The Western experience
Internationally, legions of fans are nothing to new to the World Wide Web. The net has witnessed fans of Supernatural - an edgy drama with two brothers hunting for demons and monsters - chart the life history of the yet unborn child of the lead actor, Jensen Ackles, within an hour of the official announcement."
On Tumblr, fans are constantly figuring out the historical references in episodes of Mad Men, the cult television show based on the advertising industry in the 1960s.
Love for all seasons: The lead pair of Na Bole Tum Na Maine Kuch Kaha
Fans of Community (a critically acclaimed comedy series based on a group of students attending community college) kept the show on air for four years despite low ratings. The mammoth fandom of Arrested Development - listed as 100 Best TV Shows of all time by Time magazine - brought the show back on air six years after its cancellation. And the force is now with us in India.
TV till now has functioned on the seemingly whimsical decisions of channel executives who pull shows off-air, cancel a series mid-way or replace lead characters based on the day's weather (they call it TRPs). And the audience, hooked to TV, simply moves to the next fix. But things have now turned complicated since the Internet got involved. When Star One (what is now Life OK) cancelled a popular TV show, Geet - Hui Sabse Parayi, in December 2011, they probably expected it to go down as another routine cancellation. What they didn't expect was the online uproar among thousands of fans, demanding a second season. Though the second season never materialised, it did give the channels a taste of what a passionate fandom was capable of.
This fandom asserted itself once again when the male lead of a popular Star Plus show - Iss Pyaar Ko Kya NaamDoon (IPKKND) - wanted to quit and there was talk of replacing him with another actor. But devoted fans couldn't bear to see anyone but Barun Sobti play the role of the arrogant tycoon Arnav Singh Raizada. So they went on a rampage, wrote letters and made phone calls to the channel, spammed the twitter profiles of every media outlet, flooded the Facebook pages of the channel and jammed every possible entertainment website with angry comments. The production house was forced to cancel the show altogether -- probably a first for Indian TV. With the last episode, aired on November 30, 2012, IPKKND became an example of Indian fan power. Barun continues to remain the most popular television celebrity according to India Forums - where much of Indian TV fandom can be found - even five months later.
Fans, having tasted blood, came together again when Colors decided to pull out a show called Na Bole Tum Maine Kuch Kaha in October 2012. Rinse repeat. This time the show was brought back on air for another season, from January 2013. "We got Na Bole Tum back on air only because of the intense fan pressure," says Prashant Bhatt, weekday programming head for Colors. "Bringing the season concept in India was a risk since it had never been done before. But the ratings for season 2 prove it was worth it. We do seriously consider what the audience wants to see and now we can get their feedback from the Internet almost instantly. We even execute changes based on what people ask from us, sometimes changing storylines too. Like with our show Madhubala, the lead characters Madhubala and RK were supposed to get married much later in the show. But due to fan pressure, we got them married in the fifth week instead of the 16th week as we had planned."
Much before these campaigns, there was an intense and eventually successful social media campaign (called 'Bring BQC Back') to bring Bournvita Quiz Contest, a popular quiz show of the '90s, back on air after it was pulled out in 2006. After several videos, online and physical posters, fan pages, one and a half likes on the official page on Facebook, hundreds of blogs and support from celebrity tweeters like Gul Panag and show's quizmaster, Derek O' Brien, the show was eventually brought back on Colors in 2011.
Harshil Karia, online strategist for Foxymoron, the digital agency which helped create the campaign, says the involvement of fans can't be ignored any longer. "People are getting online to discuss the shows and dictate story lines," he says. "They are following their favourite characters closely enough to demand meatier scenes for them. They even criticize their favourite show if it goes awry. In turn, this is being utilised by the channels which use new media to release teasers about a twist in the story line, causing an immediate spike in ratings."
The AXN Story
If you think that the story so far is, fans: good, TV channels: bad, then that's not the whole truth either. Sometimes, channels are more than willing to walk the same ground and are smart enough to see that getting some fan-loving isn't that hard.
Like AXN India did with the hugely popular show, Supernatural, whose international fan base was awarded the Favourite TV Fan Following at the People's Choice Awards in 2012. In India too, Supernatural fans are already catching up in rabidity and enthusiasm if not in actual numbers yet. With a dedicated base on Twitter and Facebook, the channel created a separate twitter handle for the show @Supernatural_IN, and also organized two tweet-ups for fans in various cities called The Great Indian Supernatural Meet-Up.
"We have been broadcasting the show for several years now and there is a big online fan base for it in India," says Sunil Punjabi, the business head of AXN Network, India. "So we got some of the fans together in a few cities (Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Delhi, Hyderabad and Kolkata) and conducted activities like showcasing the first episode of the current season and distributing AXN merchandise as well. Several fans told us it made them feel a part of our community."
Like Shinmin Bali, a ** year old student, who got on twitter solely to interact with the Supernatural fandom. "Fandom makes your TV viewing experience so much better because you can share it with someone," she says. "And the twitter conventions are great because one gets to meet people with same the level of interest in the show."
