Sachin Gokhale of Viacom 18 on creating viable local content

Sachin Gokhale, Senior VP MEA, APAC for Viacom 18, speaks to BroadcastPro ME about creating reality shows and regional initiatives that engage audiences while also appealing to advertisers.

Colors TV concluded the filming of season 2 of Checkmate last month in Dubai. Sachin Gokhale, Senior VP MEA, APAC for Viacom 18, speaks to BroadcastPro ME about creating reality shows and regional initiatives that engage audiences while also appealing to advertisers

You have championed a number of reality-based shows in the region. Why is that?

As a channel working for the South Asian diaspora primarily, we realised that the diaspora here – as against their counterparts in Canada, the US and elsewhere – have a closer and stronger attachment to their roots. Our typical pay-TV family audience in the GCC is middle- to upper middle class. The parents still see themselves as expatriates even as their children have been exposed to a cosmopolitan environment. While Colors is a popular channel, especially our dramas, the shows that resonated across the ME were the reality-based and Bollywood shows with their glamorous production values.

“We brainstormed with the production house to come up with a reality show that would engage those between the ages of 19 and 22” Sachin Gokhale, Senior VP MEA, APAC for Viacom 18

How did Checkmate come about?

Participants with Sachin Gokhale

We identified a couple of trends among South Asian families. The emphasis on education as a gateway to a good job remains strong. The second-generation South Asians study in an interesting mix of higher education institutes in the UAE and around the GCC. However, we noticed that employers in the corporate sector prefer candidates with experience to fresh graduates from local universities. The general view was that while colleges offer some vocational support, the job search included a lot of knocking on doors, posting CVs on LinkedIn and hoping for the best, or going back home to gain some experience.

Young people are an important demographic for us and they are increasingly consuming content on digital platforms, so we wanted a youth product that would address this issue. We brainstormed with the production house to come up with a reality show that would engage those between the ages of 19 and 22, and Checkmate was conceived where participants go through a series of business- and management-related tasks and the ultimate winner is awarded a corporate internship.

How was this season of Checkmate different from the inaugural edition?

We cast a wider net for this year’s auditions, and based on last year’s success, we got a pool of participants who were a lot more serious and focused on the end game of the show – i.e., the internship — and not just looking at the experience as a chance for being on TV.

In terms of rounds, we did away with some challenges that did not work well. For instance, we did away with the creative challenge wherein each participant received a blank canvas with art materials. We introduced the crisis management round this year, with participants responding to questions from our judges in real time. In addition, we have candidates visiting retail stores planning a holiday for a family of four to a tropical country. The challenge calls for optimising budgets, resources within the store, time constraints and taking into account factors such as weather, holiday experiences and so on.

What is the grand prize?

We are offering six-month paid internships with three organisations: RAK Bank, bayut. com and Colors. Six months is long enough for both the winner and the company to decide on a future course of action.

How are you gauging audience engagement for Checkmate, and what is your revenue model? We are measuring viewership on two fronts, one in terms of what IPSOS delivers on TV, and the second based on feedback for content featured in the digital space – that would include footage not shown on TV such as behind-the scenes, bloopers, teasers and so on. We track both views and engagement. On an average, we feature around 50 digital-only videos for Checkmate.

Regarding the revenue model, we are looking at various innovations. For instance, in Singapore we launched Salaam Namaste Singapore with the telco StarHub Ltd as our sponsor. It was a local TV show that covered the lives of Indians who have made Singapore their home. Four episodes of the programme were available to StarHub subscribers as VOD before it aired on Colors. Our other shows, such as Body & Mind, CricQuiz or PropertyScape, have also addressed both consumer and advertiser needs, and we have been rather successful in bridging both aspects.

Do you believe content produced here will travel back to India and elsewhere?

For the present, we will not be telecasting Checkmate in India. We have global rights to all content we commission, so there is always that option.

In India, the channel genres are more sharply defined than here. A show such as Checkmate would not typically air on Colors. It would be part of a different channel. Also, given the kind of money riding on shows produced in India, everything you do has to be on a large scale and cater to a large audience. We do not face similar pressures and that allows us to be more experimental here than in India.

Have overall market conditions provided you with opportunities, or are there challenges?

It has been challenging to hold on to the kind of revenues we generated earlier. Traditional advertisers have cut down their spending both in terms of corporate and retail advertising. We quickly realised that the existing content and channels will only give us diminishing returns, so we essentially shifted gears and started investments in live events and local content.

We needed to come up with newer reasons for advertisers to invest with us, so we took it beyond the 30-second slot and created platforms that allowed the integration of local advertisers with the content produced. While it allows brands to rise above the clutter, it also helped us draw in clients who would not have normally spent money on traditional linear television. As a channel, we are not just offering 100 spots for advertising, we are addressing their marketing needs. In the last 12 months, as much as 30-35% of advertising sales has come from new business initiatives.

We are not just competing with traditional big broadcasters, we are up against digital platforms as well. So much of the budget is now being diverted to digital and result oriented campaigns. As a channel, we need to keep ourselves relevant. Otherwise, our base will erode.

“We are looking at a global launch [for Voot] in the next six months. We have identified eight to nine markets where the South Asian diaspora is large enough” Sachin Gokhale, Senior VP MEA, APAC for Viacom 18

What are your plans for 2018?

We hope to take our India-based AVOD service, Voot, internationally over the next six months as a subscription model. Subscribers here will then have 35-40,000 hours of content available that will be refreshed daily. That is where we want to be, but we will get there step by step. We do not want to cannibalise existing businesses, but we do want to reach consumers that are not watching our linear channels. We are looking at the right mix.

There are questions we are addressing at the moment. While Voot in India does not carry channels, should it do so internationally? What should the subscription mode be? Should it be available as an app or on Google Store, or should it be made available through local telcos? It will differ from market to market. We are looking at a global launch in the next six months. We have identified eight to nine markets where the South Asian diaspora is large enough, with purchasing power.

Is the introduction of Voot part of the B2C strategy you referred to at the BroadcastPro Summit?

Voot is one of them. Content owners now have access to consumers directly, in terms of knowing what they are consuming. We do not have to rely on just TV ratings. By posting on social media, we can mine far richer insights into our viewers. In India, we put up a post about a show and we get 2,000 comments immediately that can give us working insights into what the audience is expecting.

As a content owner or broadcaster, I can have my big stars do a session on Facebook Live. Earlier, people would wait for that one press conference with the star; today, you can have city-specific engagements via the digital route.

The initial exponential growth that we enjoyed in the first few years has settled. Our challenge going forward is to stay ahead and above all remain relevant to our audience.