With more and more Asian TV channels turning free-to-air in the UK Asian TV market, the rumour mill has gone into overdrive in recent weeks of another major TV network planning to go completely free soon.
Multi Screen Media Asia, which operates flagship channel, Sony Entertainment Television Asia and Sony MAX in the UK have been available as premium services since their launch. Both services are available as part of the company’s VIEWASIA bundle on Sky Digital, while they are sold in the Asian Mela package on Virgin Media. Sony TV’s sister channel, Sony SAB TV went free-to-air in the UK last year and has witnessed huge success for the network.
Sony SAB TV – An experiment?
When Sony SAB TV launched, it took time to connect with UK viewers as its comedy shows were not the type that audiences here were comfortable with. A channel, which was breaking records in India, was simply not enough to lure in subscribers at the time it was in the VIEWASIA package. It was decided last summer to relieve Sony SAB TV from the VIEWASIA bundle and turn it free-to-air on Sky Digital. The broadcaster would then use that opportunity as a sample window for non-Sony TV subscribers to get a glimpse of its premium channels.
Initially, the move was deemed a joke, just like the channel’s lighthearted content. However, as time progressed, the channel’s business strategy came into light. In April 2012, the channel decided to sign up to BARB – the official UK audience measuring body. Its audience figures at the beginning were disappointing – hovering around the 200,000 mark. However, as the broadcaster started experimented with more and more content and move away from its original format of just comedy shows and the addition of movies everyday, the channel started showing some headway. Sony SAB TV in the UK has become one of the biggest contenders, with an audience regularly over 600,000 viewers – placed fifth/sixth in the UK Asian TV pecking order. Sony SAB TV used movies and re-run content from its premium channel, Sony TV to lure in viewers to the channel – and it worked! Shows like ‘Tarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah’, ‘Chidiyaghar’ and ‘Jeanie Aur Juju’ have regularly attracted more viewers than bigger shows on rival General Entertainment Channels.
If a channel like Sony SAB TV is working with differentiated Indian comedy programming – will this pave the way for a free-to-air model for Sony TV and Sony MAX?
Free premium content
Gone are the days when broadcasters used to retain premium content for its subscription channels. For example, viewers would only get big ticket films and shows on a subscription channel that you paid �15 per month to. These days, catch the premiere of a movie on a premium channel and days later watch the same film free on its free-to-air sister channel.
This is exactly the method used by Sony TV’s channels. Films such as ‘Aashiqui 2’, ‘Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai Dobara 2’ and ‘Lootera’, which are this year’s huge Bollywood blockbusters have been big enough to attract new subscribers to channels like Sony TV and Sony MAX, only to be told to these subscribers that these very films are being shown days later on its free sister channel, Sony SAB TV. Similarly, this weekend, Sony SAB TV will be broadcasting one of this year’s biggest Bollywood hits ‘Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani’.
Another thing of the past is a 15-30 minute preview window for big ticket shows to attract new subscribers. These days, channels like Sony TV and Sony MAX are broadcasting huge shows like ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’, ‘Indian Idol Junior’ and on Sony MAX a daily free movie everyday at 18:00. Surely, by doing this – not only are subscribers being treated unfairly but also it is eating into its premium content that non-subscribers do not need to subscribe to if they can find it free in such slots.
If this is a experiment for viewers to sample Sony TV and Sony MAX content – is this a test before the channels finally do become free?
Crumbling of VIEWASIA
Another reason of why Sony TV and Sony MAX could be going free is the crumbling of the premium VIEWASIA bundle, which once championed eight channels – now just has four channels after Colors became the latest to leave the group earlier this year. In a market where its the competition between free-to-air channels with official viewing data (BARB) playing a huge part – does paying �17.99 for four channels justify the costs? How long can this model continue? Will viewers not turn to other free channels or even better switch to the countless number of free premium content being provided through its own network?
There have also been rumours aplenty about Multi Screen Media Asia and ZEE Network UK forming a premium pack together? However, this has been discussed on numerous occasions without any concrete conclusion. Both companies work different with different logistics and mindset. We shouldn’t rule out this model either. Will a Multi Screen Media Asia – ZEE Network collaboration be exciting enough to lure in advertisers and subscribers? Think about it or maybe not?!
It remains to be seen what 2014 holds for Multi Screen Media Asia.