Post lockdown, Zee Café has added 256 hours of content: Kartik Mahadev

Zee Café recently completed 20 years of bringing families together with the best of English entertainment. Additionally, building on its exhilarating legacy of two decades, Zee Café unveiled a brand campaign showcasing how the channel has defined culture and conversations by bringing families together to share ‘we-time’.

In line with the channel’s proposition of bringing ‘All Eyes On New’, Zee Café’s content palette brings diverse genres from dramas and light-hearted comedies to animated-fantasy and reality.

Consistently innovating to suit audience interests, the channel was also the first to introduce ‘binge’ as a viewing format thus allowing viewers to consume content at their preferred pace. Today, with over 70 per cent content that is TV-First, Zee Café has truly redefined television viewing for audiences in India by bringing shows such as Battlebots, Seal Team, FBI, A Million Little Things, Charmed on television before digital platforms.

In conversation with Adgully, Kartik Mahadev, Business Head, Premium Channels, ZEEL, speaks at length about Zee Café’s two decade-long journey, the content strategy, the ‘Nostalgia’ factor in COVID-19 times and much more.

 Could you take us through the key milestones in Zee Café’s two-decade long journey? How has it evolved over these 20 years? What has been Zee Café’s role in shaping the English Entertainment narrative in India?

Two decades ago, while the Indian audience was still warming up to international content, Zee bolstered a new era of English programming on television with the launch of what was then called Zee English, later rebranded as Zee Café. Since inception, it has been the sole endeavour of the channel to bring the best of English entertainment to the Indian viewer, with iconic shows like ‘Seinfeld’, ‘Friends’, ‘The Sopranos’, ‘Mad About You’ and Emmy winners – ‘ER’ and ‘The West Wing’.

 Circa early 2000s, consumption of English entertainment was still at a nascent stage in India, where those who speak, understand and appreciate international content on television formed just a sliver of the pie. Today, this is has grown into a ‘Glocal’ community. Zee Café has played a pivotal role in shaping this genre through compelling content and shaping the aspirations of this community of international content viewers. 

Zee Café has driven several successful innovations for a delightful viewer experience. Be it through the marquee offering ‘Along With The US’ launched in early 2000s where the latest international shows like ‘The Big Bang Theory’, ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ andSupergirl’ were aired along with their US release or the introduction of ‘binge-watching’ as a format with ‘House of Cards S3’ and subsequent properties like ‘BBC First’ and ‘Breakfast To Bed Binge’ – Café has always catered to the evolving consumer needs.

 As consumption appetite for English entertainment evolved, we introduced compelling dramas as part of properties like ‘Hollywood On Café’ that promised the scale and grandeur of Hollywood on television. The BBC First Dramas on Café added a complex and visceral mix of content with a TV First approach. We also provided variety of content with locally-nuanced content with celebrity chat shows like ‘Look Who’s Talking with Niranjan’ in the past and shows like ‘Not Just Supper Stars’ and ‘Starry Nights’ featuring A-list Bollywood celebrities more recently.

 Today, our stable subscriber base is an indication of the channel’s strength amongst a loyal set of consumers who choose the channel for its strong legacy of content. Our promising 20-year journey has been one backed by the support of many individuals and studio partners in shaping the English entertainment landscape, with whom we celebrate this milestone. Their contribution has enabled us to truly entertain our audience by creating togetherness moments and sparks conversations around content.

 Could you elaborate on the 20 Years campaign?

Our viewers are evolved, motivated and have a global outlook. They lead a fast-paced lifestyle and are constantly on the lookout for what is new and different. Over the years, Zee Café has served as a window to the world, bringing the latest and iconic International English content on television. Being exposed to some of the finest shows like ‘Seinfeld’, ‘The Big Bang Theory’, ‘Supergirl’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’, viewers have grown in their familiarity and affinity towards International content. Content with familiar characters spark conversations, shape cultures and become a catalyst towards personal growth. Over the years, we start relating to the character or an iconic moment and realise how it could potentially shape our own identity. The one thing that has remained constant through this journey of content discovery is that Zee Café has constantly curated the latest and the iconic international content. The #WeTimeWithZeeCafe campaign captures this relationship with our discerning viewers and celebrates the We-Time moments.

 Watch Celebrate #WeTimeWithZeeCafé:

 The film glides through time and showcases how the Zee Café has inherently been a part of our lives and has inadvertently shaped us over the years. The visually striking illustration style video captures this journey through the experiences of a girl who grew up watching Zee Café. Through a series of relatable illustrations, the film highlights moments in her life that are inspired by the iconic shows on Zee Café, that have become a signpost of her life stages, similarly playing a part in shaping life and lifestyle for their viewers from around the country.

