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India’s youth networks get local bent

Bindass drives programming of rival MTV, Fox Channel V

The battle for India’s youth TV market is heating up.

Bindass, Indian media conglom UTV’s 3-year-old Hindi-language channel for 18- to 25-year-olds, has stolen the ratings crown away from music giants Viacom’s MTV and Fox’s Channel V, which have slugged it out for the No. 1 spot in the age group for the past 15 years.

More than that, Bindass’ success has spurred its rivals to broaden their content to include more locally made shows.

“MTV and Channel V are great brands, but we always felt that there was a need for a strongly localized Indian brand,” says Bindass CEO Zarina Mehta.

Bindass bowed in 2007 with a mix of music and fiction but, despite a hit comedy — “Sun yaar chill maar,” about a group of college pranksters — it struggled to make headway against its rivals. The recession hit soon after, and the channel had to drastically cut its programming budget.

MTV and V, which began as English-language music channels in the mid-1990s and later added Bollywood hits to satisfy a demand for local music, in recent years included a few reality and fiction shows to their skeds.

MTV enjoyed some success with bike-based show “Roadies” but V lost its way. “We didn’t have clear focus on what we wanted the channel to be; I guess it was drifting,” says V channel head Prem Kamath, who was brought in from sister channel Star to resuscitate the brand.

Bindass re-launched in 2009, with a slew of edgy local reality shows, led by the popular “Emotional atyachar,” which was based on young people questioning their partners’ fidelity.

Anil Wanvari, industry analyst and editor of Indiantelevision.com, says the show “changed the entire perception of what youths are willing to watch. It shook the market.”

Bindass’ mix of 51% reality, 40% music and 9% films proved potent. It has topped the A18-24 ratings for the past five months in cities with populations of more than a million in the Hindi-speaking market — once the preserve of MTV and V — according to AC Nielsen subsid Television Audience Measurement.

Bindass’ rivals have countered by widening their distribution into smaller towns where it has no penetration.

In doing so, MTV and Channel V have had to revamp their programming to attract a more rural audience.

V head of content Sheetal Sudhir says the first thing it did was cut music down from 90% to 20% of its sked because there were so many channels playing the same Bollywood music that there was no way to differentiate content among providers.

“We are now appealing to youths in smaller towns by using them in our content,” Sudhir says. “Hence it is inclusive, not exclusive.”

MTV upped its show content to 50% of programming, but as channel head Aditya Swamy says, “Music is the heart of MTV; it always has been and always will be.” However, Swamy notes that the profile of people winning MTV’s reality shows has changed. “They are from the smaller towns and are eager to prove a point to their cool dude counterparts in the big cities.”

V and MTV are moving beyond the TV space to attract ads. They are engaging with youngsters on social networks, university fests, cafes and salons and via merchandising to present the widest reach for advertisers.

“TV is just one of our businesses,” Swamy says. “If our only benchmark is ratings, then life becomes very one-dimensional.”

Going local has worked for V and MTV. For V in particular, 2010 has seen a remarkable return from the doldrums, due to popular shows like “Roomies,” “Dare to Date” and “Lovenet.”

Overall, in Asia, the trend is increasingly toward local content to attract younger viewers.

“The youth segment is being tapped heavily through online, especially in China, Korea and Japan,” says Vivek Couto, exec director of research for film at Media Partners Asia. “In Southeast Asia, TV still has a strong role in the youth segment, especially in Thailand and the Philippines.

“One key development has been the continued growth of local brands — in Korea, there are more than three strong local music and youth brands, mostly controlled by the CJ Group; in China, you have Shanghai Media Group and a host of other satellite broadcasters; in Thailand there’s entertainment major GMM Grammy, which is now producing satellite channels.”

Back in India, despite the popularity of Bindass, MTV and V, there remains one overarching fact: The moment a popular Bollywood film or a cricket match airs, youngsters switch over.

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