Sumantra Dutta, popularly known as Sumo is one of the core team that started Star TV in India in 1993.
In his current role, he is the Country head, Middle East, Africa and Pakistan at Star Middle East. We have a candid chat with him about how Star has evolved over the years to become the household stalwart that it is today
Star TV is one of the world’s leading South Asian TV networks and has been widely known to be the pace-setter in the South Asian TV entertainment arena. Star Middle East FZ LLC is a part of Star India, and Star is a part the global media conglomerate, 21st Century Fox.
In the Middle East, currently Star has a bouquet of six channels Star Plus, Star Gold, Life OK, Channel V, Star Jalsha and ABP news, which cover the genres of entertainment, movies and news in Hindi and Bengali languages.
Sumo says: “Our flagship channel, Star Plus has been the viewer’s favourite channel for over 13 years in Hindi entertainment with viewers consistently rating it as their most favourite channel.
“Our positioning is in line with the brand equity that Star has built over the last decade. The last 13 years have been game changing years for Indian television with Star leading the way. Star has consistently introduced path breaking content with amazing regularity to set the scorching pace in the Indian TV and media industry, all of which have been category firsts,” continues Sumo.
Talking about the achievements and success of the network over the years, Sumo says that Star Plus has been the first channel in Indian television to launch the first game show on TV – Kaun Banega Crorepati (the Indian version of ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’) with a massive Bollywood icon like Amitabh Bachchan as its host.
The channel later launched Shahrukh Khan on TV with ‘KBC 3’ and ‘Paanchvi Pass’. Sumo says: “Star was the first to introduce Indian TV viewers to daily soap operas on TV with ‘Kyunki Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi’ and ‘Kahani Ghar Ghar ki’. Another industry first came with the launch of the high end celebrity chat show ‘Koffee with Karan’.”
“Star’s other path breaking content included being the first channel to launch a show which took on a social responsibility initiative, which then went on to become a worldwide phenomenon with Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan anchoring and leading the show, Satyamev Jayate (Truth Alone Prevails),” continues Sumo.
It was widely appreciated by film and TV personalities, politicians and social activists for its research, presentation and content. For the 1st time in Indian TV, a show was dubbed and simulcast in multiple Indian languages.
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Sumo also adds: “Feeding off the stupendous success of Star Plus and the varied range of programming on offer, Star Plus was the 1st channel in the world to launch its own awards show – STAR Parivaar Awards. The Star Parivaar Awards are one of the leading annual awards shows for Hindi TV audiences.”
Life OK, the latest offering from Star has quickly become a favorite amongst Hindi audiences and has set several benchmarks since launch in delivering cutting edge entertainment.
From super hit International formats like Sach Ka Saamna (Indian version of ‘The Moment of Truth’) to ‘The Bachelorette India’, Life OK delivers world class Hindi entertainment. Recently Life OK made history by gaining the highest ratings in a 12-month period among all competing channels with its hugely successful mythological drama ‘Devon Ke Dev...Mahadev’.
Life OK is the fastest growing Hindi entertainment channel catering to the urban Hindi viewer.
In the near future, Life OK will showcase the biggest Bollywood award show – Life OK Screen Awards; a Middle Eastern epic with world class special effects – “The Adventures of Hatim” and a brand new fiction show featuring a Bollywood celebrity.
With contemporary storylines and international production values, Life OK is yet another example of how Star is continually taking the initiative of being a thought leader in its category and raising the bar.
In the UAE alone, in the last six years (2007 -2012), according to World Bank estimates, the population has grown by 59% from 5.79 million to 9.2 million people. The demographics of the UAE are extremely diverse, where over 50% of the population is South Asian (Indians, Pakistanis and Bangla speaking).
Sumo sees exponential growth going forward on account of world events in this region like Expo 2020 and World Cup Football 2022. In line with this growth in population, Sumo says: “Our commitment to our audience has been to deliver relevant and compelling content.
Star TV’s success has always been driven on the back of initiatives that have the potential to touch people’s lives. In the Middle East as well, we continue to expand our dominance and reach. With our strong line-up of channels, Star channels are available on every major distribution platform in the Middle East including OSN Pehla, e-vision, Du, Du Mobile TV and Ooredoo.”
“In addition to the Middle East and North Africa, we are now also available across platforms in East, West, South Africa and the Indian Ocean islands also. Given the response we have got and the growing Indian diaspora, we are on the cusp of launching a plethora of new channels soon in this region,” continues Sumo.
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Sumo explains that whilst the Star network enjoys an unassailable lead in India, Star’s focus extends to Indians and South Asians all over the world and the Middle East.
In the mid 90’s, the genesis of Cable and Satellite TV was with the Star Select pack which was one of the only bouquets of quality English channels (in the movies, entertainment, infotainment and sport genres) available in the Middle East.
