers), Tata Sky (1.1 million) and Dish TV (2.2 million). MPA predicts that by 2015, total DTH subs will cross 35 million.

"Special-interest and niche channels are the future," predicts Mumbai-based Sony Entertainment Television (SET) India CEO Kunal Dasgupta.

In fact, while the market share of the top five entertainment channels has fallen from 43.8% in 2000 to 32.9% in 2006, according to TAM Media (a joint venture between ACNielsen and Kantar Media Research/IMRB), TAM market-share data from 2004 through the first quarter of 2007 shows growth in a number of special-interest channels, with English news expanding from 0.3% to 0.7%, Hindi news from 3.7% to 4.9% and the kids' TV genre growing the fastest, from 2.7% to 6.2%.

Dasgupta adds that with so many new channels waiting to launch in the general entertainment channel genre, these new players will "have it tough." The players include the recently launched Viacom18, a joint venture with Mumbai-based diversified broadcasting group Network18, which has existing partnerships with foreign majors in running news channels, such as CNN-IBN with Time Warner and CNBC-TV18 with NBC. Other new players include UTV Global Broadcasting Ltd. (promoted by veteran media group UTV), which is prepping a bouquet that also includes a world cinema channel. "Our new youth channel, Bindass, seeks to address a focused target audience, which will be delivered to advertisers at a better rate on investment," explains UTV Global Broadcasting executive director Shantonu Aditya.

Still, more channels means diluted content, according to Ashish Kaul, executive vp of Mumbai-based Essel Group (which owns Zee TV). Kaul laments the fact that Indian programming is facing what he calls a "creative famine."

"The quality of production has improved, but the content quality has declined," he declares. "One successful show has a million rip-offs, though music-based shows have done well. Content shopping at MIPCOM has become a saving grace."

Even relatively creative content such as Star India's latest offering, "Kavyanjali" -- an attempt to introduce a Bollywood-style blockbuster love story within the context of a daily show -- rests squarely within the popular soap genre.

Within the music niche alone, Indian TV is rife with copycats. For instance, SET TV's "Indian Idol" battles stiff competition from Zee TV's top-rated "Saregamapa Challenge" (named after the Indian singing notes), which has been on-air for over a decade, while new channels such as Sahara Network's Filmy offer their take on this format, with its "Bathroom Singer" competing against established network Star India's "Voice of India." According to TAM Media, during the first week of September, "Saregamapa" led the top 10 entertainment shows, with 8.7 points versus "Idol" at sixth position with 5.27, while none of the other music shows made it to the top 10.

But Sanjiv Sharma, founder-director of Mumbai-based Optimystix, one of India's leading independent TV production companies, which has produced original programming while adapting foreign formats (such as the 2004 debut of "Indian Idol"), believes there is still room for new players despite such a crowded market. "Even within existing successful formulas, such as music- or comedy-based talent shows, there are creative opportunities," he says, offering Optimystix's "Comedy Circus" (for SET) as an example of a show that stands out from the crowd. Still, the show, which pairs comedians with TV stars, is an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the comedy genre in light of the success of Star India's 2005 series "Great Indian Laughter Challenge," produced by Endemol India, which just wrapped its third season.

And while the recent establishment of Indian affiliates by the likes of Endemol and Fox Television Studios seems to raise the ante for content production, questions remain about India's ability to produce quality homegrown programming that isn't a mere knockoff of a successful format.

Mumbai-based Endemol India managing director Rajesh Kamat adds: "There will be more competition for domestic players, with some seeking alliances with independent international producers." While producing homegrown properties such as "Laughter Challenge," Endemol also bowed "Big Boss" for SET, the local version of its popular "Big Brother" format.

But Sharma echoes Kaul's sentiment that ultimately it's the quality of content that wins the day. "(This is) regardless of whether the format is foreign or homegrown," he says.

"Great Indian Laughter Challenge"

Hot Houses: Four local producers at the forefront of India's rapidly evolving TV sector

Optimystix: Established in 2000 by commercial director Sanjiv Sharma and writer-director Vipul D Shah, Optimystix is one of the leading independent players producing content across various genres. Among its earlier productions was the Indian adaptation of the U.S. game show "Let's Make A Deal." "We are creative and believe that our original content has to be world standard, which could well be adapted in other countries," says Sharma, who adds that Optimystix is pitching its own concepts for international alliances, including the music format "Bathroom Singer" and the reality series "Nirvana," which follows foreign participants on a spiritual Indian journey. Optimystix is the India affiliate of international producers network Sparks.

Endemol India: After establishing its Indian subsidiary in December 2005, Endemol indicated its seriousness for the market by launching a mix of both homegrown shows like "Great Indian Laughter Challenge" and established formats such as "Big Brother." "Previously, we only had format sales for international shows like 'Deal or No Deal' for Sony TV," says Endemol India managing director Rajesh Kamat. "Now that we have produced our own shows, we are confident of our in-house capabilities." Having established "Laughter Challenge" as its homegrown comedy property, Endemol is prepping other formats -- such as the music-talent show "Ustaad" ("Master") -- while continuing to adapt successful foreign formats.

Balaji Telefilms: The champion of fiction shows, Balaji Telefilms founder Ekta Kapoor is known for her hands-on involvement across the slate of family-oriented soaps that have ruled the charts for almost a decade. Balaji is also planning to enhance its presence in regional language markets (beyond Hindi) via a recent joint venture with Star India that will see it launch general entertainment channels in Southern India. Though nonfiction shows are fragmenting audiences, Balaji CEO R. Karthik says that they are also considering this genre while responding to criticism that most Balaji shows seem formulaic. "Of course, people may say that some of our shows have common strains, but we still offer some uniqueness even though they are all family-based," he observes. "At the end of the day, the objective is to hold peoples' attention."

Via Earth: "Via Earth is more an idea than a production company," says co-founder/director Anita Horam. Focusing on high-end lifestyle shows with global appeal, Via Earth produces shows like "Bollywood Bosses," which profiles popular Indian film stars for BBC World and the History Channel. Via Earth is developing a catalogue of ideas that it hopes will lead to international partnerships. "We would like to figure on the radar of international broadcasters/co-producers looking for quality, innovative nonfiction programming from India," Horam says.


SHOWSTOPPERS: Are overseas markets cooling to U.S. hits?
AROUND THE DIAL: Global programming trends
A-LIST: Hot titles at this year's market
SUBCONTINENTAL DIVIDE: Niches invade Indian market
DIALOGUE: KidsCo's Paul Robinson
PROFILE: MIPCOM honoree Les Moonves