Every programme has its day. If today's television is about Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and Who wants to battle the Mother-in-law, remember the days of Who wants to be a Singer? Remember an excited Anu Kapoor exercising his vocal chords on prime-time Zee before a thrilled national audience and a cacophony of contestants. In the days that Zee pioneered this genre, it was the country's hottest property. Kapoor continues to delight even today, but only a few people (the show completed 400 episodes last February). Things might change for the better with a new avatar of Antakshari, the National Challenge.
The first episode of National Challenge Antakshari, which was aired yesterday at 10.00 am, aims to infuse fresh interest in a genre that brought tremendous hype and moolah for the country's first C&S channel. It is Zee's gradual approach to revive a tested genre before it experiments with new concepts like reality. A huge thrust in the reality genre, PoW, was announced in March this year. One of Zee's bigger projects, it was slated to be launched around July but now stands postponed to October (may be beyond) due to unforeseen circumstances. "Things are taking a little longer than expected," confirms Partha Pratim Sinha, vice-president, marketing, Zee Network. "The sets are ready but the technical part of the sets is yet to be completed," he elaborates. "Another issue that is now complicating problems is the monsoons." Sinha doesn't cite a date for PoW's expected launch. "We are currently trying to put together a project plan," he adds.
Two other new programmes that have been doing the rounds in media circles are Zee Court and a Zee Couples programme. The latter is said to be a dating exercise while the former will take the form of a parallel court. "We have not yet taken any final decision on Zee Court yet," says Sinha. He stresses that the programming strategy is evolving gradually but that it will not leave any time slot untouched "We are in a continuous evaluation process," he says. "New shows and concepts are evolving while existing products are being enhanced."
National Challenge therefore, is the first sign of a "critical evaluation of all time slots" underway at Zee Network, as Sinha calls it. Zee has come under a lot of criticism lately on its programming - both the content and its scheduling. This is seen as the thrust area identified by the network's new CEO, Sandeep Goyal. Programming is also attracting more monies. Zee Telefilm's financial results announced some days back, for instance, mention a 30-odd per cent jump in programming investments - to Rs 181 crore, from Rs 131 crore the previous year.
Zee needs not just fresh programming but better scheduling too (remember the Tehelka exercise?) if it is to bounce back on the ratings charts. KBC, and Star Plus' and Sony's soaps combined have pushed Zee to the margins. While Sinha claims that Zee is stronger, there is not much evidence to suggest so. Sure, Zee did emerge as a clear No 2 in prime time according to figures released by it on a weighted average basis between January 22 and April 23, 2001 (INTAM). But lately, it has been sliding again on the Top Ten charts. Compare the Top Ten lists for weeks ending May 20 and May 27 (INTAM) and you notice a loss of one slot for Zee. It occupies only two slots, compared to six of Star Plus and one of Sony.
Last week (ending June 2) was a total miss-out for Zee, according to data gathered from TAM (C&S four plus, all-India). Star Plus made a clean sweep at the Top Ten, winning the first 11 slots with its twin soaps and KBC. If you look at the Top 60 (TAM), Zee occupies only three slots. Sony has four, Gemini has 10, Sun has 16 and Star Plus a high 27 (week ending June 2).
Zee's current best-sellers include Koshish, Ek Aasha (3.9 TVR for week ending June 2, TAM) and Amanat (3.9 TVR for week ending May 27, INTAM). Antakshari does not make it to the Top Ten. It bagged the tenth place among Zee's own programmes for the week ending May 20 with a TVR of 1.14 (INTAM).
Zee's seriousness this time can be gauged from the fact that it has not gone to town drumming its new initiatives. Most of its future releases - observers point at a revisit of the afternoon slot next, followed by 9-10 pm - are under wraps. Its decision to pitch National Challenge at 10.00 am on Sundays is significant not just because it competes directly with Star Plus' Junior KBC, but because it leads the rival's own version of Antakshari - Chalti Ka Naam Antakshari (11.00 am, Sundays). Junior KBC, in fact, has failed to elicit the desired response. Against expected "double-digit ratings", Junior KBC received TVRs of 2.8 for week ending May 27 (INTAM). Star Plus is in the process of wrapping up Junior KBC which was launched on May 6. The July 8 (Sunday) FPC on its site lists Janata Ki Adalat at 10.00 am (it is also aired at 11.30 pm).
Secondly, Zee and Sony have conventionally filled their Sunday mornings with mythologicals. Sony Entertainment shows Uttar Ramayana and Shree Ganesh on Saturdays and Sundays (8.00-9.30 am) while Zee ran Jai Ganesha and Vishnu Puran (9.00-11.00 am, Sundays). The latter now moves to the 7.00 pm slot. The original show, Close-up Antakshari, continues uninterrupted at its usual time slot of 8.30 pm (Sundays).
Sinha has high hopes on National Challenge which will run for 13 weeks. "We have already seen high interest from advertisers," he says. "And the response from audience on the sets has been very, very high in terms of participation." The response from television sets is awaited.
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