Among the list of new channels announced by Disney-Star in its RIO document released on Friday are a large number of channels in regional languages, particularly movies and sports. The broadcaster will launch HD feeds of its regional movie channels Asianet Movies (Malayalam) and Vijay Super (Tamil), in addition to new HD feeds for Star Sports 1 Tamil and Telugu. It will also discontinue Star Sports 1 Marathi and Star Sports 1 Bangla, while launching Jalsha Josh in the latter’s place. There are also two brand new channels in the pipeline: the Marathi movie channel Pravah Picture and the Odia GEC Star Kirano, which is Star’s first expansion outside the big six regional languages.
Most of these channels are launching on 1 December 2021, whereas Asianet Movies HD, Vijay Super HD and Pravah Picture SD/HD are launching on 25 December 2021, and on 24 January 2022, Star Kirano SD/HD will mark Star’s entry into the Odia market. Let’s examine these changes.
Note: GEC = general entertainment channel.
A slew of new regional movie channels: Pravah Picture launching; Vijay Super and Asianet Movies get HD feeds
The regional movie genre has witnessed a huge growth in the past few months, as broadcasters continue to launch new channels. In September, Zee launched the HD versions of its movie channels Zee Thirai (Tamil) and Zee Picchar (Kannada), by issuing an RIO document in a similar manner as Disney-Star. (It is a different matter, however, that — barring some small cable and MSO operators — those two HD channels have not been added by any large DTH or cable platforms.) Star is only going to spice up the sector further with its new regional movie channels, and rival Sun TV Network has been planning some more HD channels for quite some time now. This Christmas (25 December 2021), Star is set to launch HD versions of its existing movie channels Asianet Movies (Malayalam) and Vijay Super (Tamil), as well as the all-new Marathi movie channel Pravah Picture and its HD version Pravah Picture HD.
In the Tamil movie genre, the Sun network’s movie channel KTV has been available in HD for nearly a decade now, having been launched in December 2011. Zee Thirai HD’s launch last month was thus only the second Tamil HD movie channel. Come Christmas, however, and Tamil viewers will get yet another HD movie channel in the form of Vijay Super HD, the HD feed of Star’s existing Tamil movie channel Vijay Super, which was launched as a secondary GEC in August 2016 but was converted into a movie channel in March 2019. There are of course other Tamil movie channels, such as J Movie from the Jaya network, Raj Digital Plus, Mega 24 and more recently Murasu from the Kalaignar network, which was originally a classic music channel that aired old film songs, but was converted into a movie channel last Sunday (10 October). However, none of these channels can stand up to the might of the big three channels — KTV, Vijay Super and Zee Thirai — certainly not in high definition.
Meanwhile, moving to Kerala, there are just two satellite movie channels: Surya Movies from the Sun network and Asianet Movies from Disney-Star (not counting local channels such as Rose Bowl, which is confined to the Asianet Digital cable platform, which has nothing to do with Disney-Star despite the Asianet name). Neither is currently available in HD quality. But that will change on Christmas when Asianet Movies, which was launched in 2012, launches its HD feed. This will leave Surya Movies under pressure to launch its HD version as well, but Sun TV Network has been planning to launch the HD versions of Surya Movies as well as Udaya Movies (Kannada movies), Sun Bangla (Bengali GEC) and Sun News (Tamil news). It should be only a matter of time before Sun comes out with its new RIO and takes the wraps off its new HD channels.
Indeed, Star’s flagship Malayalam GEC Asianet holds the distinction of being the first regional TV channel in India not from the Sun network to launch its HD feed, which it did in August 2015, thereby becoming the Star network’s first-ever regional HD channel. It was followed by both of Star’s Bengali channels, Star Jalsha and Jalsha Movies, launching HD feeds in April 2016 on the Bengali New Year. Given that Jalsha Movies has been available in HD for over five years now, it made little sense that Asianet Movies was not, especially as it has a vast library of Malayalam movies. Both Jalsha Movies and Asianet Movies were launched way back in 2012 and have not undergone any rebrandings or transformations since then. This may be a good opportunity for Disney-Star to revamp both Asianet Movies and Jalsha Movies, as it comes at the same time as the launch of the new Bengali channel Jalsha Josh — which is expected to complement Jalsha Movies in showing both movies and sporting events, particularly football — as explained further below.
