That there's a huge appetite for entertainment fare beyond the Hindi spectrum is by now obvious. That the Tamil and Telugu dubbed versions of the sci-fi animated film Avatar did as well as the Hindi dub, and that the three together did huge business is India is witness to the fact that the following for entertainment in local languages is strengthening significantly enough for everyone to take note of and act upon with urgency.
On TV, this promise gets magnified manifold as the small screen's reach expands rapidly into the smaller geographies in India. The increasing penetration of television has led to a ballooning in demand for regional content, backed by the increasing purchasing power across tiers II and III towns.
"Due to the strengthening of the Indian economy in the past few decades, people have started taking pride in what they actually are and where they belong to," said Santosh Sood, independent media consultant and former CEO of Rediffusion Y&R.
Direct-to-home (DTH) remains the enabler for regional language TV seeing significant growth. The DTH space has achieved robust growth of 75% in net subscriber base by adding 120 lakh subscribers in 2010. "Our duty is to provide niche content to our subscribers. The preferences for regional feeds and regional channel packs are quite impressive," said Vikram Mehra, chief marketing officer, Tata Sky.
According to a FICCI-KPMG report, after realising the power of regional media, national and foreign channels have started venturing into the regional channel space. Meanwhile, regional players have achieved scale and are now looking to go national and build a pan-India presence. The trend has caught on with most of the established broadcasters. The most sought after languages for TV channels and programmes are Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali and Marathi.
Zee Networks established a strong presence in northern and eastern India with channels in Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi and Punjabi by 2004. In south India, it launched Zee Telugu in 2005, Zee Kannada in 2006, and Zee Tamil in 2008.
Other broadcasters such as Sony, NDTV and UTV are eyeing the growing regional channel space, intensifying the need for more specialised content targeted at the regional viewers.
Recently, actor Aamir Khan announced that his small screen debut to be telecast in eight different languages.
Not only have general entertainment channels (GECs) come forward to taste the vernacular pie, but infotainment channels too are taking the initiative. Discovery has launched an altogether separate channel devoted to the Tamil audience, Discovery Tamil. The channel is planning to bring in one of its global blockbuster shows, Curiosity, in five Indian languages.
Rahul Johri, senior VP, Discovery Networks India, said, "We have completely sold out the ad inventory and the response from advertisers to the regional languages feed is enormous."
Affordable regional channel ad rates for advertisers to reach the right audience are contributing to the heightened advertiser interest. Media buyers feel this is an intelligent move on the part of existing GECs and non-fiction channels that are extending their presence into the regional language space in that it has opened up an altogether new revenue stream for the channels.
"It will add strength to the mother brand as the channel will now cater to regional audience too. Moreover, the channel will earn handsomely through the regional advertisers. It meant adding advertisers (customers) and eyeballs," said Rajni Menon, associate VP, Carat Media, a media buying house.
According to a report by Deloitte, regional GECs are today almost matching the strength of their national counterparts and have emerged as a key focus area for most players. "Avenues in the regional arena are widespread. Say, after the success of Tamil GEC, a broadcaster can plan to introduce Tamil music followed by Tamil news," said Sai Nagesh, MD, Polestar Content and Media.
Keeping the ad rates lower than their Hindi counterparts for most regional language channels is mostly possible because the overhead costs are lower. "The expansion seems simple because of the low cost of production - relatively low talent cost, no carriage and placement fee, low acquisition cost," Nagesh explained.
"Advertising in regional markets ensures that it is cost-effective and is focused on desired audiences in their environment. Advertisers have acknowledged the importance of localisation and are endorsing their products through local heroes," said Santosh Desai, an ad- expert.
From new movie broadcasts to the IPL craze, from serials such as Balika Vadhu addressing social issues or producing reality shows with more celebrity appearances - the need for differentiated and fresh content is on an all-time high. "Demand for fresh content and vacuum in the regional space has made regional viewers, both in India and overseas, gain importance," said Ajay Chacko, president, AETN18 Media, which runs History Channel in India.
According to the media buyers, the ad spot rates of the regional channels or regional feeds are hugely reasonable. For example, if a national channel 10-second ad spot comes for Rs 50,000, a regional channel 10-second ad spot could cost an advertiser a mere Rs 4,000, said a media planner.
PricewaterhouseCoopers' India Entertainment and Media Outlook 2011 report said: "The cost of reaching a target audience through a regional channel is much lower than through a Hindi GEC. For instance, an advertiser will spend about 60% less to reach a thousand people through a prime time show on a Telugu GEC than on a Hindi GEC. The advertising rates for a 10-second spot on a top-rated prime-time show on a Hindi GEC could range between Rs 2.5-3 lakh, while a similar spot on a Telugu GEC will cost between Rs 24,000 and 28,000."
"Though ad rates for regional content are surging, they will never match the national channel prices because of a bundle of factors. In the last five years, ad rates for regional channels have surged by over 20%," said Menon.