We want to thank and celebrate this journey with our viewers and all our stakeholders. We have a robust marketing plan, including On-Air, Digital, Radio and Trade communication.

What are the key drivers of growth for Zee Café? What does the prognosis for the English Entertainment genre look like in the near future?

With out-of-home entertainment options being limited in the new normal, television will continue to be the trusted entertainment destination for individuals and families. Interestingly, India is the second-largest English speaking country in the world (BBC India Report - 2012).Thus, in the long run, regional markets will continue to fuel new user growth for English entertainment. There is a whole set of audience moving from regional to English content as they become more comfortable with English as a professional, conversational language. We have designed unique offerings such as locally nuanced content on Zee Café that has helped drive resonance and enabled adoption of English content amongst an aspirational, English comfortable audience.

 How is the channel co-existing with OTTs and still staying relevant among the audience?

There is no doubt that the digital video platforms are here to stay. However, today we live in an AND world, not an OR world. English entertainment (Movies + GEC) on Television caters to 170 million+ viewers (BARC @ All India 2+ U+R, Week 01'20- Week 29' 20). The lockdown has showed us that the viewers choose to watch television for the curated content experience it provides, to not just individuals but the entire family.

 Studies reveal that consumption of overlapped content between TV and OTT grew on television from 59% pre-NTO to 82% contribution post-NTO for sitcom, drama, reality genres. It naturally follows that navigation between screens is seamless and consumption on TV and digital is complementary in nature.

 The surge in TV viewership post lockdown tells us that television is the trusted medium of entertainment. Television provides youth-focused brands and premium brands the opportunity to associate with a premium subscriber base that is defined basis their content choice. This sort of content and platform synergy for brands to associate with is not available on OTT platforms, where English content is behind paywall. While content consumption on OTT is growing, it is the Hindi and regional original content that are the primary drivers of this growth.

 Television is and will continue to be the destination for brands to build long-term content association with a premium subscriber base through exclusive content on a channel like Zee Café. The locally nuanced shows such as ‘Starry Nights Gen Y’ also provide an opportunity to drive branded content integrations in an organic manner.

 When it comes to OTT, content discovery is and will continue to pose a challenge to viewers looking to unwind with quality content. This is where television channels that understand their consumer and curate well, delight the viewer. That’s our honest endeavour at Zee Café to provide a fresh catalogue of content that best matches our viewers’ preferences.

 Post lockdown, the channel has added 256 hours of content, including latest dramas such as ‘Nancy Drew’ and ‘Evil’, iconic sitcoms such as ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ along with the original airings of the celebrity chat show ‘Starry Nights GEN Y’. While marquee international shows bring the best of the world to our viewers, locally produced content allows us to add a new dimension from the Indian point of view. In the future, we have a robust line-up of light-hearted and locally nuanced content that help build relevance from an Indian context.

 How has Zee Café’s performance been during the lockdown period? How has the ongoing COVID-19 crisis impacted Zee Café’s content plans? How do you view the TV viewership dynamics that have emerged during the COVID-19 crisis period?

The lockdown has showed us that the viewers chose to watch television for the curated content experience it provides, to not just individuals but the entire family. We observed a trend in audience preferences towards familiar, light-hearted content amidst the uncertainty and gloom. We at Zee Café were early to spot the trend and introduced tactical changes in our programming.

 ‘Nostalgia’ as a genre clearly emerged as a big theme across television with several successful examples in Hindi GEC. Spotting the trend early, we introduced the iconic sitcom of the 90s – ‘Seinfeld’ along with the 60s sitcom ‘I Dream Of Jeannie’, which resonated with the viewers.

 Conversational shows and iconic sitcoms likeCommunity’ andThe Big Bang Theory’ along with easy to watch movies have performed well with an increase in time spent on Zee Café. We saw a growth in non-prime time viewing as well and hence to keep viewers entertained through-out the day, we introduced back-to-back episodes of ‘MasterChef Australia S8’, ‘Everybody Hates Chris’ andThe Big Bang Theory S12’ on Zee Café along with newer compelling dramas like ‘Nancy Drew’ andEvil’.

 What are the key partnerships, campaigns & marketing initiatives that have changed Zee Café’s perception and business over the years?

