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India’s TV scene must be one of the fastest-moving and hardest to track in the world. Parts of it are blisteringly modern, others defiantly retro. The whole biz is presided over by an Information & Broadcasting Ministry that talks of reform but is painfully slow at delivering it.

There are some 500 channels, multiple overlapping cable and satellite services and divergent language offerings — and battlegrounds abound. They include the daily rivalries of the mainstream Hindi market; a shortage of carriage space on all platforms; quarrels over the legitimacy of audience-measurement systems; enforced conversion to digital set-top decoders vs. the traditional — and widely pirated — local cable; and utterly brutal competition for top-drawing content.

The skirmish that gets the most ink is probably the battle between the Hindi-language mainstream nets, or “general entertainment channels” (GECs). Country saw the launch of some 55 new channels in the last year, including four GECs.

Other zones of conflict: Dominance of Zee, Star and Sony Entertainment Television has been challenged by NDTV Imagine, INX and Colors, the latter backed by Viacom 18. Reality shows have clawed their way up the rankings. And in a market normally dominated by local content, the need for novelty has sparked production of Indian variants of foreign shows such as “Fear Factor.” Plus, clamor for sports rights has seen two cricket rights packages sell for $1 billion each.

Zee Entertainment Enterprises CEO Punit Goenka sums up the confusion by saying: “The new GECs are becoming destructive, not engaging. We are breaking the bank for (the) short haul. Where previously we had soaps that were planned over a year, these are being replaced by the three-week highs that come with a reality show.”

While everything to do with the Indian TV market is predicated on growth — more TV households, more disposable income, less revenue leakage — revenue expansion cannot come fast enough. Goenka says the entry costs to the TV mainstream have risen by 65% in the past year. Turner Entertainment chief Steve Marcopoto says that for some shows talent costs have doubled in the past 12 months, the advertising pie is being sliced thinner, and that the GEC newcomers will have a longer payback period before they become profitable. That means they will give advertisers a free ride longer.

Sameer Nair, who heads NDTV Imagine, argues that the new GECs have already grown the market by some 20% and there will be room for everyone. But he adds, “We must differentiate or die,” and that they must learn to fight for different timeslots.

INX, which successfully launched a music channel and an English-language continuous news net, claims to be growing steadily at low cost and low risk, nevertheless demonstrated the perils of the GEC sector. Its prestige historical soap “Kahaani hamaaray Mahabharat ki” (one of 16 produced produced by Balaji Telefilms) has failed to win huge auds for its 9X channel — even though the show’s high production values may help as INX launches the channel in the U.K.

TOP 3

“Bidayi” (Star Plus)

“Balika Vadhu” (Colors)

“Saath Phere” (Zee TV)