However, the biggest development here is the launch of the Marathi movie channel Pravah Picture in both SD and HD versions, as this fills up a huge gap in Star’s regional portfolio, and will finally add some competition to a market dominated hitherto by Zee Talkies and, to a lesser extent, Shemaroo MarathiBana. This will relieve Star Pravah, the most popular Marathi GEC, by ensuring that Star’s library of Marathi movies is given sufficient airtime, without disturbing Star Pravah’s winning formula of hit serials and reality shows that has propelled it to the top of the ratings chart. One can expect the broadcaster to roll out a high-decibel promotion campaign for Pravah Picture in the upcoming months.
Given that the broadcaster’s Telugu movie channel Star Maa Movies is already available in HD, this will mean that five out of Star’s six main regional movie channels will be available in HD with these launches: Jalsha Movies HD (Bengali, launched 2016), Star Maa Movies HD (Telugu, launched 2017), Asianet Movies HD (Malayalam, launching in December), Vijay Super HD (Tamil, launching in December) and the upcoming Pravah Picture HD (Marathi, launching in December). The only exception is the Kannada movie channel Star Suvarna Plus, for which there is no news of an HD feed launching so far. However, with Zee Picchar HD being launched last month and Udaya Movies preparing to launch its HD feed soon, expect Disney-Star to up the ante in the Kannada movie genre in the coming few years by launching the HD feed of Star Suvarna Plus.
Regional sports portfolio sees a reshuffle: SS1 Tamil and Telugu get HD feeds, SS1 Marathi shuts down, SS1 Bangla becomes Jalsha Josh
Star had originally planned, way back in 2015, to launch a number of sports channels in regional languages in both SD and HD. Therefore this would have led to 10 sports channels (5 SD + 5 HD) across 5 languages: Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali and Marathi, but not Malayalam, the sixth of the 6 biggest regional languages. At one point even a Gujarati sports channel was planned, but this idea was wisely abandoned, due to the low penetration of TV channels in that language. However, when a series of Star Sports 1-branded regional sports channels was launched in 2018–2019, they were all in SD and none of them was in HD. This appeared to be a wise move, since there was little point in offering HD feeds to mass regional audiences which were more than satisfied with the SD versions. Nevertheless, since Hindi is the most widely spoken language in the country, Star Sports 1 Hindi has had a large enough reach to warrant an HD feed, which was launched in 2015 (as Star Sports 3 HD) and renamed in 2017 (see note)*.
It seems now that Star has had a change of heart, and decided to launch HD versions of Star Sports 1 Tamil and Telugu on 1 December 2021, after the conclusion of a long cricket season consisting of the recently-concluded IPL 2021 and the upcoming ICC T20 World Cup. This is certainly good news for the sports- and movie-crazy markets of Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, and Star Sports 1 Tamil has always been heavily watched during IPL seasons, so it deserves an HD upgrade. On the same day, Star is shutting down Star Sports 1 Bangla and Marathi — both launched in 2019, the former in March before the IPL, the latter in July after the Cricket World Cup — though it is also launching Jalsha Josh in the former’s place. While Jalsha Josh has been listed in the RIO document as a Bengali movie channel, it is highly likely that it could also show sporting events, especially since its logo (as filed with the Intellectual Property Office) contains a football, a sport that is wildly popular in West Bengal. Oddly enough, Star has given up on launching a sports channel for the other major football-crazy state — Kerala — as it had been planning to launch Star Sports 1 Malayalam in February 2020, before the pandemic started, but these plans were abandoned.
