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English language channels turn platform-agnostic as TV viewership falls

English language channels that saw their viewership plummet by 28% in 2020, are now looking at a digital-first strategy that will complement their television programming. Cross-pollination between the two platforms is the only way to go with web originals later making their way to TV, as target audiences move online.

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The premium proposition of infotainment, lifestyle and English entertainment remains but the double whammy of the new tariff order by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India in 2018 (that mandated unbundling of channels), and the covid-19 lockdown has resulted in advertising revenue contracting to only a sixth of what it was before the outbreak of the pandemic.

Last year, Sony Pictures Networks India had discontinued AXN and AXN HD channels across India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh while WarnerMedia International announced the shutdown of the HBO SD (standard definition) and HD (high definition) linear movie channels in India and Pakistan.

“The new normal dictates that this isn’t an ‘either-or’ situation but an ‘and’ world where cross-pollination between television and digital will be the future,” said Megha Tata, managing director, South Asia, Discovery, Inc.

The company that has scaled the game on originals for its streaming platform discovery+, is focusing on digital while maintaining a balance with TV which it believes will continue to have a strong growth story in India for the next few years, Tata said.

discovery+, that recently announced a partnership with Reliance Jio to stream on its JioFiber set top boxes, is rapidly expanding its library and has also launched a children’s genre that just premiered a film Kaal Ki Shatir Chaal on OTT.

Niche genres like infotainment, lifestyle and English entertainment have always been dependent on stray viewers or large premieres of key properties such as Koffee With Karan on Star World that would bring flirtatious audiences into its fold too, Kishan Kumar, vice-president at media agency Wavemaker said.

“Those have stopped completely and these channels do not have enough revenue to invest in new local or foreign content,” Kumar said, adding that it is only a matter of time before broadcasters shift to digital platforms completely with brands and advertisers also following for sponsored content.

According to TAM AdEx data, ad volumes for English entertainment have dropped by 36% compared to pre-covid and by 44% per day compared to the festive period last year.

“It (English entertainment/lifestyle/infotainment) will shift to digital via OTT and connected TV. Broadcasters need to be geared for that. It is a choice made due to the sheer ease of viewing. It also means that the future is all about personal engagement, personal space, and personal choice,” agreed Sujata Dwibedy, group trading director, Amplifi India, dentsu. “True good content with good hype and buzz would attract audiences on all platforms. This could even mean getting old classics and extremely popular content back, in addition to getting fresh compelling content,” she added.

Yet others still believe in TV. “The key is curation of content on television that lends to co-viewing, making TV a great community experience for family and friends, which could emerge as the big differentiator,” said Kartik Mahadev, business head, premium channels, ZEEL (Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd). Last October, &flix, the company’s English movie channel premiered a slate of Hollywood movies dubbed in Indian languages, which were screened across the network’s channels including &PrivéHD, Zee Café, &Pictures and a clutch of its regional language film channels.

The English entertainment channels owned by the Times Network including Movies NOW, MNX and Romedy NOW, had also introduced movie line-ups for Dussehra, Diwali and Holi recently.

Mehul Gupta, co-founder and CEO at SoCheers, an independent digital agency, said these channels will always hold appeal for niche, luxury brands particularly since there is no advertising on OTT.

Zee Café, meanwhile, came up with its first original, Dance With Me produced during the lockdown and is now launching its second, a cooking show called Chef Vs Fridge, Mahadev said.

“Regional markets undoubtedly will be the driver for 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, conversational language,” he added. Live Mint

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