Let's begin with a question. Which among these takes your fancy: fire-breathing dragons, yellow-eyed demons or telepathic fairies? How about a cannibalistic psychiatrist? Or a socially inept physicist and his geeky friends?
Welcome to the richly colourful world of English television that has rescued us from the eons-long saas-bahu sagas and highly repetitive reality shows that Indian TV has been dishing up for years.
In a 2011 Brunch cover story on English TV entertainment, we had wondered if it was set to explode in the coming years. Three years on, our predictions seem to have come true: there are more international series and sitcoms on English channels in India than ever before, the viewership has increased by leaps and bounds, and the channels are leaving no stone unturned to bring the most popular shows to India within days of their premieres abroad.
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But what has led to this boom in English entertainment in India?
Saurabh Yagnik, executive vice president and business head of AXN, says that dedicated English-language programming has been around for more than a generation, but "started to pick up in a really big way in the last 18-24 months". For instance, in the last couple of years, a growing tribe of passionate fans of the hit series Supernatural has been tweeting incessantly to get the show's cast to India, while Kolkata fans of the British crime drama Sherlock have inundated the channel with mails asking for a Sherlock Con (on the lines of Comic Con) there.
Kevin Vaz, general manager of Star India's division that handles Star World, Star World Premiere, FX and Fox Crime, has seen the change too. "We used to reach out to 1.3 crore viewers quarterly in 2012. Now the figure has grown to 1.7 crore," he says. Star World's Facebook fans grew from 4 lakh to 23 lakh in the last two years, while their Twitter following has gone from a mere 3,000 to 1.17 lakh.
Monica Tata, managing director of HBO India, attributes this surge in interest in English content to two factors: growing familiarity with the language, and exposure to technology and social media. "India is one of the largest countries in the world outside the US and UK where English is widely spoken, and this is one of the reasons audiences are gravitating towards English content. And now with technology and social media, viewers have access to fabulous content being created around the world," she says.
For viewers, however, the main reason for the growing inclination towards English shows has to do with the state of local television in India. "I think we have long crossed the threshold of tolerance for Hindi serials that go on for years," says Shivani Gupta, a 32-year-old architect. "Surf through the Hindi channels on TV and all you can find are the same sob stories with the same plots and the same direction and production techniques. Hell, they even look similar with larger-than-life sets and gaudy costumes and makeup. We, the tech-savvy, upwardly mobile generation, cannot relate to them at all."
The younger generation of TV viewers is fragmented, looking for content that fits their possibly niche interests. "Hindi serials are relevant to a certain audience set and hence do well with them," explains Yagnik. "At the same time, there's another rapidly growing audience, which is looking for choices and differentiated content." This is where international content comes in play, he says, as they cater to different genres and multiple mindsets.
In the early '90s America, shows like F.R.I.E.N.D.S, The Bold and the Beautiful, South Park, The Young and the Restless already had substantial fan followings. But the true revolution of American television was still a few years away and it only took off with shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Entourage and Rome. "(These shows) have raised the creative bar for all forms of popular entertainment, showing that television at its best can equal the artistic merit of the greatest movies and works of literature," said a 2009 story in the UK newspaper, The Telegraph.
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And the revolution has grown. Imagine a fantasy drama with dragons and direwolves, giants and mammoths, fire-worshipping priestesses, ice zombies and seven kingdoms plotting, murdering and warring for the Iron Throne. This is Game of Thrones - an HBO show that has converted even self-proclaimed TV haters to TV addicts.
May we dare call it the Lord of the Rings of TV? On a superficial level, yes. Deeper, it is so much more. A review of the series in The New Yorker called it "a sophisticated cable drama about a patriarchal subculture ... a sprawling, multi-character exploration of a close, often violent hierarchical system."
Or take the case of the 10-time Primetime Emmy Award-winning series Breaking Bad, a drama about a middle-class chemistry teacher who, after being diagnosed with cancer, becomes a meth kingpin. On the surface, it is a tried and tested formula of good guy turning bad for the good of his family. But as a Harvard Crimson review pointed out, "...to view Breaking Bad as a mere character study in morality would be to overlook what makes it such a paradigm-changing show", full of symbolism, brilliant production values and an expert narrative that tries to answer the central question, What makes a man bad?
Two different shows in two different genres. Yet with one thing in common with each other, and other successful shows today: millions of fans around the world, including lakhs in India, who become so deeply entrenched in the story, that when a series ends, they go through withdrawal symptoms and ask, "What now?"