Our viewers are evolved, motivated and have a global outlook. They are constantly on the lookout for what is new and different and are clear about their content choices. With an abundance of content now at their disposal, helping them make a choice becomes important. The way we communicate has to make the content desirable and evoke the ‘this is for me’ feeling.

We work towards taking a creative leap with a fresh point of view on the content, shaping a point of view for the brand. For instance, our studies revealed that our viewers led a fast-paced life and convenience of things had become a bit need, but along with it sets in the tyranny of convenience. In this context, we wanted to give our viewers a deep, meaningful content experience. We took this need and set it against complex, visceral British dramas. The #ShakenAndStirred campaign for BBC First dramas on Zee Café took shape with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, an authority in intense drama-based stories. He was also part of McMafia, one of the shows in the line-up of BBC First dramas. Bringing in a local connect with his quintessential demeanor, an excited Nawazuddin shared his anticipation for the ‘mind-blowing dramas’ on television that would leave you not just shaken but stirred.

 Another campaign that was effective for the cluster and creatively satisfying was the launch of #WhereIsMyChannel in the wake of NTO. Conceptualised by Tiqui Taka, the approach was to simply address the consumer challenge amidst the change in purchase behaviour. While many broadcasters were actively promoting ‘base packs’ and price points, our attempt was to educate the consumers about the change and encourage them to ask their cable operator and get the channel of their choice. The communication was 100% desi in its storytelling for a channel that was 100% English. Campaign aside, what we truly achieved is reimagining the tonality of our English channels by addressing a wider audience from metros to smaller towns based on their choice of channel through subscription.

 At Zee Café, we have collaborated and engaged with our audience on social. With #IdolInTheMaking for ‘American Idol’, we worked with content creators and collaborators like Monica Dogra, Melvin Lewis, Thomson Andrews and Sejal Kumar and set to motion a 360-degree campaign across on-air and social media platforms. Every week, Zee Café opened the floor to fans across the country with an opportunity together with the influencers in encouraging budding artists to send in their renditions of the song of the week. In over a month, the series of videos attracted over 150 entries from fans across the country with 6.4 million video views and 37 million impressions across platforms.

It is with these campaigns that we have truly been able to drive resonance for the brand.

 What has been the bedrock of Zee Café’s programming strategy?

At Zee Café, our content philosophy was built around “All Eyes On New”, with an endeavour to deliver fresh content or a fresh perspective to iconic content. With curation as our core focus, we’ve constantly introduced new programming formats and new properties that best suit the needs of our ever-evolving viewers. Post lockdown, the channel has added 256 hours of content, including latest dramas such as ‘Nancy Drew’ and ‘Evil’, iconic sitcoms such as ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘I Dream of Jeannie’, along with the original airings of the celebrity chat show ‘Starry Nights GEN Y’.

 Amidst the uncertainty and gloom owing to the current situation, we witnessed a larger audience at home looking for quality content and together moments. We have witnessed a trend in audience preferences towards familiar light-hearted content, superhero flicks and adventure as a genre. Conversational shows and iconic sitcoms, along with easy to watch movies have performed well with an increased in time spent on Zee Café. We saw a growth in non-prime time viewing as well and hence, to keep viewers entertained throughout the day, we introduced back-to-back episodes of ‘MasterChef Australia S8’, ‘Everybody Hates Chris’ and ‘The Big Bang Theory S12’ on Zee Café.

 With out-of-home entertainment options being limited in the new normal, television will continue to be the entertainment destination for individuals and families. This immediate context is an opportunity for growth.

What is Zee Café doing to enhance viewers’ experience and drive higher engagement?

At Zee Café, our content philosophy was built around “All Eyes On New”, with an endeavor to deliver fresh content or a fresh perspective to iconic content. With curation as our core focus, we’ve constantly introduced new programming formats and new properties that best suit the needs of our ever-evolving viewers. With content blocks such as ‘BBC First’, which brought complex British dramas for the first time to India or ‘Along With The US’, where our viewers watched fresh content series along with its international telecast; we truly set the benchmark for being the innovators in the English entertainment category. With most of the shows on Zee Café such as Titan Games, American Idol, Battlebots, Seal Team, FBI, A Million Little Things, Charmed, The Chefs’ Line being available on television first, we’ve lived up to the consumer promise of ‘All eyes on New’.

Catering to the evolving needs of the consumer, we introduced locally nuanced content such as Starry Nights GEN Y and Not Just Supper Stars that broadened the consumption repertoire on the channel.

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