When STAR India CEO Uday Shankar asked Prem Kamath, then marketing head of STAR India whether he would like to take charge of Channel [V], Kamath told him that he didn’t know much about music. “Fantastic,” Shankar replied. “That’s exactly what I’m looking for.”
Over a year after accepting Shankar’s offer, Kamath says, “At that time, Uday could see it coming. He was quite clear in his vision that the era of pure music channels was clearly over, or rather restricted. His vision was to build Channel [V] into a fairly large youth franchise that is not just restricted to television alone.”
How things change. Look around Kamath’s cabin at the STAR office, where four TV sets remain switched on throughout the day, each tuned into a different channel – Zoom, Bindass, MTV and Channel [V]. A year back, there was 9XM instead of Zoom, but Kamath says the channel has completely fallen off the radar now.
Competition between these channels is intense and the target audience is a restless one. He acknowledges MTV as the first mover amongst music channels that transitioned into the youth space and has been keenly following the resurgence of Bindass. “What surprised me was Bindass turning into a music channel,” he says.
Kamath says that being a country largely comprising of single television households, programming is a challenge. “The fatigue in programming for a youth channel is far higher (than GECs). Something or the other is constantly changing. The challenge is in always having your finger on the pulse. Is there a set way of doing it? No, there isn’t. You go by research, instinct, gut feel.”
It is here that Kamath’s acknowledges his experience of working in advertising. Prior to STAR, Kamath was with Leo Burnett for eight years. “For me one of the most important things where advertising has helped me tremendously is one, in creative judgement - judging a piece of creative, figuring out how you can shape it, how you can make it better. In a client servicing role, a large part of what you do is just that - evaluate creative, influence it and make it better.
“Secondly, having worked across categories, it has certainly helped me is an instinctive understanding of consumers. If you are good at what you are doing in advertising, you know how consumers will behave, what they are likely to look for, appreciate and dislike. That’s something that is invaluable in television,” he adds.
He says his long stint at Leo Burnett was “possibly the best time for the agency” working with the likes of Arvind Sharma, Agnello Dias, K S Chakravarthy, Aniruddha Banerjee, Pushpinder Singh, Bhupal Ramnathkar, Sandeep Pathak - all under one roof. It was also a time when Kamath, felt a great sense of empowerment. “The way it worked was that you had to report to someone, but as long as you were running your accounts well, nobody really got into your way.”
Kamath pays rich tributes to Arvind Sharma (chairman and CEO, Leo Burnett). “Whatever I learnt from him, I still carry it with me. There is absolutely no doubt that he’s one of the most intelligent men I’ve met and one of the finest thinkers in advertising,” he says.
However, towards the fag end of his Leo Burnett innings, Kamath was keen to get out of advertising. “I felt that beyond a point there was nothing new to do in advertising. Unfortunately, advertising has boxed itself into a corner, where in practice, agencies are seen as mere providers of print ads and 30-second commercials. It rarely goes beyond that. That’s where it got frustrating and I decided to seek something else.”
When he joined STAR, it was a shaky time for the channel, a time when many senior people had quit from the channel, including Peter Mukerjea and Sameer Nair. “I’d been told about this ‘sinking ship’ phenomenon and the fact that STAR was an immensely political place and hence not a great place to work. But I gambled on the fact that it was part of News Corp and therefore it was unlikely to be a sinking ship, and surely the fortunes of this large a company cannot be linked only to a few senior people. I also realised that if the channel is in a state of flux, it is also an opportunity for you to go and do something new.”
Which is exactly what he did, when he steered the launch of STAR Jolsha and STAR Pravah. “When I joined, almost everybody was new. So in your own small way, in your own limited sphere of influence, you were free to shape it.”
And shape he did, even at Channel [V]. In August last year, after staring at declining channel shares and the new realities of music consumption, he relaunched Channel [V] with new shows, new VJs and a new positioning. In March, it added step two in that relaunch process, introducing seven new shows at the 7pm time slot on weekdays, which meant a new show every weekday.
Kamath says all these moves are paying off. “The kind of success we saw after our relaunch in August has been fabulous and it took us by surprise. Our shares have quadrupled. Our revenues have followed suit and they are now far higher than they were a year back,” he says.
“I have an extremely talented bunch of people working with me,” he adds. “The reason why I’m here is to give the channel a certain direction, identify areas that we want to get into, significantly increase the number of shows that we are doing and find resources to map that vision.”
New programming concepts are being discussed for the channel, one of which is fiction content. “In July, we will launch our first fiction show,” Kamath says. “It will be extremely unique.”
With a majority of youngsters spending less time watching TV and more time online, what is a bigger challenge – getting viewers to see the channel or to get content to them wherever they want? Kamath says bringing viewers to TV is still the priority. “I’m still bothered about how many people continue watch me on television. Having said that, we are laying the groundwork for an extremely robust online model. It is just a matter of time before it tips over and becomes extremely important for us. We’ve not come to a point where content is created exclusively for the web. The problem is the cost model. The cost of creating a show for TV and for online is the same.”
General manager, Channel [V]2007
Senior VP - marketing, STAR India1999
Joined Leo Baurnett as senior executive. Quit as associate vice president1998
Account executive, Enterprise Nexus