Do national networks stand a chance


Do national networks stand a chance in the south

CHENNAI, October 8

When Sun TV sells ad space, it assumes a “take cheap jerseys it or leave it” attitude.

For a company that has a brutal 61.6 per cent reach in the Chennai television market, it is something that it can afford to do. Not that it has been turned down. Most famously, Hindustan Lever tried it in 1993, refusing to advertise on Sun TV unless the rates could be renegotiated. Sun refused. Months later, a sadder and wiser Levers limped back.

Sun still has a take it or leave it attitude. It does not negotiate its rates for ad space. And given the way the channels are going in south India, it is unlikely to change its ways anytime soon.

What strikes the observer is the phenomenal growth of Sun in the Chennai market. From a reach of 23.8 per cent in 1998, it grew by leaps and bounds to 47.1 per cent in 1999, and 61.6 per cent in 2001, according to industry estimates. Bitter murmuring was heard in Chennai, of political patronage, arm twisting etc, but the fact remains that Sun TV rules when it comes to Chennai.

This phenomenal growth is part and parcel of the south Indian television scene. Vijay TV, with a percentage reach of 19.7 in 1998 in Chennai, nearly doubled to 37 per cent reach in 1999, and right now has a reach of 42.7 per cent. In Bangalore, Sun TV, which had a reach of 25 per cent in 1998, now reaches 37.7 per cent. Take Asianet. In Kerala, the channel, which had a 20.4 per cent reach in 1998, has a 29.2 per cent reach in 2001. And that in the smallest market in the south.

It’s the same all over. Monopoly or near monopoly by one or the other dominant player Sun TV in Tamil Nadu, Asianet in Kerala and, in Andhra Pradesh, it’s a fight between Eenadu TV and Gemini.

So, where do the national networks stand vis vis the local networks down south? Can they ever match the phenomenal reach of the south Indian channels?

The answer lies in the nature of the market. The television market down south is a different market. First the differences. A non fragmented audience. Lower costs of software production. Socially relevant serials. All of which translate into advantages.

Take software production, for example. It is so cheap that even Hindi software producers sometimes take a quick trip down south. And, yes, it would be a mistake to think that south India is just that the southern part of the country. Each state Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala in that order of cost decrease, is different.

Take software. While producing an episode of television software in Mumbai can go up to several crores of rupees, it is much cheaper in the south, ranging from Rs 1.5 lakh for a single episode on the higher end, to a low Rs 25,000 rupees per episode on the lower end.

The Chennai market is the most expensive. For example, one episode of a daily soap opera, with good quality, would cost around one lakh, while a producer could make the same, and that too, with the same standard, at Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000, in Kerala. The cost fluctuates, depending on a lot of things the extent of outdoor shooting, the stars and so on. Yet, on the whole, it is a lot cheaper.

Yet, unlike many other industries, including the Malayalam film industry in the mid eighties, when government subsidies for movie making led to a rash of cheap, tacky films, cheaper production costs in the television industry have not translated into cheaper productions. “South Indian channels may have grown phenomenally because of market conditions, but the content is also good, and this contributes a lot to the growth,” opines Sandeep Singh, vice president (marketing), Sri Adhikari Brothers Television Network Ltd.

Content is king. And clever positioning of the content. In Kerala, some serial makers have adopted a tactic that led to the phenomenal growth of magazines like “Mangalam” or “Manorama” serialised fiction tailored for the audience. One reason for the phenomenal growth of serialised fiction in Kerala was mass appeal. In a state with 100 per cent literacy, the tactic led to a circulation boom.

Now the idea has been adapted to television. With the boom in tele serials in the 1990s, Sudhakar’s writings began to be adapted to the small screen.

Samayam on Asianet was the soap that established Mangalodayam’s name in the television scenario. Then came Thaali on Surya TV and Swararaagam, again on Asianet. If earlier, the average reader was the key, now it is the average television viewer.

But how foolproof is this tactic of tailoring serials to suit audience tastes? In any case, are the four south Indian markets really so homogenous in their tastes? Also, in such a scenario, what determines the media plans of the big spenders.