About five/six years back, we started seeing a surge in the viewership from the smaller markets and a lot of this was helped by digitisation. Earlier, carriage was very expensive and also in analogue broadcast, the quality in the lower frequencies was not great. So the channel seemed connected to the market on paper but when you actually went there and saw a consumer household TV during the research, you found that the channels had grainy visuals or that the audio was not proper. The English language channels were pushed right at the back or they were not available at all. Digitisation helped us take the channels to many more household in good quality and now even in high definition. That aside, English is literally the second language of the country and the overall number of people who are educated in and are fluent in the language is growing at a very rapid pace.
How have audience preferences changed over the seven years Comedy Central has beamed in this country?
When we started, English entertainment as a genre was in a bit of a slumber and we were late entrants as a network. However, we had a fantastic brand and while conceptualising a local arm, we realised that a lot of content which on Comedy Central US or the UK might not necessarily resonate with the Indian audience. Launching with some of the slightly older hit sitcoms such as That ‘70s Show, Seinfield etc, we took a gamble initially. We realised that many among our target audience were aware of these programmes but had no place to consume this kind of era-agnostic classic comedy shows where the beauty was in the way these were written and also the acting.
It went well and we hit the number one mark among English general entertainment channels (GECs) within nine weeks of launch. We have been able to hold that spot and in the last two/three years, we have been a clear number one. Keeping in mind the discerning nature of the consumer and the exposure they gradually got, we began airing content right after it was aired in the US unlike in the past where broadcasters would wait for the seasons to end in the US and then air all 20-22 episodes together.
Is digitisation also a double-edged sword for a TV channel like Comedy Central India? Do you see a future where the viewer is not interested in paying the subscription fee anymore or the advertisers moving to the mobile screens?
I think it’s not as complicated as we make it out to be. India is a very large country and the paid subscription services comprise a very small number — at least in the current scenario. For every person taking the paid streaming OTT service, the number of people coming into the television universe and entering the English television universe is much higher, and I don’t see that changing in the next three to four years at least. A lot of the consumption is coming from the smaller markets. The way to look at it is not that people consume content on only one particular platform but that it is a win-win for everyone. There is a set of people who go to streaming platforms, consume different kinds of programme on paid TV and different kinds of content through cinema halls and so on and so forth. Effectively, the headroom for growth for pay TV in English language is the highest in the world today.
American sitcoms enjoy a good following here but do you see the opportunity for indigenous English language comedy content improving?
We have experimented with local English language comedy content but none of them have paid off. I think we are still some way away from developing an ecosystem for comedy. You need to also develop some good writers and then the cast comes but writing is where we lack talent. There is a huge amount of discipline that the international studios have — such as having 12 to 13 writers for every episode. The benchmarks are strict and we are not quite there. Having said that, it is the chicken and egg debate, unless someone tries it, it’s not going to develop. We have had some successes like a bunch which came up with The Stage for Colors Infinity. As a network, we are trying to push this and hopefully we will crack the code soon.
You have run some interesting outreach programmes, such as a recent visit to a Border Security Force camp by your team. What purpose do such efforts serve?
Drawing viewership is a key goal but it is not our only goal but we are focused on building our brand with the philosophy that it is your happy place and it is important for us to give back to the community. A couple of years ago, we had gone to street kids with the same message of spreading cheer. Unlike us, the BSF jawans do not have the luxury of home comfort. Not that we can change their lives but we can spread some cheer and we try to do that each time we take up something like this.