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HindustanTimes Thu,21 Aug 2014

Changing channels

Poonam Saxena   June 15, 2013
First Published: 00:26 IST(15/6/2013) | Last Updated: 00:30 IST(15/6/2013)

Recently, there was a major announcement: Amitabh Bachchan is going to play the lead role in a fiction series on Sony (with a finite number of episodes) and Anurag Kashyap will be the creative director. We already know that Anil Kapoor is adapting and acting in the Hindi remake of the American show 24 (for Colors) and that Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s version of the Gujarati novel Saraswatichandra is currently on air (Star Plus). If these are not signs of a major shift in television fiction programming, I don’t know what is. I mean, can you see Anurag Kashyap making a show about devranis and jethanis bonding over Karwa Chauth thalis? Or bahus and bhabhis swanning around in seedha palla saris while their menfolk hang around in the background? And Amitabh Bachchan in a fiction show? What could be bigger on TV?

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Sometimes, change is instantaneous and dramatic, as was the case in 2000, when Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) and the new saas-bahu serials (Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabi Bahu Thi, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki) burst on the scene and the TV landscape changed — overnight. But usually, change is slower and more imperceptible. And here’s the good news: there is a big change coming on Hindi entertainment channels. Every trend has a life cycle and the shaadi-parivaar-saas-bahu-serial trend may well be in its final throes (can we dance on tables? Or, in the style of such serials, put on zari saris and offer our sincerest thanks at the local temple by breaking 11 coconuts)? I’m not suggesting that such shows will disappear altogether from our TV screens, but yes, the uncontested dominance they enjoyed over the last 10 years is probably drawing to a close.

Most television executives say that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to any change in content has been the business of ratings. TV ratings over the years kept showing that saas-bahu serials were the ones that were the most popular. And the entire TV industry revolves around ratings. So naturally channels made shows that they assumed their audiences wanted to see. How many viewers decide these ratings? Out of 140 million cable and satellite households in India, only 9,602 households have people meters which measure TV viewership. So TV content on Hindi entertainment channels is dictated by 9,602 households. (And I’m not even going into the whole area of how TV ratings exclude the growing number of viewers who watch shows on the Internet or who do not watch in real time but see programmes on recorded devices.)  Do ratings give us a true picture of what the bulk of TV audiences really want to see? Obviously, no ratings system is perfect, but even so, sometimes you can’t help but wonder how certain truly unwatchable shows do so well, while the better ones languish at the bottom of the charts.

Recently, some television networks, including Sony, unsubscribed to TV ratings and there are indications that other channels may follow suit. So here’s my question: if ratings cease to matter, they cease to influence content. And if they cease to influence content, will we finally see different content on our TV screens? The answer seems to be in the affirmative. But I think that TV content is changing anyway — irrespective of ratings. Audiences are changing, whether it is demographics or taste, even if ratings don’t reflect the change. And Hindi entertainment channels have to factor in this change if they want to move ahead.

Yes, the time has come, the walrus said…

(There’s only one catch: can the TV industry manage without a ratings system at all?)

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