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Children's power drives Indian channels
By Indrajit Basu

KOLKATA - Come December 18 and a programming board of 20 members of Hungama, India's newest kids' TV channel, will converge at the channel's headquarters in Mumbai for its first "board meeting" since its launch in September. On the face of it, there's nothing unusual about this. All TV channels have program selection boards, which meet from time to time to chalk out their strategy. But Hungama's is unique - all its members are between eight and 15.

"Make no mistake, these kids have serious business on their agenda," said Purnendu Bose, chief operating officer of Hungama, which in Hindi means "fun". "Their primary job is to advise on and choose content for Hungama, but they will also advise us on how to run the channel, its marketing strategies, and even the sort of public relations campaign that Hungama should follow," said Bose. The board was a result of a huge selection process in which 150,000 applicants from all over the country were tested and interviewed to select the "20 smartest and brightest kids for the job". The plan is to conduct a "board meeting" every quarter for one year to ensure that Hungama remains "a channel for the kids, by the kids".

Elsewhere, in about 800 schools across the country, select children are busy preparing for an essay competition based on a TV show called My Schools Days that's aired by Splash, yet another kids' channel. Anbu Nirai, head of content of Splash, which is part of the country's leading media-software company Pentamedia, said the winner of the competition will be felicitated through program telecast. "There will be many more such competitions in future."

Call it kid power, innovative marketing, or simply the changing face of globalizing India, but with increasing competition, such channels as Hungama and Splash are going all out to attract young eyeballs. And suddenly, children's channels, as elsewhere in the world, have become serious business. Since January, India has seen the launch of three new kids' channels - Pogo, Hungama and Sony's Animax. Going by media reports, at least three more could join the bandwagon. This includes the original kingpin, Walt Disney Television International, which according to industry sources is likely to launch more than one channel. The other big name that has plans for a kids' channel called Space Toons is the country's largest local entertainment channel bouquet, the Zee TV Network.

Why the sudden rush? For years, Indian kids had little in terms of entertainment. Until about 2001, they had just one channel: the first mover, Cartoon Network, which for nine years maintained its premier position capitalizing on the paucity of television entertainment for children. Subsequently, two national kids' channels - Nickelodeon and, on a very limited basis, Splash - entered the fray. But there, too, content-wise they offered very little choice and programs were mostly imported or, at best, dubbed in Hindi. Even the so-called local shows that one or two foreign channels air are basically conceptualized and composed by non-Indians, which basically means that they lose the local flavor. "Even now there is a huge gap in kids' content," said Bose, according to whom most kids' channels are still churning out largely animation and cartoon content. So, added Rajat Jain, chief executive officer of the Indian subsidiary of Walt Disney, the time is right for entry into the children's and family-entertainment segment in India.

Conservative estimates suggest that there are more than 50 million Indian kids who have just hit their teens and have access to satellite and cable television. This has created a huge consumer base that marketers can hardly ignore anymore. A study by Hungama indicates that about US$7 billion of consumer spending every year is influenced in kid categories when it comes to choosing a brand. Humgama calls it "pester power". In a recent global survey conducted by Synovate, an international market-research firm, 42% of the respondents in India agreed that their choice of car was entirely dependent on their children's wishes. "Kids are king in India," said the Synovate study.

According to Bose, kids' sway over Indian parents has also resulted in kids' channels encroaching on the revenues of other mass-entertainment channels. "Nowhere in the world would you find a financial product advertised in a kids' channel. But in India, there is ICICI Bank hawking its kids' insurance product on one such channel," he said. "Today seven out of 10 commercials have kids in them and everyone accepts that children are strong influencers in the decision-making process. This power has made them an important target for ad-spends."

The successful launch of a kids' channel also offers opportunity of additional revenues from other sources, such as brand licensing and content syndication. Children's programming or products that spin off from kids' channels can be money-spinners by way of licensing, product merchandising and events. A good example of this concept is the global success of Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles that has spawned comic books, computer games, movies and countless commercials on radio and TV. "The Indian market hasn't yet explored this kind of marketing effort," said Anjani Kalgutkar, a kids' channel executive. Hence the opportunity is huge.

But a plethora of channels also means that winning over Indian kids is not going to be easy. Experts say that Indian children, fed up with the content of cable and satellite television, have become more discerning and finicky than back in the 1980s when it was much simpler as children were forced to settle for imported shows such as Jamie and the Magic Torch or My Little Pony on a state-controlled TV channel, the only channel in those days. Moreover, children now, say industry sources, have a much shorter attention span "of about half a second".

This is why all kids' channels are trying so hard to differentiate themselves from each other, and from the notion that a children's channel must be solely cartoon-based. "We do not air just entertainment content," said Bose. "Instead, we churn out what we call edutainment, which is a mix of entertainment and education. You will not find any other channel airing mixed content like drama, science fiction, quiz, etc besides the usual cartoons and animation." Anbu Nirai of Splash too claims that his programs are "more local with local flavor ... Our target is to have 70% local content soon." Walt Disney also says that in India it is "committed to localization".

But with the advent of so many kids' channels, would it be a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth? No, say Industry players. Kids' channels so far have just skimmed the surface. There are 315 million kids under 15 in India, which is one-third of the country's population. This segment is bigger than the corresponding age group in all of Western Europe put together. France, which has just 11 million under-15s, has 11 kids' channels and the United Kingdom, with a similar kid population, has 24. The Indian broadcasting industry is also growing, at an annual 15%. "The market is growing," said Bose. "And more channels would make the pie larger."

% share of children's fare on Indian TV

2003

2004

 Kids' fare  

8.2

9.8

 Entertainment

43.8

40.5

 Sports

11.8

13.6

 Hindi movies

10.2

10.9

 News

4.1

4.9

 Others

21.9

20.3


Source: TAM Media Services

Indrajit Basu is a Kolkata-based equity analyst turned journalist with more than 12 years of experience in business/finance and technology journalism. Besides writing for Asia Times Online, he also writes for US-based publications, as well as IT companies.

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Dec 16, 2004
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