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FICCI Frames 2012: Is successful programming rooted in research or instinct?

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Media Publishing | March 19, 2012
On the last day of FICCI Frames 2012, a set of decision makers from the television industry addressed the oft-discussed issue of whether the real key to successful programming is hard core research or the programmers' instinct.

Shailesh Kapoor

Mir Ibrahim Rahman

Peter Dodds

Gaurav Banerjee

Ajay Bhalwankar

Poonam Saxena

Finalising content for TV has never been easy. So far, no one has been able to crack the formula which guarantees success with the audiences. So how do programmers zero in on content that makes it to the TV screens - is it a decision rooted in reasoned analysis or does it stem from a place hidden deep within the decision makers' gut? On the last day of FICCI Frames 2012/03, a set of decision makers from the television industry addressed the oft-discussed issue.

According to the panel, it's a bit of both. The panel comprised Gaurav Banerjee, senior vice-president, content strategy, STAR India; Ajay Bhalwankar, head, programming, Zee; Shailesh Kapoor, chief executive officer, Ormax; Mir Ibrahim Rahman, chief executive officer, Geo TV; and Peter Dodds, TV producer at Storyshare International (his shows include Neighbours; and Home and Away). Poonam Saxena, columnist, Hindustan Times, moderated the session.

If instinct were a person, Zee's Bhalwankar would be his defense attorney. And, Ormax's Kapoor pretty much represented the research side of the argument. The rest of the panel walked the middle path, advocating a healthy combination of research and instinct to up the odds of a TV show's success.

Though skewed in favour of research, Kapoor's argument also conceded that an ideal end product would also require the creative team on the channel, as research and instinct have the potential to enhance each other. Research and creative instinct are better viewed as a potential combination than as a 'research versus creative instinct' situation. And, this garnered nods from the other panellists.

According to Kapoor, ultimately, research is something that helps democratise the entire process; generation of content based on hard consumer (in this case viewer) research is akin to giving the target audience exactly what they prefer viewing. Thus, 'ratings' (TRPs/GRPs) is not a bad word, after all.

According to Geo TV's Rahman, having to pick between research and instinct is like choosing between one's mother and father. However, though he took a stand that favoured both research and gut feel equally, he provided some interesting food for thought. He said that often, what is perceived as a gut feeling is actually a well-reasoned, data-driven choice. This, he insisted, is all thanks to the unconscious mind, the part of the mental functioning which is outside conscious awareness.

During the course of the discussion, terms such as 'evolved gut' and 'informed gut' were tossed around. These refer to a concoction of hard facts and pure creative instinct. Lending credibility to the argument that it's the combination of the two that works best, Rahman explained that while the larger picture is best determined by research, the finer aspects may rely on instinct.

"If you're shifting homes, you can choose a neighbourhood based on facts but zeroing in on a specific house is an emotional decision," he explained. So, the general starting point can be based on one's creative gut, while research-driven insights can form the finer aspects of a TV programme.

In the opinion of Storyshare International's Dodds, in this profession, it is not possible to be entirely risk-averse. "In the creative industry, one has to be risk friendly. I can understand if a brain surgeon is 100 per cent risk-averse due to the nature of his job, but broadcasters need to take creative risks. If we try to be completely fail-safe we'll never be able to produce anything that's rooted in human behaviour," he argued.

Further, within the broadcasting field itself, there are areas that provide more room for taking decisions based on the toss of a coin - say, for instance, a broadcaster can afford to be risk-friendly when it comes to artistic choices but risk-averse when it comes to business models.

All in all, the panel succumbed to what statisticians call the 'Error of Central Tendency', that, in the case of an 'either-or' debate, translates to a tendency to opt for the safe zone defined by 'a bit of both'.

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