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Why Indian TV makes sad and regressive shows like Naagin and Sasural Simar Ka

The science behind our entertainment industry.

 |  7-minute read |   13-03-2018
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Recently, at a get-together of friends, the topic of television programmes came up and we reminisced the golden era of television bit by bit with great love and awe. We spoke about classics on television and mournfully discussed how television has lost its charm and how we no longer watch any TV serials the way we used to during the good old days. Television has become a topic that generates a lot of criticism from us – the urban educated middle class that feels television has been reduced to an idiot box and the golden era of the medium is lost in the race for TRPs. But there is more to that.

If you observe TV shows from the last 15 years, you will notice a clichéd narrative. It almost always centres around a few identical characters, draped in expensive sarees, a forehead smeared in vermillion, conniving mothers-in-law, property disputes and a family that always has an enemy. Not just that, you will also observe superstition fed into the episodes giving bizarre twist to the plot that is beyond the comprehension of any well-informed viewer.

Take, for instance, the popular show Sasural Simar Ka on a popular entertainment channel. When the show began, it was about a young girl who wanted to pursue her passion for dance after her marriage. In due course, the narrative was changed to fit what sells best. Viewers have witnessed the protagonist turn into varied avatars – from a fly to a witch. Who can forget the controversy stirred by the show Pehredar Piya ki, where an 18-year-old girl was shown married to a 9-year-old boy.

ss_031318054049.jpgSasural Simar Ka

Their romantic relationship, which was jarring to the eyes and the intellect of viewers across all age groups, gathered a lot of criticism and the show was finally pulled down after tremendous noise on social media. Plus, reality shows like Big Boss add to the already damaged structure of TV programming.

As viewers hungry for quality programming we rant about the regressive nature of TV shows oblivious of the fact that these shows are carefully scripted for a certain audience based on well-researched market surveys. What we call the downfall of television programming today is in reality a well-thought-out strategy by television channels to open up the market for advertisers to reach out to the target audience they care to impress.

BARC India or Broadcast India Research Council, India’s premier television ratings agency, in its Broadcast Survey India report 2017, stated that the TV universe in India has substantially increased to 183 million from 154 million, implying an increase in TV penetration to 64 per cent, from the earlier estimate of 54 per cent with an upswing in the non-urban viewership.

The 2017 survey highlights that the total urban audience stood at 84,414,000 and the rural at 98,639,000, clearly corroborating the claim that the rural segment is indeed an important audience segment for the TV channels that thrive on these sponsored TV shows.

While BARC has included the rural audience in its survey for the first time, there is no denying that the top executives at these TV channels had identified the non-urban audience as their key target segment in the beginning of the new millennium. Let’s take research conducted by Accenture as an example. Titled “Masters of Rural Markets: From Touchpoints to Trustpoints – Winning over India’s Aspiring Rural Consumers”, the research conducted in 2016 stated the rural consumers are aspiring to purchase branded, high quality products thereby making consumer brands optimistic about the growth of rural consumer markets, expected to grow at jet speed compared to urban markets.

The India Brand Equity Foundation report 2018 states that the rural FMCG market in India is expected to grow to US$ 220 billion by 2025 from US$ 29.4 billion in 2016. Hence there is a massive opportunity for television channels to earn from this sector through targeted sponsored shows.

Since this segment in perspective is the real revenue generating target audience for the TV channels, all we see on TV are family dramas that eulogise the sacrificial role women play within families, laced with tonnes of misogyny and superstition. Also, the dance and music reality shows on varied channels will hardly have contestants from metros. You will notice a flood of talent from rural and tier-two and tier-three cities making it to the final round and, in most cases, the winners are seen to be from farflung regions of India.

In this strategically designed programming structure seen across all mainstream entertainment channels, there is little to no space for meaningful and out-of-the-box content by independent producers who do not wish to join the rut of money minting television shows and wish to produce substantial programmes instead.

Producers who are keen on producing out-of-the-box content for TV are discouraged for reasons that no longer seem bizarre. Hence, digital entertainment has become the most viable alternative for creative, original and out-of-the box content.

Recently, Amitabh Bachchan tweeted about an upcoming YouTube series hosted by the popular face on TV – Richa Anirudh. The show, titled Zindagi with Richa, is a heartwarming tribute to unsung heroes, artists and fighters in real life. Richa had earlier hosted a show called Zindagi Live with Richa with a similar format. The show had received immense love amidst the cacophony that the news channels were offering. I reached out to Richa to know why she chose the digital medium for her new show.

“That’s a good question,” said Richa. “You think anyone will watch this today?”

“Madam, who wants to watch meaningful content?”, “We need to earn revenues and meaningful content does not get ratings and revenue, it only gets awards and appreciation”, these are some of the things I commonly hear from people in media. And now I have got used to it. But when I meet people in the outside world and they tell me how they never missed a single episode of Zindagi Live, I wonder, where is the disconnect? Because I was tired of waiting I decided to start a Youtube series instead,” she added.

Mona Sareen, managing director of Black Swan Entertainment has a long experience of producing memorable shows like Stree Shakti, Savdhaan India. Stree Shakti completed two seasons successfully on the national channel. The talk show celebrated inspiring women who strove through adversity to create a niche for themselves. Talking about the need for quality programmes on TV Mona says, “Although, there are many good programmes coming on entertainment channels but certainly a lot more is needed to improve the quality. The kind of content which is shown should be taken more seriously as it impacts the masses. Programmes should be more content driven than ratings driving the programme.”

Interestingly, top production houses have clearly identified the rural/semi urban audience segment and the urban audience. Take, for instance, Balaji telefilms owned by Ekta Kapoor. It boasts of polarising and changing the face of the Indian television on their company website.

The success of the K series family dramas produced by Balaji Telefilms defined the nature of programming across all TV channels in India since the year 2000. The same production that produces a mind numbing TV show called Naagin, which is about a snake woman who lives in Naglok and is in search of the killer who killed her parents for “nagmani”, also produces refreshing web series by its digital arm – AltBalaji. The upcoming web series Kehne Ko Humsafar Hain is a refreshing take on a complicated relationship between a married man and a woman, Test Case, which is about a woman army officer being trained as a test case for combatant role within the Army and several others are testimony of the fact that it is the market that decides the type of show we see on TV.

Since the urban population is equipped with smart phones with 4G internet speed and are already divorced from television owing to the kind of programmes they don’t connect with, digital entertainment has become the alternative the urban audience loves.

Clearly, there is smart segregation of target audience to drive revenue and that is how the business of entertainment industry thrives. The next time you deplore the TV programmes, remember they are not made for you and switch to the digital platform for entertainment that has progressive, tailormade and original content to keep you entertained.

Also read - From Khichdi to Kasautii: Why 2018 is a year of comebacks for Hindi television

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Sonika Bakshi Sonika Bakshi @sonikabakshi1

The writer is a PR professional and a former journalist.

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