Karan Bajaj, the Senior Vice President and General Manager of South Asia for Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific is in the process of steering the organization towards refreshing strategy and growth path since October 2016, despite the rough weather of Demonetization and he is also gearing up for the re-launch of Discovery in a Big way by September 2017.
The Brand Management and Digital Strategy professional, Bajaj, is also a best selling novelist and striving yogi who balance his professional career with personal creativity and spirituality. His novels Keep off the Grass and Johnny Gone Down launched his literary career. In June last year, he had his first international novel release – The Yoga of Max’s Discontent.
In an exclusive chat with tvnews4u.com, Karan Bajaj elaborated on his transforming journey and his plans for Discovery Network:
How was the transformation from brand management to digital strategy to Authoring No. 1 bestsellers to Media broadcasting Business..?
A: It has been quite a ride. However, I am not treating this as a transformation per se. Surprisingly in my current role for example my background as a novelist has helped me to understand the nature of a good story, what makes for a good story, you understand characters, conflicts which you wouldn’t understand if you were just commissioning not creating. If you are a content creator yourself you start to understand things in a three dimensional way. So that has been helpful & life has been good. Many different things coming together into one thought process and I am loving it. I am feeling very much at home.
Like you said earlier, life was totally different, I had a novel writing background, a brand management career, both totally different from each other but in this role they all have come together in one stream – which is quite amazing.
To be successful in this type of role along with a good aptitude for business one also needs to have a strong creative thrust. To be able to hire the right people to create content that resonates you need a creative vision to what you really want the network to be. It can become very difficult if you do not have a creative vision.
- With a set of New Leadership team in place, what are your short-term and long-term plans for Discovery Networks in India…?
A: We have 3 big priorities:
The first area is ‘factual’ or ‘Real World’ content, which we do amazingly well and for the first time we have tried to operate as category leaders and to grow the factual pie overall and at the same time we want to triple the factual share of viewership by making it larger than life and entertaining. This is a dominant thrust for us starting this year.
The second area we are very interested in is the ‘Kids’ space. This is an area where we will scale up our presence effective next year and we are working on a number of things toward that.
The third area is a mix of any space were we see an ‘underserved community’ which has some scale we will enter into it. For example, DSPORT was our first move (in this area) we made a few months ago were we saw there was a significant underserved community in sports like Golf, Horse racing, Football, Rugby, Cycling, etc. which no other broadcaster was really focusing on. So we came in and created an attractive proposition around that. So anything that we see as a very underserved niche, nothing flashy or big flashy acquisitions, but underserved, profitable, important niche, we will go and enter that. This is in essence our third strategic focus.
- Could you brief on the role of the newly appointed special India Advisory Board…?
A: In March this year we announced that Discovery had appointed a special India Advisory Board comprising Dr. Narayan who brings with him a wealth of experience in public policy, Ms Naina Lal Kidwai who has decades of experience in corporate and policy and Ali Hussein who has a digital media and start-up background.
As we significantly ramp up our content investment in India, this first of its kind board for the company outside the US, will provide counsel and insight to the India leadership team on strategic matters pertaining to business innovation and help Discovery navigate and tap into new growth opportunities in a rapidly evolving media landscape. These highly respected individuals with different specialities provide us with unique perspectives to media and the industry. As you said in the TV/ Media industry in India there is a tight circle and it becomes very incestuous, so an outsider’s perspective, for us, is very welcome.
- What is the Ratio of Content mix – Local Vs International that is being offered in Discovery in India..?
A: In the last 10 years we’ve done about 5 – 10 hours of local content on average. This year, in just Q4 alone we will do over 200 hours of local content on Discovery. So it’s a huge shift in both the local hours and also in the nature of storytelling.
We’ve realized in order to make all of this work, expanding of the ‘Factual’ category, you’re competing with the GEC and movies of the world. You have to make factual, larger than life, entertainment that is very story driven and not documented.
Now, was the business model right, was it too narrow, should it have been bigger…? (Karan asked and said) Absolutely, and we’re learning from all of that. As a philosophy, I thought it was a good philosophy, but the dimension of just Mythology and History was maybe too narrow. So we are thinking of four genres – Crime, Military and small town heroes – biopic type of stories apart from our own outdoor ‘Survival’ content. So its really focusing on these four genres.
- Could you list out some big ticket local properties
A: In September we are re-launching Discovery in a big way, with some big ticket shows. However, these are big ticket in the scale of nature of storytelling. Powerful stories not necessarily faces. There is of course a financial component, but that too, in terms of production quality. Our simple hypothesis is that at the end of the day powerful content wins.
- How the other language feeds is performing…. Any plans to expand it further…?
A: Our main feed and our language feeds are doing very well.
Our philosophy is quite simple, it’s not about language. India really is a country within a country and when you say we want to do regional content then we need the infrastructure in place to curate content locally with teams who are based there, understand and have their finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist in that region. We would need a business model and as of now we do not have the need for a business model to set up individual channels.
So as of now it is programming led and if relevant across regions we dub them in Telugu/ Bangla and Tamil.
As of now we only do original content in Tamil. After HSM, Tamil Nadu is our next big market – we’ve had a tradition of success there. As we add more local content we may think of expanding regional feeds
- Apart from International Live action content on DSPORT… Where you able to add some Cricketing and Non-cricketing Sports content in India..?
A: While Discovery will also participate in bringing cricket to Indian fans, our goal with DSPORT is to provide a balanced coverage spanning several sporting genres with an important objective – to promote plurality of sports consumption and to make sure that the underserved sports fan is not neglected.
