Punjabi to Bangla: TV channels bet on regional languages for success

There is a push for more original programmes in under-served markets
What is Punjabiyat? What touches Punjabi audiences the most?

Prathyusha Agarwal, chief consumer officer of Zee Entertainment, said that in the run-up to the launch of Zee Punjabi in 2020, “we spent three months in 2018 trying to understand the passions in Punjab”. 

They were love for the army, stories of partition, and strength of Punjabi women, which then came to be reflected in shows on Zee Punjabi. The channel has done well to gain a (claimed) third of the small Punjabi general entertainment market. 

Similar intense exercises in understanding movie-viewing habits went into Zee Biskope (Bhojpuri, January), Zee Thirai (Tamil, February) and the upcoming Zee Picchar (Kannada). With Picchar, Zee’s tally of regional channels will rise to 24 from 18 in 2017. 

Zee, however, is not alone. Viacom18 launched Colors Gujarati Cinema and Colors Bangla Cinema last year, taking its regional tally to 14 (including HD). Disney’s Star India has been quite aggressive in the last couple of years, going from 14 regional channels in 2017 to 22 at present. 

Many sports channels have feeds in Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, and other languages. “The last three years have seen a paradigm shift in regional markets,” says Kevin Vaz, CEO (regional entertainment channels), Star India.

The reasons are not hard to find. Going by Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) numbers, TV reaches 836 million Indians, of which 762 million are regular viewers for an average of 4 hours. The Rs 74,000-crore industry has seen viewership growing in double digits for some time. 

A major part of this growth in viewership has come from Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, and Bengali. The viewership share of regional languages has been growing from about 36 per cent in 2015 to 40 per cent in 2019. During this period, the share of Hindi fell from 42.2 per cent to 34 per cent. 

Networks such as Star, Zee, and Viacom18 get roughly half their viewership from regional languages. This is up from 20-25 per cent a decade ago. 

Market analysis showed love for the army was a hit
My Kannada, your Bhojpuri, his Marathi

This round of growth, however, is different in two ways. First, there is no talk of creating a cheap, low-cost ‘regional’ product. 

If anything, the hair-splitting over tastes, textures, and dialects is on another level. 

Agarwal highlights some complexities. “Southern markets are at a better stage of evolution than Hindi, on both penetration (of TV) and consumption. In Marathi, Bangla or other languages, there is an overlap with Hindi. Among Marathi audiences, for instance, 70 per cent of the consumption is in Hindi and 30 per cent in Marathi. In Bangla, 45 per cent consumption is in Bengali. The south is predominantly about ‘my language’. On the Karnataka border, you might have bilingual consumption in Telugu/Kannada or Marathi/Kannada.” 

Ravish Kumar, head (regional TV network), Viacom18, points to subtler differences: “Programme tastes in Marathi are more understated and more rooted. In Tamil and Telugu, they could go over the top. Bengali is struggling to find an identity.”

This has implications on everything — programming, advertising, and costs. “Earlier, there was lot of homogenisation in regional markets. Now, 80 per cent of the programming is unique to that market; just 20 per cent would be remakes or dubs,” says Kumar. 

“Even the biggest formats — whether KBC or Bigg Boss — are on regional TV. It is about local content with national-level production values,” says Vaz. When regional channels move from 12-13 hours of original content a week to 25 hours, time spent usually doubles or trebles, reckons Agarwal. 

The second difference is choice of languages. In the nineties, various players had tried Punjabi, Gujarati, and languages with a Hindi overlap. Except for Marathi and Bangla, local content in other languages did not work. 

In the last five years, many of these genres have shown growth for various reasons. For instance, several local players have seeded the market in Punjabi. 

In Bhojpuri and Odia, BARC finally has a good sample to generate TV ratings and advertise a reality. This, in turn, has driven national players to invest in those markets. 

Finding writers, actors, producers

The push for more original programmes in under-served markets has thrown up several challenges. “How to grow the ecosystem? If we need more remakes and originals, then where do you find producers, technicians and staff? The regional TV market has not seen these levels of originals,” says Kumar. 

In Bhojpuri, for instance, the presence of a local film industry means there is some supply-side capability. “In Punjabi, the ecosystem does not exist. It takes effort to find writers and production people,” says Agarwal. 

Finally, there is monetisation. Even if the same number of people are watching a Marathi or Tamil show, the ad rates they command are way below that of Hindi. Even with a lower audience share, Hindi still gets the bigger chunk of the Rs 30,500-crore TV ad pie. 

Then comes regional print — newspapers like Malayala Manorama and Anandabazar Patrika — which dominate their markets completely. 

Vaz points to one bright spot. “In each of these markets, there are large local advertisers. In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, 40 per cent of revenues come from regional clients. Regional is seeing growth because advertisers are seeing growth.” 

As long as that continues, the multilingual party will go on.


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