When two years ago Star India decided to “reincarnate” one of its older channels Star One as Life OK and repackage it with new, fresh content, nobody expected that in a short span of time it would offer stiff competition to the other existing general entertainment offerings. For hadn't the Star India management been at a loss for quite some time as to what it would do with it.
But with some path breaking content like Saubhagyavati Bhava initially and Savdhaan India and Devon Ke Dev…Mahadev later, not only did the newbie Life OK lure viewers to itself but it also got industry pundits to take notice and nod their heads in appreciation.
It still describes itself as, “a brand new general entertainment channel (GEC) that turns up the volume on the things that really matter through its unique and poignant stories” on its online homepage. And general manager Ajit Thakur is happy that he “didn't succumb to the temptation of doing the usual GEC saas-bahu soaps.”
On the occasion of its second anniversary Thakur had a chat with Indiantelevision.com’s Disha Shah on its journey so far. Excerpts from the conversation:
The fact that on weekends nobody gave us a chance but today we are at number two/three without a single singing, dancing or a big non-fiction show.
Two years for any media entity implies that it is here to stay. Would you say that for your channel?
Absolutely we are here to stay. But I think two years later there are lots of thoughts – the first thought is that – when we started two years back, we had the backing of Uday Shankar, Sanjay Gupta and the Star Network that this was the channel which was not going to be a flanker to Star Plus but a challenger. It was a promise.
Two years later, I think the promise is more than fulfilled and real. And there are many good things about it – the fact that in this year almost all channels have declined, and Life OK is only one of the two channels which have grown through January-December this year.
We are happy at the fact that we didn't succumb to the temptation of doing the usual general entertainment channel (GEC) – saas-bahu soaps. We have stayed away from it because we didn't want to divide the family; we wanted to entertain the entire family. We are not targeting women, men or kids but all of them. We have managed to do it differently and with a lot of conviction, remained profitable, continued to grow, so that is a very happy place to be in, but are we there yet? No, I don’t think so we are there yet. It is a glass half full. We have a lot more shows working but we haven't had a big impact like Mahadev in the last two years.
In terms of marketing, we have a long way to go with the brand. Life OK is there in terms of reach and people are talking about us, but we are still not the number one channel in terms of overall numbers. And it is equally important from the perception point of view, we now have to start scaling and telling people that we are amongst the top channel. Thus perception, big shows and somewhat impact has to come through.
What have been the high and the low points for the channel in the last two years?
The launch of the channel was itself a high. When Mahadev took off after four months of the launch, it was a high. The fact that on weekends nobody gave us a chance but today we are at number two/three without a single singing, dancing or a big non-fiction show, on the back of alternative content like Savdhaan India and Shapath.
I think the big high for us is that almost every day I have people calling from other channels and some production houses saying that, “We don't care if you are at number six or four or number one. There is something working for Life OK and we want to join.” And this call comes to us every single day. That is something about the culture we have created. The young team and everybody doing their job for the first time even at the HOD level – that is the big high.
We are still not number one, that is the low point for us. We want to be number one. The lows are that for every one hit we had three failures. But we take it in our stride, I think the day we stop failing, we stop learning. Without the low the high is not as enjoyed as when you have a low.
Shows like Mahadev, Savdhaan India and Shapath are some of the most succesful properties of Life OK
To what do you attribute the success of Life OK?
First and foremost, Star Network had the vision to create its own competition for Star Plus. Without the network, we would not have been where we were. Second, it is the sharpness and clarity of the brand vision that we wanted to be the brand for the family, we will not do saas-bahu, we will go beyond entertainment into social media messaging. Third and the most important reason is the kind of people and culture we have attracted. Even though we stay in the same Star Network building, Life OK has its different kind of culture of its own.
How would you rate Life OK today and before you joined?
When I came in, the channel’s work was in progress. Since I have been in the Star Network, one thing I have done for Life OK is that I have put people and team together. Most of the people who used to work for Star One are still with Life OK. So it’s about commitment to the new vision rather than different people.
What is the life-cycle of a programme on Life OK?
The attrition rate is very high. One, we pick up stories that are more of a finite series. Second is we don’t take regular saas-bahu stories where you know that you cannot keep the story stretching for long. Third, we always take risk in trying something new. Our risk appetite is high and also failure rate is high. But like I said, I have enjoyed. There is so much to learn from each failure. Because if we don’t try the new genre, how will we learn?
How do you differentiate between Star Plus and Life OK's target audiences?
Star Plus is focused on the young new women of new India today. At Life OK, we don't want to take a TG cut because we don't think that is important. We want to cater to the entire family. But within that the mindset which Star Plus is targeting is different than Life OK. The difference is very clear when you see the channel – we offer something for the entire family. If you watch the channel at 7 pm and 9 pm, there will be different kind of stories. It will not be the same story set in the same house. And that is what we take pride in.
What is the channel's reach as compared to other channels?
Our reach has been growing. In many weeks, we have been number two or three in the ratings chart. People were not sure what will happen to the channel after LC1 and digitization but we are the ones who have been growing right through because digitisation meant that our platform was available and we got an equal chance.
So in LC1, we are always going to be deeper because when we launch, we launch with 100 markets in 100 towns with outdoor and everything. So from that point of view we were fairly clear that we will be able to stick to our strategy and deliver some numbers.
