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Zee Café has played a pivotal role in shaping the ‘glocal’ genre through compelling content: Kartik Mahadev, ZEEL
Zee Cafe, the English GEC from the stable of Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited recently turned 20Zee Cafe
Zee Cafe has recently completed 20 years
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Zee Café has played a pivotal role in shaping the ‘glocal’ genre through compelling content: Kartik Mahadev, ZEEL

Zee Cafe has recently completed 20 years
  • Zee Cafe has recently completed 20 years.
  • We caught up with Kartik Mahadev, Business Head, Premium Channels, ZEE to talk about the channel’s journey in India, some key milestones and how it has succeeded in staying relevant at a time when a lot of TV viewership is slowly gravitating towards OTT platforms.

Much before OTT platforms brought content from across the globe to our drawing rooms, English GECs like Zee Café played a pivotal role in introducing us to some of the best global content.

Over the years, the channel has kept viewers glued to their screens with shows like Seinfeld, Friends, The Sopranos, Mad About You, among many others.

Recently, the channel completed 20 years and we caught up with Kartik Mahadev, Business Head, Premium Channels, ZEE to talk about the channel’s journey in India, some key milestones and how it has succeeded in staying relevant at a time when a lot of TV viewership is slowly gravitating towards OTT platforms.

Edited excerpts:

Q) Tell us a bit about Zee Cafe's 20-Year journey. What have some of the major highlights been?
Two decades ago, while the Indian audience was still warming up to international content, Zee bolstered a new era of English programming on television with the launch of what was then called Zee English, later rebranded as Zee Café. Since inception, it has been our sole endeavor to bring the best of English entertainment to the Indian viewer, with iconic shows like Seinfeld, Friends, The Sopranos, Mad About You and Emmy winners - ER and The West Wing.

Circa, early 2000s, consumption of English entertainment was still at a nascent stage in India where those who speak, understand and appreciate international content on television formed just a sliver of the pie. Today, this is has grown into a ‘Glocal’ community. Zee Café has played a pivotal role in shaping this genre through compelling content and shaping the aspirations of this community of international content viewers.

Zee Café has driven several successful innovations for a delightful viewer experience. Be it through the marquee offering ‘Along With The US’ launched in early 2000s where the latest international shows like The Big Bang Theory, Grey’s Anatomy and Supergirl were aired along with its US release or the introduction of ‘binge-watching’ as a format with ‘House of Cards S3’ and subsequent properties like ‘BBC First’ and ‘Breakfast To Bed Binge’ – Café has always catered to the evolving consumer needs.

As consumption appetite for English entertainment evolved, we introduced compelling dramas as part of properties like Hollywood On Café that promised the scale and grandeur of Hollywood on television. The BBC First Dramas on Café added a complex and visceral mix of content with a TV First approach. We also provided variety of content with locally-nuanced content with celebrity chat shows like ‘Look Who’s Talking with Niranjan’ in the past and shows like ‘Not Just Supper Stars’ and ‘Starry Nights’ featuring A-list Bollywood celebrities more recently.

Today, our stable subscriber base is an indication of the channel’s strength amongst a loyal set of consumers who choose the channel for its strong legacy of content. Our promising 20-year journey has been one backed by the support of many individuals and studio partners in shaping the English entertainment landscape, with whom we celebrate this milestone. Their contribution has enabled us to truly entertain our audience by creating togetherness moments and sparks conversations around content.

Q) A lot of English GEC audience has been steadily shifting to OTT platforms over the years. What are you doing to ensure stickiness to your channel?
There is no doubt that the digital video platforms are here to stay. However, today we live in an AND world, not an OR world. English entertainment (Movies + GEC) on Television caters to 170 million+ viewers (BARC @ All India 2+ U+R, Week 01'20- Week 29' 20). The lockdown has showed us that the viewers choose to watch television for the curated content experience it provides, to not just individuals but the entire family.

Studies reveal that consumption of overlapped content between TV and OTT grew on television from 59% pre-NTO to 82% contribution post-NTO for sitcom, drama, reality genres. It naturally follows that navigation between screens is seamless and consumption on TV and digital is complementary in nature.

The surge in TV viewership post lockdown tells us that television is the trusted medium of entertainment. Television provides youth-focused brands and premium brands the opportunity to associate with a premium subscriber base that is defined basis their content choice. This sort of content and platform synergy for brands to associate with, is not available on OTT platforms where English content is behind paywall. While content consumption on OTT is growing, it is the Hindi and regional original content that are the primary drivers of this growth.

Television is and will continue to be the destination for brands to build long-term content association with a premium subscriber base through exclusive content on a channel like Zee Café. The locally nuanced shows such as Starry Nights Gen Y, also provides an opportunity to drive branded content integrations in an organic manner.

