Ajay Chacko, President, A+E Networks| TV 18, talks of his unusual approach to content and programming for the newly launched History channel.
In the last few years, infotainment has metamorphosed into ‘factual entertainment’, not just in name, but in the real sense. This has attracted many broadcasters to the genre, the size of which is estimated to be around Rs 250 crore. Industry experts believe that this genre will continue to grow at a steady rate of 30-35 per cent, though it continues to face the challenge of undermonetization. The latest channel to jump into the bandwagon is History, a product of the JV between TV18 and A+E Networks in India, called AETN 18 Media.
In an exclusive conversation with IMPACT, Ajay Chacko, President, A+E Networks| TV 18, says he banks heavily on his inverted approach to history and is confident about presenting international content in such a manner as to sweep small town Indian audiences along with creating a strong appeal for people in the metros. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
You recently stated that you are looking at History ‘differently’, not from the sense of achievement. Can you give us a sense of your perspective, ‘History made every day’?
Worldwide, factual entertainment is the term that has replaced infotainment. Around eight years back, even players like Discovery tried to get into a very clear pocket of defining entertainment or information. Earlier, the theory was to differentiate between information, news and entertainment. Globally, fictionbased entertainment peaked in the 80s and 90s, especially in the US. In every market, there is a peak after which there is a plateau following which there is a decline and finally, alternative formats emerge. When the plateau was happening, infotainment rediscovered itself as factual entertainment. People then started using factual entertainment from the entertainment point of view, and these were not just people who loved wildlife, or liked history for history’s sake. The whole premise of History is inverted in that sense. It is about good entertainment, which is the premise of the channel. That is the reason why it is ‘History, Made Every Day’.
History is supposed to be ‘factual entertainment’, as opposed to infotainment. How would you explain the difference? How exactly will the content format be differentiated from channels like National Geographic, Discovery, etc in the infotainment genre? They too have reality-based shows.
If you look at the infotainment bucket, we have very different shows. For instance, one popular format in the factual entertainment genre is wildlife. Even wildlife shows are different here. For example, there is a show called Swamp People, which takes you back into history to a community called the Cajuns. It is a swamp in Louisiana. People have been living there for 300 to 400 years. It’s a community that hunts crocodiles for a living. We have mounted cameras on the people there and trailed them for a month-and-a-half in the season of hunting. The show is about who gets to catch more crocodiles. The drama is about the swamp, dramatic imagery and challenges they face in catching crocodiles with their bare hands. That is how we are treating wildlife. It is something which you will not see usually on other channels. Otherwise, it would have been one more Discovery or National Geography channel. Infotainment should become factual entertainment, which is relatively mainstream. I am not saying that the current 1.5 per cent market-share of factual entertainment should become 20 per cent, but it should go to 3 or 4 per cent. Worldwide, it has become a mainstream alternative. In some markets like the US, it is 12 to 14 per cent, whereas GECs have about 18 to 20 per cent. We expect that to happen in India too, but in the long term.
What is the USP of History? What will it have that other channels in the same space don’t, to be a unique proposition for viewers?
Shows on History are very different from shows of other channels in this genre. There is a spin in the content. The history we show is not how historians see it. Everyday history is also history for us. There is a fun element for people, but it means that the premise is based on history. For us, today’s achievement is not less of an achievement than what happened 200 years ago. That’s how we look at history. On the competitive side, this genre will now see some more action. The competitive response is to create more excitement in programming and marketing.
What is the programming mix like – how much of it is local content created in India and how much of it is dubbed?
Firstly, the idea behind the channel is not to differentiate between Indian and international shows. About 60 to 70 per cent of content is locally relevant, because international information with local relevance matters. Secondly, we should have universal themes which should be understandable by everybody. Some locations are India-specific. Many shows have India-specific challenges, locations, people, etc. Thirdly, the local content that we are mounting may not fill in X percentage of the hours, but from perception of a channel imagery point of view, or from a viewership driver point, it will work well.
You are in talks with local production houses and format owners for content creation and production. Is it only for local content, to be telecast in India? Or will the shows go worldwide? What kind of research activities are you undertaking at the initial stage?
A&E has a huge research back-up. Historians do a lot of research. It also has a huge programming team which is taking facts and inverting it. The teams are also exploring the possibility of making content entertaining. Inspirations come from different sources, but the factual bit usually comes from the local historians. We have a doctorate-holder historian who is driving a lot of History outreach initiatives. There are full-fledged traditional historians and other teams as well. We have a similar approach for local shows. If we have to produce local shows, we have to make sure that it is of the same scale, same production value, same amount of time and energy invested.
How important is local/regional history to the channel?
An important thing we realised during our research is that 65 per cent of the country is under 30 years of age. For most people, history is 1991. Not before that. So, most of the people across India don’t associate history as it is known to historians in India. Even if we are producing local content, it is not going be for people like Ramchandra Guha, though he is a great historian. But we are not targeting that generation.
