Sony TV plans to launch a new reality show - "Shubh Vivaah", revolving around marriage, the most fundamental institution of Indian life. It has commissioned UTV to produce the show, which will be on air possibly next month.
With "Shubh Vivaah", for the first time ever, a TV channel will take on the unlikely mantle of a matchmaker. Prospective partners will be chosen from among a group of participants short-listed by the channel. The show will then provide girls a forum to choose their grooms, after talking to the participants. The show will be interactive, and the bride will meet the candidates on the show and eliminate them one by one. And, of course, she will be well aware of the prospective groom's family background even before she meets the guy on stage.
Sony TV is betting its shirt on "Shubh Vivaah". As Sony celebrated its sixth anniversary last week, CEO Kunal Dasgupta asserted "the tide has turned for Sony."
The show will mark popular cine star Madhuri Dixit's TV debut. And Sony is hoping it will mark the second coming of reality TV.
Some months back, with much fanfare, AXN (from the Sony bouquet) had launched "Survivor", the story of a few Americans marooned on a remote South China Sea island, and battling it out with no creature comforts, like running water, or ready-to-eat meals. The popular reality television show, revolving around 16 people spending 39 days on a remote island under the voyeuristic gaze of some 28 million television viewers worldwide, had been key to the growth of AXN in markets worldwide.
The Indian audience yawned. The channel desperately hoped that the TRP of the series, which hovered around the 0.3 mark, would rise to one or two. Nothing happened, and AXN had to discontinue the series after airing the final episode of Survivor I on March 20, 2001. After all, in India, to see people without creature comforts, it was enough to open the window and gaze at the nearest slum. AXN came back with Survivor II, but with one key decision - there would be no version dubbed in Hindi.
It was a key decision that pointed to the larger question: Is there a market for reality TV in Hindi? Is the Indian audience fundamentally different from the Western audience? And is trying to make reality TV as prominent a genre on Indian television as soap opera, a case of trying to fix a round peg into a square hole?
Take Zee TV's much touted interactive show "Aap Jo Bolein Haan to Haan..." which was launched to shake STAR TV's stranglehold on the Top 10 slots with its soap operas. The show, according to TAM ratings for the last week of September, is nowhere that goal. The reality TV programme, which has been licensed from the show, "You Decide", by Globo TV Brazil, is not even among the Top 10 shows on the Zee Network.
Another indication is the lukewarm response that interactive shows such as Zee's "Antakshari" or STAR TV's "The Big Fight" or "Reality Bites" have. Look carefully. How many people speak? It could be a case of shyness, or it could be that Indian television audiences, whether on-stage or off it, want to be entertained, and not entertain. After all, for years, Bollywood has exploited the endless carving for "mindless" entertainment with its movies where the hero is punched, stabbed, cut, and thrown into a river, only to emerge with his clothes wet. "For the Indian viewer, what matters is entertainment. Reality can take a back seat, what matters is escapism," evaluates a senior Mumbai-based media planner.
Ironically, reality TV emerged in response to a "crisis of the narrative" in the United States, and has led TV channel growth elsewhere. It is a formula that may not work here. "The Indian audience is fundamentally different. They are more easy-going and tend to relax," evaluates Ravi Deshmukh, chief operating officer, Channel Guide India. In fact, such an easy-going attitude did play a major role in the success of KBC, based on the American show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?," over "Survivor". In the United States, one Nielsen survey showed that 63 per cent of prime-time viewers preferred the "Survivor" to the popular "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" When AXN launched "Survivor" in the heydays of KBC, it was banking on something similar happening in the country.
Such hopes did not survive. While "Survivor" limped along, KBC stayed on top of the charts week after week, and made STAR TV the top television channel. Both "Survivor" and KBC revolved around the theme of "Huge Money to Be Won." While "Survivor" had 16 Americans, with one voted out every week, trying to … well … survive to win the money, KBC had people trying to answer general knowledge questions. Indians preferred to watch people win money in civilized surroundings, rather than in the wilds of the South China Sea.
However, some would argue that the experience of "Survivor" does not mean that reality TV as a genre is flawed. "It is a learning experience. What ultimately matters is whether you can deliver entertainment," opines Uday Sinh Wala, chief operating officer, In House Productions. Sinh Wala feels shows like Survivor were not fundamentally tuned to an Indian audience, being too Western in orientation, and that their failure, rather than pointing to the weakness of reality TV as a genre, proves that Indian reality shows must tune in into India's reality. It is the same idea that Sony TV is betting on with "Shubh Vivaah".
But the question is: Will the marriage work? Or will Indian audiences continue to be interested in the tussles that lie after the marriage and the saas-bahu feuds?
The answer could decide the fate of reality TV too.
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