If you've entered the party late and are anxious that you might have missed the best English shows of the past few years, worry not. Apart from the latest shows, Indian channels have been regularly airing reruns of English language hit shows from the last two or more decades. Evergreen hit sitcoms like F.R.I.E.N.D.S and M*A*S*H; beloved comedy-dramas like Sex and the City; pathbreaking sci-fi shows like The X-Files; and medical dramas like Grey's Anatomy, today most classics are just a click of your remote away.
"Reruns do really well in India because one, people like to revisit shows that they had watched and loved before, and two, new viewers like to acquaint themselves with old hits that they may have missed," says Vaz.
Comedy Central, which as its name suggests airs only comedies, launched two years ago with an offering of old shows like Seinfeld, That 70s Show, The Kumars at No. 42 and others.
"Reruns work better in comedy than in other genres because in drama you know what the end is and you wouldn't really want to watch it again," says Ferzad Palis, senior vice president and general manager of English entertainment at Viacom 18 Media. "But worldwide research tells us that comedy is actually best received by the audience on the second or third viewing. Comedy as a genre is designed for reruns."
In the ninth floor apartment of one of Gurgaon's many high rises, 28-year-old Abhinav Garg, a business analyst by profession, readies his living room for the long night ahead. He dusts cigarette ash off the sofa, casually tosses a few cushions on the rug and places a large crate of beer on the low coffee table. "We have been doing this quite frequently lately. A few weeks ago, it was for Game of Thrones. Last week, it was for Hannibal." He switches on their 52-inch LED TV, checks the recordings on their set top box and says, "We record all the episodes when they air on the channels and then watch them in one sitting. Binge watching English TV shows over beer has become a ritual now."
His flatmate and fellow analyst Rohit Verma, 27, says, "There was a time, even just a year or so ago, when we had to wait for months to watch the latest season of a show on TV. We would download and watch them from the Web before people in another part of the world could reveal spoilers on social media. But now, we only have to wait a week for the India premieres."
English channels in India are not oblivious to the fact that fans now want to watch the latest seasons along with the rest of the world. Star World, the first English channel to launch in India in the early '90s, also became the first to start the trend of airing shows along with their US release dates recently with their premium channel, Star World Premiere. Vaz calls his new demographic the global Indians. "They are viewers who are well- travelled, well-connected and who know what is happening around the world, whether it's the latest fashion, cars, technology or entertainment," he says.
However, other channels do not believe that their viewers should necessarily pay more for premium programming. "The consumption of international content is coming of age," says Yagnik. "Increased awareness of international shows means people want to watch them closer to when they are aired in the US." AXN India has managed to air popular shows like Sherlock, Hannibal and Supernatural within a couple of weeks of their UK or UK releases without asking viewers to subscribe to a more expensive channel.
"If you're able to view it on the Internet or download it at the click of a button, then it makes no business sense to wait for weeks and months before we get the content to India," says Tata. This is why HBO India will soon reduce the one-week gap between US and India air dates for popular content like Game of Thrones to 24 hours.
Will this mean that fans will now stop downloading content from the Internet altogether? In a social media survey we recently conducted called the #BrunchTVShowPoll, 60 per cent of Brunch readers who voted said they still prefer downloading English TV shows from the Internet. "Downloading torrents gives me total control of what I want to watch when I want to watch it," says 30-year-old Suddha Prasad Bagchi, a statistical modeller. He also points out the fact that by downloading torrents of old shows, he can watch them long after they have been taken off air. "I have rediscovered the genius of American comedians Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld's writing recently, thanks to the torrents that I downloaded, and have been watching the Seinfeld episodes all over again," he says.
Understandably, the English TV networks in India are wary of the role that the Internet has to play in moving a substantial chunk of fans away from their channels and are openly reproachful.
"There's a huge difference between watching shows on your laptop by downloading or streaming at slow speeds and watching it on television," says Vaz. Yagnik adds, "Illegal downloads are a dampener to the sustainability of the business."
But they are not dismissive of the positive roles of the Internet and social media either. Comedy Central, for instance, has seen a "fantastic two years" so far and Palia attributes its success partly to the Internet. "It has helped us in the last two years by popularising international content."
He adds that a section of people still prefer to download shows as "that is the only option for those who want unedited and uncensored content."
Try watching the troublesome foursome of Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha and Miranda in Sex and the City (on AXN) as they go about their sexual adventures in New York City and you will notice the incessant beeps, jump shots and abrupt cuts.
