Indian Premier League now dominating ratings

Cricket is in danger of knocking all other entertainment out of the ballpark in India.

In a country where the sport is held as highly as religion, the advent of the Indian Premier League, a knockout tournament using a sexy new form of the game, is topping the ratings and denting the power of the country’s normally dominant general entertainment channels.

IPL is carried live by Sony’s SET Max, a web usually eclipsed by the general entertainment channels, known as GECs here.

But Max is now playing in the big leagues and setting records in India’s multichannel era.

According to Television Audience Measurement ratings, 20 million people watched the first three matches on Max. Its primetime market share in the three biggest cities was 29.3%, compared with the 25.5% achieved by the top nine GECs combined.

“All the GECs have lost viewers to the IPL matches,” Tarun Mehra, Zee TV’s business head, was reported as saying.

Max’s IPL figures are better than for many international matches and also show high numbers of women viewers.

“It would only be fair to say that we are very pleased with the superb opening. … Max has positioned the IPL broadcast as the definitive and ultimate entertainment destination,” Max executive VP and business head Sneha Rajani says.

IPL uses a fast and furious cutdown version of cricket called Twenty/20, with games played between city franchises, some owned by celebrities, and teams made up of local and international stars. Some commentators have described it as the ultimate reality TV show.

If the entertainment channels have all been stung, they also have reacted differently.

Traditional leader Star Plus launched a localized version of “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” fronted by Shah Rukh Khan, India’s biggest movie star.

The show performed well, but there was a sense that the superstar, who owns the Kolkata IPL team, was competing against himself.

Zee shifted its emphasis to daytimes and weekends, adjusted its rate card and saw its share climb. The main SET channel lost points to its little brother; it has trailed new shows heavily.

Among the newest entertainment channels, NDTV Imagine, which got off to a stellar start in January, sustained one of the sharpest falls, while the slower-building 9X continued to climb and took third spot among the general entertainment channels.

Nimbus, a rights trading group that spans sports and movies and holds rights to different cricket tournaments, has cleverly tried to ride the coattails of IPL. Its NeoCricket channel launched in the second week of April based on the concept of “cricketainment.”

“Sports channels always work best when you have live events. IPL is live and in primetime. Our concept is to maximize audiences during nonlive times, and we have created 10 shows that are intended to pull in some of the GEC audience too,” Nimbus’ marketing maven Amrita Pai says.

Successful shows include “Sportszone” and “Dial C for Cricket.”

First TAM data suggests that NeoCricket ranked second among sports channels behind Ten Sports, but ahead of Star Sports, Star Cricket, ESPN and Zee Sports.

The impact of IPL on India’s other major passion, movies, is less clear. Cause and effect are harder to prove than in TV — the sector is dominated by single TV households that are either tuned in to the cricket or not — and the country lacks a transparent nationwide box office measurement system.

Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests turnstiles are ticking considerably more slowly than normal. Only one blockbuster has been released since the beginning of IPL, Yash Raj Films’ “Tashan,” which flopped, but whether the cricket was to blame is moot; the pic was poorly received by the critics.

For most media folk — with the exception of SET and SET Max — the end to the six-week IPL season can’t come soon enough.

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