The Q is MTV for a new generation: Sunder Aaron

In the 80s, poorly produced and low budget music videos began airing on MTV channel, which at that time used to showcase music content exclusively. At that time, music labels gave away this promotional content to the channel for free and often it was so bad that they couldn’t even air it. The channel had the tough task of convincing record labels that high quality content might bring in new audiences and rake the in moolah from advertisers.

Rock n’ Roll was the music of choice at the time, and the channel executives had roped in Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones fame to belt out ‘I want my MTV!’ for their campaign. The rest, as we know, is history.

Now, another company is eyeing Asia’s 2nd largest market and its burgeoning young audience with an equally exciting new proposition. They want to serve digital first content to TV audiences.

“The Q India is a Hindi general entertainment channel for young Indians in the 20-30 age group,” says Sunder Aaron, Founder & MD, Q India.

Aaron’s company is collaborating with influencer partners and digital media houses like Pocket Aces and Culture Machine and helping their content reach newer audiences on television. To Aaron, the demarcation between TV and digital content makes very little sense because, “I watch more streaming content that TV, but that doesn’t mean that I will stop my Tata Sky subscription.”

He observes that in most households, both platforms co-exist, which makes it another touchpoint for young viewers to discover their content.

So, Aaron along with California-based QYOU Media got their expertise in TV and cherry-picked content from digital content creators and repackaged it for linear TV viewing. Influencer created content might be scripted shows like ‘What the Folks’, and unscripted shows like ‘Unglibaaz’ or even movie content like a short film bloc that The Q India has scheduled in their programming.

As the digital content ecosystem becomes more sophisticated with individual creators amassing a massive following on digital, The Q India also hopes to streamline the output for their channel and offer their own original content.

There are several barriers to entry for a channel like ‘The Q India’, one of those being advertiser support. Aaron talks about the channel’s 3-fold India strategy, saying, “Our strategy is to be as widely available as possible, build the brand and get ad sales.”

The channel has inked partnerships with DTH players like Airtel Digital TV and Tata Sky. On the digital front, they are available on Jio TV, MX Player, SonyLIV, ZEE5, Watcho and AirtelXStream. Cumulatively, the channel has amassed a gross reach that totals hundreds of millions reach on digital. Aaron admits that internal figures shared by Airtel DTH and TAM show that their channel reaches 35 million households weekly. “This is a very sizeable viewership, highly monetisable viewer base,” says Aaron.

Aaron is excited to on-board advertising clients with his channel’s USP of the combined buy.

He explains it like this, “I want our clients getting used to buying an integrated ad sales. I don’t want to sell them just reach on my channel. While we have reach on TV, we are also offering augmented reach through our influencers on their digital channels, which is super measurable.”

Apart from spot buys, Aaron is looking at sponsorship, brand integrated content and brands collaborating with influencers in a host of other ways.

He shares an example, “Take a cooking show. If you are a food brand, we are putting ads against the show. At the same time, we will also leverage the influencer to Tweet about the brand via their digital handle and ensure the brand gets a million likes as engagement. So, I’m delivering all the ratings on the channel which is measurable, and delivering impressions and engagement on digital via the influencer.”

The mindset change required for a combined buy will be something that advertisers will need getting used to, admits Aaron. “We’ve bulked up our ad sales team because they need to go out and sell it like that. If they come back and say I’ve got a Rs 10 lakh deal for so many spots, I will say get a Rs 11 lakh deal with Rs 1 lakh going into a digital marketing campaign, because I need it to be integrated.”

“The beauty of an integrated approach is that I will catch the viewer no matter where they are viewing the content,” he explains, adding, “If you are not watching my channel, then I need to catch you on an OTT platform or digital platform. The real anchor is going to be the delivery on television, because right now we don’t know our net viewership on digital.”

Right now, the channel is able to monetise primarily through brand integrations. Aaron hopes to change that this year. One of the biggest barriers is lack of a ‘unified digital measurement’ across digital TV, mobile, OTT and other digital platforms.

In a one-on-one interaction with Adgully, Sunder Aaron elaborates on The Q India’s plans for the country and their growth and competitive strategy.

Digital content creators look at OTT and digital platforms because that saves their distribution cost. Why have you invested in putting that content on TV?

That’s a very soft way to do it. Distribution on TV is tough and costly, but you have to do it because TV is still relevant out here. If you look at the amount of advertising spend on digital versus TV that will tell you everything you need to know.

In every market around the world, the film business is tiny compared to the TV business, the TV business is 10 times bigger. It’s is the same here, Bollywood was saved in the 90s because of satellite television. While digital is growing, at the end of the day, it is going to take 5-10 years before it becomes more than TV and maybe even longer.

