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Why isn't Disney succeeding in India?
Aparna Krishnakumar
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August 17, 2005

One is the new kid on the block, struggling for acceptance even as the neighbourhood children line themselves up with the established leaders. The other is an old hand, trying to reinvent itself.

But now it's confirmed that earlier gameplan hasn't worked.

In Disney and Star Gold's differences lies the similarity. Neither television channel is priority viewing for its target audience, and both are pulling out the stops trying to change that.

Disney's two 24-hour channels in India, Disney Channel and Toon Disney, are just eight months old, but Cartoon Network and its cousin Pogo are the pashas of the playground groups.

And while Star Gold's been beaming into Indian households since 2000, it's still losing the battle of the remote to Zee Cinema and Set Max.

Can Disney persuade its pint-sized viewers to stop spinning their Beyblades and switch to Kim Possible's secret codes? And will recent releases like Swades and Paheli achieve for Star Gold what the golden oldies couldn't?

All that glitters

"Apni Tuning Jamegi" boasted the campaign for Star Television's new urban-centric entertainment channel, Star One, in end-2004. Unfortunately, Star Network can't say the same about its movie channel, Star Gold, which has been in need of constant fine-tuning since its 2000 launch.

Five years on, Star Gold is not exactly the gold standard among Hindi movie channels. According to data by TAM media research, in 2005, the channel share of Star Gold in the north and west markets (east and south are predominantly regional movie markets) is 24 per cent, while Zee Cinema nearly twice the size at 45 per cent; Set Max has a 31 per cent share.

A large part of the reason is the way Star Gold began its journey. In 2000, when channels like Sony, Zee and even Star Plus were elbowing each other to telecast the newest Bollywood movie first, Star Gold decided to be different.

It decided to offer old classics, going back to the days of Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt. Inspired by American popular channel, Turner Classic Movies, Star Gold was targeting a mature audience -- viewers in the 50-plus age bracket.

Just a year later, Star Gold realised the picture needed adjusting. Advertisers hadn't proved too keen in investing heavily in a niche channel that appealed to the older generation, especially in a market where roughly 40 per cent of the population is below 35 (source: NRS 2004). "It works only when the revenue model is subscription-based," admits a TV channel executive.

Besides, research had shown that in most households, the younger generation decides what the family will watch -- and that doesn't include black & white movies. So Gold fast-forwarded to movies from the 1970s and 1980s. Another year on, it was on to even newer Bollywood releases and even some dubbed foreign flicks. At present, just 5 per cent of the programme list of Star Gold (it shows 30-35 movies every week) is made up of the original oldies.

How did that come about? "Surveys pointed to the need to move away from the dated look and feel," says a Star TV executive. Media planners add that the classic positioning was restrictive -- it appealed to an older set and very few brands and companies that advertise on television target this age group.

"Although there is viewership for classic movie titles, that kind of viewership is sporadic," says Navin Kathuria, media group head, R K Swamy BBDO.

That's because television viewing in India is still a mainly family affair: less than 5 per cent of TV-viewing households own more than one TV set; up from 2-3 per cent in 2001. So niche channels don't draw the eyeballs they should.

Which meant that the movie channel would never be seriously considered for launching an ad campaign even during prime time, unlike, say, a sports channel that will get campaigns during tournaments and sports series.

The changing character of Star Gold's target audience also came into play; typically, older people no longer want to be seen doing "old" things. As Sai Nagesh, executive vice president, Insight (the media division Lintas Media Group) says, "Today, the old want to remain young forever. Youthfulness, modernity and urban are cues that everyone is looking forward to."

Zee Cinema and Set Max already have a headstart in that area. Launched in 1995, Zee was the first movie channel on cable networks; even Set Max came on only in 1999.

By the time Star Gold came into the picture a year later, Zee and Set Max had already built up considerable libraries of newer releases; they continued adding to that easily, since Gold was focusing on the oldies. At present, of course, new movie acquisitions are split equally between the three channels.

Meanwhile, Zee and Set Max had also realised early on the need to build off-air brand visibility. While Zee launched the Zee Cinema Awards in 1996 and has kept excitement levels high with frequent event launches, Set Max opted for an interesting amalgam of two abiding passions of Indians everywhere: Bollywood and cricket.

It's stuck to that line of communication -- including several, related on-ground promotions such as  Mandira and Kapil Dev aapke ghar  and the huge Deewana bana de campaign -- pretty successfully for a few years now.

Gold was a little slow in upping the ante on promotions. Apart from a few on-air promos on other Star channels, the movie channel didn't really focus on events until 2003, when it launched the annual Sabsey favourite kaun contest, which invited viewers to vote for their favourite actor.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for Star Gold is its lack of identity -- the channel continues to be seen by media planners and advertisers as one more in the Star bouquet. Ad rates on Set Max and Zee Cinema, too, are higher than for Star Gold. It hasn't helped that until now, Star's strategy for new movie releases has been secondhand.

While Zee and Set Max premiered two or three blockbusters each on their movie channels first even last year (although the trend is to use the family channel as launchpad), Star continued to debut new movies on Star Plus, and then replay them on Gold.

The return of Kaun Banega Crorepati on Star Plus helped usher in some much-needed changes. The weekend prime time slots are now devoted to KBC 2, so Star is pushing all its movies to Gold.

Accordingly, Gold has a new logo, a new look and even a new lineup of films. The channel has spent more than Rs 24 crore (Rs 240 million), shopping for the latest releases, including Viruddh, Paheli and Black. Two days ago, the Shahrukh Khan-starrer Swades was the first movie to be premiered on Star Gold first. Is this the beginning of a gold rush?

For toonagers only

Two weeks ago, Disney Channel unveiled its first mega-promotion in India to drive sampling and loyalty on the 5:30 (children's prime time) slot. The company distributed 2.2 million paper goggles through schools and with Dabur [Get Quote] Real juice packs.

By wearing these red-tinted goggles, kids can decipher codes in the new cartoon serial Kim Possiblem and win prizes ranging from gaming mobile phones to a laptop. There's a new code everyday, so excitement levels will remain continuously high.

At least, that's what Disney hopes. And is achieving too, if initial reports are to be believed: the channel claims to have received more than 150,000 responses in the first five days of the promotion itself.

What is interesting about this promotion is that Disney is doing it alone -- banking on the popularity of Kim Possible, a relatively unknown cartoon character in India, rather than Disney's ever-popular Mickey and Friends. Question Disney executives and they say new characters like Kim project a contemporary face for the channel and show that Disney Studios has much more to offer than just kiddie fare.

That's important, given that Indian children have been weaned from preschooler toons to more complex cartoons like Pok�mon, Transformers Armada and more recently, Beyblade. All of which appear on Cartoon Network, which accounts for an overwhelming 72 out of the top 100 programmes for children.

Disney clearly has a lot of catching up to do. The Turner network's Cartoon Network started beaming in India in 1995, while others like Viacom Media's Nickelodeon, Sony's Animax and the home-bred UTV's Hungama have all pitched tents in the past 18 months.

"The other channels are far ahead," remarks Pankaj Wadhwa, managing director of Kidstuff Promos and Events, which organises live programmes for most of the children's TV channels.

But Disney doesn't seem overly worried by its late entry. "We need not be the first to be a leader. We just need to recognise our strengths and brand positioning and be true to that," emphasises Rajat Jain, managing director, The Walt Disney Company (India). To achieve that, the channel is working overtime to make its presence felt among 4- to 14-year-olds, its target audience.

For the first time, the Walt Disney network entered a new market with channels simultaneously -- Toon Disney, an animation-only channel that telecasts newer programming as well as the classic Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck shows, and Disney Channel, which offers a mixed bag of playschool educational blocks, movies, live action and animation.

With two windows to enter Indian homes, Disney is also consciously going desi. It began its India journey with the screening of The Jungle Book, the classic animated version of Rudyard Kipling's book. Then it launched Toon Disney in Tamil and Telugu versions, apart from the original English. The other cartoon channels launched Hindi and English versions, but Jain defends the southern bias.

According to the National Readership Survey 2005, of the 60 million homes that have access to cable and satellite television, 21 million are from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. That said, Jain concedes the need for a Hindi version.

"Unless you are a Hindi channel you will never be recognised as a mass channel in India," he accepts. Which is why Toon Disney also has a Hindi feed now, and Disney Channel is all Hindi.

The competition for kid viewers isn't child's play. Kidstuff's Wadhwa points out that all children's channels are taking the battle out of television screens and into the playground -- they're screening shows in schools and holding on-ground events. But Turner International India Managing Director Anshuman Misra believes it will be a while before others catch up Cartoon Network and Pogo.

"We have created the kids' segment and grown it for the past nine years. More players will only expand this category," he says confidently.

But Disney does have some inherent advantages while beaming to Indian homes. A well recognised brandname, a mascot that's known to generations and over 80,000 hours of programming available from the Disney archives (India needs just 4,000 hours every year). The 2004 annual report of Disney Inc indicates that television is just the beginning of a long innings in India -- there may yet be room for apparel, toys, merchandise and perhaps even theme parks. Will the mouse roar?

Quickbite Toystory

Three years ago, Premson, an upscale department store in south Mumbai, ordered 2,000 pieces of merchandise based on Beyblade. The animation series had toystores abroad reeling with demands for the spinning toy based on it. But Premsons didn't sell even one of the 2,000 pieces.

In May 2005, Cartoon Network premiered the Beyblade series in India. Over the past 25 days, Premsons claims to have sold -- wait for this -- 85,000 pieces of Beyblade merchandise. Each top costs between Rs 199 and Rs 799.

Merchandise based on cartoon characters is a significant revenue driver for children's TV channels. Last year, Disney consumer products contributed $ 2.5 billion in revenues internationally. In India, Disney claims to have issued 50 licences for consumer products based on its cartoon characters.

In January 2005, Hit Entertainment announced its Indian merchandising entry with its flagship property, Bob the Builder. The company tied up with the Delhi-based Licensing Plus to launch board games, puzzles, tableware, clothing and stationery based on the pre-schoolers' animation programme.

And last year, Mattel Toys (India) introduced He-Man and related products across India, coinciding with the launch of the He-Man & The Masters of the Universe animated series on Cartoon Network.

Similarly, Nick India has tied up with Bombay Dyeing [Get Quote] for a range of bedlinen based on its two most popular shows, SpongeBob SquarePants and Blue's Clues.

Additional reporting by Gouri Shukla and Prasad Sangameshwaran

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