The highest reach is 55 per cent and we have reached almost to 50-54 per cent. We have hit 54 in some ways depending upon the launches and other activities. Now what we want to add to this reach is impact.
The channel is betting big on the upcoming fantasy series, Hatim
Has the channel attracted new producers?
Absolutely. Even when we were at number six, we have had some of the best producers working with us. Today the line-up in the next six months includes productions by Ekta Kapoor and the Barjatyas. We are also working with many Bollywood directors and actors. Whether we are at number six, four or one, the attitude and culture of Life OK has remained unmatched.
Are you looking at pushing the envelope of storytelling further?
All the time. It will be edgy and extreme. If you watch Ek Boond Ishq, it is extremely edgy. It is the reflection of what is happening in that household. Dil Se Di Dua... Saubhagyavati Bhavawas extremely edgy, like a thriller, Main Lakshmi Tere Aangan Ki was almost a love story in comic.
What new genres you plan to get into programming?
We have done fantasy with Hatim. For me Ringa Ringa Roses is also very interesting – it is not a typical horror, but about paranormal activity. I want to do a family thriller. I also want to do a period drama, which we have not done yet. These are the next two genres I can think off.
Are you considering adapting international formats?
That is the big part of our strategy. We will do more formats. First we started with books – Navvidhaan – which is already on-air as Tumahri Paakhi. We are looking at two more books. We are also looking at three-four American series. Also, for the first time a lot of new producers are working for the channel. All this is happening in the next six months.
How much research work goes into developing the channel? Is it rigorous?
A lot, because this is something I fundamentally believe in it. Research is not about should we do this or not, our research is primarily focused on what is small town in UP? What is Bombay? What are they thinking? What are the shifting preferences? Most of our research is about understanding aspirations of the audience. What they want to do? How are they reacting to things? What are their views on India or elections and many more? We are trying to understand everything that is happening in their lives. We have a very consumer focused outlook.
How have the advertisers taken to the channel?
If you look at the channel a year back, except for Mahadev we did not have sponsors for any show. Today, we have a sponsor for every show. In some shows, we even have two sponsors. We have grown on reach. One year back only Mahadev was delivering on reach, now shows like Savdhaan, Shapath, Ek Boond Ishq, Gustakh Dil and even Tumahri Paakhi has good reach. Each one is attracting more advertisers and each is different.
We have everything from Shakti Bhog to Hindustan Unilever on the channel. They are as different from each other, but they co-exist because the brand delivers reach in different markets and in different TG. And you can slice and cut it in different ways and do that. We have telecom, automobile, all the big FMCG brands and also the local brands which are coming out in a big way to advertise with us.
The programming attrition rate is very high. One, we pick up stories that are more of a finite series. Second is we don’t take regular saas-bahu stories where you know that you cannot keep the story stretching for long.
What are the cumulative between men and women viewership? How much of it is children?
It is 52 per cent female and 48 per cent male. Lot of GECs would have 58 per cent women. Within male and female, kids would be 15 per cent.
Which are your big markets internationally apart from India?
When Bachelorette India launched, UK and US were big markets for us. We have experimented but some of it has not worked in India. However, in International markets, it has worked well. Other markets like Canada, Middle East is very big for us and I think with Hatim it will become even bigger.
Life OK is at number four right now, any specific programming strategy?
Historically when we have grown, we grew to 100 then we have stayed for some time, then we went to 120 and stayed for some time, then 140 and 160. So we launched at eight per cent share, and we have seen a growth of 14 per cent share now. We have always grown in leaps. It is not a trick. What we did with Mahadev, Hatim is one scale above. We are going to take content to the next level.
What is your plan for the next few years?
Of course we want to continue to grow. Big plan for next year is that we want to tell people that when Life OK is serious about something, it really makes an impact. And that is what we want to do. We want to create an impact. We want to create three-four shows but all done differently. We want to have some impact properties, some big stars and directors on board.
But most importantly, we want to break few more norms. We want to create new genres, we want to look at some American content coming to Indian television but done differently, we want to shoot in new light – what we did with mythology, we want to do the same with other shows. So anything to push the content, marketing and people agenda in a different direction.
In the last two years the channel has dabbled in new genres
On the digital side, how do you keep your viewers engaged?
I want to build the brand. I just don’t want people to come and see posters. Hatim is very active on digital but we want people to come and see the show. We talk about serious issues through all our shows. We just launched our Savdhaan app which is about when you travel to any city in the country that app can tell you what to watch out for and which streets not to go to. So the brand thought is so powerful that we want to continue to build the brand on digital. Our digital agenda is not going to be only about the show.
Has the channel achieved a break even? (Estimated 300-350 crore per year)
We are profitable in our year two. We are very different from the GECs. Shapath being the classic example, at 9 pm, every other GEC on weekend has singing and dancing shows – that cost is 5x and Shapath is x (20 per cent of that cost). Shapath manages 2 TVR, all the other shows get around 2.8. It is working because it is different.
What was the biggest challenge for you?
Biggest challenge was to stay quiet and don’t talk too much about it and just deliver results. And why should I talk about it? Viewers are accepting it, advertisers are advertising in it. Trade is interested in it.
What future do you foresee for the channel in the digitised world?
I think digitised world is only going to demand more content. Content will be the king. People will demand the kind of content they want. So for me, the fact that we have variety and we are younger, fresher – all of it is keeping us in good place in the digitised world.