The beginning of fandom
But just when did people start huddling in unknown corners of the Web to discuss what the lead character of their favourite should be doing next? The official page of India Forums says it was around 2004 with Sony's Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin, one of the earliest shows to be discussed on the site's message boards. But fandom as we know it has emerged only in the past two years, creeping on the walls and hooking on the handles of social media. Vivek Srivastav, digital media head of Colors TV, points out that with approximately 65 million Facebook users and 25 million twitter consumers today, social media has helped foster the bonds of fandom. "Facebook in India has grown by about 50 per cent in the past two years alone. And it's not only the urban, Indian youth but also the demographic from small-town India. TV channels have become savvier and every channel and most popular shows have their own Facebook pages and are present on twitter. This has obviously made direct conversation between the audience and the channels easier," he says.
And we're guessing more profitable too, since every channel has its own website which often live streams episodes and effectively doubles as a fan site with celebrity interviews, web chats and behind-the-scene clippings. "Episodes are uploaded on YouTube immediately after the broadcast. That, along with the channel's own sites, has made it easier to consume television outside the idiot box, on the Internet. So it's not too difficult to post a comment if you are already online," says Srivastav.
The NRI connection
And while the locals are still integrating smart phones, tablets and live-tweeting in their television consumption, millions of Indians across the world who watch these shows on cable TV and the Net naturally turn to the Web for post-show analyses, a trend that the West has been following for some years now. And they do drive a lion's share of Indian fandom, pushed by a search for common ground, which they miss in their own countries. Chitra Ramani, a 32-year-old IT professional from Spain and a fan of Na Bole Tum Na Maine Kuch Kaha says she cannot discuss the show with her friends since no one she knows there watches it. "I get online to share how I feel about the show and I realize there are many NRIs doing the same thing for various other TV shows as well. Especially if there's a new twist in the plot then I have to log on and express my opinion about it and find out what the others are saying," she says.
Who's a real fan?
Being in a fandom isn't easy unless you have fingertips of steel and a tensile relationship with the space time continuum. Anu*, a stay-at-home forty-something mother of two college going kids, is an active member of the Parichay (a recently cancelled show on Colors which has been generating online upheaval ever since it was taken off air) fandom. She spent around 4-5 hours on the web, creating cigis (fan lingo for collage pictures of their favourite actors), discussing the show and often chatting with members of the same fandom on sites like India Forums, MyeDuniya, and the Facebook fan page (when the show was on air). "We feel jobless now that the show has ended. We still get together to discuss it though," she says. It was always a 'we', never an 'I' in all the telephonic conversations we had with her. "Right now it's mostly about planning tweet-a-thons to get the show back on air," she says. That's the trusty weapon-of-choice used across fandoms to make TV networks concede their demands. However, this time it doesn't seem that fans will get what they want. "Parichay is not coming back on air. We pulled it off because the story had reached its natural end," says Prashant Bhatt from Colors.
Devotion operates in tangled subsets in the fandom of the highly popular TV show, Devon ke Dev Mahadev which airs on Life OK. Three girls -- Tulika Dubey from Pune, Shruti Trivedi from Mumbai and Anjali Singh from Nottingham, UK -- who run the Mohit Raina Fan Club (the actor who plays Lord Shiva) - on Twitter and a blog on Wordpress by the same name say it's the many layers and stories on the show that compelled them to come online for discussions. "I was never much of a TV person, but the way mythology is depicted in this show struck me as different. So we started the blog about a year ago, which already has around 2,000 active members from all over the world," says Dubey. "The topics often revolve around mythology and how it forms the basis of our heritage. We blog about it every day and even write guest posts on other forums. And while we appreciate Mohit's portrayal of the character, we also criticise what we don't like. Like when they ended the Sati chapter and got Sonarika Bhadoria to play Parvati, we were very unhappy."
Having read Ramesh Menon's Shiva after watching the show, Dubey says the club was unhappy with the way Parvati's character was developed on the show. "Sati was a very strong woman, who knew exactly what she wanted and wasn't afraid to go after it. It was a quality that I and many girls my age related with. But when Parvati came on the show, instead of being the mature version of Sati that she was supposed to be, she was just another character from a saas-bahu show, who was only concerned about the functioning of the house. Thankfully, that's changed now," she says.
The Lure Of the Anti Hero
And that's where the core of the fandom universe lies in India. In a galaxy far, far away from typical saas-bahu shows those seem to do so well on the TRP ratings. Most major fandoms revolve around romantic shows, often with an anti-hero theme, outshining the leaden saas-bahu soaps. Samir Soni, the lead actor for Parichay, believes that the online fans frequently make very valid points about the show. "While they are not the majority, this very passionate minority adds substantial value to the shows by calling out a bad storyline if they see one. You can't fool today's audience easily. They are an educated, thinking set of viewers who are undergoing a tremendous transition. The remote is being passed from the grandmother earlier, to the mother now and will soon come to the daughter.
And it's the young people who will begin to dictate what shows on TV," he says. "That's the reason why the anti-hero shows are finding a following online. The young are restless and given the state of the society relate more to the anti-hero than a typical hero. And they're not scared to express themselves."
The way forward
If what we've heard is true, the Internet is not going anywhere. And neither is TV fandom. The deeper the net penetrates into the cities and towns of India, giving busy housewives and bored shopkeepers the power to be heard, the more seriously will channels have to consider online fandom. Says Prashant Bhatt from Colors, "There's a lot of choice now and people know what they want to watch and what they don't want to. They are not only watching shows on the TV or on their computers but on their mobile phones as well. One could say, online fandom could eventually be on par with TRPs when it comes to decisions. Shows on TV will be more in tune with the audience's demands and definitely more democratic."
From HT Brunch, May 12
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