Television channels HBO and Warner Brothers are undergoing a rebranding exercise. The channels operate under Turner Broadcasting System’s Indian arm Turner International India. Rohit Bhandari, senior director and network head for English entertainment, spoke to MediaNama about the channel’s plans to stick to television, censorship and the company’s content strategy. Edited excerpts from the interview:
On HBO sticking to television and not offering their streaming service HBO Go
That’s not our core competency at the end of the day. We are a broadcasting company. And given the way Dash2 and Dash3 which have happened over the last couple of years and the fact that DTH has gained from Dash3. Taking this overall number into play, television still offers a very large base for us in India. And in terms of pure advertising point of view, that’s where the revenues are at this point in time. From that perspective we are broadcast specialists and intend to be in that space. Yes, we are doing things like launching an HBO app. It’s purely as means to engage our viewer, listen to them a bit more and bridge the gap between their expectation and what we deliver as a network.
I’m not an expert in the Internet space. I’m not privy to how well Netflix has done in India. Whatever little bit I’ve heard, people don’t seem too kicked about it when it comes to the entry price etc.
Currently, our expertise lies purely in television content. And that too movies. (Internet streaming apps) is not a specialization for us. Something that won’t deliver a rating for me, I’m definitely not going to go in that direction. It could be a long term plan. But not at least for the next couple of years.
On censorship and communication with the Information and broadcasting ministry
On the censorship front, we’ve had a couple of meetings with them. There was a case in between where a lot of movies were held up. So we had a meeting with the ministry and they assured us that they will advise the CBFC to take a fair view and start releasing films.
The rule laid down is that any movie that appears on television has to have a U or a U/A certification. Any movie which is certified A in theatrical release, it needs to undergo fresh certification from the CBFC.
The channel does some voluntary cuts and if the CBFC thinks the voluntary cuts are fine and the version is sanitized to go on television, then they give you a U/A or a U certificate. Or they give you some cuts that they themselves ask you to make. After they make those cuts and they’re still not satisfied, they give you an A rated certificate which means you can’t play the movie after that.
What we have to understand that in India television is a family medium.
And what we understand from the ministry, from the one meeting we had, they are definitely looking at this Indian Cinematographer’s Act and looking at introducing some new time bands where slightly adult content can make its way to television. But they haven’t really laid down a timeline in terms of when something like this would happen.
As far as we are concerned, we have a very strict SNP (standards and practices) policy internally and if anything goes to the CBFC, and as per the rules laid down by them, they certify the films for us. As and when there is more discussion between the ministry and the CBFC and they pass down new notices that this is allowable as per law, we would definitely explore putting in more risque content.
Process of sanitizing content for television
At the SNP level, there are some very obvious things we do.
First, any form of nudity or any graphic depictions, that’s the first thing which goes off. The second which goes off the air is language. The language is not cut off, it is bleeped off. Any swear words that are there, that goes off. And if there’s anything which is disrespectful to any cultural or religious sentiments of anybody, that’s the third level where the SNP gets into it. And this what generally the censor board looks at.
All channels have an SNP department. Every channel has a different understanding of how they would like to sanitize the content. So we follow a rule, where by and large it is an industry standard. Nudity, graphic content, language and ensuring that no religious and cultural sentiments are hurt: those are the four things we look at.
Not that we’ve had to cut anything based on religious and cultural sentiments, but the team is sensitized to that.
On Indian content, Indie movies and web series
Currently, what happened typically in the pre-digitization days, when you had an analog cable signal. We used to pay carriage fees. Today with the advent of digitization, with set top boxes coming in, you receive all the channels which are coming through the pipe.
From the consumer’s point of view, they’ve got more variety and he’s got larger choice. Secondly, their consumption is purely related to watching English entertainment or Hollywood.
Anything which is leaning towards Indian content or Indie movies, they don’t know what bracket to put it under. Hence, from a rating point of view and from an audience preference point of view, the preference is pretty low at this point in time. People prefer action, action-comedies and it has predominantly been in that space.
If we do come across something interesting, we would definitely will consider acquiring it. But we really haven’t seen a demand from a rating point of view. There have been movies which have been played on air, across the genres and the ratings show that it’s not very encouraging.
If you were to compare the numbers of web shows like The Viral Fever’s The Pitchers based on YouTube views. Of course you have to get a geo breakdown of who’s watching it. If you break that down and see what works in this country, and how many would watch it if you put it on a mainstream service, you’re going to see numbers which are very low. There are some things which work specifically on a specific medium. Those content if you try to put it out on television service like ours, by and large something might work and there’s no guarantee of it.
For TVF’s show, the IMdB ratings is great. It is a good benchmark. But that doesn’t mean every top IMdB rated movie or show is going to work out on television.
On documentaries, dramas and premium channels
We avoid it purely because it’s not what our audience is looking for. It’s clearly something that our audience does not look for. We don’t even look at dramas that aggressively. Dramas, currently, is a hard sell to the current audience.
Premium channels is related on the ability or the propensity to pay. And currently, I don’t know if there is a space for that at this point of time.
Whether people are willing to pay X over what they are paying for cable to watch that kind of content which is very specialized in nature. Actually that’s where the video-on-demand players are trying to fill the gap.
Content acquisition for HBO
Right now, we have two chief content partners. Paramount and Warner Brothers studios. And they are our first pay partners. So any film which is released by Warner Brothers or Paramount, it premieres first on HBO. So we will continue to have our focus on the movie space itself.
On an average, to run a healthy movie channel you need anywhere between 300-400 titles. Which would be a mix of A,B, C, and D titles. Because there are slots across the day and some which rate very well and some which don’t. So you need a fair mix of titles. That number comes in between 350-400 titles