The inability to launch Star Sports 1 Malayalam may very well be a victim of the pandemic. But as far as the premature shutdown of Star Sports 1 Marathi is concerned, Star and Star alone is to blame, since it failed to distribute the channel across any television platforms, whether DTH or cable. Nor was it included in any broadcaster packages and bouquets. As a result, Marathi viewers who had been watching sporting events in their language on Disney+ Hotstar clamoured for a sports channel in their language to be launched, little knowing that one already existed — just not on any TV platform. In fact, Star has been guilty of launching some channels in the past but never distributing them on any platforms nor promoting them to viewers, with the result that the only people who could actually see the channels were Star’s own employees. Case in point: Nat Geo Tamil and Nat Geo Telugu, which were launched in June 2019 — replacing Nat Geo Music and Nat Geo People, and BabyTV’s SD feed — but no TV platforms ever added them, and they ended up getting axed in August 2020. (At the same time, Disney-Star handed another lifeline to the moribund Star World Premiere HD by deferring its shutdown till further notice, but in December, that channel’s lives are finally about to come to an end for good.)
Four out of Star Sports’ five regional channels will therefore be affected in some way: SS1 Tamil and SS1 Telugu gain HD feeds, while SS1 Marathi and SS1 Bangla will be scrapped altogether (though Jalsha Josh comes in place of the latter). This leaves SS1 Kannada as the outlier. In any case, these regional sports channels have been highly beneficial for Star, as they provide the ability for customised scoreboards and other language-specific graphics, bespoke match shows and other programming peppered with the flavour of the regional languages. This is much more than what a simple audio feed on a main sports channel can provide, though several have argued against these dedicated regional sports channels, on the grounds that they take up bandwidth and add to an ever-expanding list of channels in packages, especially with NTO 2.0 approaching. Nevertheless, rival broadcaster Sony Pictures Networks — which has thus far preferred to add multiple audio feeds on a limited number of sports channels — has seen some sense in Disney-Star’s preference for launching dedicated regional sports channels, and in June, it launched Sony Ten 4 specifically for Tamil and Telugu audiences.
*N.B.: The relaunched Star Sports 3, which replaced Channel V in September 2018, has nothing to do with the original Star Sports 3, which was the predecessor of today’s Star Sports 1 Hindi. The current Star Sports 3, which is available only in SD, was originally also expected to receive an HD feed, but this plan has been scrapped in favour of Star Sports 1 Tamil and Telugu getting HD feeds.
New Odia channel Star Kirano launching on 24 January 2022, to be Star’s first foray into a regional sector outside the big 6 languages
Disney-Star has so far been heavily focused on the big six regional markets, consisting of the four South Indian languages (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam) plus Bengali and Marathi, and it has been highly successful with its regional channels, using the brand names of Vijay (Tamil), Maa (Telugu), Suvarna (Kannada), Asianet (Malayalam), Jalsha (Bengali) and Pravah (Marathi). Of these, Star Maa, Asianet and Star Pravah are the leaders in their respective genres by a large margin, while Star Jalsha is also the leader in Bengali most of the time, but it often exchanges the top position with Zee Bangla and they have similar viewerships. Though Star Vijay is a long way behind the perennial Tamil leader Sun TV, it is still among the top 10 most popular TV channels in India as per the BARC ratings chart. Even the Kannada channel Star Suvarna has not been doing badly, and it has greatly improved from being the last of the four big Kannada GECs — the others being Zee Kannada, Colors Kannada and the Sun network’s Udaya TV — to a more respectable position. Moreover, Star has a number of secondary GECs, movie channels, sports channels (as above) and even a couple of music channels in regional languages. At one point, it even had Nat Geo Tamil and Telugu, as mentioned, but they were discontinued owing to lack of distribution.
As such, being so successful from these six markets, it hasn’t ventured outside these languages thus far, unlike Zee, which entered the Odia market through Sarthak TV (which was rebranded to Zee Sarthak in 2017) and relaunched its Punjabi channel Zee Punjabi in January 2020. But that situation is now going to change, with the launch of Disney-Star’s new Odia GEC Star Kirano, which will take place on 24 January 2022, in both SD and HD feeds — a year after news broke of its trademark registration with the Intellectual Property Office in January 2021. This is an exciting step to take for Disney-Star, as it enters a new regional market for the first time since acquiring the Telugu-language Maa channels in 2015, which reaped great dividends as Star Maa has become one of the top 3 TV channels in India.