You have reality format shows like Weapons of Different Ages and Ice Road Truckers. Could you elaborate on programming and other shows?
There are two big formats we are working on. The work is already in a fairly advanced stage. We have Top Shots, about 16 best shooters of the world coming and shooting different targets and challenges. In Ice Road Truckers, history is narrated through the story. The challenge is to see these foreign truck drivers driving Tata trucks. Some serious content like documentaries is also a part of the plan. But the way it is treated is different. For instance, there is a show called 102 minutes that changed America. It’s about the 9/11 attacks. There are many 9/11 shows, but this one is actually the top show on US cable and received a lot of awards, because there is a spin. The whole show is constructed out of 102 minutes of amateur footage collected from people who were around the World Trade Centre or people who were talking to relatives or friends who were inside the WTC. Even a serious incident is given a slightly edgy treatment.
Your target is 50 million households in India, which goes beyond the six metro cities. What are the distribution and programming plans to achieve this target and what is the time-frame you have envisaged?
We are already available today in 46 million households including DTH platforms. History is probably the largest player in the genre right now. We plan to make it grow more. Non-TAM households, rural populations also have to be covered sooner or later. But as of now, we have covered class-C towns fully. Our research shows that the Ctown and semi- urban towns are very enthusiastic about the genre. We have met the target and reached 46 million households after working on it for the last few months.
During the launch, you asserted that we associate a lot of baggage with the word ‘history’ and we have to try and break the mould through marketing initiatives. What are your marketing initiatives? How do you plan to wean viewers from other channels to History?
Portraying Salman Khan as the face of the channel is the hammer that we are using. There are a couple of interesting core ground level initiatives as well. We have already tied up with the Central Board of School Education (CBSE) for a huge exercise around 11,000 schools in India. Because CBSE is a government body, the activity is collaborative and attempts make a subject like history come alive. Once the CBSE adopts it, we expect other progressive boards also to take it faster. On the conservation side, we are also trying to replicate the same thing with ASI and UNICEF India. These are slightly serious activities. Apart from this, we have undertaken a 360-degree approach to target audiences. We have utilized almost all platforms for campaigns.
What is the logic behind choosing Salman Khan to be the brand ambassador of the channel? Does he not signify Bollywood, an entirely different genre?
When we talk about Salman as the face of the channel, it is not a Bollywood issue at all. Our marketing strategy of bringing Salman into the picture has nothing to do with Bollywood. If it was a Bollywood star issue, then I would have called Aamir Khan, because he appears more ‘logical’ in some ways. But we brought Salman very consciously because we realized that it will cut across to people who are skeptical about this intelligent-sounding stuff. History has a baggage. When one says history, perhaps you think of Ramchandra Guha, a one thousand pages book or history books with lots of dates and people. Salman blew this thinking completely off and let people think that this form of history is going to be fun as well. After the launch campaigns, Salman will move into programming promotion, but whether he will be a part of core programming or not cannot be disclosed right now.
Coming to the media campaign, you started the campaign from the digital platform. You then went to TV and other mediums. How are the campaigns strategised?
The big thing we have tried to do with these campaigns is to get viewers from all genres into it. If you see the media plan, it is spread across all kinds of channels including GECs. It is spread across Hindi movies, regional channels. It is also spread widely across digital media like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The objective is to make the genre grow. It is already growing, but the base is small. The idea is to expand the base. In the process, you may get some viewers from Discovery who will start consuming more, but that’s not the objective. The objective is to get more viewers from different places and revive interest in the genre. One doesn’t go to watch factual entertainment. You stumble upon it. When you look at it, you say fine, let me watch if for some time. Our objective is to try and tell people to watch it consciously as well.
What is the marketing spend like? Could you share figures? What share of the total revenue do you plan to allocate to advertising on a yearly basis?
It is in the range of Rs 8 to 10 crore. As a percentage of our overall marketing spends, the launch advertising is around 60 to 65 per cent because we are using a hammer and it is a very conscious hammer.
Where do you position the factual entertainment genre in the game of news and entertainment genres in terms of garnering ad revenue?
We are lucky enough to understand advertisers in various genres. In the print media, there’s very cheap or very expensive print available. Today, 30 to 40 million households will mean 120 million people, which is not a bad number to reach out to for the price you are getting currently. We see this mid- tier which is between news and entertainment. News is not such an all-encompassing thing. We see it placed somewhere between the influence/perception channels and somewhere between the pure GRP delivery channels which are reach- based. While GECs cater to the lowest common denominator, factual entertainment with its right acts can cater to the India you know right now, which is 250 to 300 million people constituting the middle class.
What are your plans going forward?
Of the plans that I can disclose, increasing the quality of local content is big. However, it has to be of a scale that can be incorporated into the global system. Monetising with the right price is also on the cards.