Media Group Ukraine chief on working the way up to the top. Exclusive interview. Pt.1
Media Grop Ukraine (MGU) has had a solid year so far with flagship channel Ukraina topping the charts in all key demos each month since the start of 2017. In this interview, Yako Molhov talks to Evgen Lyaschenko, head of MGU, and other members of the management team about the achieved success and continued efforts to drive the company’s growth further in the ever-challenging conditions of the Ukrainian media market.
Mr. Lyaschenko, channel Ukraina has been the market leader in Ukraine this year in all key demos. To what do you attribute this success?
As of the first six months the Ukraina TV channel occupied the leading position among Ukraine’s Top 6 nationwide TV channels ranking first in all popular demos (4+, 18+, 18-54) to become the leader in two of them at once: 18-54 and 18+ for the cities 50,000+. As compared to the same period in 2016 Ukraina’s audience share has increased 12% and 11% for 18-54 and 18+, respectively, showing 10.63% in share, and 1.52% in rating for 18-54 and 12.83% and 2.27% for 18+.
The success and leading position in the market has not just come out of the blue, we have been working our way up to the top. We still have a sense of purpose and view quality content as the main formula for success despite a number of restrictions (legal and market alike) which do not allow us to meet the channel needs with the acquired content. Therefore, we focus our effort on in-house production. Over the last three years our in-house production (that of our channels and production companies within Media Group Ukraine – MGU) has increased severalfold. All channels need to rev up their own production in order to survive and we are no exception. It is since 2012 that our Group has viewed in-house production as one of its strategic priorities. TV channel Ukraina has been regularly conducting in-depth audience research and the viewer feedback enables us to have a clear cut idea of our viewers’ preferences, expectations and interests. When producing content we go with the trends favored the world over. For example, the TV series are trendy and thus we have also concentrated on the TV series while adding docu reality series developed by our TV channel.
What are your most successful projects and have there been any changes in viewers’ taste lately?
One has to keep in mind that over the last three years Ukraina’s changes in programming schedule have exceeded 70% which is sure a dramatic figure. Some of them have been caused by a step-by-step progress, but in a number of cases it has been a forced measure to make up for hundreds hours of high rating Russian made products. With our viewers getting accustomed to genre diversity we try hard to meet their needs and interests by way of offering them home made products first and foremost. These are primarily in-house products, although we are hunting for challenging projects made by independent Ukrainian production companies.
It is quite clear that such an extensive schedule restructuring requires long-term investments, but we found ourselves in a reverse situation: not only had we any additional resources, but we were, however, supposed to cut costs given a drastic fall in revenues from advertising. Therefore, we started out by experimenting with off-prime and pre-prime slots on workdays and, getting ahead of myself, I could say that they are now filled to capacity (100%) by in-house projects providing for the channel’s first place. That might seem a bit strange since TV channels usually invest into and stand for primetime slots. But the approach we chose enabled us to avoid a flop in 2015-2016, moreover it helped us secure the leading position in the market and substantially uphold the position in primetime in 2016-2017.
It won’t be out of place to mention a few projects which have been most helpful for us to stay in the lead.
Morning show with Ukraine (Utro z Ukrainoyu), was basically reformatted in 2016 due to a concept change, new hosts appearing, new segments emerging. Thus, the commercially relevant audience (18-54, cities 50,000+) showed a 23% growth as of the end of 2016. With the loyal audience formed the show proceeded with holding the field in the audience share exceeding the channel’s average share by 2%.
Ukraine Talks (Govorit Ukraina), our primetime public service show, which covers high-profile and pressing issues faced by the community, has been invariably keeping the viewers interested for five years now with the audience share growth year in, year out (+5% in 2017 as compared to 2016) while staying in the lead among similar TV projects.
Detective investigations in the docu reality genre are popular with TV viewers; the statement might be illustrated by Real Mysticism (Realnaya mistika), a scripted reality series, Ukraina’s in-house product aired off primetime on weekdays. The show set audience share records in 2017 with the increase accounting for 28 % as compared to 2016 which exceeds the channel average share by 20%. The show is the leader in this slot exceeding performance by its nearest rival by 40%. The Story of A Crime (Istoriya odnogo prestupleniya), an in-house produced detective show, accounted for 10.08% and 13.58% in audience share for 80-54 (50+) and 18+ (50+), respectively. Agents of Justice (Ahenty spravedlivosti), a detective in-house series in its third season, showed 10.69% for 80-54 (50+) and 13.27% for 18+ (50+), thus ranking second in its slot for both audiences.
