English was the language of cricket commentary when it started in India in the early 1940s on All India Radio. The listenership was limited to the English-speaking class. It was in the late 1950s that cricket commentary in Hindi made a beginning. Commentary in the language of the people took the game of cricket to the hinterlands.
The dominance of cricket commentary in Hindi continued till the mid-1980s. Live commentary of India winning the 1983 cricket world cup was heard by most cricket fans in India in Hindi.For the older generation, the names of cricket commentators in Hindi such as Suresh Saraiya, Narottam Puri and Ravi Chaturvedi still bring back memories of the 1970s and early 1980s when words created action happening on the cricket field.With the emergence of colour television began the decline of radio commentary and the rise of English commentators on television. The government-owned Doordarshan was the only television channel available in the 1980s.The rise of private broadcasters in the 1990s again saw the rise of cricket commentary in English and then its dominance. The first decade of the new millennium did make sports broadcasters aware of the importance of commentary in Hindi but it took almost a decade for them to actually wake up to the full potential of Hindi.The likes of Star Sports, Ten Sports, SET Max and Sony Six made a beeline to incorporate more and more Hindi language programming in their sports coverage to grow their viewership.Only this year, India’s oldest sports channel, Star Sports, launched the country’s first 24x7 Hindi sports channel, Star Sports 3, following an exercise that involved rebranding as well as reorganisation. “We changed the landscape of cricket broadcast in the country in 2012 with the launch of a world class Hindi commentary simulcast in addition to the existing English language feed,” says Star Sports business head Nitin Kukreja.The Hindi language feed attracted immediate attention from viewers. Star Sports says 71 per cent of the viewership for the dual language-feed India-Australia series came from Hindi commentary. Thereafter, Star Sports took the engagement with the Hindi audiences even further.“We launched India’s first 24X7 Hindi sports channel, Star Sports 3, with content, graphics and shows in Hindi - a giant step forward to dramatically increase the reach of sports in the country,” says Kukreja.Apart from the launch of Star Sports 3, 2013 also saw Star Sports channels providing Hindi commentary feed for the Indian Badminton League (IBL), Barclays Premier League (BPL) and Hockey India League (HIL).Says Kukreja: “In a nation where less than 10 per cent of the population understands English, sports broadcasters have traditionally programmed only in one language – English. We want to change that. We want to focus on a language that the viewers understand.”For Star Sports, ‘Hindi dedicated’ is not just about the commentary being available in Hindi. It is a comprehensive Hindi offering in terms of graphics, navigation tools and all such constituents.To increase its viewer base, Star Sports will now show not just cricket in Hindi but a range of shows on other sports including hockey, badminton and football and special shows such as Star Power, Heroes, Masterclass and Hockey Hotshots. Star Sports is not stopping at just Hindi. The channel is considering providing feeds in languages such as Tamil and Bengali very soon.Ten Sports too has jumped onto the Hindi bandwagon. For the recently concluded India-South Africa series, it had Hindi commentary on Ten Sports and English on Ten Cricket and Ten HD. “With the viewer becoming more and more demanding like any other nation, and rightfully so, there is a viewer base that is looking forward to Hindi commentary and then the usual English commentary feed,” reasons Ten Sports CEO Rajesh Sethi. And like Star Sports, Ten Sports too is looking at going multi-lingual in the future to expand its viewership.Sony Entertainment Television provided commentary in both Hindi and English for its biggest sports asset, the Indian Premier League (IPL). While Set Max had commentary in English, the nearly two-year old Sony Six had commentary in Hindi for Pepsi IPL 2013.“The Hindi feed was very well appreciated. We reached close to a 100 million viewers! The consumers were delighted to be provided with a choice of language preference,” says a Sony Six official. Sony plans to expand the number of IPL games with Hindi commentary.Star Sports claims it has had higher core viewers coming from its Hindi feed than Engilsh. “During the period October-November 2013, about 24 million viewers were core to Hindi only, while English language had core viewership of about 9 million. Another 8.4 million viewers were core to both Hindi and English language,” reveals Kukreja.On their part, advertisers are happy with the Hindi, English fragmentation of viewers. Madison Media COO Karthik Lakshminarayanan says, “Currently, you buy a match, not a feed, so advertisers come on both feeds but soon, we will see that different advertisers will go for the two feeds (separately).”The rates for Hindi feed are expected to be higher than the English feed given the much higher core viewership for the Indian language commentary. The segmentation could also attract advertisers who so far had shied away from sports channels. Madison’s Lakshminarayanan says, “The more you can split an audience, the better it is for the advertiser. If you can further a demand with regional languages, then it should work.”The Hindi channel being a new proposition, Star Sports isn’t yet selling its two language feeds separately. “Sometime in the future, we see value in unbundling the two offerings to different sets of clients. This will help the clients reach out more effectively to their target audience at one level and/or tailor their communication to suit specific sets of audiences,” says Star Sports’ Kukreja.Sports programming in Hindi and other Indian languages can only help expand viewership for sports and will be beneficial to broadcasters as well as advertisers. The sports broadcasters will have their pockets deepened, the advertisers can reach more people and the viewers can watch programming in the language of their choice.