Q&A: Rahul Johri, Sr vice-president & GM, Discovery Networks

Bapun Raz

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On the face of it Discovery
Networks India seems to be in a
tight spot. It is a non-fiction
network in a market where
more than half of all TV viewing
is general entertainment. The rest is, largely, movies, cricket
and news. More importantly India is not yet a robust pay TV market; so it has to
depend on advertising revenues. The India arm of
the US-based $3.77-billion Discovery
Communications however is having a great time. Its
flagship Discovery Channel is India’s biggest non- fiction entertainment channel beating several Hindi
and English movie and news channels. Add Animal
Planet, Discovery Turbo and others and the
network offers 10 channels. Vanita Kohli-
Khandekar spoke to Discovery ’s India chief, Rahul Johri on the challenges of being a ‘non-fiction entertainment network’. Excerpts. How has Discovery Networks grown in India
and what are the challenges you’ve faced on the distribution front? Ten years ago when I joined the company it was
seen as an education channel. There was very little
belief in the airtime sales of Discovery. Everyone
wanted a deal or on-ground events. We did three
things. One, we changed the positioning to non-fiction
entertainment. Two, we moved away from events
and decided that we had to be an airtime sales
company. Till then buying airtime on Discovery was
seen as an add-on to the event. Now the basis is
the value proposition of our channels. Three, in 2002 we did a distribution alliance with
Sony (One-Alliance is today one of the largest
distributors in India). That was a game changer and
it worked very well. Globally, as a company, Discovery tracks the
distribution environment very closely, especially the
onset of digitalisation. We won’t come like cowboys and buy carriage. We won’t do an FTA (free-to-air channel). There are channels which are pay and
then pay carriage, so they pay more than they
collect! We believe in the finest quality of content
that consumers will pay for. If you do an FTA, you
have to target only advertiser. Therefore content
becomes more sensational because you need more eyeballs. In 2007-08, we saw digitalisation coming because
DTH had a great start. So we launched Discovery
Science, Turbo and HD. Right now these are in 17
millions households only. If we paid carriage we
would be in 40 million homes. But we will wait till
digitalisation gives us more penetration. Look at any consumer product; it doesn’t get nationwide distribution overnight. Media companies want
nationwide distribution overnight. (Discovery
Channel reaches 55 million homes.) Is local programming a major part of your
strategy? There is a difference in Discovery localising versus
other channels localising. When you come to
Discovery you want an international language.
Discovery is not about two Chinese guys talking in
Tamil. The language experience for Discovery has
been a success across the world. In India, Discovery is available in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and
Bengali. We run the largest dubbing operation in
the country. That is one part of localising. We are not a mass production shop when it comes
to content; we are more of a boutique production.
We look for well-chiselled, well-researched shows.
We do lots of local programming on TLC. But we go
with the best person in the field — Vir Sanghvi for luxury, for instance. Also, a lot of big global shows
are shot out of India. However, we are not structured for live
transmissions, so we shy away from live events. How has the network performed in the last few
years, especially when compared with the new
channels? In 2010, we had a 25 per cent growth in
viewership over 2009. Outside of entertainment/
cricket, Discovery channel is the biggest. It is bigger
than Hindi news. In every hour we offer only nine
minutes of advertising time. On Discovery, TLC and
Animal Planet we are already sold out for the year. How much difference has DTH made to
Discovery Networks? As a company we welcome any form of
addressability. Both DTH and digital cable give us
increased addressability. They help overcome the
bandwidth constraints of analogue. All our
channels have a higher rating on digital than
analogue because penetration is better. For instance, Animal Planet beat National Geographic
on digital. As a speciality channel it is always a struggle
showing up well on the rating numbers, because
the sample size is small. Comment. Channels such as Discovery or Animal Planet are
not niche anymore. They are mass channels.
Discovery is available in five languages. It is 20 per
cent bigger than Aaj Tak and is among the top 10
in the country on reach. (Aaj Tak is India ’s biggest news channel in viewership, nationally). It is bigger
than all English news channels put together (see
accompanying chart). The advertiser buys on genre
and reach and we are at the top in the genre and in
reach. We absolutely dominate non-fiction and
lifestyle. Is selling non-fiction tougher? The advertiser is interested in the environment.
None of our channels will do something that is not
our brand. We don’t chase viewership mindlessly. The brand proposition will never be diluted. So we
give them quality, numbers and the environment.
In fiction, he will take a call in advance, but he
cannot predict the quality of viewership. What patterns do you see in viewership across
global markets, the cross-learnings that you
share? India was the first country to launch Discovery
Travel & Living (now TLC). Everyone learnt from it.
What happened was the global team was travelling
all over and looking at lifestyles. One day we put
them in a bus and took them on a tour of Delhi, to
the DT Mall and so on. They realised that this market was seeing rapid changes and was ready for a
lifestyle brand. In other markets there were
established lifestyle brands, here there wasn’t anything


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