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Ramayana: forever fresh

It has single-handedly put “Imagine” at the third spot. The point of any Ramayana is the familiarity factor. It was a wise decision not to use computer generated imagery, writes Poonam Saxena.
By Small screen | Poonam Saxena | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON FEB 15, 2008 11:26 PM IST

One of the most trusted axioms in the television business is that distribution is everything. If your channel is poorly distributed (i.e. you don’t pay enough as carriage fee to cable operators) then there is no hope of getting any ratings at all.

Keeping this in mind, I wondered how NDTV Imagine would fare in this competitive marketplace. For all of the first week of the channel’s life, nobody in my area could get “Imagine”. Matters only improved towards the end of the second week but by then, industry pundits have usually made up their minds about a channel’s launch.

I was surprised therefore when NDTV Imagine scored so well in its first week and completely staggered when from the second week itself (when most people I know still did not get the channel) “Imagine” leapt ahead of the competition (not just the laggards like Sab and 9X but also the real players: Sony and Star One) to become India’s No. 3 channel. If this is how well they do with partial distribution, I thought to myself, what will they do when they put their distribution system in order?

So, why is “Imagine” such a success? Everyone will have their own view and I have to say straight out that there is much on the channel that I personally do not like at all. But there’s no arguing with numbers. And the TRPs show that Imagine’s spectacular success has been based on two kinds of shows: mythologicals and dance/music.

Between the two genres, dance/music is a tried and tested formula and while Imagine’s Say Shava Shava was a bit of a disappointment, its dance show with Saroj Khan (Nachle Ve) and its live concert series (Dhoom Macha De) survive on the quality of the performances and not because of the staged drama that is the staple of music reality shows.

But the real risk was mythology. The foundation of Imagine’s success is the Ramayana (its top-rated show on a day-to-day basis). When I first saw this version I wondered why the channel had not gone more hi-tech or used more computer-generated imagery. But having watched it for a bit longer, I think this was a wise decision. A computer-generated Ramayana may have seemed phoney. This version has the right mixture of old-fashioned story-telling and special effects. The point of any Ramayana is the familiarity factor. It’s like watching the story of Jesus Christ: we all know that he dies in the end but a good re-telling can still make the events come to life. The strength of NDTV’s Ramayana is that it’s familiar and comforting but still seems fresh and watchable.

Of course it’s early days yet. There are three more channels still to come this year: the TV18 Viamcom venture, the Turner Miditech channel and most awaited of them all (because of the big bucks involved) the Anil Ambani channel.

Moreover, the other channels are not going to sit tight. Before “Imagine” came along, Sony and Star One were locked in virtual hand-to-hand combat for third place. Neither will take this relegation lying down. Sony may have lost its way but Star can be a formidable opponent, especially when there’s the opportunity to promote Star One on Star Plus (and Rupert Murdoch’s pockets are much deeper than NDTV’s).

So, nobody’s writing the competition off yet. But whichever way you look at it, there’s no doubt that “Imagine” and its head, Star TV veteran, Sameer Nair, have pulled off a spectacular coup. Finally, there’s some real competition in the entertainment space.

What makes the achievement more creditable is that it was Sameer who first revived Star Plus with the formula of the celebrity game show (KBC) followed by many saas-bahu serials.

But while the other channels are still slavishly imitating Sameer’s old recipes, he’s had the guts to try something new. It’s always risky to gamble on mythology to save your entertainment channel. But Sameer has pulled it off.

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