Queens of Comedy

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Discovery rolls the dice in India

As its ratings fall, Discovery India is attempting a transformation. Vanita Kohli Khandekar looks at its chances. 

Discovery Communications India is betting big on scale. Sports channel DSPORT launched earlier this year. Jeet, a factual general entertainment channel (GEC), and another rural, free-to-air channel should be out early 2018. There are digital products, and dozens of locally made shows, including Queens of Comedy (TLC) and India’s Best Jobs (Discovery Channel), have been commissioned. 

Is it too little, too late? Discovery’s 12-channel India network has lost about 22% viewership over the last three years, according to Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) data. Key employees have left. There is a possibility, say analysts, that the Indian arm of the U.S.-based US$6.5-billion factual giant will either stagnate or fall from the current US$65-million. Discovery India enjoyed 50% operating margins for years. 

Analysts ask why Discovery is attempting a transformation and taking its eye off the ball now, when the core business is under threat. 

Arthur Bastings, president and managing director, Discovery Networks Asia Pacific, doesn’t agree. One of the biggest challenges TV faces is the “erosion of pay TV across the world because of the shift from linear (plain broadcasting) to non-linear (digital),” he says. 

As viewers move to streaming platforms at one-fourth the price, every brand in the business has been hit. Regional analysts Media Partners Asia (MPA) reckons that Discovery’s Asia revenues have fallen by about 16%, from US$320 million in 2013 to about US$270 million in 2016.

“If I take India out of the equation (because pay is not big there), pay TV is challenged. BUT video is not; video is buoyant. So for us the question is how to be a multiplatform player instead of a single platform (TV) one. It is a question of how to reshape the organisation to deliver that,” Bastings says. 

He was hired in 2015 to do just that. In 2016, he brought in Karan Bajaj as senior vice president and general manager for South Asia. 

“On the core side there has never been a loss of form. It is simply a question of figuring out how to get the consumer interested across platforms,” Bajaj says. 

This means more local content for Discovery’s core audience, the top 5-10 million of India’s 240 million homes. 

Bajaj points out that factual viewership on digital is about 10-15% of the total against 2% on TV. As TAM’s urban-skewed sample shifted to BARC, which has a 67:33 urban to rural split, all English-language and niche genres – Discovery included – have seen a fall over the last three years. 

On the other hand, GECs of all languages combined get more than 55% of all TV viewing and a bulk of the approx US$9 billion Indian TV industry’s ad and pay revenues. It is a larger market to target. However, it pits Discovery against Star India and Zee, each of them with (India) group toplines in excess of US$1.5 billion against Discovery’s US$65 million. 

Is what Discovery trying to do realistic? 

Jeet is not exactly a GEC in that sense, argues Bajaj. “It is a GEC in a Discovery-ish way. These are stories that feed off fact, that blur the lines between fact and fiction,” he says. For instance, Jeet’s first show is a 65-part scripted, dramatised version of yoga exponent Baba Ramdev’s life. The idea is to expand reach into small-town India and get appointment viewing. It is about “scale with purpose. We want to be a sizeable media company in India instead of keeping on playing at the outskirts as we’ve done until now. We have to attract a significantly bigger denominator of consumers yet maintain the dignity and essence of Discovery,” he says.

The dice has just been rolled. 

This article was first published in ContentAsia's September issue.