Bringing it all back home

A firm focus on its core South Asian audience has helped Viacom18 grow a strong business in MENA
Sachin Gokhale heads up Viacom18’s MEA and Asia Pacific operations.
Sachin Gokhale heads up Viacom18’s MEA and Asia Pacific operations.

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South Asians have long been a major part of the MEA region’s demographic make-up, and this is especially the case in the Gulf. Indeed, in the UAE, it is estimated that South Asians account for more than 50% of the total population of 9.4 million people. Even at conservative estimates, this would give the UAE a South Asian population of 4.7 million people. In this light, it should come as little surprise that India’s Viacom18, a joint venture between US content giant Viacom and India’s TV18, sees huge potential for growth across the Middle East and Africa, and even further afield.

Sachin Gokhale, media and entertainment business head, MEA and Asia Pacific and live events at Viacom18, leads the regional team from the local Dubai office, which has a team of about 12 people. The company has achieved a lot since it first set up business in Dubai about seven years ago, shortly after it struck the deal to launch its channels in the region. The Dubai office now acts as a hub for the Middle East and Africa. A further two people are based in Sinngapore and look after the Asia Pacific market. 

Gokhale explains that in the MEA region, Viacom18 distributes about 21 channels, including its four flagship channels: Colors, Rishtey Asia TV, MTV and News18. These 21 channels are available across about 26 countries. While most of the channels are in Hindi, Viacom18 also has some regional Indian channels in its portfolio catering to speakers of languages including Kannada, Gujarati and Marathi.

Viacom18 is a pay-TV network and works with OSN as its main distribution platform for its flagship channels in the MENA region. “We are available on their Pehla packages as well as on some of their premium and mainstream English Western content packages and they distribute us in about 21 countries,” Gokhale says. 

In addition, Viacom18 also works with various telecom operators including Etisalat and Du in the UAE. 

While the pay TV business forms the crux of Viacom18’s business in the region, it also enjoys a healthy stream of advertising sales. “In any of our markets where the scale of the audience reaches a certain point where we become attractive to advertisers, we set up an advertising sales operation. Today we have an active advertising sales operation here in the Middle East where we get clients from countries including the UAE, Oman and KSA. We also have an ad sales operation in South Africa,” Gokhale says, adding that the company has no intentions of moving into the free-to-air market. 

Viacom18 has experienced strong and steady growth in the region since its launch, and while Gokhale admits that the past 12 months have been more difficult with a softening in the market, the company’s diverse offering has helped the company maintain growth. “Increasingly we see ourselves as a South Asian entertainment company with a core around broadcast, but we’ve tried to build on a lot of areas where we can create experiences built on broadcast offerings for South Asian consumers” he says.

Indeed, far from simply selling Indian channel feeds to platforms in the MEA region, Viacom18 offers a far more tailored product offering to its South Asian audience. Its four flagship channels include local feeds with locally produced content, and they are also set to regional timings. The company also has an active live events division that organises at least four events, mainly large-scale music concerts, each year. With the MTV brand in its portfolio, this foray into live events was in some ways an obvious choice. “Every quarter we do a live event which is like an extension of one of our broadcast properties, so in a way it helps to build the brand further and it also helps us monetise the equity of the content,” Gokhale says. “In India we create a lot of original content for MTV; we commission some of India’s most interesting musical collaborations, so we have all these formats such as MTV Unplugged, Coke Studio and MTV Roots, and we’ve tried to recreate some of those experiences as live events,” he adds. 

The main live events are significant with audiences of between 1,500 and 2,500, allowing Viacom18 to generate revenues from ticket sales and sponsorship. The events, which are usually held in the UAE, also allow Viacom18 to be experimental by catering to a more diverse South Asian audience than in India. For example, during Eid in 2016, the company devised a concert called MTV Undivided featuring Indian and Pakistani stars. The event was held over two days at Dubai World Trade Centre and saw musicians from the two countries collaborate and perform some songs together. 

Gokhale’s team has also produced stand-up comedy events, most notably with Bollywood star Rishi Kapoor who did a stand-up comedy show about his career in March.

