Apr-Jun 2014

Discovering Stories Worth Telling

Does localised content on TV networks prove to be more engaging in a globalised world? Rahul Johri, Senior Vice President and General Manager, South Asia, Discovery Channel in a tête-à-tête with Professor Siddharth S. Singh of the Indian School of Business, discusses marketing and regulation in the TV industry and ways to continually engage with the viewer.

Siddharth S. Singh: The Discovery Channel’s growth in India has primarily been through programmes that have been developed in the United States (US) or elsewhere. It has also expanded the channel network to focus on a variety of segments. In addition, much of the content is localised by tailoring it for audiences or dubbing content into the vernaculars. Given this, how do you go about identifying and testing concepts for new programmes for an India specific audience?

Rahul Johri: First of all Discovery is not a US focused channel. If we were a US only channel, our viewership numbers across the world would not be as significant as it is currently. Everybody in the world is interested in wild life, nature, and environment. These are topics that travel very well globally. Another factor to keep in mind is the logistics that underlie our huge network. A wildlife show, for instance, can cover four seasons (spanning a year) in an hour. With Planet Earth – the most expensive nature documentary series to be commissioned – costs go up to $10 million to produce eight hours of footage. No single market can afford to bear that kind of cost. If I focus on having an India only channel and produce all this rich content I will be out of business before the first hour is produced. So, in a sense the content we produce works on a shared model that runs all over the world. Everybody shows and shares such content. In that sense, I must add that at Discovery, content is not always prone to be US focused. It is global content that we are producing for a global company and for a global audience. Having said that, a sufficient amount of our efforts are devoted to generating new content from within the Indian sub-continent. Our objective is to produce content in India which has the potential to appeal to viewers from outside the region as well. The more appealing the idea and concept of a show – the more people who are engaged with the show across the world. Shared content is the basis of our programme supply.

Singh: The process of developing shared content involves broadly, creativity in developing a concept followed by detailed market research on the viability of the show. How do you decide on commissioning or shelving a particular type of programme?

Johri: First of all you have to enjoy the programme; you have to be convinced! John Hendricks, founder and chairman of Discovery Communications puts it very simply, “If I don’t enjoy a particular show I can’t expect others to enjoy it”. Creativity lies in the ability to preempt the mood of the audience, understand what people are likely to enjoy and talk about. And then deliver precisely that. In the case of fact based TV, one is deciding to produce a show which will be aired only three or four years after it is first commissioned. Thus, creative energies are focused on getting these mixes of factors right.



Rahul Johri (right) in conversation with Professor Siddharth S Singh. 


If you analyse the Indian TV market it is not a case of 300 channels with differentiated programmes. There are 100 odd news channels, with largely similar shows. Similarly there are a number of entertainment channels but they can be clubbed under one genre. In that sense we have gone deeper in terms of numbers, but fare poorly in terms of diversity of programmes on offer. 


Singh: Coming back to India, how has the shifting nature of demographics of the TV viewing population influenced the mix of channels you offer?

Johri: Often there is a lot of data existing out there which is of immense use in understanding the changing demographics. Through demographics we can also map content which suits particular target audiences best. For instance we decided that with a large acceptance rate in Tamil Nadu, we had to necessarily launch Discovery Tamil. Another example is of Discovery Science. 60 percent of the country’s population is under 25 years of age, 35 percent of the country is under 14 years of age. Young adults and children are tailor-made markets for Discovery Science. In such cases it becomes easier to decide on specific channels and launch them. Another element in deciding the mix of channels was the saturation in terms of content on Indian TV networks. If you analyse the Indian TV market it is not a case of 300 channels with differentiated programmes. There are 100 odd news channels, with largely similar shows. Similarly there are a number of entertainment channels but they can be clubbed under one genre. In that sense we have gone deeper in terms of numbers, but fare poorly in terms of diversity of programmes on offer. Demographics say there are 370 million children who are under 14 years of age. But you can’t assume that all the children are watching the same cartoon. Some might want to watch different programmes. Discovery Kids was launched precisely for this market. There is no other kid’s channel which emphasises on creative learning. Our aim in the long run is to identify and capitalise on opportunities for differentiated content.

Singh: How do you primarily see Discovery Channel, as a non-fiction content producer or as a learning based entertainment channel?

Johri: I would say it’s all about discovering the plethora of non-fiction stories out there which are worth telling.

Singh: But does fiction aid in the learning process? Discovery Kids has some fiction segments too.

Johri: Undeniably fiction does aid learning. There is a little bit of fiction in Discovery Kids viz., a few entertainment shows. But it is entertainment embedded with learning. Catching and retaining the attention of young viewers is a very difficult task. Entertainment helps in grabbing initial eyeballs. But once they are engaged and involved with the environment the shows provide there is a lot more than pure entertainment.

Singh: How would you describe the prospects for Discovery’s growth in India?

Johri: The next step is really scale. We need to be engaging with the right kind of people and scale up these numbers. We have created a wide distribution network, but we need to scale up further and continue to bring in new programming/content for the Indian audience. We are on the verge of bringing in a few new channels. Technology is another key ingredient in the mix and it is imperative to stay at the forefront. High definition channels will be a focal issue on the technology front.

Singh: Other than these programming issues, what are the biggest challenges that you see going forward operating in India, business and marketing-wise?

Johri: Regulation is a major issue; it is something we as a network face across the world. But we have our teams and mechanisms in place to deal with such constraints. Our programming cannot be stopped as a result.