New users are being added to digital en masse. What will you do once digital reach is greater than TV?

Adding more users is not the point, it is about whether the money is being spent there. To be sure there is a strong correlation, if you are adding users, the money should follow. I believe that if we don’t see the money going there then the amount of audience isn’t authentic.

People are still consuming a lot of TV and advertisers are interested because of its measurability. It has some foibles, but at the end of the day until we get that unified digital measurement (UDM), we won’t know the combined viewership of digital, which will inform the decision of advertisers. If we don’t get that UDM, then it might take a long time before ad spends on digital cross TV.

Influencer led content cannot match the production quality of the bigger broadcasters. Do you think TV viewers will still take to this content?

What’s great now is that the quality of content is driven by two things – the quality of writing and impact. The movie ‘Paranormal Activity’ grossed $200 million across the world and spawned many sequels. Its production budget was $15,000. The RoI on ‘Paranormal Activity’ was one of the highest in cinema history.

You judge the quality of a piece of content by the impact it creates. ‘Fleabag’ created a huge impact, won an Emmy although the budget was so small. ‘Joker’ grossed more than $1 billion at the box office worldwide, but was made for $55 million.

The point I’m driving at is that our audience of 20-30 year olds understands that if you spend five minutes watching a show and enjoy it, what does it matter whether it is ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Unglibaaz’?

How much control do you have on the content that goes on the platform?

Since I am acquiring or licensing the content from the influencers, for the most part, mostly it is up to them. We have a standards and practices (S&P) process where we look at every piece of content to make sure that it is not violating any of the broadcast regulations.

A lot of digital content doesn’t come in TV packaging of 30 minutes. We know television very well, so we take that piece of content and package it so that it becomes for digestible for a TV audience.

Our relationship with content creators is finding and assembling their content for TV viewing. If we have an issue with their content, we wouldn’t go for it in the first place.

We have all types of scripted and non-scripted content on the channel. There are two shows we are developing right now, one on astrology and another on dating. We have a short films bloc on the channel, which showcases scripted drama content.

Competing against existing broadcast networks, what will be your marketing strategy for the channel?

We don’t have the big budgets like the mainstream broadcasters, however, we will leverage our cross media connect with audiences. Our digital influencers have a loyal following, with some of them tallying in the millions. There is already an established base of people who are interested and potentially going to watch our TV channel.

Just like digital gives us augmented reach, our content partners love having their programming on a TV channel as they are able to reach a new audience. We will continue to capture new audiences and our digital content creators and partners will benefit from a wider viewership on every platform possible, including our television channel.

Will the content be released first on digital and then on TV?

That will depend on our relationship with the creator. Some of our partners want it to come on our channel at the same time it is released on digital, so they get a wider reach. We also offer original content like ‘Uglibaaz’, which is about a prankster going and playing practical jokes on people. Going forward, we are going to explore more exclusive indigenous content mostly with social media stars and market influencers.

The interesting thing about our channel is that since we are on TV, we are going to draw a lot of secondary audiences. Take a show like ‘What the Folks’, which is equally appealing to an older audience as it explores the relationship between parents and their kids. I would be interested in data which shows how many 34-56 year olds are watching that show.

What are your global and local expansion plans?

The Q is in Europe and North America. We plan to expand in South East Asia in countries like Indonesia and Philippines. There are also discussions to launch in the UK. QYOU Media looked at India as their first market in Asia. If we achieve success here, then we’ll take it to Indonesia, Thailand and other countries.

While the main language channel is Hindi, hopefully by the end of the year we will have language channels like – Q Tamil, Q Telugu, Q Bangla. We will pursue language extensions of the main channel.

What’s stops a competitor from offering influencer led content?

Since we’ve got through the gate, we are a bit pioneering. If somebody wants to get into that market, maybe they will partner with us. I’m competing on every single medium for viewership share, but not on content.

An OTT like MX Player is happy that you tune into their platform, regardless of what you watch. Reed Hastings doesn’t care if you tune into Netflix to watch this show versus that show. I would love to know what people are watching on digital, because OTTs have so much competing data.

When MTV launched their first campaign – ‘I want my MTV’ – their proposition was exciting and amazing. That idea drove the channel around the world. I feel the same way about our channel. The Q is MTV for a new generation.

Our mission is to become a brand that viewers can get excited about. That depends on our ability to maintain stakeholder relationships and ensure that they see RoI on the resources that they put in. Distribution for TV is more costly, but when it comes to content, we are investing in it across platforms.

Eventually, we hope to get into financing it ourselves. Hopefully, our original stuff will catch fire. We will develop our own stable of Influencer Stars and invest in them.


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