Facing Global Competitiveness

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In an exclusive interview with the Azeri Observer Magazine, President of Xezer TV, Mr. Shamkhal Hasanov, discusses the Azerbaijani TV market, the main challenges TV channels face, preferences of the viewers of different generations and the projects aimed at the international audience.

By Elena Kosolapova

Azeri Observer Staff Writer

Question: How do you assess the current situation in the Azerbaijani TV market? What are the main challenges in this sphere?

Answer: The main challenge that we face is stiff competition; and I’m not just talking about domestic competition. Nowadays, we are in an open arena, and are competing with big international TV stations, which have more finances and more professionals to produce high quality content. Our audience can understand both Turkish and Russian, and they can easily watch Russian and Turkish TV channels. To meet their requirements we should keep up with these very professional international TV stations and produce expensive and high-quality products as they do. Therefore, we have high technical and quality requirements for any content that goes on air, using top-tier equipment, and the funding we’ve been granted exceeds the budgets of any ordinary TV show in Azerbaijan.

Q.: It is a global trend that the sharing of traditional media – TV, radio, print – is decreasing. Meanwhile, the sharing of new media is increasing, especially among the younger audience. What can TV organizations do to retain their audience and attract more viewers?

A.: It is a challenge with the coming of modern technology and to find a solution to this problem, media organizations should know what type of products their audience consume, what amount of media products they consume and through what channels they consume them. Does the audience prefer watching a TV series, a TV show, or short videos? Do they want a one-hour TV show, a long TV series, or 1-2 minute Instagram video? Finally, do they prefer watching TV or maybe they do not have time for it and prefer video on demand (VOD) instead? Although we do not have a professional VOD platform, we use YouTube as a VOD system for our TV shows.

Q.: Has any market research on the media consumption in Azerbaijan been conducted?

A.: Unfortunately, not. There are rumors that the viewership diminishes day by day. Although, some months ago we celebrated 1 million subscribers on our YouTube channel, for example we receive over 60 million views of our different videos on a monthly basis. It is proven, however, that Azerbaijani TV channels are still in demand. People from all around the world are entering our YouTube channel, but we see that the majority of them are from Azerbaijan, with Azerbaijani IP addresses. We are also active on Facebook and Instagram, but since we have mainly video products, YouTube is a better platform for us. YouTube Analytics helps us to divide our audience by generation so we can analyze their tastes. So, we understand what products each generation likes, and adapt to achieve better results. Sometimes, our comedies or TV dramas even attract many young people from Generation Z, which is very encouraging, because Gen Z is a sophisticated generation with ever-changing media tastes, so can be difficult to please them.

Q.: Research conducted in different countries show that traditional media are losing their audience to social media. For example, according to the latest Pew Research Center report, 55% of U.S. adults now receive their news from social media either “often” or “sometimes”. There is no available data on this issue from Azerbaijan, but I think the trend is similar. Do you see social media and bloggers as a threat for institutional media?

A.: Some people might see it as a threat, but I see it as an inspiration for adaptation. If you cannot adapt to the modern environment, you have to get off the media market. Media should chase their audience. If their audience mainly spends time on YouTube, they should catch it on YouTube. If the audience surfs on Instagram, the best place to catch it is Instagram. This is how we are dealing with this problem. Even if people watch our content online, they still consume our products. The main task here is to produce high-quality content, which suits their tastes. Regarding bloggers, I do not see them as a threat. From international experience, we see that most of them do not last long and phase out in 3-4 years. Xezer TV, in turn, has been on air for more than 10 years. We have a team of creative professionals. Besides, bloggers do not have big budgets. Bloggers cannot produce such great HBO TV series, as Game of Thrones or Chernobyl – these are products of institutional media. Only institutional media may have the finances and manpower to produce them.

Q.: Do we have enough TV professionals in Azerbaijan? Where do people study to work on TV?

A.: Many of our employees have a degree in the sphere of art, however the problem is that Universities mainly teach theory. The practical skills are mostly learnt at work. Experienced professionals coming from outside are rare. As a rule we teach our staff during the production process. I personally received my degree in entertainment business in the US, what helped me to see this sphere through the eyes of Americans. I try to pass my knowledge to my employees and we always brainstorm when producing new content. This year we also plan to start new training for camera operators and especially script writers, because the idea is the essential part of our work. Without a good idea, you will not be able to meet the demands of the audience, even if you possess a good camera, the latest technologies with experienced crew. Besides, we have franchises for some international shows – mainly from UK Fremantle Media – that our employees can learn from. For example, now we are producing our version of the internationally known show ‘My Mom Cooks Better Than Yours’ on a franchise deal. We are working directly with producers from this production company, and we have already made and aired some great shows.

Q.: What do you consider the main mission of Xezer TV?

A.: Xezer TV is one of the top TV stations in Azerbaijan. We have 2 TV channels and 3 radio channels, and our staff exceeds 500 people. When I started office in 2016, my main goal was not to compete with other Azerbaijani TV stations, but to make the audience watch local content. Our main mission is to produce subject matter, which will be just as viewable as the international programmes with equally high quality. Year by year, we come closer to this goal.

Q.: What projects are you especially proud of?

A.: This year we have produced theatrical comedy shows, called Comedyxana. Every Wednesday we used to have this show in a theater, with around 300 spectators, and then aired it on Xezer TV on a Saturday. With this show, we grabbed the attention of the younger generation – almost 80% percent of the spectators were either Millennials or Generation Z, with many views on YouYube as well. I am really proud of this show. Another one is the second season of comedy series, called Niye, which we are starting right now. I remember during the first season, these series had around 1 million hits on YouTube every week, with many positive comments, and the attention of both Gen Z and the Millennials.

Q.: I see that you pay a lot of attention to attracting the younger generation. What is the reason for this approach?

A.: Actually our main audience is Generation X (born between 1965-1980) and the baby boomers (born between 1946-1964) who are our priority and our day-to-day schedule is mainly focused on them. However, there are new generations we should not forget about. Therefore, while producing new shows, we try to address Millennials and Gen Z.

Q.: You mentioned that you have 3 radio stations as well. What are the main challenges in this sphere?

A.: The radio market is less competitive than the TV market. Firstly, we do not have international radio here. The main challenge is to attract good radio anchors. We have the most famous radio anchors, and people love them. Besides, audio materials are completely different from video materials. Video is more difficult and costly to produce. However, we still work on the quality of our radio programs.

Q.: As you just said, TV program production is quite costly. How do you deal with financial issues?

A.: Previously TV stations and radios accumulated about 70% of the Azerbaijani commercial market. However, several years ago their commercial budgets decreased, whereas the online budgets increased. It is a huge challenge because our costs are rising year after year due to the high demands of our audience. Therefore, we try to generate income by other means. We shoot films, which are screened in cinemas before going on air on Xezer TV. We produce music events, comedies shows, concerts and sell tickets for these events in the hope that we profit from our products as much as possible.

Q.: What are your plans for the future?

A.: I’ve always wanted to see Xezer TV in the international arena. I want it to become an international TV station and production company. My goal is to bring our content to the international market. We have attended and showed our products at many international expos. For example, recently we presented our products at an expo in Shanghai, and it was well received by representatives of many countries. So, I think we have potential to enter foreign markets. I believe that dramas would be the best product to sell to the international audience. As far as comedy goes, every nation has a very different sense of humor that doesn’t necessarily transcend to a global audience, however drama is always universal. I hope we will do it soon.