Maha episodes, crossover shows, and Saturday telecasts make up the story behind why Pratigya, Gopi bahu and Tapasya the daily girls are slowly squeezing themselves into what was once the sacrosanct weekend viewing space. Oh, and where does that leave reality TV?
The idea of a daily soap airing over the weekend irritates 65 year-old Panvel resident Kanaka Narayan. "I need a day's break to take care of pending chores," she says with feeling.
Already, claims the homemaker, she has lost out on her Saturdays ever since the one-hour 'maha' episodes of Laagi Tujhse Lagan, Balika Vadhu, Naa Aana Iss Desh Laado, Uttaran and Mukti Bandhan kicked off. She can't afford to skip these.
Somewhere, Programming Head for Colors, Ashwini Yardi is smiling. And the Star One boss, whose soaps now enjoy a Monday-to-Saturday telecast, is smirking, well aware that he with others in the industry, have possibly launched a new trend.
Star One claims to have better ratings for top shows, Geet Hui Sabse
Parayi and Pyar Ki Ek Kahani on Saturdays
How many days this week?
A flashback to six years ago reveals how dailies were aired Monday-to-Thursday; Fridays and Saturdays were reserved for reality TV and non-fiction shows. Sundays were left alone, only required to accommodate reality show final ©s, award functions (their re-runs) and of course, movie premieres.
So, if Tulsi or Mihir Virani fell off a cliff on Thursday, you'd have to wait till Monday to find out if they made it alive. Channels switching to five-day programming wasn't out of concern for viewers. It just made business sense. As Yardi puts it, "Instead of thinking up new programming for Friday, creating a show and promoting it, all of which is expensive, it made sense to carry on an extra Friday episode of an existing daily."
It happened first in October 2005 on Zee TV. Of course, as Nikhil Mirchandani, GM, Star One, tells us, six-day programming was already being followed in regional television way before that.
The big fat Saturday
After Monday-to-Friday telecasts came the big channel boom, and this was followed by the Special Episode on Saturday, a concept that Yardi claims was her brainchild.
In October 2009, Colors' top prime-timer Uttaran, was getting to a high point. The daily told the story of two friends; one, a servant's daughter the self-sacrificing heroine and the other, the employer's spoilt brat the jealous anti-heroine. "The story reached a point where the hero's bride got switched at the mandap. He discovered he had married the wrong woman after the pheras. I felt it was too big a peak to be dealt with in a regular episode. So, we aired a one-hour special on a Saturday."
This episode got the channel TRPs of 8.2. And while television has had its spurts of dailies airing over the weekend, the Uttaran special nailed the concept. It's now a regular feature on Colors, and other general entertainment channels.
Star Plus started off its weekend band of programming last week, with two weekend-centric fiction shows and one reality show. The channel has also made space for one-hour slots on Saturday and Sunday, for maha episodes of their popular dailies. A maha or special episode, will smartly end in a hook, forcing hardcore couch potatoes to tune in on Monday to know what happened.
Daily shows on the channel take turns to shoot one-hour specials, mostly with twists that viewers wouldn't want to miss.
Producer Rajan Shahi currently has two shows on the channel. He says, for viewers, it's working like an extra scoop of ice cream. "It's a misnomer that viewers aren't home on weekends to watch soaps. Loyal audiences, especially those in small towns, can't have enough of their favourite fiction shows. They will tune in anytime there's a fresh telecast," says the producer of Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai and Chand Chupa Badal Mein.
It's a sample for new audiences
In addition to guaranteeing extra TRPs, weekend telecasts also provide a 'sampling' of a daily for new audiences. "A maha episode helps generate interest in existing viewership, and creates curiosity among new viewers," says screenplay writer Gautam Hegde. The writer of Saath Nibhana Saathiya, one of Star Plus' current TRP-scorchers, says that's why the job of writers is to write a crisp script with a compelling highpoint, making sure viewers enjoy the entire one hour.
Hegde's technique has worked on viewers like Deepa Nair. A professional at an interiors magazine, Nair watched the Sasuraal Genda Phool maha episode that was aired last Sunday only because the rich-girl-married-into-middle-class-family comedy built up the suspense for a high point throughout the week. "Otherwise, I only watch maha episodes when there's a serious twist. But my mother watches them all Balika Vadhu, Pavitra Rishta, Maryada Lekin Kab Tak, Sasuraal Genda Phool..." the 32 year-old rattles off a list.
The truth of the matter
Ekta Kapoor, Creative Director and MD of Balaji telefilms, the original production giant, sees a maha episode as a channel's strategy to up its ratings at a lesser cost. "Think about it," she says. "A reality or non-fiction show is going to be far more expensive than a special episode of a daily. On the other hand, a daily soap's special episode will earn the channel twice the ratings a reality show will."
An industry insider reveals that it takes about Rs 6 lakh to produce a single episode of a daily soap, which can earn ratings of at least 4 points. A reality show episode featuring a popular star will set back the channel by Rs 50 lakh, and the rating will be no more than 2 points. It's simple arithmetic.
