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Challenges in creating content for Indian market true for any market: BBC’s Myleeta Aga

The Senior Vice-President and General Manager South East Asia and South Asia at BBC Worldwide talks about her experience working with BBC Worldwide, the peculiarities of the Indian market and where content in the country is really headed

Roshni Nair | Mumbai | March 6, 2017

Myleeta-Aga Myleeta Aga

Myleeta Aga, Senior Vice-President and General Manager of South East Asia and South Asia, BBC Worldwide, has over 15 years of experience in the television and broadcasting industry, seven of which she has spent with BBC. Aga, who has earned herself two Emmy nominations for Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, is credited with building BBC Worldwide’s fiction capability in India and also bringing in the highly successful dance reality show Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa (an adaptation of the international show Dancing With The Stars).

With India becoming the 40th country to see the launch of Sony BBC Earth, BestMediInfo.com caught up with Aga to trace her journey with BBC, what she believes the future of content will be in India and why she is not worried about bigger players such as Discovery and History TV when it comes to the factual entertainment genre. Excerpts:

You joined BBC Worldwide in 2009 when the organisation was still in its nascent stage. Seven years down the line, how has the journey been?

It has been a tremendous journey and I am very proud of what we have achieved in these last seven years. If I go back when we started, it was really a production business and BBC Worldwide is a content company, so we have production, we have content syndication, content sales, we have channels business, but at that time in India we were a format sales production house. We were making Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa and looking at other formats in our catalogue and we had just made something for Imagine called Pati Patni Aur Woh.

I really believe that if you want to be in the production business then you have to be flexible about the genres and the kind of content you produce. So the first thing I set out to do was build fiction capability and work with the team to be able to take up high-end projects such as Jhalak as well as smaller ones with channels such as Discovery or TLC. From just being a production business to what we have achieved today, I think we are one of the largest production businesses. We do big non-fiction, small non-fiction, fiction, home-grown, branded content, digital content; we are capable of doing any kind of production. More importantly, we believe in our content, we believe in the quality of our storytelling but we also really believe in the way we work. We respect each other, we work like a team. So from a production business point of view it has been a fabulous journey. When I started we didn’t really have content sales in the market but we set up a team for that and now we have a sizeable content sales business. In the last two years a lot of our business has also been digital.

BBC, as a brand and a name, is best known for the news coverage world over. The audience in India even today doesn’t immediately associate BBC with entertainment content? Have you been able to break that mould?

BBC News has been here for a long time. We are very proud of the fact that outside the UK one of the countries where the brand BBC means the most is India but at the same time that entire reputation is built on news and breaking that mould is not really something that I would even endeavour to do. But is the viewer of a typical GEC soap interested in Sherlock? The answer is no. I don’t believe in getting an audience that doesn’t want what we have to offer. We have very good quality content but it super-serves a particular segment. Our approach to content is to create great quality content and great storytelling, build our fandom for that content and then super-serve that fandom. But it is a niche segment and we understand that and we are comfortable with that. Millions of people watched Planet Earth 2’s promo online and these people are super-fans of that content and they will keep coming for more. The other thing we have launched is Sony BBC Earth and again it is not a mass channel, it is in the infotainment space. So, probably a lot more people will now appreciate that we are not just a news brand but beyond a point we are who we are.

You have successfully adapted international shows for the Indian audience and have also created original content for the Indian market. What are the factors that one has to keep in mind while adapting international shows and while creating original content?

I think you need to have a good story or a good storytelling in the case of non-fiction. You need to have sensitivity to what the audience wants and you need to be really disciplined about how you bring everything together so that the investment in the content is seen on screen.

BBC Worldwide has created both reality shows and fictional shows. Which format is more challenging?

I think they are very unique to each other and one needs different set of skills for each. In fiction shows it begins with the writer, you need to have real commitment to a concept. So, I would say that non-fiction is more execution driven and fiction is more writer-driven but both need the other. If you look around, there aren’t many producers who are doing both as most of them have come from one place of expertise. One of the benefits of being a part of a larger organisation is that you can be a part of both and you create opportunities to share resources and ideas.

Apart from India, you also oversee the South East Asia and South Asia content strategy. How different is the Indian market when compared to South East Asia and South Asia and what are the challenges specific to creating content for the Indian market?

It has just been over six weeks since I have taken over our South East Asia businesses. Our South East Asia businesses are slightly different from our India business because it is primarily a channels business. So BBC Worldwide has four channels in the market in South East Asia, which are BBC Earth, BBC Lifestyle, BBC First, CBeebies and of course News, so these are the bouquet of five channels that we distribute in South East Asia. We also launched BBC iPlayer in Singapore as a catch-up service to our channels late last year. We will be launching in one more market this month.

The challenges in creating content for the Indian market are true for any other market. Creating content for television is different from creating for digital. To be honest, on digital, in India we haven’t really cracked what it is yet. The approach I would take is to tell a great story and tell it well and that is a very easy thing to say and a very hard thing to do. In my experience when I was working for a more developed television market like the US, you take lot of time to think through what you want to do and once you decide what it is, you just go with it. But in a market like India we change a lot once we start producing and I think that somewhere comes from a lack of confidence and the fact that the market is still growing, the audience is changing, BARC is adding more homes, Free to Air is changing the mix. So everybody is sort of on an alert and thinking what is the new change that is going to come.