Currently the Odia TV landscape consists of two GECs from large national broadcasters (Zee Sarthak and Colors Odia), with the largest Odia GEC, Tarang TV, being from the Odia-language Ortel Communications group, that also runs channels such as Prarthana TV, Alankar TV, Tarang Music and the news channel OTV. There are also two free-to-air GECs launched in the past couple of years: Manjari TV from the Sambad newspaper group, and Sidharth TV, run by Sitaram Agarwal, the original owner of Sarthak TV before it was sold to Zee. Manjari TV has managed to get added by all major TV platforms, but not Sidharth TV and the other Sidharth-branded channels that were launched in May 2021. So far, Tarang has dominated the market, followed by Zee Sarthak, with Colors Odia and the others languishing in a lowly position in the BARC ratings chart. None of these channels are available in HD, though Tarang has filed for an HD logo trademark with the Intellectual Property Office.
The arrival of Star Kirano will be no less than a storm in the fast-growing Odia TV market, and it has the potential to catch up with the big six markets — and fast. Already Zee Sarthak and Tarang have a large viewership from Odisha through their various serials and reality shows. However, unlike Tarang — which has the movie channel Alankar TV and the devotional channel Prarthana TV besides Tarang Music — Zee Sarthak and Colors Odia do not have the luxury of supporting Odia channels to show other content like movies and music more frequently. The new broadcaster Sidharth TV has launched multiple channels to partly fill in that void, but its lack of distribution on large TV platforms remains a problem. Star Kirano is likely to be very aggressive in capturing a large market share quickly, and the others wll have to be prepared for the onslaught.
So far, no regional channel in languages outside the big six, such as Odia, Punjabi, Assamese, Bhojpuri and Gujarati, has been available in HD. Therefore viewers have been forced to watch shows in these languages in inferior SD quality and 4:3 aspect ratio, though OTT platforms such as ZEE5 are able to offer them in HD quality. But Star Kirano will be available in HD from day one, and this could very well kick off a wave of large regional GECs at least in Odia — if not other languages — launching their HD feeds. Such a wave had taken place for the big six regional languages in 2016–2018, and almost all the major GECs in the big six languages have been available in HD for at least four years now. Odia has so far lagged behind, but with Star Kirano HD on the way, at least Tarang and Zee Sarthak will come under pressure to launch HD feeds, if not Colors Odia or the others. After trying to get a licence for Zee Sarthak HD for the past few years, Zee has largely given up on getting an HD feed for it, focusing on the HD versions of Zee Thirai and Zee Picchar instead. However, the launch of Star Kirano HD will most likely trigger Zee Sarthak and Tarang in speeding up the launch of their own HD versions.
While this may be far-fetched speculation at this point, this may also pave the way for broadcasters like Star and Viacom18 to enter other untapped markets like Assamese, Gujarati and Punjabi in the coming years. Since its launch in 2020, Zee Punjabi has been highly popular and has broken the monopoly of PTC Punjabi and other PTC channels, which enjoy the backing of the Badal family. Meanwhile Zee Ganga, which recently rebranded from Big Ganga, aspires to capture a large market share and become the number one Bhojpuri channel. If Zee can find success from these smaller markets, surely there is enough potential for Star or Viacom18 to enter. Assamese, for instance, has just three GECs — Rang, Rengoni and Jonack — all of which are run by small local broadcasters with no presence outside Assam. Gujarati, meanwhile, has the Viacom18 monopoly of Colors Gujarati and Colors Gujarati Cinema, with no other broadcaster present since Zee Gujarati closed down all the way back in 2009. With Star Kirano spearheading the way, there is enough scope for big broadcasters to look beyond the big six and take a closer look at launching new channels in these small but fast-growing markets.
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