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Blockbuster season on small screen

Surajeet Das Gupta and Arti Sharma | August 30, 2003

It was a dream release that money could not have bought. First, there was a splash of publicity when best-selling author Barbara Taylor Bradford sued for plagiarism, forcing the serial off the air but pushing it into the headlines.

Then its lead actress Karisma Kapoor sent fans into a frenzy by announcing her engagement to a Delhi businessman.

If that isn't enough, Sahara Manoranjan -- the Sahara Group's entertainment channel -- is mounting a Rs 15 crore (Rs 150 million) to Rs 20 crore (Rs 200 million) advertising blitzkrieg to aggressively publicise its blockbuster serial.

Karisma Kapoor's face stares at the public in newspaper ads, from hoardings, television and even the Internet. The cast is being taken for a series of launch parties to build excitement to fever pitch.

The hype and the hoopla for Karishma, which went on air this week, isn't without reason. The Sahara Group is almost betting the shop on the Rs 60-crore (Rs 600 million) extravaganza -- the costliest serial ever on Indian television.

It has also announced that it will be roping in Bollywood's best and brightest to fight in the giant small screen battles looming ahead.

Welcome to the world of big- budget mega-serials. Pushed partly by conditional access, which should be launched shortly, and growing competition for viewers and advertisers, television channels are splurging on serials like never before.

The cash is being used to make irresistible offers to popular film stars or just on grand sets and spectacular special effects.

The channels are even spending on big-name directors and to make sure that production is slicker than ever before.

Just flick a remote control switch and savour the action on a clutch of channels. Sahara, for instance, has earmarked a war chest of Rs 250 crore (Rs 2.5 billion) to Rs 300 crore (Rs 3 billion) annually out of which 70 per cent will be spent on star-studded mega-serials. It has already roped in the Big B, Amitabh Bachchan, for an untitled serial to be aired next year.

That's not all. Film star Raveena Tandon will be the leading lady in a serial based on the novel Sahab Biwi Aur Ghulam.

Another yesteryears superstar Sridevi will soon be trying for laughs in a comedy serial Hamari Bahu Malini Iyer that's expected to run for around 230 episodes.

Says an upbeat Sushanto Roy who heads Sahara's media and entertainment business: "Serial budgets have gone up dramatically. Earlier we spent Rs 2 crore (Rs 20 million) to Rs 3 crore (Rs 30 million) on a 100-episode serial. Today, we are spending Rs 60 crore (R 600 million) on 240 episodes of Karishma. That's the difference."

Sahara isn't the only channel thinking big about programming. Sony Entertainment is about to launch Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahin on September 1 and it's hoping the serial will help it to recapture viewers in the 9 pm to 10 pm prime-time slot.

Sony isn't making any compromises on Jassi -- it has spent Rs 1.5 crore (Rs 15 million) on the sets alone. Sony refuses to divulge numbers but it's certain that each episode must have cost over Rs 10 lakh (Rs 1 million).

Says Kunal Das Gupta, CEO, Sony Entertainment Television: "A few years ago you could make a serial for Rs 300,000 an episode. Today a prime-time serial will cost more than Rs 10 lakh."

Switch to Zee, which has spent heavily to promote Jassi. That includes innovative marketing gimmicks: a teaser campaign on TV and print without identifying who will play Jassi. Viewers can also get information about the serial by SMS-ing Sony on their mobile phones.

The channel is also hoping to rope in other silver screen superstars -- including a few who are well past their prime.

Talks are on with Dharmendra to create a serial about his life. It is also talking to Rekha and wants her to act in a semi-autobiographical serial.

Even Star Plus is trying out innovative themes. It was the first channel to throw big money into a serial when it launched a 13-episode action serial, Josh. Industry observers say the budget was around Rs 30 lakh (Rs 3 million) an episode.

Says Tarun Katial, senior vice president, Star TV India: "It really was a huge project for us. It brought in new audiences as far as the male target group was concerned." Katial says Star is constantly scouting for new concepts and is willing to invest in any serial.

Like the other channels, Zee doesn't want to reveal precise figures. But it admits to spending heavily on Awaz Dil se Dil Tak. One expensive moment in the serial was when a small plane is shown crashing into the sea.

Says Apurva Purohit, president, Zee TV: "Our initiative is towards better production quality and newer formats. So Awaz is a different show." Purohit says viewers (60 per cent are women) are constantly demanding something new.

The production companies also don't mind spending. UTV is spending Rs 10 lakh an episode for an animation film Kahin Naak Na Kut Jaye, slated to be one of the most expensive of its kind.

Says UTV CEO Ronnie Screwvala: "The USP of the programme is that it is for prime-time viewing, it is meant for adults, kids and teenagers and we have used 2D and flash animation technology to produce it."

Why are channels rushing to make mega-serials? Says Rajesh Pavithran, CEO, Balaji Telefilms: "Big budgets, by giving the show a different look and treatment, can make all the difference in a crowded market."

That's perhaps the strongest reason why Sahara is courting the movie world. Sahara Manoranjan is far behind Star Plus, Sony or Zee, so it needs to make ripples to catch up. But, says Roy: "Our target is to become number two through these serials by 2004."

The channels believe a blockbuster serial can keep the cash registers ringing for months if not years.

Sahara hopes it can command higher ad rates by leveraging Karishma: earlier prime-time rates were a mere Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000 for a ten second spot.

But for Karishma the channel is asking for Rs 70,000 a spot (industry experts say the rack rate is only Rs 50,000). Roy says that it has already booked the entire ad space for the first 13 episodes.

