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Higher ratings, bigger ad revenues - HBO’s focus in 2017: Rohit Bhandari

HBO is taking some aggressive steps to up its ante in the English movies channels space. The channel re-branded itself last year with the tagline ‘Experience The Magic’ with the aim of creating cinematic magic for the viewers every time they switch on the television set. 

Now, living up to its tagline ‘Experience the Magic’, HBO is all geared to bring to India the biggest line-up of Hollywood blockbusters this year across genres – action, comedy, drama, thrillers and superhero flicks. HBO and HBO HD have already premiered the superhero film, ‘Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice’. 

While affirming that HBO’s main focus will continue to be Hollywood movies, Rohit Bhandari, Senior Director and Network Head – English Entertainment, Turner International India, informed that HBO has first output deals with Warner Brothers and Paramount Studios in place. This ensures that the channel always has access to quality premiere content and that too within a short time of the theatrical release. HBO also acquires from other studios and independent aggregators to provide more variety on the channel. 

Bhandari further said that action/ thrillers led by Superheroes are key rating drivers for HBO, and that is what dictates its programming strategy. “We generally try and maintain a 60:40 ratio, with a 60 per cent bias towards action and adventure, and genres like comedy, action comedy, drama and romance constituting 40 per cent of the schedule,” he added. 

In conversation with Adgully, Rohit Bhandari shares HBO’s aggressive plans for 2017, content pipeline, renewed focus of brand HBO in India ad much more. Excerpts: 

What does HBO stand for today? 
The tagline – ‘Like Never Before’ – was just an introduction to the newly packaged brand HBO, which we further qualified as ‘Experience The Magic’ with the launch of HBO HD. ‘Experience The Magic’ is an emotional experience that HBO hopes to deliver to its users every time they switch on their television sets. Cinema has always had a very special appeal to every viewer. For some, it’s the big screen experience; for some, it’s the Dolby Surround Sound effect coupled with the images that play out on the screen that transcend one from the real to a world of make believe; and for some, it’s just the overall ambience of the movie theatre coupled with the samosa or potato wafers or the buttery popcorn – in effect, the sights and sounds that surround and encompass the action of the words ‘Let’s go and watch a movie’. HBO’s endeavour is to deliver all the above emotions, feelings, visual imagery and a feeling of transcendence for its viewers. HBO tries to deliver on this promise each and every day with all the content that it presents to its viewers. 

What are the 3 key things that HBO is doing to regain its market share?
The goal that Turner has set for itself in 2017 is higher ratings, better audience engagement and bigger advertising revenues, and the game plan to achieve these goals for the English entertainment channels is through better content and constant engagement with the viewers and fans of our brands. 

In 2016, HBO re-branded with the tagline ‘Experience The Magic’, which essentially is a promise to try and deliver cinematic magic every time the viewer switches on the television set, and while we constantly inform our viewers through the channel on when they can catch a great film or their favourite film, marketing in the form of social media helps us stay in touch with the viewer and keep him engaged. 

Based on our interactions with our viewers, we take on board their suggestions and use that for scheduling the channel and engaging them a lot better. We work with specialist agencies who understand not just social media, but also our audiences well to help us bridge the gap between them and brand HBO. Going forward, a deep understanding of our viewers and their expectations as a channel and our ability to analyse and interpret their needs and serve them accordingly is what will prepare us for any fight. 

How has HBO’s Y-O-Y growth been in India?
HBO has consistently been a No. 1 4 player through all these years. Also, the fact that midway through 2015, the audience measurement system moved from TAM to BARC and since the base for both these databases was different, they could not be compared directly. 

From an ad sales perspective, the English genre saw growth driven largely by the HD offerings and strong FMCG support in the first half of 2016. The second half saw a robust Diwali, but the next few months were low due to demonetisation. Since March, we have seen an upswing again, with autos, mobile handsets and e-commerce again gaining momentum. The upcoming festive season looks promising. 

What is HBO’s TG and key markets?
The key TG for HBO is in the age group of 15-40 years, NCCS A, 1 Mn+ markets across India. The main contributing markets are the top 8 markets, followed by the rest of the 1Mn+ markets. 

How does HBO plan to build on its competitive edge?
Given a market of India’s size, it was always expected that there would be more players coming in, and one always has to strategise and find ways and means to remain relevant. While there is fragmentation, eventually the brand value that you create and support the brand with content is what helps the brand grow. 

A lot of English entertainment shows and movies are now available on OTT platforms like Amazon Prime and Netflix. How is HBO looking at creating a disruption there? 
Given the size of India as a market, TV will continue to be a medium that is the primary source of entertainment for almost a majority of the audience. While OTT will eventually have a role to play, it is still early days yet and it will be a matter of time before one can see a real impact on television viewership. 

What is HBO’s strategy to boost its prime time and weekend offering? 
HBO follows a differentiated strategy during weekdays and over weekends. Given that weekdays are busy times for people, we play more of the action-oriented blockbuster titles as the viewer is looking for a quick fix and blockbusters offer them an easy entry into the film. However, the weekends allow us to expose more of our library to our viewers. With 1 pm and 9 pm being the key slots which are reserved for popular titles, the other slots like 11 am, 3 pm, 7 pm, etc., allow us to play a variety of titles across genres. 

What does the content line-up look like for the next 3 months?
2017 is a blockbuster filled year for HBO, with an exceptional line-up that starts right from the month of January and runs right through the end of the year. On an average, HBO will be premiering at least 1, if not 2, titles every month. Headlining these premieres will be some of the big blockbusters from 2016 – viz. ‘Batman V/s Superman: Dawn of Justice’, ‘Suicide Squad’, ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’, and ‘XxX: Return of Xander Cage’, to name a few. 

Each of these blockbusters will be supported by a week-long festival that will build the anticipation for the viewers leading to the Mega Premiere itself. Since we premiered ‘Batman v/s Superman: Dawn of Justice’ on April 2, as a lead up we featured a festival of the classic Batman and Superman films under the branding of ‘March of the Superheroes’, which was promoted aggressively on HBO and also on social media through the various HBO managed handles. 

Key titles for the next 3 months would be ‘Jack Reacher: Never Go Back’, ‘Lights Out’, ‘Conjuring 2’, ‘The Accountant’, ‘Sully’ and ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them’. 

We have seen movie channels experimenting with zero or only one break during a movie’s telecast. What is HBO’s strategy in this regard?
We do experiment with break structures and quite often our films in the afternoons end up having a single break per film or two breaks once in a while. Anyway, during the off season, owing to lesser inventory utilisation, we tend to spread the single break structure across the entire day. 

What about binge watching?
HBO will be a movie driven service and our scheduling is based on airing more popular blockbuster titles during the week and adding a lot more variety to the schedule during the weekends. Since we are a movie service, we do not create any binge-watching stunts, however we do create thematic stunts to promote our key titles or for some of our premieres.

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