Singh: Regulation, such as the 10+2 advertisement cap regulation introduced in October last year?

Johri: Yes, the 10+2 advertisement cap is one, among other policy developments. The issue of digitisation has led to divisions between TV networks, viewing audience and the government who holds the key in the implementation process. While two phases of digitisation have been achieved (currently all towns with a population of more than a million have shifted from analog to digital), phases three and four are scheduled for this year. The government has to hasten on achieving its policy objectives.


As digital becomes more established, the subsequent phases witness increased packaging of channels. Currently, we are used to getting everything for free. Indians are still not used to paying for content. When you pay for content you will get quality content.


Singh: Has there been an impact on channels from Discovery as a result of the 10+2 advertisement cap regulation? What are its broader implications for the industry?

Johri: For us it makes no difference, because we run shows globally. Our shows are edited to the same duration for uniformity. We have a standard ‘cut-to-clock’ format which varies between 44 and 46 minutes. So we have always been running about 12 minutes of advertising. However it will have an impact on the free-to-air channels because they run more advertising and since India is still predominantly a free-to-air market. Apart from a few channels, a bulk of Indian channels has not ventured into pay for view revenues as yet. So it does not have a more wide-ranging implication on the kind of content you will see on TV. The reason for that is if you are producing content primarily for a free-to-air market where your only revenue stream is advertising sales, you are seeking eyeballs at any cost. When you are chasing eyeballs at any cost you will continue to create more and more sensational content, which is largely the case in the Indian context. However if you are in the pay TV market, where you are producing content that an average consumer will actually pay for, that is a totally different ball game.

Singh: It appears to me like the classic chicken and egg problem. If a network does not have enough money they cannot produce enough quality content.

Johri: Vey aptly put, but quality content will be produced by channels that are prepared to deal with the pay for view environment. As digital becomes more established, the subsequent phases witness increased packaging of channels. Currently, we are used to getting everything for free. Indians are still not used to paying for content. When you pay for content you will get quality content. Right now we frequently get asked- “A particular show got launched in the United States, when will it be aired in India?” The answer is when you pay for it. “Why are Discovery programmes not available on the internet?” There are no robust pay models; we do not want to release content that will be pirated. All our content will be available on the net, the moment there is a robust pay model and money is channeled into the right production system.


Content has to be localised to be relevant in every market. However the South Asian region is also the youngest region in the world. From Pakistan to the Philippines, to connect with them you have got to really speak their language to deliver on their expectations. 


Singh: Discovery Channel is looking at engaging consumers, particularly in India, at more than the passive viewer level. What are the initiatives that you are taking in that direction?

Johri: The launch of the Discovery Channel Magazine in January 2014 is an initiative to engage viewers in multiple ways. Viewers want a deeper experience and an Indian edition of the magazine gets linked to the channels aired in India. So the shows that you are seeing in a particular month, you are also reading about them and gaining an in-depth behind the scenes perspective.

Singh: Some of Discovery’s programmes are available on the internet as well. How is this medium helpful in evaluating the success of a programme? How do you integrate both the traditional rating systems of TV networks and the online route which is a fast growing avenue of seeking real time feedback?

Johri: We have only clips, not entire episodes, available online through which people give their feedback. But the ratings data we get every week is very detailed. The data gives minute by minute details on which audiences are watching what. This really helps fine tune the process. I will give you an example. Earlier this month we had a show on the Uttarakhand disaster. Viewership on average throughout the country was similar to the average ratings which Discovery enjoys. However in Uttar Pradesh (because they were directly impacted by the disaster) viewership ratings went through the roof. It became our highest rated show ever in India, indicating that the regional audience would rather watch a show with some regional or India centric context. In line with that strategy, we recently aired the Revealed: National Defence Academy show on Republic Day.

Singh: Where do you stand with respect to the recent government guidelines that bar advertising companies from owning more than 10 per cent in TV viewership ratings agency?

Johri: I would say that the government’s decision to provide a more robust measurement mechanism is a welcome decision. There is so much diversity in the Indian market. With the joint industry body, Broadcasters Audience Research Council (BARC) scheduled to start functioning from October 1, 2014 the process of rating should become more robust as well as less monopolistic. All stakeholders, broadcasters, advertisers and the agencies will benefit as a result of this independent matrix of rating.

Singh: How are you marketing Discovery Channel in rural areas?

Johri: First of all, by making Discovery available everywhere through focused nationwide distribution. Discovery has a sizeable presence already in the rural market. To illustrate, one of the big DTH providers was conducting a focus group study at a small village, Chhutmalpur which is on the way to Dehradun. An old man, on being enquired, wanted to have free access to Discovery Science, since it would help in his children’s education and employability. The CEO of the DTH Company immediately moved Discovery Science to the basic free to air tier. All over people want to know more, and it is this ‘curious India’ we are trying to connect and engage with.

Singh: You manage the entire South Asian region. There are a variety of similarities and differences across the region. Do you see some common pattern emerging in terms of learning and managing this kind of a business which is so close to people’s experiences?

Johri: I handle 18 sub-markets in the region and I really look at them in a vertical way as to where each market is, in terms of advertising sales, distribution and viewer preferences. Content has to be localised to be relevant in every market. However the South Asian region is also the youngest region in the world. From Pakistan to the Philippines, to connect with them you have got to really speak their language to deliver on their expectations.


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