By September, we could see a steep rise in ad values and volumes: Sunil Lulla

The CEO of BARC India spoke to Dr Annurag Batra, Chairman and Editor-in-Chief, BW Businessworld and exchange4media Group, about a range of issues concerning broadcasters

e4m by exchange4media Staff
Updated: Jul 15, 2020 8:30 AM

There is good news for TV players. July has seen an uptick in ad revenue, and according to Sunil Lulla, CEO, BARC India, the situation is poised to get better in the coming months.
In a candid conversation with Dr Annurag Batra, Chairman and Editor-in-Chief, BW Businessworld and exchange4media Group, Lulla spoke about a range of issues concerning broadcasters. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

What are the key changes in the audience demand and where is the viewership headed?
It was towards the end of January that news about COVID started picking up in India and we saw a change in the direction of audiences. But it was in March that we saw a big change as the nation went into lockdown.
Everybody was confined at home, except for (those involved in) essential services, and that has been the peak of TV viewing. At some places, like Rajasthan, there was a growth of 70 per cent. But across India, there was growth across every single city, town and district. This happened because (during) what we have called non-prime time, which is 6 AM to 6 PM, suddenly we had more people sitting at home watching television. Prime-time original programming dropped off because there were no new shoots.
TV has never seen this growth. But unfortunately, as the TV peak went up, the advertising drop happened in the opposite direction. This was because of the lockdown; supply chains were affected and economies were impacted.
Doordarshan became the number one network after 25 years in this country. Ramayan became the most watched television show in the world. There was growing interest in mythological content and also news. The Prime Minister’s speeches hit a record each time and saw unprecedented viewing. In May, we saw it tapering down a bit. Ad volumes had dropped significantly. But in June, ad volumes had seen a pick. Movie category too had great growth. Viewing has had growth but advertising had suffered. It has proven only one thing that television is the screen of the household.

What are the TV viewing habits that will still remain after we have dealt with this pandemic?
People have sampled new things during this time. A number of channels have enabled themselves as free platforms and they saw big growth in their viewership in those three weeks. Some channels will be continuing with older programmes, but some of them will be coming in with newer cast and stories. The audience may or may not connect back.
Content created on digital space has increased. The programming which was not on TV, this we commonly refer to as OTT, and there is some growth here as well. Consumers will look forward to reconnecting with their shows and their characters.

What are the viewership trends when it comes to millenials?
Not very different from overall audiences. The millennials watch Ramayana, news and TV in non-prime time. A lot of young kids also did a lot of gaming, so there is a big increase in video gaming in smartphones. Given the large volume of content on TV, they will watch it when they are at home. Also, given the price of subscription and large volume of content present on TV, they will watch (TV) when they are at home. When they get out of home, and there is access to doing things that they could do earlier, I think they may not come to TV with the same interest. Now young audiences exist at home and every broadcaster wants to do content to woo them.

Where do you see the OTT market going as it is too cluttered?
We have seen close to 615 TV channels and there are not 615 OTT players in India. Specialization and language differences will fall in place.
An interesting observation is that when some of the OTT shows came on broadcast television, they did not do well at all and the average rating dropped. This is because these shows are designed for individual viewing. TV shows are designed for family viewing. Data is available at a very cheap price in India, so that is what is driving OTT consumption. There is easy access to it and if I miss something I can catch it later on too. Big events and sports drive that. Given the nature of the market and players in India, it is expected to build.

Do you see advertising going up in the month of July?
Yes I certainly do. Advertising volumes dipped in April, May and June on a collective basis. June 2020, January 2020 and June 2019 are identical in volume. The values are not the same. There has been a sharp drop in the value that the broadcaster has earned. Supply chains simply did not exist so no brands could promote themselves. In June there has been a pick up, but on an average base, we are still 100 advertisers short. By September, if supply chain is back and working, we will see a steep rise in ad values and volumes.

How do you see the coming up of digital; is it the death of television or are we just being paranoid?
100 million homes do not have a TV set and that does not mean the death of TV.
TV is a household magnet as it gets the home together and the conversations going. It is not going to go away but there are other options that consumers have today. There is a different kind of content that is present on OTT, which is more individualised and one can experience alone. Subscription-oriented channels are the best way to reward content. Advertising- oriented is going to compete with the mass.

What are your views on content marketing? How does it impact viewership?
Content marketing is of use if it is done well. It can be a direct messaging about a brand or subtle messaging about it. When brands want to engage with consumers today, they build stories around the purpose that the brand stands for. Content marketing will have one engagement and the repeat value may not produce the same impact. Advertising produces impact in repeat value.

What do you have to say to broadcasters who are seriously competing with each in the market? Also, when their ratings and viewership go up and down how do they deal with the pressure?
So in my 35 years of career I used to always say that be loved by your customers. Here I say, let us be universally liked by everybody. There should not be favourites- let us be loved by our stakeholders as they are our currency.
This maniac obsession about ratings needs to be put to pause for a few minutes to understand what I want to say about audiences. How many people came to see that particular show, was it 1 million or 2 million.
A GEC show would look at how do you watch the entire 25 mins or 30 mins, and how many only watch the last 10 ,first 10 or the middle 10 mins, then you can understand the stickiness of your show. Audience engagement really should be the benchmark for every broadcaster. But at the end of the day, what are you monetizing. You are monetizing the audience, the rank obsession and the market share obsession.
So I think this is a good time for everybody to introspect a bit and to really understand what can I do in this hyper competitive market place to market my audiences and channel better, and that is the big difference that has to happen.

Tell us what can help all stakeholders- broadcasters, agency and the client- and what is your advice to them?
What binds them together is the audience. That is often missing in our understanding and in articulation. What am I doing with the audiences? How many people are coming to me everyday? What are the audiences I am gaining from viewer’s time bands or newer age groups is really a vital conversation and how can I keep this going.
The other thing we need to play better is the penetration of television. There has been a lot of turbulence in this phase. People have left home and some of them switched off their subscriptions of cable channels, some places some things are not working as they used to, but this will settle down.
I think the industry needs to focus on penetration of television. That is something that will help to bring economic value again. Looking at content with a magnifying glass, I don’t think the content is getting differentiated enough yet. So I know this much when Mahabharata got announced on Doordarshan in April nobody thought it would do so well, it had two advertisers when it started, it closed with 43 advertisers in those few weeks because it ramped every day.
Everybody in the market misjudged the performance of that show. We need to understand that audiences are actually changing at a fast rate. A number of channels are being watched and in almost every category there are choices in news, entertainment, movies, music, kids and hence they are moving. They are looking for content which is different and brings interest to them. Sometimes I think, networks don’t position themselves as networks. There are many opportunities for us to actually build on and I am very optimistic about television and also about digital and I believe both will grow.

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