National Geographic Channel recently launched its first show promotional campaign, Unlock, featuring brand ambassador John Abraham. Beginning with Supercar, Abraham will shoot promos for several properties of the channel. Although the contract with Abraham is for a year, the channel expects to use his image to help establish a brand personality.
Meanwhile, sister channels Nat Geo Wild and Nat Geo Music are gearing up, courtesy digitisation. afaqs! spoke to Keertan Adyanthaya, managing director, NGC and FOX International Channel about the expectations and the journey of Fox Traveller as a niche channel for travellers.
Q. What does NGC aim to achieve through its association with Abraham?
The Unlock campaign is built around some core values of the channel. It is a brand campaign and we do this every three-four years to refresh the channel and bring a lot of content on board. It was a good time to bring John on the channel because this way we are able to humanise the brand. It puts a face to the brand and gives a figuring that people can relate to. Many channels don't really need brand ambassadors. Say, for Star Plus, its main characters are its brand ambassadors. For a kid's channel like Pogo, Chhota Bheem is the face, as is Mickey Mouse for Disney.
Q. FOX Traveller has finally found a stable positioning as a traveller's channel. What has the journey been like?
It's been a fantastic journey. The channel is above AXN, Zee Café and STAR World. It has also beaten TLC and Good Times. When we looked at this genre, we considered the complete English entertainment segment since we all cater to the same audiences and even have similar content. It has been a 'Numero Uno' channel for about 18 months now. I think, this is because there was a need gap that we discovered and implemented our strategy really well on that. Today, when people travel somewhere, they don't just want to see the places around but also get that experience with them. You hear of people travelling to Singapore just for a rock show; or people visiting different places in India to learn specialised cooking - that is an out of the way experience. So all the local productions that we made or the content that we acquired was of this type and, I think, that's what has hooked viewers on to the channel. FOX Traveller is about enjoying the journey more than the destination.
Q. Under your tenure, the channel increased local content from eight hours per year to about 100 hours per year. How important are local productions in view of the higher costs involved?
We have produced a lot of off-beat shows on Fox Traveller. For example, Twist of Taste is about Michelin, star chef of Indian origin from London, who goes around India and recreates the signature dishes of these places; and Style and the City, which takes fashion beyond Delhi and Mumbai. In Sound Trek, musicians went back to the roots of Indian folk and classical music and recreated that experience. Another key series is 'Inside'. Even a news crew will not be allowed inside Mecca or White House, but an NGC crew has this upper hand because people know that we just document, without taking a stand. As of now, on FOX Traveller, about 70 per cent of the total content is international, while the number is 85 per cent for National Geographic Channel. It's extremely difficult to make local content for NGC, mainly because on NGC, the fact checking is very important and it takes at least two years to put together a show. Secondly, it has to be of extremely high quality. So before doing a show, a dummy is produced and, hence, the cost goes up tremendously. Also, there aren't too many countries that are takers of Indian content on NGC. FOX Traveller's kind of content is still taken by countries like Germany, Italy, France, Middle East, Russia and others. Food shows are very popular in India and abroad. All countries are fond of food shows.
Q. How has the language feed helped niche channels like yours?
Language feed is extremely important as it increases the audience base manifolds. As of now Bengali, apart from Hindi and English, has the largest viewership in India. Tamil has a lot of distribution problem since it's a pay channel. There aren't any plans to launch more languages but Kannada and Malayalam are the ones that might work. In Karnataka, English feed does very well. Kerala, we are still toying with, but it's still not that big a market. It won't make sense now.
Q. You had mentioned in an earlier interview that English viewership is very much like the taste for international food that Indians want to eat once a week. Are you ready to air distinguished programming each day of the week?
Digital distribution makes a lot of sense for a channel like ours. Earlier, availability was a big problem. Today, however, the DVRs are there and people are able to mark things on their calendars. Programming-wise, we have many initiatives, including making people familiar with our kind of shows and to explain their relevance. Repeat, though, is tricky. But, we track the kind of viewers we get on each day. We have been pretty successful in scheduling that.
Q. Almost all the channels in the genre are subscription-based channels. How do you expect the decreasing carriage fees to impact revenue?
As far as we are concerned, carriage fees haven't really gone down. While it has gone down in a few markets, we are expanding into other markets (example LC1), so there isn't any change. The budgets have remained the same. In the long term, carriage fees will go down. But things are too murky right now. Despite numerous deadlines, certain practices have not stopped. As business managers we have to be realists. We will comply with everything that the regulator says, but there is a real world out there. For me to predict that real world is a little tough now. Yes, we do hope that the carriage fees go down because it's just a black expense; it doesn't benefit any of the stakeholders. Plus, there is no value addition provided by this amount. In fact, it encourages the distributors not to provide more channels, for the very fact that we are giving them money. I, personally, believe that December 31, 2014 will be an effective deadline.
Q. What is the challenge for NGC's bouquet of channels in India?
Distribution is the main issue. For some channels of the group, we don't believe in paying carriage fees at all. These are pure subscription channels. In the digital world, the other channels will evolve. Nat Geo Wild is the first one - it's growing. It's available on almost all DTH and digital platforms. When availability itself is a problem, there is no point in communicating these channels or their content to the viewers. We will fix distribution issues first.
Q. The channel has aggressive on-ground events, including two big events such as National Geography Photography and India Bike Week for photographers' and bikers' communities. Any plans for other similar properties?
We don't have any plans for other events as of now. But yes, a ground event is always interesting as it gets people to touch and feel the brand. The photography event is being taken to Singapore and Southeast Asia from India. On ground events are important for building brand value with the audience and not really for the individual shows