Post launching its Hindi channels since 2000, Star was quick to launch the Middle East beams of its channels in 2002. Star Plus, Star Gold and Life OK have dedicated Middle East feeds which allows the network to customise the content offering to suit local times and include local content.
“This also allows us to sell the Middle East beam to advertisers as there are over 10 million South Asians in the Middle East region for whom the Star channels are one of the only ways of keeping them connected with class leading TV content from their home country. ” says Sumo.
In yet another game changing industry defining move, for the first time in the history of Indian TV channels worldwide, viewers of Star Plus globally watch their favorite shows on the same day, same time - a radical departure from an era when viewers had to make do with time lag deferred content.
Taking the lead to communicate the achievements, position, size and affluence of the large South Asian community, Star launched the Power of South Asians campaign.
This was driven by the need to educate and make everyone aware of the contribution of the South Asian community to the growth and development of this region. Sumo says the campaign aimed to let the marketing and media community in the Middle East know pertinent facts about Indians & South Asians in the region.
He says: “In the UAE alone, over 50% of the population comprises of South Asians; 33% of all villas in Dubai were owned by South Asians; contrary to popular belief, statistics have revealed that over 40% of their earnings are spent on shopping and entertainment.
South Asians are also the largest community of investors in luxury cars and International travel; the banking, accounting, education and medical professions are dominated by the South Asians.”
Sumo also revealed that Star TV’s largest consumer/viewer group are females above 15 years of age. Soap operas worldwide have a huge female fan following and Star’s soap operas are favourites.
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“We are the trend setters in the general entertainment category. From iconic shows like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu thi, Kasauti, to recent super hit fiction shows like Diya aur Bati hum, Yeh rishta kya kehlata hai; reality shows like Nach Baliye, Masterchef Kitchen ke Superstar, Koffee with Karan and award shows on the lines of IIFA, Star Parivaar Awards etc.
“In keeping with its role of providing the latest, most compelling content to TV viewers, Star has leveraged its leadership status and shortened the time taken for Bollywood movies to be shown on its own TV channels from its theatrical release date.
Mega titles include Singham, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Ra One, Rockstar, Bodyguard, Dabangg 2, Son of Sardaar and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag,” continues Sumo.
Sumo also explains whilst a large part of the viewership of Indian/South Asian channels happens in the UAE, there is an equally large number of viewers across the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) countries and KSA. Roughly 50% of Star’s viewers in the GCC region come from the UAE, 30% from KSA and 20% from the other countries in the region like Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait.
When quizzed about Arabic-language content, and whether the Star TV is looking at entering into that sphere, Sumo explains: “We are yet to venture into that area. There are already a large number of channels that exist in the region but there is still room for quality content.
From the initial days, we have been very focused on the distribution side of our business. In the last few years we have focused on developing the advertising sales side of our business given the huge presence of South Asians, our robust distribution and our leadership in the South Asian category.”
“Whenever you think of newer channels, the debate in our minds is always about quality and commerce. Top of the line quality TV content that is available across Star channels is expensive to produce and procure. Needless to say, it delivers large audiences but it’s only fair that top quality content is duly supported by ad spends and pay TV revenues,” continues Sumo.
Full Steam Ahead
Star Middle East’s mantra for 2014 is growth, growth and more growth. Sumo says the network aims to achieve its growth plans both organically and through partnerships.
“Whilst Star will continue to raise the bar with quality programming, we will also look to executing locally and growing the production capabilities in the region. The objective is to draw from our experience and set the pace for locally relevant entertainment content.
With the backing of Star’s amply proven abilities in the area of entertainment content, we hope to considerably shorten the process of evolving by continuing to bring TV viewers content that is at par with international quality. Star has consistently set the benchmark for others to follow. Whilst there will be competition that will follow/copy, the first mover advantage is critical,” says Sumo.
According to Sumo, the opportunity for a media brand to contribute to its immediate environment is immense.
He says “At Star we are constantly trying to identify content gaps that exist from a TV perspective. One of the critical gaps that we identified in the Middle East was the school going student community.
In spite of the large number of channels present in the region, no one offered any content targeting this audience.
That led to Star putting together ‘The Star Quiz Challenge’, a UAE-wide inter school quiz show reaching out to over 300 schools across International and Indian curriculum. Now in its fourth year, The Star Quiz Challenge is UAE’s only and most prestigious inter-school quiz show on TV and the gold standard in quizzing today.”
“The second gap that we have identified is a much larger one and it works off the fact that as broadcasters based out of the UAE, how can we give back something to the people of UAE and in the process, create a sense of pride amongst the UAE population.
In the media business, we are only as good as our ideas and that is our competitive advantage.
In keeping with that, I’m unable to divulge any more information but it would suffice to say that the idea we are thinking of leading and executing is a significant idea by any standards and has the potential to raise awareness levels about UAE amongst its own people and position the UAE as the jewel of the Middle East,” concludes Sumo.