Athreyan Sundararajan has worked with Fox International Channels Middle East for the past six years. He gives us his take on how the network has evolved and what it’s plans for the future are
Fox International Channels has a bouquet of 12 channels – across free-to-air and Pay TV – that cater to all genres of entertainment. The more popular channels among the bouquet are Fox Movies, National Geographic Abu Dhabi and FOX.
Athreyan Sundararajan is the head of marketing and business development at Fox International Channels, as well as the head of factual channels in the Middle East. He has been based in Dubai for the past six years and previously worked with Fox International Channels in India.
Speaking about his time in the Middle East, Athreyan says: “It’s been a very interesting time. I’ve grown a lot professionally as well as personally. Fox international Channels (FIC) is an organisation that gives you tremendous opportunity to grow, and working across different specialisations and categories is encouraged.
Right now, I’m the head of marketing for FIC Middle East, and I also head the factual channels, which would be National Geographic Abu Dhabi, and also support pay channels which are broadcast from Hong Kong. We locally support them in terms of subtitling.
For National Geographic Abu Dhabi we handle programming, acquisition, scheduling, on-air promotions, local production etc. Hence it’s a fairly broad role.”
Athreyan says that in the English Entertainment portfolio, Fox Movies is the network’s mainstay channel. It has traditionally aired international movies from Hollywood and premiered a gamut of renowned international programmes.
“Over the years we’ve also been working with certain local entities, Al-Batal Season one on FX last year was one of the big new things we did on the channel. In the future too there will be more local production happening. Localisation happens across many different spheres, I think it’s some sort of a fallacy that you need to produce locally to have localisation. If you look at National Geographic Abu Dhabi, it’s a fully dubbed channel in Arabic.
That’s international programming with a local twist. At Fox, most of our shows are available in dual audio, so you have a choice to watch in English or in Arabic,” explains Athreyan.
In terms of programming, over the years, National Geographic Abu Dhabi has brought in locally-relevant shows in the ‘MegaStructures’ franchise such as covering Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Burj Khaifa, the Capital building, the world’s fastest roller coaster etc.
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The channel also produced ‘Ultimate Airport Dubai’ – a 10-part show that showcases behind-the-scenes footage from Dubai International Airport’s three massive terminals and follows the staff members working hard to keep it safe, secure, and on schedule. Athreyan says that National Geographic Channels globally is always on the lookout for interesting stories that have global potential.
“I think the big thing for us this year on National Geographic Abu Dhabi is that we are launching our first big local series titled ‘Mission Covershot’ (working title),” says Athreyan.
“It’s a reality show, spread over six episodes, where we’re going to be following eight photographers from across the region. They will be given a task to accomplish in each episode, and at the end of the season, one photographer will be the winner.
The jury will include National Geographic photography experts as well as acclaimed photography experts from the region. We are right now in pre-production, but we should be on-air pretty soon.
I think that’s going to be a big one as far as National Geographic Abu Dhabi is concerned. The channel also hosts a local photography contest that has garnered more than 150,000 submissions in the past three years.”
“One of the big advantages of working in a group like FIC is that you get a global view. For us at Fox International Channels, the Middle East is one of the most important markets, where we have a tremendous focus from a global perspective. The reason for this is because there are different ways of doing business here.
“We have a very robust Pay-TV operation here, where we have eight channels across various platforms and IPTV operators. We also have free-to-air channels which cover various genres of entertainment.
For us, going forward, there are a lot of things happening. We work in partnership with all the big local pay platforms – such as OSN, Abu Dhabi Media and Al Jazeera – as well as the major IPTV networks across the region,” continues Athreyan.
FIC intends to concentrate on consolidation for its free-to-air channels this year. “When you start, you concentrate you efforts on launching new channels and continue doing that. The next phase is to invest in the product that you have in the market. I think this is the phase that FIC finds itself in now.
Also, in 2013 we launched our own local ad-sales operation – although we continue to also work with our partners. From 2014 onwards, the ad sales for Fox Movies will be directly handled by FIC .” says Athreyan.
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“We have people dedicated to developing customised client solutions. With dedicated producers, graphics designers and marketing people who work with clients, we have a full team to support our excellent ad sales department. Hence consolidation is the key word for us.
