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Ajit Thakur

Business Head & Executive Vice President | 06 Aug 2010

We don’t want to be a 15-year old channel and we want to be a 35-minus channel and that is coming across very clearly. We have ‘Indian Idol’ and ‘Boogie Woogie’ in the middle of the day, so we have more youngsters tuning in. We don’t exclude anybody. We will not do an ‘Emotional Atyachaar’, which mothers will not watch. In a single TV country, what a fantastic proposition to have a family coming to, but with a younger skew in terms of the kind of the structure of our shows, the way we market our shows, which differ.

As Business Head & Executive Vice President of Sony Entertainment Television, Ajit Thakur’s mandate is to bring Sony to the No. 1 position, attract the best minds from the industry for various key designations and to penetrate into the rural markets.

With a proven track record and a keen understanding of the media and entertainment business, Thakur joined Sony Entertainment Television from Balaji Motion Pictures Ltd, where he had headed the business as the CEO for a period of one year. He had set up Balaji into a full-fledged movie studio, which today ranks amongst the top 3 movie studios in India. He had worked on the storyline and creative aspect of Balaji’s movie ‘Love, Sex & Dhokha’.

Prior to Balaji, Thakur had spent close to one and a half years with UTV Television, where he was COO. He revived UTV’s production business to its past glory as a top player and made it profitable. This revival was driven by the launch of three mega reality shows on air simultaneously across three networks, which brought in 100 per cent top line profitable growth.

Prior to UTV Television, Thakur had a long standing relationship with Unilever, where he worked with its key home care brand, Snuggle as Global Brand Director in Unilever UK for over one year, spent close to two years as Global Brand Manager for Dove Masterbrand in Unilever USA, and four years as Senior Brand Manager for Kwality Wall’s, Unilever India.

In conversation with Noor Fathima Warsia, Thakur speaks at length about reviving Sony Television, the programming strategy, bagging KBC and more…

Q. This week has been a good week with ‘3 Idiots’ scoring well for the channel. Speaking about the investment, is it true about the Rs 35 crore being quoted for acquiring the movie?

I have no clue… I didn’t buy the film.

Q. So, who bought it?

NP Singh, COO, Sony Television, did! (Laughs)

Q. How has the journey been?

I have finished a year in July. And I have never gone out to meet the media. But now, I want to because when I came in here, we were only 80 GRPs then after the relaunch. Now, we are at 160 GRPs and we are consistently growing in the prime time, and we have built the brand on the things that we have done always differently from others. Now, we want to be on 250. I am not playing a numbers game, although Manjit Singh (CEO, MSM) has gone out and said that in two years Sony would be the No. 1 channel. That’s Manjit’s target to us, but I am not talking about positions. It is very relative. What we will do is consolidate and we target to grow. We have done 100 per cent in a year, the target will be on the 60 per cent, which should not be difficult given the line-up that we have.

Q. What bought you to Sony Television?

Before moving to Sony, people told me it was a great brand but very risky assignment. But for me, leaving London and joining UTV at that time was even more risky. Besides, I wanted to join broadcasting and become a part of this industry as I was passionate about content. Surely, there are a couple of things that are very strong about Sony and a couple of things that are avid.

Q. And what are those strong and avid points?

A couple of things about Sony that I really love are continuity, pioneering and content for the whole family. Content for the family is one of the most important reasons for the things that we have done in terms of getting some of the biggest reality shows; we are the only channel that has thrillers like ‘CID’ and a horror show like ‘Aahat’, which have been running for years. So, in the last one year, we have only continued to push the boundaries. Another example that we have improvised with is ‘Indian Idol’. This show was always aired on weekends, but we moved it to Mondays and Tuesdays because we have a completely different offering to answer.

Q. Please elaborate on how the prime time slot is divided in terms of programming.

We have ‘Baat Hamari Pakki Hai’ in the 8.30 pm time band, followed by ‘Indian Idol’ at 9 pm, then comes ‘Aahat’ at 10.30 pm, followed by ‘Crime Patrol’ at 11.00 pm. All these programmes are different from each other, unlike other channels which air similar content in the 7.30 pm time band onwards. However, since 2000, there was a tide of new trends of shows, for instance, post KBC, every channel had a game show, then came in talent shows like ‘Indian Idol’, and later came in a tide of reality shows like ‘Bigg Boss’. So, now we plan to bring back the genre of family-oriented shows that are interesting, naive and wholesome.

It may be recalled that Sony has always reinforced content that is wholesome and the complete family can watch them. Thus, we decided not to talk in terms of programming, but how we schedule our programmes. However, it seemed a big risk as ‘Indian Idol’ had got good ratings in the weekends, but the idea and the research showed an opportunity of getting the whole family to watch the show in the prime time slot on weekdays. So, ‘Indian Idol’, ‘Boogie Woogie’ and ‘Comedy Circus’ come in at the 9 pm band. The strategy here is that when the whole family is having dinner at 9 pm, Sony Television can give them content that the complete family can watch together. So, we have been the pioneers in getting new formats.

Q. What about the YRF shows? What went wrong according to you?

Even in the case of YRF, it is something new. However, I have learnings from it. When we try doing something different and bold; launching five shows at a time was not the best thing to do. However, these shows did get newer audiences glued to it if we slice the data.

In terms of YRF content, it was very different, spacey and intelligent as well. At the same time, it was very well produced. When it came to selling the content in international market, we sold it to the US, Europe, and Africa, apart from the Middle East. So, we know that the content is in line with the mature markets. Being the first to have picked, we will stay at it, but there will be one change. We will launch each show one at a time. So, before the end of this year, we will launch two new shows from YRF.

