Yudh (War), is a dark, depressing, but gripping watch. Anil Kapoor’s 24 is an action packed, edge-of-the-seat thriller that kept up to speed throughout season one last year. Season two is due soon. Both didn’t quite set the television screens on fire but are symbols of an important change sweeping the R43,000-crore Indian television industry its attempt to push the envelope in fiction.
For the last five odd years, it had become fashionable to throw money at the need to get an audience and, therefore, the advertiser. Get a big star in an event-based show, and ratings and revenues were sure to follow. It started with Amitabh Bachchan in Kaun Banega Crorepati in 2000, but had become standard operating practice in most broadcasting houses. Now, two things are changing the whole dynamic of content production.
Yudh is among the half a dozen interesting experiments happening in fiction on television. May they succeed. Pic /Getty Images
One, more than half of India’s 160 million TV homes are now digital. These are homes that do not have bandwidth restrictions, and this makes it easier to offer more variety and better quality for a price. The whole TV game is moving, gradually, from getting large audiences and, therefore, advertising, to getting people to start paying for what they want to watch. And this requires broadcasters to have the best sports events and fiction and non-fiction shows there are. While a lot of non-fiction formats have been imported into India, there hasn’t been enough work on local formats. Nor has the needle moved much on fiction. This experimentation with fiction then indicates that the attempt has begun. Both Yudh and 24 cost more than ten times the price of the usual fiction shows you see on TV — and this is not just the star costs, but that of writers and directors on the shows. 24, for instance, is directed by ad and feature filmmaker Abhinay Deo, famous for Delhi Belly. This experimentation with high-quality fiction will only increase over the next three years, says every major owner of a production house.
Two, the returns from non-fiction are falling every day. There was, for long, a direct correlation between using a celebrity in a non-fiction show. Now, a big fiction show, say Diya aur Baati Hum, gets twice the viewership of the big non-fiction shows at less than a fourth of the cost per episode. “If we can create high-impact fiction at 70 per cent of the cost of a non-fiction show, then the returns are better,” says Nachiket Pantvaidya, senior EVP and business head, Sony.
The challenges? The puny size of the TV content industry in India and its extreme fragmentation. At Rs 132 crore, Balaji Telefilms is the largest firm. The next biggest firm is about R50 crore, and there are lots in the sub-Rs 10 crore range. And the shortage of talent. Even if the industry wants to produce high-quality shows, it doesn’t have the high-quality writers and producers in its fold. The best talent goes to films in India. Why? Possibly because films do the most envelope-pushing work in India, creatively speaking. So, even if it pays poorly, most new writers want to hang on to films, in the hope of striking it big there.
The parallels, however, are amazing. The Indian film industry is in renaissance mode, thanks to good writing and scripts. Audiences are paying up to R500 a ticket for films. And yet, there is tremendous dissonance about paying Rs 150 - Rs 200 a month for cable, which delivers more than 200 channels. In the US, it is well-written good shows, such as Six Feet Under or The Sopranos that drove audiences to pay more for cable. Can the improving story-telling on Indian television help the business?
The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik