The Long And Short of Storytelling

By Prachi Srivastava , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Media Publishing | October 10, 2014
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Do Indian viewers fall in love with characters rather than the story they belong to? How are Hindi GECs adapting?

From mid-1980 to the early 2000s, Indian television had popular shows like 'Fauji' (DD National), 'Buniyaad' (DD National), 'Chausath Panne' (Zee TV), 'Aandhi' (Zee TV) and 'Shriman Shrimati' (DD National, Star One). The shows won accolades for their narrative and the cast that complemented the story.

The Long And Short of Storytelling

Ajit Thakur

Priyanka Datta

Pradeep Hejmadi

Karthik Lakshminarayan

Vijay Subramaniam

Sunjoy Waddhwa

All these shows ran for a limited period of time, say for 130-170 episodes, before a wave of long running shows hit Indian television. Ekta Kapoor gave viewers the famous 'K series' that went on for years. Kasautii Zindagi Kay (1,423 episodes), Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki (1,661 episodes), Kyunki Saas bhi Kabhi Bahu thi (1,833 episodes) and even BAG Network's Kumkum, all ran for at least six years.

Even today there are shows that have aired over 1,000 episodes and are still running. Star Plus' 'Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai', Sab TV's 'Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah', Colors' 'Balika Vadhu' and 'Uttaran' and Zee TV's 'Pavitra Rishta' are a few examples. The long life of these shows is evidence of the popularity, or habit of the TV viewer to find out what's going on in Akshara's (YRKKH) or Anandi's (Balika...) or Archana's (Pavitra Rishta) life.

But a gust of change seems to have come in. Producers and channels are increasingly looking at finite formats for shows. Examples are Anil Kapoor's '24' (24 episodes), Amitabh Bachchan's 'Yudh' (20 episodes) as well as shows on Zindagi (which typically are 15-26 episodes long; some are a bit long drawn - 250-300 episodes.). But the shows have not lived up to the expectations in terms of TAM viewership numbers delivered.

Where is the problem?

When it comes to Hindi GEC viewers, the channels and shows found it extremely difficult to break TV viewing habits. The genre works on appointment viewing and the viewer follows a routine in terms of shows she watches.

Infinite stories have worked well also because of the "relatability" factor and when a viewer (still mostly women for daily soaps) starts tracking the life of a character. For example, people fell in love with Tulsi, Parvati, Akshara and Anandi were eager to know whatever was going on in their lives. In an earlier interaction with Bharat Ranga, erstwhile chief creative and content officer at ZEEL, had said that the change has to come from the viewer in terms of their likeability. The need is for a shift from loving a character to loving a story.

Many also argue that ultimately it comes down to the kind of stories being picked. Ajit Thakur, EVP & GM, Life OK and Channel V, says that Life OK recently concluded 'Hatim', a finite and successful series (around 70 episodes). According to him, scheduling is one of the tricks channels need to know. If the show is for weekends, a part of the story should end every weekend.

One of the problems with '24', experts feel, was that it was a thriller and by the time the next weekend came, the audiences felt disconnected. It was more if they somehow missed an episode or two in between. Therefore, the performance of a finite show depends on the stripping. Unlike many other countries where a show is aired once or twice a week, Indian audiences are used to watching the story for 5-6 days a week. Breaking them away from this pattern will take time.

Though Priyanka Datta, EVP and business head - Zindagi & FTA Cluster agrees, she adds, "People are saying the shows are not doing well, in terms of TAM numbers. I feel Zindagi caters to a very niche audience and perhaps that audience is not covered by TAM. With BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council) releasing its ratings soon, we expect lots of different things to happen."

It is not just the number of days of telecast, even the time-slot matters. Some television experts, for example, wonder if the 10.30-11.30 pm time slot for 'Yudh' was right. Also, shorter stories require good writers. Pradeep Hejmadi, business head, Zee TV believes that in India, it's somewhere in our DNA to tell a story in a longer format. "In case of finite series, the real work is at the pre-production level, wherein the concept needs to be thought-through so that it hits the bull's eye. At this moment, we don't have sufficient experience to write short series."

According to some observers, another problem with shorter format series is its fast pace. In higher-end, cutting-edge shows like '24' or 'Yudh', the audiences couldn't grasp the concepts. They were very evolved and before the viewers started to understand them, the shows went off-air. In the same way, by the time people started liking shows on Zindagi, they went off-air.

Not enough returns

In 2010, Yash Raj had launched fiction shows on Sony Entertainment Television, including, 'Mahi Way', 'Powder', 'Seven' and 'Khotey Sikkey' (26 episodes). The other shows were also about 30-70 episodes. The shows were talked about but didn't live up to expectations in terms of viewership numbers.

In the past one-and-a-half years, the finite shows on television have been high-investment ones, backed by a strong star-cast and crew. The channel wants it just to be perfect and backs it with all the resources aiming to make it big. They shell out huge sums to market the shows. Thakur believes that finite shows have to be marketed differently - like a movie - for better results.

Karthik Lakshminarayan, COO, Madison Media Infinity, feels that finite fiction shows can be economically made and managed. Adding a star-cast, which is grossly overpriced only makes the property unviable. One should instead focus on a better story and production values. "If it is good content, the format of the show won't matter. Having said that, if you look at the highest rated shows in the space, they are all fictions/daily soaps. That's the staple diet that the Hindi GEC viewers want. Hence thrillers like '24' are not accepted well."

Nobody's giving up yet

It's Complicated


While finite shows are finding it difficult to survive on Hindi GECs, youth GECs are banking heavily on shorter formats. Bindass, Channel V and MTV are examples of channels that air finite series. 'Yeh Hai Aashiqui', 'Love By Chance', 'It's Complicated', 'Paanch', 'Yeh Hai Yaariyan', 'Fanaa' are finite shows doing well for their respective channels. One reason is that these channels deal with an audience that is an "impatient" lot.

Agrees Vijay Subramaniam VP and head - content and communication, Media Networks, Disney India, who asserts that whatever be the investment, the format here is not in the question, the story-telling is. "At Bindass, we produce content that is reflective of their (youth) hopes, dreams and aspirations. And finite series let you do it in a far more engaging manner, with more intensity and fresh narrative. Don't' forget, we are dealing with audience which has many other options."

Despite the failures, people are attempting to launch more finite shows. Jaya Bachchan's 'Vasundhara' on Sony Entertainment Television, Ashutosh Gowariker's 'Everest' on Star Plus, Season 2 of '24' is in the making. Will there be watchers? Sunjoy Waddhwa, CMD, Sphereorigins states that to make viewers adapt to a newer format, we need a larger chunk of programming. "Finite series will take time to work in the country because we are trying to change the viewing pattern. If we want to tell certain stories that are good and they cannot be stretched too far, one will have to go the finite way. I don't think the quality of content is a problem here," he says.

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