Nudity, sex, violence and swearing are a strict no-no on Indian TV. "In a show like Game of Thrones, where violence and nudity abound, and are in some cases integral to the plot, censorship takes away a lot," says Bagchi. "That is also why I prefer downloading torrents, so I can watch the uncensored version."
However, HBO India, which airs the series in India, say that applying censorship guidelines does not take much away from the storyline. "We are a very self-conscious and regulated broadcaster and follow the laws of the land," says Tata. "We do edit content according to Indian sensibilities and do end up editing a lot of the sex and violence, which some of the HBO Originals are known for. But we take utmost effort in making sure that the storyline doesn't get botched and the flow is seamless."
But ardent fans still remain dissatisfied with English shows as shown on the channels in India. "True, the number of English entertainment channels in India has increased. True, the number of shows on such channels has gone up exponentially. And true also that now you can watch them in HD quality and close to their releases elsewhere," says Gupta. "But because of censorship, English shows as shown on Indian channels cannot match the feel of the actual content."
So the tug of war between TV and the Internet continues. Whichever way it goes, we are happy with the outcome already.
|Your love on your sleeve|
Social media is the first choice of expression for fans. The How I Met Your Mother India page on Facebook has 21,000 fans and still attracts regular posts even though the sitcom has ended. A Game of Thrones fan forum on India-forums.com has a 150 page-long thread where fans passionately debate episodes and characters, while YouTube often throws up parodies and spoofs of popular shows in their Indian avatars.
Another online store, Bombay Trooper, which also makes T-shirts featuring categories like movies, gaming and music, draws one-third of its income from designs that reference TV. Their designs are minimal, like an illustration from the show with an interesting or funny caption. Jugal Mistry, the site's founder and CEO, says that do their best to avoid long dialogues. "Because if you are walking past me and it takes me more than two seconds to read what's on your T-shirt, I will have to chase you and that would be a really creepy thing to do, no?"
Top 10 from #BrunchTVSHOWPOLL
1. Sherlock (16%): A British crime drama that portrays Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective Sherlock Holmes in a modern avatar. Follow the adventures of the eccentric master of deduction as he battles the world of crime and his arch enemy Moriarty in present-day UK.
2. The Big Bang Theory (14%): A sitcom about a group of geeks and an aspiring actor, who discover science, life and love in their apartment.
3. Game of Thrones (11%): This fantasy show takes us to the fictional continent of Westeros, where the war for power, money and control is waged by seven kingdoms. It's the real world draped in medieval costumes, swords, dragons, ice zombies, digital armies, teenage queens and a whole lot of sex and violence.
4. Suits (8%): A legal drama set in New York, involving Harvey Specter, an ace lawyer at an ace firm who hires boy genius Mike Ross despite his lack of a law degree. Indians love hot adalat dramas, hot clothes and hot people. Suits has the right mix of all three.
5. Breaking Bad (7%): A drama about a dying chemistry teacher who, to secure his family's future, starts to cook high-quality crystal meth using his Nobel-worthy skills in chemistry. Eventually, everybody gets involved in the meth mess, one way or another.
6. How I Met Your Mother (7%): This sitcom follows the main character, Ted Mosby, and his group of friends in Manhattan, where the events lead up to Ted meeting the mother of his children. It has captured the imagination of a whole generation and is considered as legen-wait-for-it-dary as F.R.I.E.N.D.S.
7. Two and a Half Men (6%): A rich, single, lubricious jingle-writer, Charlie, lives the Californian dream with his wimpy chiropractor brother, Alan, and his couch-potato son, Jake. On Charlie's death, Walden (Ashton Kutcher), a dot-com billionaire takes over his house and his brother, and dulls the show in the new seasons. We wish Charlie would rise up from his grave and redeem it.
8. House of Cards (5%): A political drama about a fictional US senator Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey). Ruthless pragmatism, manipulation, power and doing bad things for the greater good - who wouldn't love that?
9. Homeland (4%): A political thriller, featuring a CIA officer with a bipolar disorder and a war hero-turned-double agent, who is a threat to US security. Love, betrayal, suspicion, confusion in the time of terrorism.
10. Supernatural (4%): Two very attractive brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, hunt demons, ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural beings, building up a complex story involving travels to hell and back. There's classic rock music and a car involved too.
(List compiled by Indra Shekhar Singh)
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From HT Brunch, July 20
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