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SLAVISH devotion to a cause is perhaps the simplest way of summing up what Game of Thrones is all about.

SLAVISH devotion to a cause is perhaps the simplest way of summing up what Game of Thrones is all about. And if you wanted to describe the way frenzied fans round the globe watch the HBO television series based on George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic, slavish devotion would be the word. No wonder, as every new episode of the fifth season unfolds, the world of social media is awash with tweets and counter-tweets dissecting every scene and every dialogue. At last count, the series had 2.43 million followers on Twitter and has 19700 tweets on its Twitter handle @GameOfThrones, many of which originate from India. In fact, it was this frenzy for the series, that made HBO announce its decision to simulcast Games of Thron- es Season 5 (S5) across 170 countries, including India from April.

HBO is not the only broadcaster to show the latest of Hollywood content. Viewers of English entertainment on the small screen are increasingly being treated to the latest seasons of a slew of hit television series from the West. Zee Cafe has been airing Vampire Diaries S6 along with the US. Star India too premiered Homeland S4 on Star World and Star World Premiere besides White Collar S6. And the latest entrant in this exclusive club is popular British drama Doctor Who which will be aired on FX, the English entertainment channel that Star India runs under the banner of FOX International Channels, from May 15.

The reasons are not too far to seek. With a majority of English content fans following these shows online, it is imperative that channels bring them back to the small screen. And the only way this could be done is by simulcasting the shows. “Premium quality English content allows broadcasters to target premium audiences in the 18-30 age group, who actively consume content on the second screen. With English content we are able to bring in a new set of consumers, which allows us to rope in premium brands to advertise on the channels,” said Sanjay Gupta, COO, Star India, which has five English general entertainment channels (GEC) under its fold—Star World, Star World HD, FX, Fox Crime and Star World Premiere.

To be sure, the hunt for premium content is not just for the eyeballs and the advertising dollars, it’s also about curbing online piracy. HBO India, which runs two premium channels Hits and Defined, earlier this year moved to showing content within a day of US airing. In case of Game of Thrones S5, viewers are able to watch the latest episodes at the same time as the US premiere, ad-free. “When content is available on your television set at the same time as the international premiere, free of any interruptions and in HD quality, the incentive to download that content is significantly reduced. We believe the move towards same day airing as the US premiere for HBO Originals is definitely going to curb the consumption of pirated content,” said Monica Tata, managing director, HBO India.

As a natural corollary, the air time for original content has also increased. Citing the example of Zee Café, Anurag Bedi, executive vice president and business head, Zee Studio and Zee Café, the English movie and entertainment channels, points out that the channel currently telecasts two hours of original content, 9pm-11pm, during weekdays on prime-time, compared to 30-45 minutes of content being aired a year back.

“While there is a demand for thriller shows such as Homeland, or a crime show such as The Mentalist and Monk, light-hearted shows as The Big Bang Theory or Friends tend to do better. In fact, shows such as Desperate Housewives have a cult following. Indians do not like a complicated storyline,” said Rajni Menon, vice-president, Carat India, a media planning and buying agency from Dentsu Aegis Network.

New deals
Media networks typically ink two kinds of content deals with production companies. The first is the ‘premiere or first output’ deal which allows a channel to simulcast along with the US or telecast an episode within 24 hours of it being aired in the US. In the second case, old seasons are bought with an intention to create a library. A third kind has now emerged that goes a step further. “While a ‘premiere or a first output’ deal always ensure eyeballs, broadcasters these days tend to ink a more holistic deal. This gives them access to the current season, previous seasons as well as further seasons that may be under production,” said Saurabh Yagnik, VP and business head, Sony Pix and AXN India, part of Multi Screen Media.

The latest example for this is Star India’s deal with BBC Worldwide for Doctor Who. In addition to airing season one to eight, the channel has acquired the telecast rights for the ninth season which is under production currently. For Myleeta Aga, senior vice president and general manager of BBC Worldwide in India, the partnership with Star India marks a milestone. “It is the first time we’ve concluded a major deal with Star India. We’ve seen increasing interest in British drama from our partners in the last 12 months,” said Aga. Earlier this year Star India aired popular British period drama Downton Abbey seasons one to five.

An expensive gamble
With broadcasters going for premium content, the cost of acquisition has shot up. Earlier, the cost of acquiring library content was $2000-3000 per hour. Currently, while the cost of library content for popular shows such as The Big Bang Theory, Grey’s Anatomy, The Originals, Teen Wolf, Desperate Housewives, etc., is $8000-10,000 per hour, simulcast or first output deals cost $13,000-14,000 per hour.

In this race, HBO India is the only broadcaster which does not have to worry about buying content as it has access to HBO’s international library. “Unlike other channels that have to acquire international content, our HBO Original Series programming (such as Sex and the City) is made for subscribers of its premium channels. HBO is known as a leading premium subscription based channel worldwide. This is our DNA,” added Tata. Unlike Hindi GECs, English entertainment channels are not perceived as standalone properties. According to the Ficci-KPMG 2015 report, the viewership share of the English entertainment genre that consists of English GECs and movie channels marginally reduced to 0.9% in 2014 compared to 1.1% in 2013, while its share in the advertising pie stood at 4.6% in 2014.