Which is precisely why Star One took the weekend strategy a step further and turned all its dailies into six-day telecasts, starting November 2010. Nikhil Mirchandani, GM for the youth channel of Star India, insists that viewers' weekend behaviour is the same as on weekdays. Airing a daily on a Saturday, Mirchandani says, is also a "flirt of sorts." The Saturday episode of Pyar Ki Ek Kahani, a supernatural college romance produced by Ekta Kapoor, brings in new viewers who may be flipping channels on a weekend, coercing them to return on Monday.
"In fact, we have had better ratings for our top shows (Geet Hui Sabse Parayi and Pyar Ki Ek Kahani) on Saturdays. For now, we are happy with fiction," says Mirchandani.
I die, I faint, I fail
It's not such a happy story for the cast and crew, though. Ekta Kapoor admits she "nearly fainted" when Star One informed her of an additional Saturday episode of Pyar Ki Ek Kahani.
Ask Sukirti Khandpal, the actress who plays Pia, a teenager in love with a vampire in Pyar Ki..., about her schedule, and she giggles. "I haven't had a day off since October 11. It's stressful." But an extra telecast means the show is doing well, the 23 year-old quickly adds.
It isn't as hard on Khandpal because as dialogue writer Ritu Bhatia says, Pyar Ki Ek Kahani has several parallel tracks. "Since we became a six-dayer barely two weeks after the soap began, we had enough time to open up new tracks. There's a compelling love story but there are also college side stories and a family drama, which gives actors a break. Of course, a six-day telecast means I'm writing at least one episode every single day."
For actor Karan Tacker of Rang Badalti Odhani, another daily-turned-six-dayer, the day kicks off at 9 am and winds up at 1 am, after a workout session that follows shooting. "When I contracted typhoid, the crew arrived home to shoot some close-up scenes," he says sardonically.
All the same, Tacker insists he wouldn't have it any other way. "If you love your job, it feels like a challenge."
What if ¦?
What if other channels decide to take a leaf out of Star One's book, and turn their soaps into Saturday telecasts? Kapoor says it will be far more stressful. "My shows on other channels (Pavitra Rishta on Zee TV, Tere Liye on Star Plus) have two or three main protagonists, all of whom need to appear in every episode for it to work. I won't be able to shoot two episodes at once, like I can do with say, a Pyar Ki Ek Kahani."
Six-day productions aren't difficult if well-planned out, argues Shahi. His upcoming youth romance on Star One will air on Saturdays too. "You need a script bank and the ability to shoot in two-three units, like I managed for Bidaai. It isn't impossible."
Meanwhile, the reality show, a weekend-must some time ago, has had to figure what to do with itself. Celebrity dance reality show Jhalak Dikhhlaa Jaa managed to go daily in its third season, and still do well for Sony TV.
Motwani of Zee reminds us of Kaun Banega Crorepati. The gameshow hosted by superstar Amitabh Bachchan redefined primetime when it aired on weekdays at 9 pm a decade ago, and turned into a thumping success.
That's true of Colors too, whose action reality show, Khatron ke Khiladi grabbed as many viewers as rural fiction show, Balika Vadhu did, on the same weeknight. "Reality ensures a mix of audience (small town and metro) and a mix of genders. Fiction is almost always targetted at women," admits Yardi.
Juggling with time-slots and genres apart, Yardi says the challenge for channels is to bring in variety, where reality is concerned. "Fiction after all, is here to stay," she says.
Which is why Kanaka Narayan wouldn't want her favourite weekend reality show, Dance India Dance to start airing through the week. "I would end up picking my soap over it, and I don't want that to happen," she shrugs.
3 ways to guess if your favourite daily is going to be a 6-dayer
The channel in question has no weekend programming; it only airs repeats of your favourite daily. How better to up TRPs? Simple. Shift the daily into a weekender.
There are hundreds of thousands of web pages worth of fan mail on online forums about your favourite show which convince the producers that an extra episode is in order. (Don't believe us? Check out www.india-forums.com. It carries everything from signed petitions to bring back dead characters, to fan fiction about popular shows).
A new 'hatke' soap has come into the picture or worse still, a new channel with an intriguing line-up of shows has entered the tube, even questioning your own loyalty to your favourite show. Easiest way to keep you hooked? An extra telecast over the weekend.
Reality on a weekday? Weekend? Or both? a producer decodes
The time-slots for any given show is usually a call taken by the channel. Sony has always been into strong non-fiction programming. Since the fourth season of KBC did so well over the week, it was decided that Jhalak Dikhhlaa Jaa would shift from a weekend slot to a weeknight slot; and it worked excellently.
Over weekends, there are many governing factors in favour of airing a reality show. You are fighting for time because your audience may not always be home at the time of your show, plus you are competing with film premieres.
On weekdays, however, you could also pit your reality show against a daily soap that isn't doing so well, to be ensured of an audience. That said, I must add that both our shows placed as they are in the weekday and weekend slot, are doing well. But yes, if a daily show were to percolate into the weekend band, its loyal audience would continue to watch it.
6-day side effects
"The day kicks off at 9 am and winds up at 1 am, after a workout session that follows shooting. When I contracted typhoid, the crew arrived home to shoot some close-up scenes."
Actor, Rang Badalti Odhani, a daily-turned-six-dayer
"I need a day's break to take care of pending chores. But with the onset of Saturday fiction viewing, that's become tough.
Kanaka Narayan, Daily soap viewer