Q. Besides being a pioneer and reinforcing the channel to create content that is wholesome to Indian family audience, what are the other various strategies that you are planning to build Sony Television?

The other two things that I would like to add here is ‘entertainment plus’, meaning alongwith the content being entertaining, it should also have something extra to offer. Today, if we look at cinema, it is cracking the boundary – from movies like ‘Tere Bin Laden’ to ‘Wake up Sid’ to ‘Khosla Ka Ghosla’ – these movies have made social statements rather than just providing entertainment. As for television, since it is stuck in an advertisement and TRP-driven world, it isn’t crossing the boundary. I am not saying stop entertainment, but create some plus with entertainment. For instance, we got back ‘Crime Patrol’. So, the third strategy where we are consciously inserting is ‘entertaining plus’ in our content.

The fourth strategy is of having a conscious focus on research, which for us is not limited to just TAM. We all get enough numbers from TAM; research for us is looking forward to something new, which brings in a change. In fact, Star Plus’ new logo is also acknowledging the change of new India. At Sony, we have always seen that and we don’t abandon it. Research is only making us get much sharper insights. I am very happy with the kind of research that we are conducting.

Q. Has Sony hired any agency for research or is it done in-house?

We have hired Ormax Media for our research. The research is not limited to new shows alone, but covers the existing shows on the channel too. For instance, for a particular show, research helps us understand what new trends have been observed amongst the audiences. Thus, between pioneering and creating new differentiated content for a family, entertainment plus and research, we think we will be able to differentiate ourselves a fair bit and thus manage to grow.

Q. Were these four points already in mind when you had started at Sony?

Not the third and the fourth parts. Research is something that I have thought and have been doing more recently. Entertainment plus is something that I have developed here. As for the first two points, Sony has always been a pioneer and is known for its wholesome entertainment. Adding to that, we have a great team in place with Ajay Bhalwankar heading programming, Danish Khan taking charge of marketing and PR. It was just a new direction, a lot more understanding and being aggressive. I think the one thing we lacked was aggression, but now, that too is in place by proving ourselves by bagging ‘KBC’ rights and getting AB back on the show.

Q. However, Sony has a problem with executing their ideas. Ideas have always been there, but the channel has most of the time failed in the execution part and the delivery falls short. Do you agree with this?

I think we have put this view behind. Okay, let me give you a few examples on this. For instance, ‘Indian Idol’, the feedback that we got for the last season was that the show didn’t have enough good singers and also the buzz was not there. So this year, we not only carried out auditions in big cities but also had former Idols visit remote cities to create buzz and get good singers from all walks of life. We also had contestants from different universities to get good singers. And it has paid off brilliantly.

The second show that I am very proud of is ‘Crime Patrol’. ‘Aahat’ is another show where we have scheduled the programme very strategically. These are some of the examples where execution has taken us to the next level. As for YRF, the problem was not with the execution, it was the concept which was ahead of its time. Yes, ‘Maan Rahe Tera Pitaah’ show didn’t work, sometimes it can fail, but that does not mean we will stop doing what we are doing. Execution is no longer an issue. Another example is the film ‘3 Idiots’. The marketing of the film was done on a vast scale and it did pay off.

Q. Previously YRF was on the weekends. Now, do you plan to bring it back on weekends or weekdays?

Weekends.

Q. Currently, for Sony which are the weeklies that are working out well?

For us, all the weeklies are working out. We are the only channel where the weeklies are working, such as ‘CID’, ‘Comedy Circus’ and ‘Aahat’.

Q. It is still a large perception that Sony is a ‘CID’ run channel…

As you mentioned, it’s a large perception, but now Sony has eight programmes that are doing very well. We have ‘Indian Idol’, ‘Boogie Woogie’, ‘Aahat’, ‘Comedy Circus’, ‘Crime Patrol’, ‘CID’, ‘Baat Hamari Pakki Hai’ and ‘Maan Rahe Tera Pitaah’. You don’t want to watch the same things on all the four channels, come to Sony, you can either watch ‘Aahat’ or ‘Indian Idol’ or ‘Crime Patrol’ or ‘Baat Humari Pukki Hai’.

Q. Once upon a time, Sony was seen as a youth channel and now it has this wholesome family proposition, but did it reach that position at all?

That is what I am telling you, we have a queue of 35-minus. We don’t want to be a 15-year old channel and we want to be a 35-minus channel and that is coming across very clearly. We have ‘Indian Idol’ and ‘Boogie Woogie’ in the middle of the day, so we have more youngsters tuning in. We don’t exclude anybody. We will not do an ‘Emotional Atyachaar’, which mothers will not watch. In a single TV country, what a fantastic proposition to have a family coming to, but with a younger skew in terms of the kind of the structure of our shows, the way we market our shows, which differ.

Q. According to you, what have been the learnings from the previous seasons of KBC?

I think KBC-2 should have not been such a long show. KBC runs in 120 countries. It has two versions – first is the Hot Seat, which is a day show, and the classic KBC being a night show. At Sony, we are looking at making a number of changes in the format, making it youthful and fresh, but without losing the essence of the show. The registration process is very different this time around and will have various rounds of elimination to the main rounds for the season. It is going to be a weekday show.

Q. Sony was once on a steady No. 4 position for a while. Has that ever threatened you?

Everybody threatens me.

Q. SAB too?

Absolutely, but I love that channel and I wish the channel to grow. We are the only network which has three channels in the top 10 channels. It doesn’t matter whether one is at the top or lower down the order, everybody threatens you, but in a good way.

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