BBC Entertainment and CBeebies were shut down in India in 2012. Are there any plans to launch independent channels for entertainment and kids’ content?

We are always open but we haven’t got anything concrete as of yet.

Why do you think CBeebies did not do well as a lot of pre-school channels are flourishing today like Disney Junior, Nick Jr. Do you think CBeebies was ahead of its time?

In fact, CBeebies worked really well. The reason for closing the channel was not the affinity to the content. At that time, there was supposed to be digitisation and then it never happened so that kind of threw plans for the business off.

You brought in three seasons of the ad-funded show (AFP) Har Ghar Kucch Kehta Hai but nothing after that. What is the scope of AFPs in India?

I think that AFPs are going to be something very interesting to look at in the future. See now you can skip advertising, you can record your content and skip the advertisement. Therefore, brands have to reinvent themselves and they have to look at how they communicate what their brand stands for to their audience. I think producers like us are at an excellent position to do that. Firstly, as a big brand we understand its requirements and we know how to take a story and put it together with the brand so that it becomes more seamless. We did three seasons of Har Ghar Kucch Kejta Hai, which really worked for the brand without putting a single can of paint in a single frame across seasons.

You recently partnered with Amazon Prime Video. With the way content consumption is changing, what do you think is the future of content?

I believe that content reflects people. Television is a broadcast medium so it is designed to reach the median of the population. When you see changes in what people like it is really telling you how people are changing and I think television viewing hasn’t substantially changed in India over the last 5-10 years. You see that the core, home-based drama for the soap-watching audience is pretty much in the same space. Yes, now you might have more working women and people living on their own rather than in joint families, so there is a slight shift. This reflects a shift in the population because we do see more young couples going and living on their own than in joint families and that is reflected in the content.

Digital is totally different. A lot of the younger audiences and the audiences who have always had more access to international content are much less on TV now. They are finding it easier and more suitable to watch content online. Having said that we are still primarily single TV homes, the median population is still living in smaller towns and it is all happening in phases. The stark truth is how many people across strata of society are watching content on their phones. Some people might be watching some really old Meena Kumari movies and some are watching the latest episode of Planet Earth II. So it really is content driven. Eventually, good storytelling is what you should always chase.

India recently became the 40th country where you have launched Sony BBC Earth. Paul Dempsey indicated that local content may also find its way into Sony BBC Earth. What is the timeline that we are looking at?

The channel is going to be run operationally by Sony. Saurabh Yagnik is the business head and these decisions are with him.

But factual content is not about geographies, it is much bigger. A lion is a lion to anyone in the world and animals are the most universal and relatable characters.  I have spent eight years with Discovery creating and marketing factual content and I have seen how people respond to it in that market. Everybody feels that they own the plight of the tiger so people don’t look at natural history content as local or not local. For example, even in a science show if they are doing a tour of the world, then of course India will generally be a stop because it is a big and very interesting country. So there is a lot of India content on the channel but that is organically part of the way that content is created.

What is the syndication value of Indian content overseas?

It is quite limited for producers because broadcasters keep all the rights. So, if you look at Star or Colors, they all have channels in other markets and so they hold on to the content for those channels. So, there is a huge market for it but because the rights are not with the producers but with the broadcasters, it is really for them to exploit.

Sony BBC Earth is intended to be a premium subscription-based channel. Do you think the Indian audience is ready to pay for content?

Yes. I think for the right content, in the right mix and in the right places people will pay. When you have content that is compelling, fresh and different they will pay. Of course how much they are willing to pay is a different matter. We have not made any determination about when we will go for the subscription-only model. Our channel is completely subscription in some markets and it is quite ad dependent in others. So when the market looks like it has a subscription-only model then we go ahead with it, not before that.

You are only now getting into the factual entertainment genre in India while Discovery and History TV are already established players. Do you see their experience in the market as a threat to Sony BBC Earth?

Not really. It is true Discovery has been here for a very long time and History TV has been here longer than us but I think the great thing about launching Sony BBC Earth at this time is that the category itself has been quiet for some time. There might have been more productions and activity within the genre but nothing truly different and differentiated and the hope is that with Sony BBC Earth, the category will grow and we will all benefit by getting more audiences to infotainment.

What are your views on BARC’s extended universe? How do you think it will affect the factual entertainment genre and overall TV viewership?

I welcome it and think it is a good thing. With BARC’s extended universe what you are going to be able to see is more statistical validity of demographic viewership. What I mean to say is that when we used to slice the data and say that English entertainment has one GRP, how do you break that one GRP? You can’t tell because you are looking a very small sample size. Now that sample size will be bigger so now the niche channels will get richer data and of course the difference between rural and urban is becoming more and more evident as a result of the increased segment size. I think these are the two benefits that I see. But is it suddenly going to make a world of change, certainly not. I believe greatly in the instinct of people who have a lot of experience in our industry. Data is very important but never underestimate the importance of instinct and experience.

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