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FICCI Frames: The reality of reality television

By afaqs! news bureau , afaqs!, Chennai | In Media | November 19, 2009
The panellists were unanimous on the poor economics of reality television, terming it as high investment with medium or low returns

The pulse of the four southern states of India lies in cinema and politics. This was quite evident at the first-ever FICCI Frames being held in Chennai. The sessions were mostly occupied by film-related subjects, though current trends in television content were also discussed. The discussion broadly moved towards two subjects -- reality versus fiction and the difference in the television markets of north (HSM) and south India.

Siddhartha Basu started the session by saying that reality television in India was modest, before Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) changed the rules of the game. Basu, who heads Synergy Ad Labs (now part of Reliance ADAG Group), has introduced several successful reality formats on Indian television, such as KBC, Sach Ka Saamna and Aap Ki Kachehri. He added that in the pre-KBC era, reality television was limited to quiz programmes, chat shows, music-based countdown shows or game shows.

& #BANNER1 & #Basu said that in India, reality is often used interchangeably with non-fiction shows. This is why, he said, people in the trade referred to news channels as the not-so-real reality shows. He defined reality shows as those that use documentary techniques in the general entertainment channel (GEC) space.

Even Sanjay Reddy, senior vice-president, Sun Group termed news channels as the father of reality.

While everyone tried to take a dig at the news channels -- possibly because all the panellists were part of the GEC space -- the panel moved to discuss the realities of fiction and non-fiction (reality) content.

Basu said that reality television was an expensive proposition, in comparison to soaps. An episode of a reality show, which is hosted by a celebrity, could cost up to Rs 1-1.5 crore, while an episode of a fiction show can be produced for about Rs 15-16 lakh.

Despite this, reality shows have low ratings as compared to a fiction shows. He compared the reality show, Bigg Boss with a fiction show, Uttaran, both on Colors. While the average TVR of Bigg Boss was only 2.75; for Uttaran, the average TVR was 6.

The other panellists were unanimous on the poor rewards from reality television, terming it as high investment with medium or low returns.

Reddy of Sun Network said the life of a reality show was only three to four seasons; and it was very difficult to breakeven.

Even then, Basu said that reality shows were important, as they create enough buzz for the channel through the media coverage they get.

Highlighting the other trends of television, Reddy said that there has been a growing trend of migrating content from south to north and vice-versa.

The yesteryears actress and now successful television content producer, Radhika Sarath Kumar, CMD, Radaan Media Works, was of the opinion that different markets had different tastes for content. She shared her own experience, saying that even in South India, no single show worked across four languages, because every market had a unique taste. One show that cut across all languages was Kotiswaran -- a KBC kind of show.

She opined that the need was to add the reality element in fiction shows, with more focus on content, characters and storyline. She accepted that Hindi GECs started this trend; and other players were now trying to figure out how the same could be adopted in other languages.

Drawing a comparison between the south and north market, GK Mohan, a television producer said that producing reality shows for a content provider in the north was viable because these shows were commissioned; whereas in south India, the content provider took the risk of buying slots and then finding advertisers.

On this, Basu said that though the TV industry in the north worked on a commissioned basis, the margins were as low as 10 per cent of the production cost, which is even lower than the agency commission of 15 per cent.

Mohan added that in south India, both fiction and non-fiction shows needed the support of a celebrity -- either as a host in a reality show or as a central character in fiction shows.

He explained that in south India, viewers from the low income group, retired people and housewives preferred fiction shows with lots of apathy and crying; while working people preferred traditional and non-controversial shows. Similarly, the new generation liked watching talent hunt shows with lots of controversies -- be it scripted or non-scripted.

Discussing the genre further, the panel agreed that many non-fiction shows were often scripted or structured. However, Basu claimed that none of his reality shows were scripted, opining that reality shows could be interesting without engineering any false emotions.