Viacom18 is also innovative in its approach to local content production. The company currently produces about 100 hours of local content a year, working with various local production partners. This content is highly tailored for the local population, addressing their tastes and concerns as expat South Asians. “We try not to create the mainstream entertainment that we anyway create for our channels in India but we try and do things with a local flavour,” Gokhale says. “The focus is always to give voice to local audiences here.” 

One recent series that performed well was called Checkmate. This series addressed concerns among the local South Asian population about the lack of professional entry level jobs and structured internship programmes available for college graduates. 

For Checkmate, the producers interviewed and did auditions with more than 2000 students and then shortlisted about 15 students. The series saw these students get taken through a series of tasks that mimicked the business world, with projects based on selling, creativity, problem-solving and logistics. The winners were offered internships with respected companies including Unilever. “It resonated with families here because of their aspirations and it was good content that audience found relevant. It was localised, created for the region and shot here. The entire scripting and production happened here with local agencies. We were very happy and intend to do a second series,” Gokhale says.

Another flagship series is the ongoing show Salaam Namaste UAE which was devised as an “outlet for people to give back to their loved ones and society” according to Gokhale. The theme is especially relevant in the UAE as 2017 was pronounced by the government as ‘the year of giving’. Salaam Namaste UAE airs once a week on Rishtey Asia TV channel and consists of 14 episodes of 25 minutes each.  

Each episode has three segments: The first segment profiles individuals and companies who are doing good deeds, such as Firoz Merchant, chairman of UAE-based jeweller Pure Gold, who has helped free prisoners incarcerated for offences such as bounced cheques.  

The second segment of the show sees the organisers take a specific group of people, such as construction labourers, out for a treat of some kind. Different episodes have seen domestic workers visit a spa, delivery boys visit a clothing store to be kitted out with new clothes, and men from a labour camp receive head massages from professional masseurs. 

The third segment of the show is about making peoples wishes come true with memorable sequences including a boy who took his younger brother for a ride in a limousine, and a taxi driver who had not been home for a few years and was given the chance to bring his family for a vacation in Dubai. 

Viacom18 works with a number of local agencies on its local productions. Gokhale says that for the most recent couple of projects it worked with a production company called Magic Box, which was recently started by two young professionals. “Before that we have worked with companies called Queen Bee Production, K-Company and ProVision. It really depends on the vision of the project and how the production company syncs with us,” he says.

It is not just through local content that Viacom18 is experimenting with new formats. Rishtey Asia TV channel itself was a new idea. “Rishtey is an interesting experience in that the channel doesn’t exist in India in the same way. We have tried to create a brand and populate it with content which we specifically choose, keeping in mind what we believe the region would like to see and also keeping in mind the current gaps in the content,” Gokhale says.

One of the main reasons for launching Rishtey, which means ‘relationships’ in Hindi, was that the team at Viacom18 realised that the existing channels targeting South Asians in the region were either Indian or Pakistani; yet there was nothing catering to both. “Even though there is such a breadth of shared culture and history among the South Asian content, you either had Indian channels which some Pakistanis would watch or Pakistani channels which some Indians would watch, or Bangladeshi which only Bangladeshi’s would watch,” Gokhale says. “What we tried to do was create a channel with curated content, taking the best of Indian content, Pakistani content, Bollywood movies, as well as some international content dubbed in Hindi or Urdu.”

The channel includes diverse content, from period dramas to cooking and travel shows, and is crafted for the more urban, internationally-minded viewers in the Middle East. “The audience here is more urban and world-exposed and is similar to big metros in India, so we thought ‘let’s do content that is true to the culture and build on it with contemporary shows about travel, lifestyle, cooking and the globalised experiences that expats here get’,” he adds.

The team then added another strand of content – kids’ TV - to the channel after noticing that none of the other Indian or Pakistani channels were offering kids content. This idea made perfect sense, not least because Viacom18 runs the Nick Jr. brand in India, and so has access to a wealth of kids’ content. But the company was careful to select the shows based on what they believed parents as well as children would want. “We choose stories based on Indian culture and traditional fables which are now available in animated form. Most expats here are worried that their kids are not getting enough exposure to their culture, so the kids’ content we show addresses this concern.”

