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Commentary: Who killed English entertainment television?

While the English GECs were confident of neutralising the impact of OTT platforms, TRAI’s NTO last year left no air to breathe. According to industry estimates, the genre has lost over 60% of its viewership, resulting in over 75% drop in advertising revenue

Having entertained premium English content lovers for over 20 years in India, AXN and AXN HD are set to bid adieu later this month.

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Another English entertainment television brand that completed two decades this year is Zee Cafe and the grapevine is that the 20th-anniversary milestone was a big reason that pushed the channel to continue its operations this year.

Other than these two channel brands, the leader in the genre, Star World, has also lost a lot (read viewers and advertisers). Relatively newer players such as Colors Infinity and Comedy Central from Viacom18 aren't doing any different and the genre as a whole has been facing challenges from OTT players.

Many experts have already written off the genre, blaming it to the OTT boom and the New Tariff Order implemented in February 2019.

While the English GECs were confident of neutralising the impact of the onslaught of OTT platforms, TRAI’s NTO last year left no air to breathe.

Being forced to pack up in the name of “protecting consumers’ interests” and “orderly growth of the broadcast industry”, the TRAI order is a perfect example of how to kill an industry in India.

According to an industry estimate, the genre has lost over 60% of its viewership and 90% of subscribers, resulting in more than 75% drop in advertising revenue.

The ad rates have fallen by over 50% from Rs 500-2000 to Rs 300-1000 per 10 seconds after NTO was implemented. Initially, the broadcasters sounded hopeful with the subscription revenue coming in, but gradually viewers corrected their choices and subscription kept falling.

For a few channels, the number of subscribers have slipped to as low as 10,000 in a bad week. The advertising revenue has dropped to Rs 5-30 crore from Rs 20-100 crore.

With the constantly decreasing ad revenues, Covid-19 has turned out to be the final nail in the coffin as the overall advertising revenues across genres dropped between January and April 2020.

A BARC Nielsen report has estimated that the general entertainment channels (Hindi) have witnessed a 26% dip in advertising in this period. The English entertainment genre will be at least hit thrice, if not more.

Could the English GECs have saved themselves from this decline? The answer could be in the affirmative.

Bad content strategy

The channels did go wrong when it came to strategising content acquisition.

On the programming front, international acquisitions are expensive and the competition in the genre is no relief.

The reason why Comedy Central and Romedy Now continue be slightly better off than the others is because of their bulk telecast strategy where they ran Friends or Two And A Half Men for hours together.

Whereas, the other channels tried to offer a whole platter of every genre of programming that they could. Experts have time and again confirmed that the discerning English consumers are well aware of ‘what they want’ and they find their way to their ‘kind’ of content.

Distribution and pricing

The other leg is distribution, and could something have been done differently to increase subscriptions? Would the channels have done better if they were included in the base pack?

After all, Comedy Central did find a place in the base pack of Viacom18. Here comes the bigger question of competing with the fellow broadcasters or offering the consumer all that you can.

For Viacom18, which has fewer channels compared to a Star India or a ZEEL or a Sony Pictures Network, it was easier to add a ‘premium’, ‘not so mass’ English channel in the base pack. For the others, adding their English channels to the base pack would mean absurdly heavy base pack with too many channels and the base pricing would also go up. Then, you cannot compete against a Rs x pack, by offering a Rs 2x pack.

The promotion and the marketing war could have ended the game for their Hindi and regional channels too. In addition, any pack above ‘Rs 50’, for instance, cannot be promoted as ‘affordable’ to the consumers.

Moreover, channels with the maximum advertising revenue or those who have better prospects of attracting advertisers were given preference in the base packs. English channels could have never won that race.

To dig a little deeper, one must remember why NTO came into existence. When contesting the elections in 2014, the NDA government had mentioned lowering of cable costs as one of their agendas. When nothing on it happened for some time, the honourable Supreme Court intervened and asked the government about the same, which is when the Supreme Court ‘made’ TRAI to bring in the reform. The intention was to decrease cable costs for the consumers, however, it didn’t meet the purpose and that’s when NTO 2.0 came up and was expected to give some relief to the consumers. Broadcasters’ resistance and Covid-19’s unfortunate arrival has, for now, brought everything to standstill.

Whether it is the NTO or the faulty business strategy of broadcasters that led to the closure of their English GECs is a riddle that's unlikely to be solved.

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