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Thursday, Nov 14, 2019

COVER STORY: Hindi TV to soon see sweeping changes

It’s 10pm on a sultry Mumbai night. But Floor One in Film City – where TV show 24 is being shot – has just woken up to a gruelling 12-hour shift. Hindi TV entertainment is going to see sweeping changes over the next few years.

brunch Updated: May 11, 2013 20:00 IST
Poonam Saxena
Poonam Saxena
Hindustan Times
Vivian-Dsena-Drashti-Dhami-in-a-still-from-the-serial-Madhubala-Ek-Ishq-Ek-Junoon( )

It’s 10pm on a sultry Mumbai night. But Floor One in Film City – where TV show 24 is being shot – has just woken up to a gruelling 12-hour shift. The cavernous hall is dark, lit only by the flashing lights needed for the close-ups of Anil Kapoor in a jeep (he’s supposed to be speeding down Mumbai’s streets, on his way to avert a life-or-death situation).

Kapoor plays Jai Singh Rathore, a tough counter-terrorist agent based on Jack Bauer, the hero of the American TV series of the same name. The Indian adaptation for Colors follows the original in that each episode compresses 24 hours in Bauer’s life as he races against the clock to thwart terrorist plots.

"I don’t want to sound arrogant or anything, but I think this will be a game-changer," says Kapoor, as he takes a break from the shooting. "The intent is to raise the bar on TV." countless viewers of Hindi general entertainment channels (GECs), wilting under the relentless onslaught of saas-bahu-shaadi-parivaar shows for over 10 years now, this declaration couldn’t have come a day sooner. In fact, it’s probably about the right time. GECs are on the brink of a revolution that is going to explode in the next few years. Like many revolutions, this one too has crept along silently, propelled by the irreversible forces of changing technology, changing audience tastes and sheer fatigue with the cookie-cutter content that viewers are being force fed.

Real time? No!

Today, many TV consumers (and not just your high-end metro dwellers) are watching shows in different, non-traditional ways: on the Net, on their mobile phone screens, on tablets, or through recording devices that DTH operators such as Tata Sky and Dish TV provide.

“In our research we constantly heard one thing – no one has time to watch TV shows in real time,” says Vikram Mehra, chief commercial officer, Tata Sky. “By the time most people reach home and have dinner, it’s too late to watch a lot of TV shows. They want to see shows at a time that’s convenient to them, not according to the TV schedule.” That’s why Tata Sky has just launched an elaborate three-and-a-half minute commercial targeted at people ‘who don’t have time to watch TV.’ In other words, there will come a day – and quite soon, not in some far-off science fiction future – when appointment viewing (sitting in front of your TV at 8pm to watch an 8pm show) will seem like something out of the Stone Age.

Many GECs realise that not all their viewers are faithfully lining up at fixed time slots, abandoning their work/social lives at the altar of the latest gharelu serial/reality show. So they’re showing their programmes on their websites or their YouTube channels, allowing viewers to catch them when they want to. Sony, for instance, has just launched an app, Sony Liv, through which subscribers can watch current shows – and old favourites like Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahin – on their phones or online.

Says Nitesh Kriplani, senior vice president of business development and digital/syndication, new media, Sony, “This enables us to get direct feedback from consumers instantly.”

Do ratings matter?
But at the moment, this kind of non-traditional viewing does not get reflected in television ratings put out weekly by TAM, currently the only media research agency which measures TV audience viewing in India. That’s because TAM ratings are based on devices called people meters, attached to TV sets in select households, which automatically record viewing activity – but only in real time.

However, that is about to change. LV Krishnan, CEO, TAM Media Research, says that they are testing technology which will measure the new ways of watching TV as well. To track shows that are recorded and watched later, a ‘watermark’ technology will be used (where every signal that is stored is watermarked and can be seen when it’s finally played on the recorder). Similarly, computers, tablets and mobiles will have ‘virtual meters’ – basically software that will keep track of whatever the consumer is watching. “We’re keeping the watermark technology ready. The software for computer screens is undergoing tests in the UK, while the one for mobiles and tablets will soon go into field trials in India,” says Krishnan. In America, it is AC Nielsen that tabulates ratings. There too, people meters are the technology of choice, but in 2007, Nielsen finally introduced a ratings system which included people who saw a show upto three days after its original airing.

