I knew things had changed when the women in my building moved their target of attraction from Mihir Virani to Richard Castle. There was a time when the only important English-language show was The Bold And The Beautiful; when primetime television that mattered didn’t include any channel other than Star Plus, Sony or Zee TV; and when my mother wasn’t in love with Sheldon Cooper.
Things couldn’t be more different today. On the radio, at long last, there’s a station that plays English music – America’s Top 40, classic rock and everything in between. On the tube, you can choose from BIG CBS Love, BBC Entertainment, Fox Crime and Comedy Central for American and British shows all day and night. And they all seem to be as massively popular with viewers as advertisers.
The channels seem to be perfect platforms for international brands coming into India and looking to reach a young, spending audience. Luke Kenny, programming head of the newly-launched English-only music channel 9XO, says that looking for advertisers is less of a problem today than before. “I don’t think that the English audience is a minority any more,” he explains. “9X, as a network, already has a set of advertisers who were more than happy about an English music channel and international brands find an English channel suitable for their target audience.” Ferzad Palia, senior vice president and general manager for English-language entertainment at Viacom 18, agrees.
"When we started out, we brought not more than one or two HBO-Original series a year. Now, given the audience’s overwhelming response we have been bringing offerings like Boardwalk Empire, True Blood and Game of Thrones."
The fact that a large chunk of Indians don’t understand English doesn’t seem to have come in the way of these channels’ success. “Think of any iconic movie poster. Both Sholay and Mughal-E-Azam had titles written in English. We have always been an English-thinking audience,” Kenny says.
Depending on how old you are, you might remember Kenny as the foreign-faced VJ on Channel [V] in the 1990s or the man behind Luke’s After Hours, which played the best in English music the following decade. Channel [V] and rival MTV, however, soon moved on to showing entirely Bollywood and Hindi content, alienating many of their original fans. “Localisation was inevitable,” says Kenny. “A product, no matter what it is, must appeal to the demographic.” But things eventually swung back in the favour of English. “Our research showed that a large part of audience wanted an English-only music channel. That is why we started 9XO.”
Even small factors like same language subtitles have helped rein in pockets of viewers, pushing up the numbers and helping attract more advertising. Consider the rounded broad accents on MasterChef Australia or the quick snappy dialogue and urban slang on Modern Family.
Subtitles (despite their occasional typos and strange substitutions) have helped bridge the gap for those interested in foreign content but are not yet able to keep up with the speeds and sounds on screen. “At times, even I fail to understand an American accent,” confesses Bajpai. “But subtitles help me understand the flow of the story line. This is the case for a large section of our audiences.”
This month, when the season finales of Mad Men and Game of Thrones aired on AMC and HBO in America respectively, both shows were hotly discussed on Twitter, a few hours later. Surprisingly, several Indians in India contributed to the discussions too. Quick download speeds and a rising interest foreign shows means many Indians had downloaded pirated (and crucially, uncensored) versions of the shows and consumed them months before they are scheduled to air on local TV. It may seem, ironically, that the very demographic that advertisers are pursuing are running away from TV itself.
But it doesn’t seem to bother channel heads. “When it comes to viewers, there are some that are at the top of the pyramid. They want to watch everything instantly,” says Palia. But he adds that the number of viewers who’d rather watch TV on TV is much larger, and reminds us that every pirate is not out there downloading every show airing in every country. “There is no question of Internet versus TV,” he assures.
Comedy Central’s new lineup includes retro hits like Doogie Howser and The Wonder Years, and Palia explains that this is a deliberate move. “These are cult shows that most people don’t download. The older audience enjoys the nostalgia and there are a lot of people who haven’t seen them at all,” he says.
Kenny agrees that for music, the Internet and TV are happy bedfellows. “There is way too much clutter on the Net to really discover new music. TV has a simple format and on 9XO we pick the best available and offer that. You can tune in any time, listen to a song you like, by an artist you like (they leave the song titles on at all times) and then use the Internet to find more,” he says.
So right now
Still, content heads for nearly every English language channel agree that the way forward is to have as little delay as possible when airing a show that’s already hit screens aboard. This isn’t as easy as you might think. Rasika Tyagi, senior vice president and content head for Star World and Star Movies, explains that “showing current shows on the same day and date as America is more expensive,” than dipping into their library of older programmes.
However it’s not as costly when a show premieres in India in the same year that it was produced. but after America has finished. And now, considering there’s enough viewership locally, getting enough sponsors to make that cost worthwhile is easier. Star World, in fact, has already gone a step further by premiering its drama Missing on the same day as it debuted on American screens a few months ago. They now plan to do the same with the biggest shows of the year.
At HBO, the story’s much the same. Bajpai points out that there isn’t a big time lag for a big shows: “Award-winning ones like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones premiered in India within a few months of their US launch.” The channel is bringing Indian air dates as close as possible to US ones. The lag, then, is because we are, after all, India. “We have to be sensitive towards censorship laws and adhere to local sensitivities,” she says.
For TV geeks and pirates, the future is both bright and scary. New shows will be closer at hand, but if all the important ones debut and close at the same time as the West, how will we now show off?
Great shows that are coming our way
The new season of the yellow family includes its 500th episode. Or as Matt Groening describes it in the credits: Another Meaningless Milestone.
Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, whom you may remember from Seinfeld, is back, playing a fictional US vice president grappling to stay on top of it all. Lots of, well, politics.
Zooey Deschanel, quirky as only Zooey Deschanel can be, moves into an apartment with three single guys. Yes, they think she’s kinda weird too.
Aaron Sorkin goes to press. Quips will fly. Moral boundaries will stretch. Characters will change colour and HBO India will air it only a few episodes behind the US.
For those who love the pint-sized shrieker that is Kristin Chenoweth. A widowed mother of two moves back to snide, gossipy, Botox-happy Dallas and tries to cope with her new life.
A cop drama with a twist. One policeman, framed for murder, falls off the grid to become the super hero known only as “The Cape”. Will he clear the city of crime? Will he clear his name?
From HT Brunch, June 24
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