Gokhale and his team also tested the waters for Turkish dramas among South Asian viewers. The team bought a drama called ‘Aski Memnoo’ (Forbidden Love), which had performed well with Arab viewers, and dubbed it in Hindi. The success of the drama among its viewers has opened up the possibility of bringing other foreign dramas to Rishtey Asia TV.

Viacom18 also plans to convert its flagship channels to HD in the MEA region, and hopes to upgrade Colors in the next six to 12 months. The flagship channels are already HD in India. “We’re in discussions with platforms in terms of how they’ll carry it, and we’re also in discussions about how you make the feeds available,” Gokhale says. 

While Viacom18 is experiencing solid enough growth on its linear channels, it also has plans for digital. Indeed, it is making its channels available on Yupp TV, a South Asian-focused SVOD OTT platform. Viacom18 also has its own AVOD platform called Voot which it launched in India about a year ago. This platform has about 35,000 hours of content and has performed “extremely well” according to Gokhale. “It has about 25 million subscribers. We are planning to launch Voot here in the region but as a pay service. It will have a library of content across our portfolio – that’s the first pillar.”

The second pillar, Gokhale explains, will be content that is created for the platform and is not aired on the linear channels. 

As Gokhale explains, there is a huge amount of content produced by Viacom18 in India which does not get used, such as Celebrity Big Brother footage that never sees the light of day. “Celebrity Big Brother is shot over three months with 90 cameras 24 hours a day. Only a small fraction of it makes it to broadcast because we only do one episode a day on Colors. There is so much content which we create but which viewers don’t currently get to see,” he says.

The company also airs kids’ content, in about eight to 9 different languages, on Voot. This is especially important as younger viewers are growing up with the expectation that they can view content when and where they want. “We need to realise people not viewing TV same way they were a few years ago,” he adds.

Moreover, these changing ways of viewing content are also affecting linear viewing, and expectation of viewers who consume linear. 

“Today there is a lot more attempt to be able to give our platforms catch-up content or to be able to give them multi-screen access where authenticated subscribers can view the same content on their devices. We had to start making our content available to platforms in a slightly different way,” Gokhale says. 

In profile

Viacom18, one of India’s largest media and entertainment groups, is a joint venture between Viacom and TV18, which is owned by Indian business conglomerate Reliance. In India Viacom18 runs numerous media businesses including a group of entertainment channels, news channels, one of India’s largest movie production studios and other interests including ticket booking websites and news websites.

The piracy challenge

One of the main challenges that Viacom18 faces in the MEA region is piracy, mainly in the form of overspill from satellites serving viewers in India, such as Dish TV. Viacom18 is working with its partners in the region to overcome this. “We work with our platforms such as OSN and Etisalat and support them in their initiatives. We try to help through initiatives such as getting our big stars to give anti-piracy messages or to help them with legal notices when required,” Gokhale says.

With initiatives such as the MENA Broadcast Satellite Anti-Piracy Coalition tackling many forms of broadcast and content piracy in the region, Gokhale is optimistic about the situation. He adds that platforms including Etisalat and OSN have made “a lot of headway” in terms of encouraging people to do the right thing and take legitimate connections. “We’re optimistic about how it’s going to play out,” he said.

A key Demographic 

One of the main challenges that Viacom18 faces in the MEA region, and especially the Gulf, is that advertisers tend to neglect the South Asian population. This may seem strange, but is well-acknowledged among many South Asian expats. If addressed, the issue should open up some big opportunities for advertisers and agencies. Sachin Gokhal said: “Advertisers do not give adequate importance to the power of the South Asian consumer and that’s also partly because of the way the ratings systems are. They don’t adequately show the size and the consumption of content among South Asian consumers. Among brands and advertisers there is still a tendency to see South Asians as only labourers, people who live in shared accommodation and don’t have significant discretionary consumption ability, so that is something we have all been grappling with.”

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