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Welcome to the Indian 'telly' war!

tv Updated: May 02, 2009 20:43 IST
Poonam Saxena
Poonam Saxena
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Hindi entertainment channels enter a bitterly competitive era as a new entrant challenges traditional leaders...

Rajesh Kamat, the CEO of Colors, is unlikely to forget the night of April 15. That’s when he got a phone call informing him that his channel had outstripped Star Plus, India’s No. 1 Hindi entertainment channel. Colors was at 292 GRPs, Star Plus was at 267. (GRPs are the sum total of TV ratings for the entire week.) <b2>

The first bottle of champagne was opened in the morning and celebrations continued late into the night. They might have continued even later, but as Rajesh says wryly, “We had to get back to work the next day.”

He was right. Though Colors beat Star Plus the next week too, there is no guarantee that it can repeat the feat week after week, month after month. Dart

But the jubilation was understandable. Star Plus had been an invincible No. 1 for almost nine years. Colors launched only in July last year. For a new kid on the block to take on the established market leader is quite something. But Rajesh is the first to acknowledge that his channel’s victory is also quite fragile. “I think we’re going to see a seesaw trend,” he says. “It’s going to be like America where there are two or three main players whose ratings fluctuate from season to season, depending on their content.”

Success story
So how did Colors pull it off? Theories abound: They were lucky. They had different, fresh programming. The distribution was superb. They had deep pockets. The truth is probably a mixture of all of these. But at the heart of the success is one simple fact: Star Plus slipped and Colors took advantage of its vulnerability. NDTV Imagine, which launched in January last year, could have been the challenger.

But it didn’t have the kind of financial firepower that Colors had and its distribution was patchy. Imagine’s game changer was to bring back Ramayana after almost 20 years. The mythological clicked and the channel got off to a rocking start. But the early promise fizzled out. Says Imagine CEO Sameer Nair, “In retrospect, it seems suicidal to have launched three months before the IPL.”

But even before Imagine entered the picture Zee had given Star Plus a serious scare in 2007. At one point, it was only 5 GRPs away from the top slot. “But we couldn’t cross that last lap,” says Zee COO Nitin Vaidya. Why? He shrugs. “We’d had the same programmes for two or three years, there could’ve been some fatigue.” He is referring to shows like Saat Phere which, when launched, had worked beautifully for Zee. But by 2007, they had started stagnating.

Explains Nitin, “Success becomes the trap of future failure; it prevents channels from changing.” It takes courage on the part of channels to pull the plug on once-successful shows. And they usually don’t have the stomach for it. “Failure gives you stigma. But success gives you fear,” laughs Nitin.

The other big player, Sony Entertainment Televison, has had its share of hit shows like Indian Idol and Jassi. But they were nowhere near enough to unseat Star Plus. <b1>

Star Plus’s unbroken reign was to a large extent due to Ektaa Kapoor’s hugely popular ‘K’ serials (Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kahanii Ghar Ghar Kii and the like) which launched way back in 2000 (ironically when Sameer was with Star Plus). But since everything in the world comes with an expiry date, saas-bahu soaps too could not remain popular forever.

Between 2000 and 2009, the number of households with satellite connections went up from 25 million homes to 90 million homes. There was a new, mass audience out there, in smaller towns and cities. Ektaa Kapoor’s soaps simply got squeezed out: the new audience could not relate to them and the old audience had tired of them.

Star CEO Uday Shankar realized what was happening and shifted gears. He pulled off Ektaa’s soaps and introduced fresh shows like Bidaai which climbed up the charts. But, as he says, “We were in the process of reinventing ourselves; however, before the reinvention could fully happen, Colors launched. They got a huge anti-incumbency advantage. They also had the courage to do programming with controversial themes like child marriage.”

Uday is referring to Balika Vadhu, Colors’s top-rated show about a child bride in Rajasthan. Interestingly though, when Colors launched, its flagship fiction show was not Balika Vadhu. The channel was promoting Mohe Rang De, a period soap with the backdrop of the freedom movement. But as luck would have it, it was Balika Vadhu that turned out to be a success.

The Colors strategy was simple. A blockbuster version of the international show, Fear Factor, called Khatron Ke Khiladi (KKK), followed by Bigg Boss were the bumper clutter-breakers. They enticed viewers to sample the channel and provided the necessary window to let the fiction shows grow. Once GRPs started climbing up, programming boss Ashwini Yardi swung into action.

“We immediately upped the drama,” she explains. “In soaps you usually take time to narrate the story. But we speeded up the screenplay. In Balika Vadhu, Anandi was supposed to get married after quite a few episodes, but we hastened it. We realized that the characters were already quite well-established.”

