"For about six weeks, between May and June 2001, we conducted research with Quantum across six cities in India, to gain consumer insights." So says Partha Pratim Sinha, director, marketing, Zee Network, detailing how Zee decided on fresh programming to mark the relaunch of its flagship channel. The process begins late August with both new shows and a fresh look. "Among the things that consumers told us they liked were foreign locales, for one," he recalls. Four of its nearly seven new shows - Sansar, Dollar Bahu, Deewane to Deewane Hain, Sarhadein - carry extensive foreign footage. The Zee team was also interested in finding out the relationships that people preferred on-screen and how they wanted to relate to the stories. That is when it hit upon the idea of interactive programming.
"Indians continue to love stories. Zee's strength has always been in a good story, well told. Over time, the audience has become interested in participation, a sign of any maturing market. People want to graduate from passive viewing to active participation. This show combines the basic strengths of Zee TV and television, with the emerging trend of interactivity." Thus runs Sinha's logic for Aap jo Bole Haan to Haan, Aap jo Bole Na to Na (AJBHHAJBNN), a novel interactive series that is scheduled to go on air in the third week of August. While the media has already spoken about the novelty of this interactive format, there has been a complete silence on the details of the show. Indeed, it is difficult to persuade Zee TV to speak about the logistics of the new format. After much persuasion, Sinha agreed to a brief one-on-one. It was brief, and very discreet.
First, the format. The show will be aired three days a week. Each episode will be in the form of a short story spanning 40 minutes or so. An additional 16 minutes-plus will comprise four to five commercial breaks. Every story will be in the form of a conflicting range of ethical and moral dilemmas faced by the protagonist. "There will be some gripping turning points in the story laced with emotions," says Sinha. "These are situations where the protagonist can take a call, either as yes or no. That is where the audience comes in." The commercial break succeeding each turning point in the story will invite viewers to answer on behalf of the central character and thus determine the final outcome of the story. Which means, the first segment itself will provide enough cues to make an informed decision about the outcome of the story.
Now, let's move backstage. Zee TV will therefore, shoot two endings. That is, the last segment of each episode will be shot for two situations. Viewers can start feeding their choice (either yes or no) soon before the first commercial break through one of two media - telephone or Internet. Sinha says the network is exploring other media also. Telephone lines will remain open throughout the show. He also claims that the network is looking at toll-free numbers but no decision has been taken yet. On the Internet, the viewer has to log on to a given site and click on either 'yes' or 'no'.
Two phone numbers - one for a 'yes' response and one for a 'no' - will be flashed on the screen, as will the name of the Internet site. The viewer may register his opinion as many times as he wants to before the final break. The entire chain from collecting viewer response to informing the uplinking facility in Singapore about the choice of one of the two final segments is computerised. The moment the computer has polled responses, it will send a signal to the computer in Singapore to roll out the last segment accordingly. There is no human intervention in the entire process, except for a supervisory role. Just before the last segment rolls, viewers will be informed about the final vote tally.
Besides interesting viewers through participation, Sinha's team is also actively pursuing advertisers with novel advertising options. He is mum for now, on the topic. Whether the advertiser will bite solely depends on whether the viewer will. Will he? Sinha is very confident. "It is a time-tested format running successfully across two continents," he says. The Zee team is extremely cagey about revealing any details. It is learnt that Zee has licensed the format from an international broadcaster, and that similar shows have been running successfully for over a year now.
Without deeper insight, it is difficult to say much. Some concerns may still be raised though. One, linear storytelling - the kind that television runs on - is about suspense, not informed choice. "Interactivity and stories are incompatible," wrote Emma Duncan in her survey on E-entertainment (The Economist, October 2000). "Stories need suspense and surprise. If the audience chooses the ending, the suspense is killed. Stories demand that the audience lose itself in the telling. If it is still capable of thinking about an alternative ending, then the story has failed." You can appreciate this point better if you have fought with friends (or have seen them do so) for revealing the ending of a story.
Zee may counter that the suspense is not fully revealed till the very end. That leads to a second concern - inertia and television. Unlike computers, which most people use for work, television is primarily a medium for entertainment. One can expound further on Steve Job's lean-forward and lean-backward theory. Fact is, most people want to stretch out, relax and eat or munch before a television set. Once they are in their most comfortable posture, it is often television that is supposed to do something. Which is why channel-surfing was a pain before remote controls appeared. Expecting such viewers to log on to the Internet during a break, or even make a phone call, may be expecting too much. A phone call, on the contrary, is seen as a disturbance by avid watchers of Kyuki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (KSBKBT) or Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC).
But what explains a character's demise in KSBKBT and his subsequent resurrection? Viewer feedback. Sinha and his team are hoping that the story grips the viewer real hard right from the first shot so he is compelled to try and influence its outcome. Of course, one can always drop in contests and goodies to entice viewers to pick up that phone. Zee may be thinking on those lines, but nothing's coming out of the Worli (Zee headquarters in Mumbai) corridors for now.
What Zee is hoping for is certainly a dissonance among viewers whose chosen ending was rejected. "That's life, isn't it," asks Sinha. "In life, you always wonder, what would have happened had you taken the other decision. Ever since I joined Zee, I have always asked myself, what if I had not taken this decision?" It is hoping that a conflict arises in every household. "We want that argument to take place in every house, where family members within a household take different stands and then fight over the protagonist," says Sinha. Well, if that happens, rating charts dominated by KSBKBT, GGKK (Ghar Ghar Ki Kahani) and KBC may have to be rewritten for AJBHHAJBNN!
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