UTV New Media has launched an Audio Cinema initiative, which provides abridged versions of Indian films on audio, via a voice portal which is accessible from the mobile. The service is being launched with Bollywood films Sholay and Fashion, Premloka in Kannada, Dalpati in Tamil and Gangleader in Telugu. The films will be 1 hour long, and with narration and select key dialogues and songs. UTV plans to launch four movies a week, and a total of 208 movies in four languages in the next one year.

The content will be available on the voice portal 505999555, where users can dial in and choose from various movie options. Rates are different for different telecom operators: in most instances, it is priced at Rs. 6 per minute (on Airtel and Vodafone). For Reliance, it’s available on a subscription of Rs. 30 per month, and a listening charge of Rs. 0.50 per minute.
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UTV New Media CEO T.N. Prabhu told MediaNama that the concept owes its origins to the way Radio used to broadcast plays and abridged versions of films in the past, and that content consumption on mobile is mirroring Radio. “We obviously cannot go ahead and reinvent news or mobile music now. What we’re doing has synergy with what our group (UTV) is doing.”

Among other things, we spoke to Prabhu about what they learned from test runs, the licensing, pricing, programming, and his views on content like TV Shows and audio books for this format. I got the sense that some of the issues and options for UTV with this initiative, will also exist in case of Mobile TV. Excerpts from the interview:

Which labels have you tied up for Audio Cinema?

Right now, we have UTV Motion Pictures, Universal. In South, we have a deal with Lahiri. We also have Singh is Kinng from Times Music. Over a period of the past 1 year, we have several licenses from several labels.

Will you be looking to tie up with other labels?

Yes, but this is a new concept. Labels are not going to say yes overnight: we’ll need to do this well, showcase it in front of others. Else, it will go the way music has gone – you have money, content providers will demand (high sums of money). We are prepared for those challenges, but somewhere labels have also realized that is not just about deployment but good deployment, and partnering with the right company.

How has this content been licensed? It’s not music…

Every music label, over the past 3 years, has got varying music license. When a label licenses music from a production company, they take audio as a part of that exercise. They but it in bulk, and they split it as digital, online, mobile etc. The full movie audio rights is what we have licensed from various labels.

Rs. 6 per minute is rather expensive. Have you set the rates, or the telecom operators?

The carrier is definitely participating in recommending the price points because ultimately they collect the money and they know the affordability for their consumers. Well we seek price points and they suggest a price, saying that we can eventually reduce it. With Airtel we’ve started off at Rs. 6/min but eventually we will move to Rs.2/min. In the trials that we did, we figured that if the price is somewhere between Re.1/min and Rs.2/min then the uptake is very high.

What kinds of trends did you observe during your test runs?

We had a sample of about 30-35,000 users to whom we showcased the content. The top three states in terms of acceptability and immediate hook up into the service were Maharashtra, M.P. and Uttar Pradesh and very clearly Hindi was the predominant language. Then came two states – Bihar and Harayana. Tamil is of course popular in Tamil Nadu, Kannada in Karnataka and Telugu in AP; with around 5-6% of consumers from each of these three states.

Why would people listen to a one hour movie?

In instances like when they don’t have access to the actual cinema in DVD. Secondly, when they just want to listen to dialogues, at leisure. Thirdly, when they time to listen while travelling. I dont think people who have not watched Sholay are going to listen. It may happen to an eccentric movie buff. Other than that, people will consume it for impulsive entertainment.

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In our test, 47-48% completed – there were a lot of dropouts, but there were redials as well. We have tried to do two things: if I disconnect for some reason now, I should be able to come back and start at the same point. In Data I can do it, but in voice it’s an issue. As an immediate arrangement, people can forward or rewind by 10 minutes. We’re also providing a synopsis of the entire story, and you can listen to the dialogues.

How do you intend to schedule the content, with 208 films?

We’ve planned for a new release every week: next week, we’re releasing Roja in Tamil. It is like in case of any multiplex or distribution scenario; for example, Sholay is very popular in Bihar and Fashion is popular in Maharashtra so we would retain those movies for some more weeks in the respective states. At the same time, you will be able to access older content.

Today we want schedule it by circles but tomorrow we can go ahead and schedule according to what is popular with Vodafone, Airtel and Idea subscribers. We want to have the flexibility to shift and change movies according to the people’s taste. This requires a full time activity to sit down discuss each circle, and what one has to do to maximise each.

Will you be looking at providing TV shows? What about licensing audio books for voice portals?

TV Shows will be next; STAR and others had tried it earlier. The format has to be a storytelling format. We have UTVs own productions – and we’re trying to figure a way and identify how to abridge those and provide them in bits and pieces. In movies, it’s already a storytelling format and its easy to bring it down to an hour. Episodes and serials are a bigger challenge.

Audio Books have to be even shorter than motion pictures, which offer engagement for a full 60 minutes. What is already selling in the market, picking it up and putting it in a voice portal, is just a deployment job. We want to get into a storytelling mode. If I were to take Binodini (by Rabindranath Tagore), then it would be a big challenge, with artists called in, reading dialogues, dubbing etc. But if I were to take a Karadi Tales on audio, there would only be distributing. It really depends on what kind of a market we want to reach.

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