Rewind Networks’ Avi Himatsinghani Talks HITS Bouquet


Avi Himatsinghani, founder and CEO of Rewind Networks, talks to World Screen about what’s driving the company’s success, having recently launched HITS NOW alongside the well-penetrated services HITS and HITS Movies.

WS: What led to the launch of HITS NOW?
HIMATSINGHANI: HITS was an aspirational bet that we took on the idea that there’s a place for curated destinations. It goes back to the roots of who we are as a company. We have always wanted to be in a place where we fill real consumer need gaps. A “me first,” not a “me too.” HITS plugged that gap ten years ago. Even though Netflix had already launched in the U.S. and the signs of the disruption in the linear space had started, we still went out with HITS because we knew there was no place curating the best TV series from the last 40 years. That turned out to be a success. There was a clear audience for that easy-to-watch comfort TV. Fast forward five years, we saw the same gap and opportunity with HITS MOVIES. The HBOs and FOX Movies were curating from the last 15 years, at best. No one was curating from the previous 40. We said those are the golden years of Hollywood, so we went and curated for HITS MOVIES. It filled such a clear need gap that it performed. HITS NOW emerged from Disney’s retreat in the channels business [following its acquisition of the FOX-branded assets]. They wanted to pivot to streaming. All the big media companies did. Of these linear services that Disney-Fox offered in the region, the majority of that content was not owned by Disney; it was third-party licensed content. All of their own content goes onto Disney+, but then there’s a vacuum in the pure general entertainment space. We saw there was a gap developing. No one else was picking up that other content; no streamers, no other linear networks. There are phenomenal long-running franchises—American Idol, Survivor, America’s Got Talent, Britain’s Got Talent, Hell’s Kitchen, Shark Tank, Project Runway—that people love but no one was curating. The opportunity fell in our laps. We’re known as HITS, we’re known for curating the best of, why don’t we do the best of now? A year ago, we started talking to all the platforms. Some were proactive. They said there’s a gap, why don’t you fill it? These are pop culture, relevant shows that people want to talk about, but no one’s curating them. I was very fortunate to have the foundation support of several of our affiliate partners who said, If you launch a service like this, we will take it. I knew there was a ready audience. We have a proven track record with HITS and HITS MOVIES. There’s a trust level already in place.

We launched HITS NOW on February 6, live with the Grammy Awards. We pivoted from running library channels and being used to getting content weeks or months in advance and having enough time to subtitle, censor and put it in our system to starting with live. Nine months have gone by, and the traction continues. We are getting phenomenal feedback on our performance. Three markets, 5 million-plus homes, nine months since launch. At APOS, we announced the launch on Cignal, the largest pay-TV operator in the Philippines. We are in conversations with platforms in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Thailand and Hong Kong and plan to roll out in these markets soon.

Our networks are growing in an environment with headwinds of declining content budgets, the fragmentation of linear audiences and the growth of streaming services. Our services must continue to deliver value in a new world where our affiliate and telco partners distribute both streaming and linear. That makes curation even more important. It’s essential to ensure little to no overlap with the streaming services because the consumers are the same. If you look at all our franchises—HITS, HITS MOVIES, HITS NOW—there’s little to no overlap with any streaming services. That is the starting point of conversations we have with our studio partners. If any streamers want [a show], we don’t want it. Our first customer is the business-to-business partner, which is the affiliate. For them, we want to ensure that we are giving a unique, curated destination in a quintessential Rewind style, which is you can’t find this content anywhere else, and it’s the best.

WS: How have you evolved your marketing strategies to inform consumers that HITS NOW is a home for first-run content?
HIMATSINGHANI: Both HITS and HITS MOVIES are significant in promoting cross-channel because we are already deeply penetrated. HITS is in 13 countries, 23 million homes. HITS MOVIES is in nine countries with 10 million homes. We have to put a disclaimer—selected territories only—but we get the message out. There’s a buzz created in the marketplace naturally through our own network. On top of that, we are very close to all the affiliate partners. We use their marketing tools and cross-channel promos. We make bespoke spots for the affiliates to put on their channels. We use social media. We have superb shout-outs. When we launched American Idol, we had Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan doing shout-outs for HITS NOW. Same for America’s Got Talent with all the judges. Our studio partners have been super supportive.

WS: How much is day and date? What’s been the approach to scheduling?
HIMATSINGHANI: Ultimately, it’s about the currency and the curation. Because it’s not live voting, day-and-date has no impact. We’re doing “Express from the U.S.” A lot of our shows are within 48 hours of the U.S. airing. We subtitle where necessary. Almost all of our reality/talent shows are express from the U.S. We have Entertainment Tonight daily, 12 hours after the U.S. broadcast. For [scripted] shows like Ghosts and Fire Country, when we launched, it was already February, so they were first in Asia but not express. We did the same with the current seasons of Chicago P.D. and Chicago Fire. As time goes on, we will get closer to the U.S. broadcast schedules and sync that. Having said that, there’s no real urgency to make these day-and-date. The only place to watch them is on HITS NOW.

We’re programming it as a quintessential general entertainment channel. We are taking the best of U.S. broadcast TV. Because there’s a mix of sitcoms, dramas, reality, talent, daily celebrity news and game shows, we are comfortable programming it like the popular terrestrial networks. You switch it on, and there’s always something fantastic to watch.

WS: And the flagship HITS turns ten this year.
HIMATSINGHANI: We’re bringing in Frasier, Perfect Strangers, The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk, the original Hawaii 5-0, Mission: Impossible and The Waltons. There are enough great super-hit series from the past that still haven’t debuted on our network. HITS MOVIES, we have 45 years to curate from, just nothing from the last 15 years. We can add something to the slate every year—now we’re going right up to 2008 and before. Five years ago, it was until 2003. We keep that 15-year filter quite strict. There’s so much hit blockbuster movie content we can curate.

Our original thinking of playlists and curation is playing well in this new world, which is about playlists. That’s turning out to be our biggest strength. It’s our belief in brand promise, curation and execution with finesse and passion that keeps us going. We have a competitive edge. We have relationships on the ground and listen to our partners constantly. We are listening to our consumers constantly. We use social media as a listening board. This puts together an excellent ability to work for the consumer. And at some point, I want to take this beyond Asia. How do we replicate this magic in Africa or Eastern Europe?