New ingredients
Regardless of the other factors (like distribution), what Colors did was to introduce fresh trends in programming. Out went the rich urban households of the saas-bahu soaps, the over-madeup scheming vamps, the multiple marriages and extra-marital affairs, the scripting gimmicks (amnesia, time jumps etc), and the crude special effects (jarring zoom-ins and zoom-outs). The new ingredients included very young female protagonists, rural or semi-rural settings, ‘social issues’ like child marriage or female foeticide, more ‘realism’ and a simpler presentation. <b3>

Take Colors’s top four shows. Balika Vadhu and Uttaran have little girls as protagonists and focus on child marriage and haves versus have-nots. Jai Shri Krishna is about a cute child who also happens to be a god. Na Aana Is Des Lado is about female foeticide. (As Sameer says dryly, “Suggest a serial these days and everyone asks: “Mudda kya hai? Beggars pe kuch karen?”).

DartAshwini reveals that their internal research has shown that audiences find a lot of ‘masoomiyat’ (innocence) on the channel. And she’s determined to preserve this ‘masoomiyat’ as long as she can. Originally, Anandi was supposed to grow up in Balika Vadhu; but given how popular the little girl is, there is no sign of her aging at all. It’s the same with Ichcha in Uttaran. She too was supposed to grow up but since audiences have warmed to her buck-toothed charm, she is also in a state of arrested childhood. And when the cute baby Krishna will grow up is anybody’s guess.

What do these trends suggest? According to Ashwini, for too long, audiences watched TV serials with a “see how rich people live” attitude. “It was aspirational,” she says. “Now there is more empathy since the serials are about them.”

Quick to catch on to winning trends, almost all channels reflexively introduced similar serials – Zee started Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya Hi Kijo, about a young girl, Lali, who belongs to a poor family in Bihar. Poverty forces her father to sell her off. NDTV Imagine began Bandini, about a young village girl in Gujarat who is married off to a man much older than she is. Star Plus has got Sabki Laadli Bebo, about a family that craves for a girl child and showers her with love when she arrives.

But every channel claims to have its own take on the new formula. Says Uday, “We had to make shows which connected with the new universe. Stories had to be situated in middle India.” In Bidaai, the ‘dark’ female protagonist comes from a lower middle class family in Agra. Sabki Laadli Bebo is set in Amritsar. Uday also points out that viewers had got tired of the stifling negativity that had become the dominant emotion of saas-bahu soaps. “We wanted to present stories of hope, not despair,” he says.

‘Hope’ seems to be a very popular word at the moment. Ashwini declares that their stories are about hope and about “fighting back.” Those are the words Nitin uses when explaining the warm reception of Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya Hi Kijo. It is difficult to believe that a serial about a desperately poor family in Bihar would do well.

It does turn the conventional argument about viewers wanting to escape from reality on its head. But, says Nitin, “Though the protagonist, Lali, lives in acute poverty, she tries to create happiness for her family. As the serial progresses, you will see how she fights. It’s a serial of hope, not despair.”

Tradition rules
But exceptions apart, most of the current entertainment on the Hindi channels is deeply conservative. Status quo has to be maintained at all costs. (Should issues like child marriage and foeticide even be the subject of serials? The way they are presented, do they not reinforce such ideas?) But entertainment channels are unlikely to veer from this path – because this, they say, is what audiences want to see.

A lower middle class audience, in small towns and cities, feels safe with non-threatening themes. The new India, with its call centres, working women and increasingly flexible social norms is too frightening, leading audiences to cling to outdated values and ways of thinking. The extra-marital affairs of the K soaps are abhorrent. The idea of working women is displeasing. Free mixing of men and women is undesirable. And TV is feeding into this conservatism. Instead of being an agent of change, it is reinforcing stereotypes.

The way forward
There is no doubt that the rise of Colors has inaugurated a new phase of television. Just as the year 2000 was a turning point for the Hindi entertainment channels (with the huge success of Kaun Banega Crorepati and the saas-bahu soaps), the year 2009 will also be a landmark – for two main reasons. First, the era of invincible leadership is over. It’s unlikely that any one channel will rule unchallenged for close to nine years.

Though the closest fight right now is between Colors and Star Plus, neither is willing to write off Zee. “It is the most formidable player in the GEC segment,” says Uday. “They are just round the corner, waiting to move in.” Zee is like a long-distance runner who keeps going. Smiles Nitin Vaidya, “We are a 13-year-old company that has weathered many storms. We aspire to be No. 1 but not at the cost of fundamentals. It is in our DNA to take costs and margins into account.”

Sony is gearing up for a mega transformation on the 25th of May with new programming and new packaging. Steady TRP catchers like Boogie Woogie and CID will continue. Dus Ka Dum will enter its second season. “But we’ll have a lot of new shows too,” says CEO N P Singh. “We’re using the IPL as a powerful vehicle to relaunch our brand. We’re going to strike a balance between our fiction and non-fiction shows.”

NDTV Imagine is a distant fourth and Sameer says his aim is to become a close No. 4 this year. “We’re still waiting for our big burst,” he says. “Till then, we’ll just take singles, wait for our fours and sixes and try not to get out.”

The second reason why 2009 will be remembered as a watershed year is because an entire era of programming – let’s face it, the Ektaa Kapoor-created cookie cutter soaps lasted for close to nine years – is more or less dead. There are new trends, though even these revolve around the family. But will they last?

The real drama has just begun.