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Help Q&A: Rahul Johri, Sr vice-president & GM, Discovery Networks
On the face of it Discovery Networks India seems to be in a tight spot. It is a non-fiction network in a market where more than half of all TV viewing is general entertainment. The rest is, largely, movies, cricket and news. More importantly India is not yet a robust pay TV market; so it has to depend on advertising revenues. The India arm of the US-based $3.77-billion Discovery Communications however is having a great time. Its flagship Discovery Channel is India’s biggest non-fiction entertainment channel beating several Hindi and English movie and news channels. Add Animal Planet, Discovery Turbo and others and the network offers 10 channels. Vanita Kohli-Khandekar spoke to Discovery’s India chief, Rahul Johri on the challenges of being a ‘non-fiction entertainment network’. Excerpts.

How has Discovery Networks grown in India and what are the challenges you’ve faced on the distribution front?
Ten years ago when I joined the company it was seen as an education channel. There was very little belief in the airtime sales of Discovery. Everyone wanted a deal or on-ground events. We did three things.

One, we changed the positioning to non-fiction entertainment. Two, we moved away from events and decided that we had to be an airtime sales company. Till then buying airtime on Discovery was seen as an add-on to the event. Now the basis is the value proposition of our channels.

Three, in 2002 we did a distribution alliance with Sony (One-Alliance is today one of the largest distributors in India). That was a game changer and it worked very well.

Globally, as a company, Discovery tracks the distribution environment very closely, especially the onset of digitalisation. We won’t come like cowboys and buy carriage. We won’t do an FTA (free-to-air channel). There are channels which are pay and then pay carriage, so they pay more than they collect! We believe in the finest quality of content that consumers will pay for. If you do an FTA, you have to target only advertiser. Therefore content becomes more sensational because you need more eyeballs.

In 2007-08, we saw digitalisation coming because DTH had a great start. So we launched Discovery Science, Turbo and HD. Right now these are in 17 millions households only. If we paid carriage we would be in 40 million homes. But we will wait till digitalisation gives us more penetration. Look at any consumer product; it doesn’t get nationwide distribution overnight. Media companies want nationwide distribution overnight. (Discovery Channel reaches 55 million homes.)

Is local programming a major part of your strategy?
There is a difference in Discovery localising versus other channels localising. When you come to Discovery you want an international language. Discovery is not about two Chinese guys talking in Tamil. The language experience for Discovery has been a success across the world. In India, Discovery is available in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Bengali. We run the largest dubbing operation in the country. That is one part of localising.

We are not a mass production shop when it comes to content; we are more of a boutique production. We look for well-chiselled, well-researched shows. We do lots of local programming on TLC. But we go with the best person in the field — Vir Sanghvi for luxury, for instance. Also, a lot of big global shows are shot out of India.

However, we are not structured for live transmissions, so we shy away from live events.

How has the network performed in the last few years, especially when compared with the new channels?
In 2010, we had a 25 per cent growth in viewership over 2009. Outside of entertainment/cricket, Discovery channel is the biggest. It is bigger than Hindi news. In every hour we offer only nine minutes of advertising time. On Discovery, TLC and Animal Planet we are already sold out for the year.

How much difference has DTH made to Discovery Networks?
As a company we welcome any form of addressability. Both DTH and digital cable give us increased addressability. They help overcome the bandwidth constraints of analogue. All our channels have a higher rating on digital than analogue because penetration is better. For instance, Animal Planet beat National Geographic on digital.

As a speciality channel it is always a struggle showing up well on the rating numbers, because the sample size is small. Comment.
Channels such as Discovery or Animal Planet are not niche anymore. They are mass channels. Discovery is available in five languages. It is 20 per cent bigger than Aaj Tak and is among the top 10 in the country on reach. (Aaj Tak is India’s biggest news channel in viewership, nationally). It is bigger than all English news channels put together (see accompanying chart). The advertiser buys on genre and reach and we are at the top in the genre and in reach. We absolutely dominate non-fiction and lifestyle.

Is selling non-fiction tougher?
The advertiser is interested in the environment. None of our channels will do something that is not our brand. We don’t chase viewership mindlessly. The brand proposition will never be diluted. So we give them quality, numbers and the environment. In fiction, he will take a call in advance, but he cannot predict the quality of viewership.

What patterns do you see in viewership across global markets, the cross-learnings that you share?
India was the first country to launch Discovery Travel & Living (now TLC). Everyone learnt from it. What happened was the global team was travelling all over and looking at lifestyles. One day we put them in a bus and took them on a tour of Delhi, to the DT Mall and so on. They realised that this market was seeing rapid changes and was ready for a lifestyle brand. In other markets there were established lifestyle brands, here there wasn’t anything.

Source: Business Standard

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