Primetime feature TV series have an unfailing success with viewers. Examples are not far to seek. Let’s take, Captaine’s Wife (Kapitansha), produced by Ukraina with its average share being 16% higher among 18-54 (50, 000+) with the final episode showing 22%.
The viewing audience develops a steady interest for miniseries of four episodes which account for more than 50% of Ukraina’s airtime since this year start. This can be proven by their permanent leadership on weekends.
Judging from viewing frequency one might emphasize genres, such as comedies, melodramas and detective series which might be qualified as the audience genre preferences with biopics, history series and literary adaptations causing minor interest. Unlike Ukrainian made content which is usually a hit with the public, foreign series (European and US alike) do not really resonate with viewers.
You have increased the number of Ukrainian-language series. How many do you have in the pipeline and aren’t Ukrainian-language series more difficult to sell in the region?
Doctor on Call (Chergovy likar) has been our first TV series in Ukrainian, co-produced with Film.UA , a sort of experiment providing the prospect for the future. We have taken a risk and it has paid off with high ratings for its slot. The Story of A Crime (Istoriya odnogo prestupleniya), another project in Ukrainian, was launched this May. We are about to launch new projects experimenting with off-prime and pre-prime slots on weekdays like we did in 2016-2017. The majority of the Ukrainian language projects for the slots are in production now and in particular: Doctor on Call (Chergovy likar), Doctor Kovalchuk, A Ring Set with Ruby (Obruchka z rubinom) and the scripted reality Agents of justice, etc. The products are aimed at the local market and meant for airing on MGU’s nationwide channels (Ukraina, Indigo TV, NLO.TV ), on Oll.tv , the digital media service, and on the regional channels within the Media Group.
Besides, MGU has already had a good and valuable experience of selling its content abroad and in particular, Immortelle (Bessmertnik), based on the format Ice Adonis, a 100 episode melodrama produced in-house has been sold to India, translated into Hindi and successfully aired on a first tier channel. We are planning to enter other markets besides the traditional ones, such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, the Baltics and Israel.
The Ukrainian TV market has experienced significant changes in the past few years, related with the economic situation the annexation of Crimea by Russia; etc. The volume of Russian content on Ukrainian TV has been reduced to a minimum. How have these changes affected the TV market from your perspective and have you managed to fill the gap left by the lack of Russian content?
The TV market has actually experienced significant changes with the resulting audience losses greatly affecting advertising budgets. It was in 2013 that the TV advertising market showed a drastic fall and it was only by mid 2016 that some signals of growth appeared. Television is a business characterized by long-term planning and investment and content purchase, let alone content production is not something done overnight. It is at the beginning of the current season that we are supposed to know what we would bring on air by the coming year end and thus to contract purchases and invest into production.
Restrictions on the use of Russian content have become a problem and a challenge at once motivating MGU to proactively rev up its own production. The basics for the process were laid down as far back as in 2014 when we first tried hand at producing series. As of today, we have a brand new economic model not limited to mere content acquisition. The in-house production model enables us to fully control any product quality while opening up opportunities to monetize our library. Apart of producing content we build up a library to be sold to other channels.
The MGU in-house production ( motion pictures, series, shows) accounted for 1.495 broadcast hours in 2016 with 1.706 hours planned for 2017. With the in-house production share amounting to 47% and acquisitions to 53%, including sports broadcasts in 2015, the ratio experienced significant changes in 2016 from 56% and 44% ,respectively. The in-house production increase has quite favorable implications for the channel ratings, too.
As I’ve already mentioned, we are still experimenting a lot. Having started with off-prime and pre-prime slots we acquired the knack of creating quality and high rating content for primetime, too. We learned to make novelas, docudramas and scripted reality shows and now we are shooting TV series that are steadfast leaders in their respective slots because they are so comprehensible to most viewers and close to their everyday lives. However, we are aiming at high quality performance, too.
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