Sahara has also forayed into Bollywood territory in other ways. It wants to leverage its movie business for the small screen.

It is producing seven to eight films with budgets ranging from Rs 2.5 crore (Rs 25 million) to Rs 7 crore (Rs 70 million), with well-known directors and actors like Sunny Deol and Jackie Shroff.

After being launched in cinema halls for one or two months these movies will then be serialised into a 5-episode series on Sahara TV exclusively. That's another way to be different from the other channels.

Sony TV is also trying to cut the clutter. The company believes that Jassi will help them regain the top slot during the 9 pm to 10 pm slot -- which they had lost four months ago.

Says Sunil Lulla, executive vice president, Sony Entertaiment Television: "We have a gap in the 9.30 slot. But with Jassi we expect our gross rating points in the prime-time slot to climb by at least one-and-a-half times".

Can the channels cash in on the mega-serials? Sony is offering ad time on Jassi at over Rs 200,000 for a spot and has already roped in two sponsors, including Paras Pharmaceuticals, for the serial.

Media planners are optimistic about the new trend and they say that advertisers are being wooed in the run-up to Diwali.

Says Gopinath Menon, vice president, TBWA Anthem: "All big advertisers went berserk during the 47 days of the World Cup. So there is less money left and hence the wooing from the networks through big budget serials."

Are the channels spending big bucks because they are worried about conditional access system? That does seem extremely likely. Viewers will have to pay for these channels in a few month's time, and the theory is that a few big budget serials will make all the difference.

Says Zarina Mehta, creative director, UTV: "The trend towards big budgets has to do with CAS looming large as quality of programming will be the key differentiator."

But are advertisers racing to put money in the big serials? The jury is deeply divided. Says R L Ravichandran, vice president marketing of Bajaj Auto, one of the key sponsors of Karishma: "Their rates are very cheap, so when we look at cost per reach per thousand it is effective. Added to that is the star value of Karisma Kapoor."

Hyundai Motors also believes that it's worth advertising on mega-serials. Hyundai tied up with Star Plus on Josh.

Says Sanjiv Shukla, manager, marketing, Hyundai Motors: "Josh was the first action serial and it fitted with the image of the Terracan which we were launching."

Shukla also points out that the programme was directed towards the same audience, which buys cars: the male in SEC A and B household above the age of 25.

But everyone is not convinced that big budgets and mega serials ensure success. After all, Josh did not get the hot TRP ratings that advertisers hoped for.

Argues Zee's Purohit: "There is no link between big budgets and the success of the show. TVC rates depend on cost of production, viewership, TRP ratings and the demand and supply situation. The market will only pay for viewership."

Others say that stars will only pull viewers initially. Points out Screwvala: "It will definitely have a pull factor initially, but on a sustained basis the USP will wear out and then the cost becomes a burden without an upside".

Adds a telecom company marketing head: "Our approach is to wait and watch as we doubt whether Sahara can give us a sustained viewership in primetime."

There's no doubt that the small screen fight is about to touch new heights. The question is whether audiences will tune in or tune out.

Big budgets are one part of the game, but in the end analysis the viewer has a finger on the remote control, and no amount of cash can change that fact.

Maverick moves

Sushanto Roy isn't short on ambition -- and the money to back it. He has only taken charge recently but he's already talking about turning Sahara's fledgling media and entertainment business into the largest in the country.

It will be a gigantic challenge for Sushanto, the youthful son of Sahara Group founder Subroto Roy. In the next few months the Lucknow-based group will take on the TV industry's giants by launching a clutch of six new regional channels.

That'll include one each for the National Capital Region, Mumbai, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan. Sahara has already launched its channel in Uttar Pradesh.

Sahara is also adventurously tuning in to the satellite radio business and tying-up with World Space, the satellite radio system. The aim is to have three radio channels -- for news, music and for the group's internal communications.

Sahara has already made its presence felt in print and its publications have a combined circulation of 250,000 copies daily. The group may also hit the high notes in the audio- cassette business.

Sushanto is unabashed about his goals. "Our aim is clear. We want to become the country's largest media and entertainment house by 2005."

Is that a fanciful target? It's tough to tell. That's partly because Sahara is notoriously secretive about its own revenues.

Also, to reach the top slot it must overtake some powerful rivals. Bennett Coleman, the country's largest media conglomerate, has a Rs 1,500 crore (Rs 15 billion) turnover.

Nevertheless, nobody is writing off the Sahara's small screen challenge. The group is spending between Rs 150 crore (Rs 1.5 billion) and Rs 180 crore (Rs 1.8 billion) on common infrastructure for the channels. Sahara executives say their television business alone will be worth around Rs 200 crore (Rs 2 billion) in a few years.

Says Roy: "We expect 70 per cent of advertising revenue to come from local retailers and regional companies and the rest from national advertisers."

Sahara has also tied up with Western Railways and will offer piped music from its satellite radio stations on Mumbai's local trains. It believes advertisers will pay to reach the 3 million people who travel by train daily.

Rivals are sceptical about Sahara's giant gamble. Says an executive at a rival channel: "To get local advertisers you need a huge sales force and that costs money. Plus experience shows that Indian retailers aren't even putting ads on radio. It will be an uphill task."

Anyone about to write off the Sahara challenge should take a look at the airline industry. Sahara may still be number three but it has moved aggressively, cutting prices to win customers.

Can Sushanto Roy repeat the story in the media and entertainment business? He is certainly promising that it will be an entertaining battle.

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