What about the buzz?
But apart from different platforms, there is also what Sneha Rajani, senior executive vice president and business head, Sony, calls ‘surround sound,’ that is, the buzz around a TV show in the media, on Twitter, Facebook, blogs or anywhere else on the Net. Says Rajani, “Our show Bade Achche Lagte Hain always trends every couple of months on Twitter. But it’s not even in the top 10 shows.”

You could argue that online buzz doesn’t count for much and you’d be right – and wrong. While it’s unlikely that a 55-year-old housewife from, say, Barabanki, is going to follow tweets about her favourite show, it doesn’t mean that ‘buzz’ is irrelevant.

Social media chatter reinforces viewer engagement with the channel/show and gives both a hefty boost. Raj Nayak, the ebullient CEO of Colors, says, “We make losses on Bigg Boss, even though it gets good ratings. But we retain the show because it is a huge talking point and the buzz that it generates keeps us going for a whole year and brings in audiences to our channel.

Watched = liked?

The bizarre truth is that, very often, the shows that are apparently the ‘most watched’ (according to the ratings) are not necessarily the ‘most liked.’ Says Pushpa Sinha, a 60-something housewife in Delhi, "I get so irritated with the serials I watch – they drag incessantly, the story goes all over the place. It’s very annoying." But ask her why she still continues to watch and she says helplessly, "What else do I watch? They’re all the same." It’s a grim reflection on the content that GECs put out if regular viewers like Sinha – and she’s not a lone example by any means – watch shows in the manner of frustrated addicts, and not because they love what they’re watching.

Most GECs put the blame squarely on the ratings system, since the entire industry goes by TAM ratings. Says Sneha Rajani wryly, “We make programmes for TAM.”

And according to TAM ratings, it is the typical saas-bahu-shaadi-parivar shows that do the best. The top rated show at the moment is Diya Aur Bati, where the saas is a backward harridan and the bahu a self-righteous Miss Goody Two shoes.

Can we break free?
But no ratings system will ever be perfect. And blaming ratings for the assembly-line content currently on air is only part of the story. Indeed, Krishnan is quite outraged at the idea. “You can’t blame a research system for your content,” he says. “If channels don’t believe in TAM, they can do their own research. The truth is that channels need to get out of their sluggishness and laziness and give better content to viewers.”

And most GEC executives do admit that the crisis in content is at least partially because they play safe, don’t take risks, and choose the path of least resistance. Says Anil Kapoor, who is producing the Indian version of 24, “If you don’t do something that scares you, that gives you sleepless nights, what’s the point?”

Well, the GECs are finally beginning to get the point. They’re starting to realise that the TV audience is not a monolithic mass anymore, even if TV is a mass medium. The TV audience, like the cinema audience, is getting fragmented. There is the big traditional mass audience, but there is also a more modern new audience, looking beyond run-of-the-mill content. Krishnan believes that in the years to come, the latter will grow faster than the former. Also, there is no reason why a TV show can’t straddle both audiences. Films have managed it. Why can’t TV?

So when 24 producer and lead actor Anil Kapoor gets behind the SUV wheel on a hot Mumbai night, he might well be racing to tackle another kind of problem – the crisis of content in the TV world.

Big stars, small screen: Anil Kapoor and Anupam Kher star in the TV show, 24, to be aired this year

Game Changers
Hindi TV entertainment is not going to transform overnight. But there is reason to believe that serials and shows will change – for the better – over the next few years. Four reasons actually...

1. Bollywood Enters The Picture
Most TV production houses are stuck in a rut. All serials – with some exceptions – look and sound identical: the same flat, bright lighting, garish sets with living rooms the size of football fields, the same puja-shaadi-tyohaar rituals.

