Is COVID-19 the litmus test for English entertainment channels?

Industry experts believe post COVID-19 the genre can sustain on the back of original content, innovative formats and more Indianized programmes with focus on Metros

e4m by Sonam Saini
Updated: Jun 15, 2020 12:18 PM

While COVID-19 has brought in a spike in OTT viewership, it has turned out to be a challenge for English entertainment channels. The extensive OTT library of content across genres and languages seems to have led international content TV viewers to switch sides or at least weigh the options.  

Sony Pictures Networks India recently announced that it was discontinuing its English general entertainment channel (GEC) AXN and AXN HD.

Unlike the Hindi GEC or regional GEC category, which caters to large audiences, English GEC rather has a small set of premium audience. And with the shift of this section of viewers from TV to Digital, first because of the NTO regime and now the COVID-19 induced conditions the road ahead for English GECs has proved to be trickier.

Industry experts say while there are multiple factors that has put the category under pressure competition from digital platforms could be the main reason. 

Divya Karani, CEO, dentsu X India explained that the category has been under tremendous pressure for the past one or two years on account of losing its audience to OTT platforms. “Content consumption behaviour has changed. With the evolution of OTT, content now is available as per the convenience of audiences. The availability of OTT on smartphones gives the flexibility of watching time and does not restrict viewers from a single TV household to wait for the TV remote. The ad free atmosphere on OTT gives an added advantage.”

Meanwhile, the English entertainment channels are not just losing out on audience but on advertisers’ interest too. Since the category caters to a small set of audience planners believe it can be reached out through other platforms to, say industry players. 

H Vishwanath, Managing Partner, Mediacom, shares that COVID-19 could be a larger reason now but English GEC has been in trouble even two years ago. However, these channels do have a couple of good shows but at the end of the day those TV dramas cater to a very small set of audience. "India is the country where most of the time we are trying to reach lakhs of people and we come to television as a medium to get reach and awareness. I'm not really surprised that channels have fallen off the radar of media planners and clients. When times are good it really doesn't matter, clients can always buy multiple channels in the category but today it's like money for jam. Every marketeer is trying to get the best out of what one can get,” Vishwanath explained. 

He further shared that the English entertainment took a hit two years ago when consumers started shifting to digital. Even today, they have varied options to watch English content on any of the OTT platforms. “I won't say that all of them will go away but they will have a tough time. It's a vicious circle, they need to invest in content to get some business."

The broadcast industry was hit by TRAI’s new tariff regime last year and the English GEC negatively impacted along with some other genres. According to the FICCI EY Media and Entertainment report 2019, English Entertainment’s advertising volume dropped by 50% with the assumption being that English and lifestyle audiences moved away to relatively more affordable OTT products.

According to Karani, “Post NTO, the genre has seen a decline of almost 70% in viewership. This has resulted in the genre going to the bottom in the preference list of an advertiser. Having said that, original content like Masterchef Australia, Koffee with Karan or Game of Thrones (GOT) make advertisers keen to ride that bandwagon.”

Sharing similar thoughts was Girish Menon, Partner and Head, Media and Entertainment, KPMG in India. “The implementation of the NTO has been challenging for the English channels with reach and market share of the genre shrinking due to a drop in uptake. The situation has also prompted some broadcasters to rethink their strategy for English Entertainment.”  

However, Menon said the lockdown phase did bring some eyeballs to these channels. “During the lockdown, the viewership of the English Entertainment cluster expanded by as much as 34% (based on BARC data for Week 20 vs Week 2) with Non-Prime Time viewership contributing majorly to this growth.”

But, he also cautioned that while the scarcity of other entertainment options in the near term is likely to help these channels sustain eyeballs, it may not translate into a corresponding increase in revenues for the broadcasters. “Also, post-normalization of the COVID situation, other avenues for entertainment may open up especially outdoor entertainment and coupled with continued competition from digital OTT video, which has also gained significant traction during lockdown, we may potentially see the English entertainment genre dropping down to pre-COVID levels in terms of viewership and face significant challenges in terms of remaining relevant.”

On possible ways to bounce back or at least stay afloat, Karani said, “The genre can sustain on the back of original content which is non-duplicated on OTT or with a TV-first approach. The genre should also consider bringing more Indianized content with focus on Metros.”

Currently, there are 11 English entertainment channels in India including AXN and AXN HD, which are set to go off air from July. The rest includes Colors Infinity, Colors Infinity HD and Comedy Central and Comedy Central HD from the Viacom18 umbrella; Star World, Star World HD and Star World Premiere HD from Star India; and Zee Cafe and Zee Cafe HD from Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd (ZEEL). 

Shekhar Banerjee, Chief Client Officer, West-Head, Wavemaker India, says: "The English GEC genre is under tremendous pressure from digital content producers and SVOD players for some good time now. Even during the lockdown while we have seen English movies and infotainment gain significantly, we have not seen similar trends in the English GEC. In comparison, global OTT players with rich English content have gain massively. With increasing play of global content and same time release on SVOD, the genre on TV needs to rediscover, even evaluate exclusive rights and original content. The question is can they invest so much?"

Sharing the bright side of it, Kartik Mahadev, Business Head, premium channels, ZEEL says: “At a macro level, interest in English content is seeing a steady increase. This can be attributed to growth in English education and English-speaking audience leading to content adoption as part of their consumption repertoire. For the three years pre-NTO, viewership on English GEC genre has grown by almost 250 per cent, as per BARC India data. The changing viewer behaviour and content choices are fuelling a transition within the category. For instance, the viewer behaviour today is to binge-watch their favourite shows and vocalize their preferences, adding to digital chatter in a seamless manner.”

Zee Café introduced binge-watching as a format as early as 2015 with Season 3 of ‘House Of Cards’. Subsequently, it offered binge as format with some of their marquee properties such as ‘BBC First’ and ‘Breakfast To Bed Binge’.

Mahadev further added, “When it comes to OTT, content discovery is and will continue to pose a challenge to viewers looking to unwind with quality content. A typical viewer ends up surfing endlessly to explore content that best suits their tastes. This is where television channels that understand their consumer and curate well, delight the viewers. Curated content on television makes for effortless viewing. Thus, we don’t expect to be impacted significantly in the near future. As of now they exist, and we exist, and they are not making so much of a dent on TV viewership.”

Another broadcaster who wished to remain anonymous said the assumption is that the audience for TV and OTT is similar but on OTT a majority of such premium content is behind the paywall with no access to advertisers too. “Even if they're watching, what does that have to do with the advertiser? Advertisers have a very good option still on television through these English medium channels. But the way agencies are planning their budgets English Entertainment channels are not in their priority nor do they advise their advertisers or clients. The current situation is understandable as they are trying to put the money looking at maximum ROI.” 

On the challenges that the category is facing, Mahadev said: “The challenge we face is finding creative and innovative solutions that deliver value to both the consumer and the customer. Now with the choice of platforms and content increasing, we as broadcasters need to be even more choiceful of the content we pick, tailored to evolving consumer preferences. Our customers benefit from the association with premium international content that they are not able to directly associate with on digital due to restrictions behind paywalls. We need to deliver solutions that provide value to our customers through synergies of the premium subscriber base and premium, exclusive content, and together with our partners.” 

The biggest driver of growth for the English genre is creativity and innovation, Mahadev points out. “In the long run, regional markets will undoubtedly lead growth for English entertainment. There is a whole set of audience moving from regional to English content as they become more comfortable with English as a professional and conversational language.”

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