Not withstanding its low viewership share, English channels play an important role in a broadcaster’s distribution strategy. “If a media network wants to distribute its channels in South Mumbai or Delhi and does not have an English channel as part of its bouquet, the network will not find many takers. Therefore, from the point of view of a holistic offering, it is important to have either a range of English channels or at least one English channel,” said Jehil Thakkar, partner and head, media and entertainment, KPMG in India, an audit firm.

Censorship has a tendency to play spoilsport in this endeavour. For viewers fed on uncut versions available online, arbitrary cuts that programmes have to undergo in the post-production stage is a turn-off. Agrees Gupta of Star India who says that there are times that scenes are chopped or dialogues beeped just to keep the regulators happy. “We are being too cautious and conservative on the small screen, while the ground reality is different,” he added.

HBO’s Game of Thrones telecast in India is one show which regularly has to undergo this unsavoury editing. Tata says that the broadcaster self-regulates to ensure that all content aired on its channels in India are suitable for television consumption and meet regulatory requirements. “For a show such as Game of Thrones no more than a couple of minutes are edited. We take great care to ensure that the plot continuity and story line are maintained,” she said.

Counting the money
While premium content does bring in premium audiences, the advertising dollars have proved to be elusive. The cost of a 10-second ad spot on an English GEC remains at R1500-2000, compared to R70,000-80,000 which a Hindi GEC commands. But there are advertisers who bet their money on these channels.

“Our target consumers typically belong to SEC A and B, and are men and women with annual income of R4-5 lakh.

These are independent professionals in their mid 20s to late 40s. They are knowledgeable and are well-travelled. As their affinity towards English content including entertainment and movies is very high, it is important to have a presence on English channels,” explains Dhruv Chopra, chief marketing officer of automotive website

At times, however, the same show is aired on two different channels, thus throwing all calculations awry. For example, currently The Mentalist is being aired both on Star World and Zee Café. Similarly, last year Grey’s Anatomy was aired both on Star World and Zee Café. Gupta of Star India admits that broadcasters are aware of the situation. “It is not the best situation for a broadcaster as there is no ‘exclusivity’ attached to content and it cannot command a premium ad rate. Thankfully, the channels are airing different seasons of the same show,” he added.

It is only for current seasons that channels are able to hike the ad rates, going upto R5000-6000 for a 10-second ad spot. “Advertisers usually go with their gut feeling when it comes to buying air-time on English channels. There is a popular notion that English is not for the masses. It is assumed that English channels including movies and infotainment are watched by affluent viewers. So in order to target these consumers, we need to advertise on these channels,” said Ajay Kakar, chief marketing officer, financial services, Aditya Birla Group.

It is perhaps this situation that has spurred channels to focus on weekend programming which can help them bring in the moolah. Weekend is the only time when broadcasters actually sell the ad slots at a premium rate with the weekend ad package going for R30,000-40,000 for back-to-back telecast of all the episodes of a show. Star World recently launched ‘Binge Weekend’ where one show is aired from morning till noon and a second show comes on air from noon to late night. The Binge line-up includes popular shows such as How To Get Away with Murder, Homeland, 2 Broke Girls, Modern Family, Two and a Half Men and Agents of Shield. On May 2 and 3, Star World aired the last season of Homeland as part of this initiative.

“There are not enough subscribers for these channels. This leaves broadcasters with limited subscription revenue, thus increasing their dependency on advertising increases. This is also the reason why despite debuting as ad-free channels, today Star World Premiere and Star World HD run advertisements. The only difference is the unlike a standard-definition channel which shows 12-16 minutes of ads in an hour, these channels show two minutes of ads while HD channels show four minutes of ads,” said Carat India’s Menon, adding, “One should not be surprised to see all of them resorting to advertising in the future.”

Agrees Yagnik of Sony Pix who says that broadcasters are aware that not every new title acquired will be profitable. “This is the reason that all content deals are for two to three years. As per this, a broadcaster takes back home multiple telecast rights and gets a chance to maximise the benefits,” he added.

Advertising and marketing of English content have helped in saving the turf in terms of ensuring viewership. From cross-promotion on the network to advertising in English dailies, to social media, broadcasters tend to use different tools to catch the attention of viewers. Star’s Gupta says that while promotion of new content on the channel gets a new set of viewers, for some shows cross promotion ensures repeat viewership. Agrees Thakkar of KPMG in India who says promotion of content ensures stickiness, which is a must for English channels as more eyeballs ensure more advertising revenue.

Currently more of a metro phenomenon, analysts believe English entertainment content too will find its fair share of followers going forward. According to viewership samples released by Broadcast Audience Research Council, of the 55 million cable and satellite households across the country, the universe size of six metros including Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad is 18.677 million. Delhi and Mumbai markets have almost equal coverage with 4.732 million and 4.470 million cable and satellite households, respectively, followed by Kolkata which has 2.703 million and Chennai with 2.591 million households. And Bangalore and Hyderabad have 2.336 million and 1.845 million households, respectively. Gupta believes that the action has just begun in the English genre and there is a lot more to come.

“With time the competition is only expected to heat up as broadcasters aim to bring content which is not only fresh but also current,” said Gupta. Thakkar, however, points out that there is still a long way to go as far as English entertainment content is concerned.

“English entertainment will never play a major role both in terms of revenue as well as viewership. English entertainment channels will always remain like sport channels where despite spending a huge amount of money to acquire content, broadcasters find it difficult to make profits,” he said.