The entry of big Bollywood producers and directors, used to superior production values and story-telling, can alter this sameness dramatically. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saraswatichandra (Star Plus) has been the first to get off the ground. Though the serial, based on a turn-of-the-century Gujarati novel by Govardhanram Madhavaram Tripathi has been unfortunately modernised, getting someone like Bhansali, with his operatic sensibilities, to the small screen, was a coup. Star Plus will now rope in more Bollywood names to create shows for them.

24 (Colors) not only stars Anil Kapoor, it is directed by Abhinay Deo (of Delhi Belly fame) and written by Rensil D’Silva (of Rang De Basanti fame). Can it get bigger? Later this year Sony too will announce a major new show helmed by an influential Bollywood name.

2. So Do Foreign Fiction Formats

Ever since Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) hit our screens in 2000, TV channels have been scrambling over themselves to buy the rights for foreign non-fiction shows, whether it’s Bigg Boss (based on Big Brother), Indian Idol (based on Pop Idol), Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa (Strictly Come Dancing), or the desi versions of Survivor, MasterChef etc.

Now, after Anil Kapoor decided to officially remake the Fox TV series 24 , there’s reportedly a rush to acquire foreign fiction shows which can lend themselves well to Indian adaptations. The Good Wife, a CBS show about a stay-at-home mother who returns to the workforce to look after her family after her husband is jailed, is apparently next on the list.

In the hunt for fresh ideas for stories, GECs seem to have realised that there are hundreds of international shows out there that they can remake. Bye bye saas-bahus?

3. Back To The Books
Here too Saraswatichandra showed the way. Indian regional literature is bursting at the seams with great stories waiting to be told. (We believe Star Plus is soon going to make a cracker of a Hindi novel into a serial. Also, Star has recently appointed a former book publisher in a key creative position – an interesting development).

Abroad, first-rate TV shows have been made based on books, whether it is a classic such as Pride And Prejudice or the current fantasy epic, Game of Thrones, based on the book series by George R R Martin. GECs can mine novels from every literary tradition in India.

4. The Arrival (Finally) Of Seasons
Colors has already got into the act with Season 2 of Na Bole Tum Na Maine Kuch Kaha, a show about the relationship between a young widow with two children and a maverick journalist.

But it is 24 which will be the first real season-based show. All of season 1 is being shot at one go before the show is telecast later this year. Says Raj Nayak, CEO, Colors, “I’m a firm believer that seasons are the only way to go forward. We can’t work in our current system indefinitely.” Seasons can free channels from the tyranny of meandering daily soaps and help them introduce tighter scripts and storylines.

What The Advertisers Think
Change may be on its way, but since it’s not there right now, advertisers still swear by ratings. Top-rated programmes, led by those on GECs, draw the largest chunk of TV advertising funds. Ruchika Batra, spokesperson for Samsung India, which advertises heavily across platforms, says, “Content and target audience are important. But a low-rated programme would not be considered for advertising.” Agrees Navin Khemka, managing partner, Zenith OptiMedia, a media agency: “GECs are led by ratings.”

But the emerging trend of people watching shows online will be ignored if a media plan depends so strongly on ratings. But Batra says that “the percentage of ad funds allocation has been going up significantly online.” As long as access to content online continues to be expensive, ratings will remain a significant measure. “Once access becomes cheaper, digital viewership ratings will matter,” says Khemka.
In the news space too, ratings are important, especially for Hindi news channels. With English news channels, which have more niche viewership, the content and viewership profiles are strong considerations.

Here’s how important ratings are to TV news. Recently, NDTV took TV rating agency TAM to the international courts for apparently deliberately displaying lower ratings for its news channels. The concerned court disregarded NDTV’s complaint. But Batra does say that if a channel gets high ratings but is not high on news credibility, “we would not advertise with them.” – Anita Sharan

140 million Cable and satellite households in India at present
59 million Digital TV households. This segment grew at the rate of 40% over the last year
9,602 TAM people meters measure TV viewership
715 More TAM people meters to be added by the end of 2013

From HT Brunch, May 12
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