For example, in golf, no one has all the majors. That’s like watching tennis without the French Open, Wimbledon, US Open. It doesn’t really work. We have three of the four major golf Masters tournaments on DSPORT; for football – we have picked up some excellent marquee properties like the Chinese Super League, Brazilian/ Portuguese and MLS as football continues to grow in popularity in India.
With regards to cricket, we will evaluate each opportunity on merit and business sense and strategic fit with our objectives in India.
- Do you foresee any possibilities of GEC audience shifting focus towards Factual Channels…?
A: Yes absolutely. We are not very focused on what is the competition and how to get in there. I have learnt phenomenally from my novel writing days and the fact is the market and industry is very unpredictable. Every year you have a phenomenon like 50 Shades of Grey or Amish’s Shiva Trilogy that defies all genre expectations. So when you think GEC and a certain kind of content and that we are trying to win against that you will get narrow.
So we are right in thinking what are the big entertaining stories out there which are driven out of facts and haven’t been told on national television yet and have an audience. That’s what we are going for. I think this market is ripe.
So will that lead to more people watching more TV, more viewers moving from GEC or News…?
What we are trying to do (if compared with others like History) is a little bit less niche, and more in line with the general idea of ‘fact inspired entertainment’. Not history or mythology inspired entertainment, but fact inspired entertainment which opens itself to a rand of broad interesting stories.
In terms of audiences and viewers, we are looking beyond the Metros at tier 2 and tier 3 towns. That’s where our focus is..!!!
- As a professional with Strong Digital acumen, what are your Digital plans for Discovery..?
A: Digital is important to us and we are making a very thoughtful push into this space and we will have more to share about some of our major initiatives in the coming weeks. At the same time, we are very clear that we will not launch our own OTT platform as we do not see the scale in it.
….But do we see true ground-up digital brands…?
Yes. We are going to be rolling out one catered to female audiences and one to male audiences. It’s a very thoughtful effort towards where we see a white space in the market, which we have the ability to fill.
….Will it be on the lines of a Netflix….?
No, not an OTT platform. That is a different game. Discovery is a content driven company. We may partner with the right OTT platform at a strategic time, but we are not launching our own platform. There is too much fragmentation there and the business model isn’t attractive. As mentioned, we’re taking a more thoughtful approach as we enter the digital space rather than looking to do what’s the flavour of the moment.
- While the Industry is still struggling to grapple the aftermath of DeMo… Do you foresee any change in ad rates of Discovery Channels…?
A: Overall business of the industry declined but nothing exceptional per se. We are still the top performer in our genres and if you are in this position you are relatively insulated. The whole media business declined, but the fundamentals are in place for a good come back. You should see the recovery in the second half of 2017.
- BARC India has implemented few changes in reporting from week 8 and also increased the Panel Households… Was there any noticeable trend favoring Discovery Channels..?
A: In our genre we continue to be the leader so nothing has changed there. So far the way we’ve defined it is ‘Infotainment’. That’s where Discovery predominantly is with Nat Geo, History, etc. And in that we’re the leaders, we have 60-70% share of that genre.
But now we are not thinking like that all. So starting September when the new Discovery relaunch happens our simple idea is how do you grow this whole category.
In the past we have been operating as the leaders of the category. But now we’re really starting to think that… to be leaders we also need to grow the whole category.
So right now our mission is to become less inclined towards whether we gained share or lost share but whether we were able to grow the whole category by pulling in viewers who had never considered Infotainment because they thought it was informational, purposeful and boring not entertaining. Now we are going to create content which is larger than life, entertaining and we’re confident it will pull the audiences.
- On Personal front… How was the experience of indulging in Hatha Yoga at Sivananda Ashram and learning meditation in the Himalayas..?
A: Yes I did a very intense Yoga course for 6 weeks, this was a few years ago. It was challenging but very enlightening. After coming out, I turned Vegetarian, quit alcohol, quit coffee. But these are more very superficial changes. It’s almost like those things just happen to you, because for 6 weeks you are completely in a bubble. It’s extremely intense and regimented – over six hours of yoga daily, including theory. So you learn so much about the body and how it functions. So what happens at the end is, there’s a shift, something changes in you and you don’t want to do anything you feel is going to have a negative effect. Once you go through something like this you are attuned to every bodily change and what you eat, your moods etc. But you have to keep at it or you slowly slip back into the material world. You do become very self-aware.
We actually did a year of yoga, meditation and then Europe to India by road. It was Spiritual Odyssey. The year after that was quite hard. It’s quite hard to maintain the discipline when there’s the daily grind that takes over. But it’s always important to have a balance and be happy wherever you are.
- Other Changes in Discovery?
A: Move towards entertainment overall has been a consumer-centric approach as it requires a very different skill set. Building an organization that can be geared towards broadcast entertainment and also building digital capabilities in the organization as we are making a thrust in the area.
We are also building up a Kids team which is an area we’ve never had expertise in. Earlier it was a very generalist approach – one programming person handled everything. Now we’re building expertise in Kids, General Entertainment, Sports. So building these expertise areas and recruiting the right people is time consuming, but very important.
For example we now have Sameer Rao, VP of Real World Entertainment (Discovery, Animal Planet, etc.) and Zulfia Waris, VP of Female & Family Products (i.e. TLC and Kids). Both are very experienced hands and they complement me in my lack of Broadcast Experience.
- When can we expect you to Pen your next book and what is the base story-line..?
A: Not very soon but it will be a hard core commercial book.
Being in the Media Industry is advantageous, meeting new people every day, Stars, Star makers. There is a lot of material out there. At the moment I am percolating all the ideas. The 1st novel is very easy as it is ends up becoming an amalgamation of your whole life. Then the well is empty and you need to start filling it up again. This is what I’m doing at the moment.