In quest of dramatic excellence
Until a few years ago, Pakistani audiences turned to the news for entertainment. This was primarily because seeing politicians drilled on the media and watching talk shows that were the verbal equivalent of a WWF wrestling match was a novel experience for a society that had lived through martial law and media repression for much of its existence. Another reason was the fact that the local entertainment channels were not producing content that was good enough to hook audiences. Yet, in the space of five or so years, the entertainment channels have turned the situation around, diverting both audiences and ad spend from the news channels to their channels.
Getting the show on the road
The introduction of the Peoplemeters changed the face of media planning and content creation on Pakistani TV. Channels and media planners which had once relied on the Gallup Diary and their gut feel now had real data to sink their teeth into – and not all of it was good news. Although Peoplemeters didn’t cover Indian channels, such as Star Plus, Sony and Colors, the fact of the matter was that this was where the ‘eyeballs’ were. As a result, channels such as Hum and ARY began to move towards reviving what used to be a great Pakistani tradition – producing solid drama series and hits such as Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Benishan, Meri Laadli, Maat, Daastan and the much-acclaimed Humsafar followed, capturing audience attention and imagination.
Parallel to this, the quality of Indian programming and the local fascination with it declined. Local channels took advantage of this and with the help of large production houses such as 7th Sky Entertainment, MD Productions, A&B Entertainment and Six Sigma Entertainment, started producing quality content. PEMRA’s ban on the Indian channels in 2012, was the final nail in the coffin, giving local entertainment the impetus to surge forward and such was the demand for drama that production houses such as A&B started doing 55 to 60 productions a year (previously production had worked on three to four dramas annually).
Although the popularity of Turkish dramas eventually waned, their achievement was that they did manage to transform the entertainment landscape in a variety of ways.
The Turkish drama invasion of 2013, heralded by Ishq-e-Mamnoon, wrought further changes. So riveted were audiences by these dramas that channels started investing in them to the detriment of local productions, until the production houses banded together and launched a protest against what they said was a threat to their business. Caving in to this pressure, the government levied a Rs 100,000 per episode tax on foreign content shown on local channels. Although the popularity of Turkish dramas eventually waned, their achievement was that they did manage to transform the entertainment landscape in a variety of ways.
From Turkey with love
Despite the success of local dramas from 2009 onwards, Pakistani producers were fairly complacent in that their productions were run with little thought to efficiency and ROI, and if the channels are to be believed, vast sums of money were charged simply because these dramas were shot in foreign locations (even though the script did not require such an expenditure). Yet, with 90% of an entertainment channel’s FPC made up of outsourced content, the production companies were in a good position to dictate terms. However, the threat posed by the entry of Turkish content forced local producers to cut costs.
A race for ratings
Now that the entertainment channels have achieved a level of success with local content, the challenge is to keep viewers hooked, to secure the all-important ratings. Yet, fulfilling this demand requires a fine balance in terms of quantity, diversity and quality. One of the big challenges is that despite the presence of four large production houses, several smaller ones and more individual producers (or briefcase operators as they are called) than you can count, the content demands of the entertainment channels are still so massive that they are not completely met and Turkish and Indian content are used as ‘fillers’.
Entertainment is big business in Pakistan and looks set to become even bigger as most industry insiders say that there is room for more entertainment channels in different genres.
Although channels are also producing game shows, internationally franchised shows and the ubiquitous morning shows, the bulk of an entertainment channel’s FPC is based on dramas. However, one of the issues is that the storylines are similar or the same (and regressive), leading audiences to conclude the dramas they see on different channels are essentially a variation on the same theme. In the industry, there is a strong sense that once a drama or any other kind of show manages to garner high ratings, that show becomes the new ‘formula’ for success with every other channel copycatting it in the hope of replicating that success. This completely ‘ratings dependent approach’ to programming leaves little room for experimentation.
It’s all about the money
Developing the market does not appear to be a top priority for either channels or production houses, as both are facing shrinking profitability issues. For context, channels pay production houses between Rs 700,000 to 800,000 per episode for a drama (some dramas sell for as high as one to Rs 1.3 million per episode). On the other hand, a leading channel’s advertising rate during primetime is roughly between Rs 125,000 to 170,000 per minute. A consequence of this reduced profitability is that production houses have formed alliances with channels to remain afloat. Although this generally means that production houses will get somewhat less than the market rate from their partner (usually cost plus a small premium), the flip side is that they now have a number of confirmed projects for the year. Another way channels are addressing shrinking profitability is by reselling their dramas to foreign channels (of which, Zee Zindagi appears to be a major recipient, albeit not the only one).
If advertisers want to see better content on entertainment channels, they should not be buying a time slot; rather, they should invest in the show or the content.
So far, the proceeds from the resale of content are kept by the channel, despite the fact that according to the production houses, the original copyright belongs to them. Channels respond to this by saying that if production houses want a share of the royalties, they should sell the content to local channels at less than market price and then sell it to the foreign channels themselves. Another issue is that most channels (with the exception of Hum TV and Urdu1) do not pay their production houses on time, making them wait for months until they are paid by the advertisers. Ultimately, it boils down to the fact that channels have only one stream of revenue, i.e. advertising, and are at the mercy of advertisers, some of whom are not known for paying their dues promptly.
And that’s a wrap
Despite the many challenges, entertainment is big business in Pakistan and looks set to become even bigger as most industry insiders say that there is room for more entertainment channels in different genres. Ultimately, the success of the entertainment industry is dependent on the triumvirate of channel, production house and advertiser. Channels need to invest more in content and consider capping advertising to enhance the viewership experience. Production houses need to be run like proper businesses and grow in size because only then will they have any say in the decision making. Finally, if advertisers want to see better content on entertainment channels, they should not be buying a time slot; rather, they should invest in the show or the content.
Article excerpted from ‘The business of entertainment’, published in the November-December 2014 edition of Aurora. Marylou Andrew is Head of Product Excellence at Hobnob. email@example.com
First published in THE DAWN OF ADVERTISING IN PAKISTAN (1947-2017), a Special Report published by DAWN on March 31, 2018.
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