Nitin Vaidya, COO, Zee Entertainment Enterprises and business head, Zee TV, recalled something lyricist Javed Akhtar had once related during a FICCI Frames speech. Some years ago, a television channel was presented with a story for programming consideration, and the person who had submitted the story was asked who the writer was. Munshi Premchand, he said, and was promptly asked to bring the writer to the channel's office!
That's over the top, you might say, but it does point to a fact that television's general entertainment channels (GECs) are honestly admitting today.
As Uday Shankar, CEO, Star India, described it: "The winds of change blowing across the new India are lateral and multilayered and you can no longer be sitting in Mumbai and deciding 'this is what India looks like' in the stories that you tell on television. The entertainment operator has to reset his perspective to current Indian reality."
As the demography of television gets more heterogeneous, he added, middle and small town India are where the viewership volumes are coming from. "The hunger of the new, more aspirational, more assertive consumer is a lot more prominent there."
Rajesh Kamat, COO, Viacom 18 Group, and the man behind the successful growth of the network's GEC, Colors, as its CEO, said: "A reality check has come into our programming now. Though it has to be aspirational, people want content they can relate with. Special effects, ostentatious sets and exaggerated action playouts have been minimised — people don't want gimmicks. Television has bridged the metro-small town divide."
He added that GEC stories are no longer escapes into the surreal world. The characters are more real, with shades of good and evil — such as Dadisa in Balika Vadhu — or with shortcomings of the kind Anandi has in the same show. He pointed out that practically all the top rated shows on GECs had more of non-metro kinds of stories, covering themes such as dark complexion, female infanticide, child marriage, honour killing and other social issues, set in non-metro India.
Balika Vadhu is set in Rajasthan, Pavitra Rishta is a Maharashtra-based story, Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya Hi Kijo is bout poverty and girl child trafficking in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Sangini is based in Haridwar, Karolbagh does not reflect a south Delhi setting but a local, more traditionally authentic Karolbagh setting, Zee's Vaidya pointed out. He also said that as cable & satellite and DTH has expanded the television universe to small towns and rural India, the emphasis on more mass appeal storytelling has to increase.
Anand Shiv, VP, consumer insights, Star India, said, "The lowest common denominator is not in the metros any more. Television is responding to a much larger mass. GECs have to cater to their sensibilities. In 2005, most of our characters and writers were from Mumbai or Delhi. Now, they are increasingly coming from a background that is in touch with the regional cultures and languages that our stories reflect."
Anupam Vasudev, EVP marketing, Star Plus, threw in some numbers: "India's metro population accounts for just 15 per cent of its total population. But 73 per cent of India's population is watching television and 50 per cent of these are watching cable & satellite TV. Five to 10 years hence, rural India will watch TV in very large numbers."
Metro India too seems to be responding positively to the more widespread non-metro fare, going by metro viewership numbers. There are two points of view on this from the industry, both significant.
Vaidya pointed out that thanks to large scale migration to metros from across India, "our metros have become more multicultural and multilingual. We are catering to smaller linguistic societies within the metros. Side by side, smaller towns are seeing more urbanisation."
Vasudev said: "The current revenue model in television doesn't allow for niche channel pricing, as no differential pricing is allowed. So you have to be a mass channel if you want to be in general entertainment. If SEC A & B audiences were given the choice of more urban or metro stories, maybe they would choose those over the mass fare. But if they don't have that choice, they will naturally watch the mass programming."
Still, there is surely some resonance in the programmes that continue to deliver top viewership ratings every week across metros and small town India. The consensus is that all these programmes deliver more progressive, aspirational cues, even as they remain more women-oriented since women are the primary GEC viewers.
Kamat gives examples: "Our research shows that the most loved character on Colors is Anandi's mother-in-law in Balika Vadhu who's progressive, has strong points of view, but expresses these via her husband. However, Jaane Kya Baat Hui, in which the husband having an affair did not cause as much disturbance as his wife falling for a younger man, did not work."
Star's Shiv added, "It's not about role substitution but about role expansion of women beyond the kitchen, within the family — nobody wants to break away. The ghoonghat has moved back and the salwar kameez has moved in."
The current slew of stories finding takers stands to make a lot of people happy — advertisers who are targeting non-metro India more aggressively, writers from across India looking for a break on TV and viewers looking for involving entertainment.
And about audience involvement with the programmes, nothing reflects its impact out of small-town India more than the growing number of contests and reality shows — music and dance shows, for instance — that are drawing in small town and rural hopefuls in large numbers.