Of course there is expansion too. The ad-sales operations were started last year, but the expansion of those operations are going to continue this year,” says Athreyan.
When quizzed about whether viewers can expect Fox to launch any new channels going this year, Athreyan says, “We don’t have any current plans to launch any new channels for now. We are increasing our focus on Pay-TV.
Six years back, we had two channels, but now we have an entire bouquet including National Geographic Channel, National Geographic Wild, National Geographic Adventure – which has recently been re-branded as National Geographic People globally – Star Movies, Star World, Fox Sports, Baby TV and Channel V, all in high-definition.”
Athreyan also reiterates that FIC works with various operators including e-life, du, Qtel and STC for its IPTV operations. The network is looking into tapping North Africa, which Athreyan says is a small market for now in terms of Pay-TV penetration, but the network’s focus is not just for this year, but also looking forward to where the market will be in five years. Thus it has decided to explore Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt too.
Pay-TV is an area where there is always scope for growth according to Athreyan. He says: “There is a lot of investment being put in by Pay-TV operators in the region, and there could be demand for different kinds of channels.
We are always working closely with these operators to see how we can contribute and help grow their subscriber base. We believe that there is going to be a fair amount of growth in Pay TV subscribers over the next few years. Pricing is getting better and the offering is getting better.”
Part of FIC’s success is due to its wide offering of Arabic content. In fact Athreyan says that Fox could probably be one of the leading regional networks when it comes to dubbing international content into Arabic.
He supports this by saying: “Even when it comes down to the number of hours that are concerned when dubbing, National Geographic Abu Dhabi is completely dubbed in Arabic. Fox is available in dual languages, and we have brought so many global franchises to the region and been able to dub them in Arabic.
Athreyan explains: “Dubbed in Arabic, ‘MasterChef Australia’, one of the most popular shows on FOX, does really well in markets like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This is not something new.
Fox, the series channel has been available in dual audio for three years now.
National Geographic Abu Dhabi is currently in its fifth year of operation. We work with dubbing houses across different countries in the Arab world. We’ve experimented extensively and have realised that there is no hard and fast rule.
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“It is said that, globally, American comedies don’t do very well as they are very US-centric, whereas in the Middle East, our US comedies do extremely well, and it is all dubbed in Arabic.
We’ve seen some common trends too. More often than not, we tend to dub comedies in an Egyptian Arabic dialect, while dramas are generally dubbed using a Syrian accent. With our documentaries we tend to go with a classical Arabic accent, due to the nature of the shows.
We have a team internally that supervises the dubbing and takes a call on what sort of accent would suit a particular programme,” says Athreyan.
Athreyan adds that factual programming is going through a big change globally. He says that it is not the same as it used to be even five years ago. Now it’s not so much about people talking about things, but it’s more about people demonstrating things and interacting with the audience.
Athreyan says: “With content like ‘Brain Games’, ‘None of the Above’, ‘Cosmos’ and a lot of similar shows that are coming in, there is a change towards a new kind of factual programming.
“Jason Silva, the host of ‘Brain Games’ does a fantastic job of explaining complex scientific problems in very simple layman terms and this is also supported through great interactive apps, social media activations etc.
When you look at content like this, it appeals to the younger generation, who are very picky about what they watch. The average 20-year old would watch programmes not just on a television set, but would also watch it online, catch it on their phones etc. The way people consume content is going through a sea change, and so the kind of programming we have has to reflect that change,” continues Athreyan.
Discussing demographics, Athreyan comes up with some rather surprising facts. He says: “We found that more than 65% of the viewers of National Geographic Abu Dhabi are between the ages of 15-35, and this is an incredible number because globally the average age of someone that watches National Geographic or any other documentary channel is much higher at around 40-45.
“National Geographic Abu Dhabi’s Facebook page boasts a following of 5.4 million fans which makes it one of the top five channels here in terms of Facebook fans. We have a schedule app for mobile which has been downloaded more than 250,000 times. We are discussing streaming solutions, but we need to get the formula right, and our taking our time to explore options,”
To end with Athreyan says that there is a lot of potential for growth in the region. “Globally markets seem to be getting better and the Middle East region seems to be poised for a growth spurt. Some of the more untapped markets will come into the fold soon. North African markets and even some of the smaller media markets in the GCC could see more action.”