When it comes to OTT, content discovery is and will continue to pose a challenge to viewers looking to unwind with quality content. This is where television channels that understand their consumer and curate well, delight the viewer.

Post lockdown, the channel has added 256 hours of content including latest dramas such as ‘Nancy Drew’ and ‘Evil’, iconic sitcoms such as ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ along with the original airings of the celebrity chat show Starry Nights GEN Y. While marquee international shows bring the best of the world to our viewers, locally produced content allows us to add a new dimension from the Indian point of view. In the future, we have a robust line-up of light-hearted and locally nuanced content that help build relevance from an Indian context.

Q) While TV viewership saw a boost during the lockdown, how was it for Zee Cafe?
The lockdown has showed us that the viewers chose to watch television for the curated content experience it provides, to not just individuals but the entire family. We observed a trend in audience preferences towards familiar, light-hearted content amidst the uncertainty and gloom. We were early to spot the trend and introduced tactical changes in our programming. ‘Nostalgia’ as a genre clearly emerged as a big theme across television with several successful examples in Hindi GEC. Spotting the trend early, we introduced the iconic sitcom of the 90s– Seinfeld along with the 60s sitcom ‘I Dream Of Jeannie’ which resonated with the viewers.

Conversational shows and iconic sitcoms along with easy to watch movies have performed well with an increase in time spent on Zee Café. We saw a growth in non-prime time viewing as well and hence to keep viewers entertained through-out the day, we introduced back-to-back episodes of MasterChef Australia S8, Everybody Hates Chris and The Big Bang Theory S12 on Zee Café along with newer dramas like Nancy Drew and Evil.

Q) How are you trying to bring advertisers back to the channel?
These have been uncertain times across several consumer businesses. During the lockdown period, only essentials were being sold which had an impact on advertiser income. Through the lockdown, TV remained a trusted medium for entertainment and information for the family, witnessing significant growth in viewership. With the relaxations in lockdown, economic activity is resuming, and we need to drive effective customer solutions for future growth.

We are in a strong position as far as subscription revenue is concerned with a stable subscriber base and growth in contribution of HD subscribers. This is an indication of its strength amongst a homogeneous set of consumers who chose Zee Café for its strong legacy of content. Television will continue to be the ideal platform for advertisers looking to reach out to their consumers.

Youth-focused premium brands can pick and choose fresh content that they can associate with to reach a premium subscriber base given a sharply segmented audience that English entertainment on television attracts while similar content on digital is behind paywall.

Recently, for the premiere of Jumanji: The Next Level on &flix, Zee Café and &PrivéHD, and a simulcast in Hindi on Zee Cinema, we saw several reputable brands onboard such as Kia Motors, Ariel, Amazon, Airtel 4G, Xiaomi, Protinex and ITC along with Bingo Potato chips, Hyundai Creta, Behrouz Biryani, Bharat Matrimony onboard for the Hindi simulcast. The premiere garnered an overwhelming response with an incredible 34 million reach making it one of the biggest premieres in the last 12 months.

Q) What have some of your growth drivers been? What has helped Zee Cafe stay relevant and win against the test of time?
With out-of-home entertainment options being limited in the new normal, television will continue to be the trusted entertainment destination for individuals and families. Interestingly, India is the second-largest English speaking country in the world (BBC India Report - 2012).Thus, in the long run, regional markets will continue to fuel new user growth for English entertainment. There is a whole set of audience moving from regional to English content as they become more comfortable with English as a professional, conversational language. We have designed unique offerings such as locally nuanced content on Zee Café that has helped drive resonance and enabled adoption of English content amongst an aspirational, English comfortable audience.

Q) What are your strategies towards bringing more viewers to your channel, enhancing their experience and also how are you looking at driving higher engagement?
Our content philosophy was built around ‘All Eyes On New’, with an endeavor to deliver fresh content or a fresh perspective to iconic content. With curation as our core focus, we’ve constantly introduced new programming formats and new properties that best suit the needs of our ever-evolving viewers. With content blocks such as ‘BBC First’ which brought complex British dramas for the first time to India or ‘Along With The US’ where our viewers watched fresh content series along with its international telecast; we truly set the benchmark for being the innovators in the English entertainment category. With most of the shows on Zee Café such as Titan Games, American Idol, Battlebots, Seal Team, FBI, A Million Little Things, Charmed, The Chefs’ Line being available on television first, we’ve lived up to the consumer promise of ‘All eyes on New’.

Catering to the evolving needs of the consumer, we introduced locally nuanced content such as Starry Nights GEN Y and Not Just Supper Stars that broadened the consumption repertoire on the channel.