The task of differentiating content becomes overbearing for the Hindi language General Entertainment Channels (GECs) since Indian television shows enjoy a dubious reputation of having similar plot lines and more often-than-not they end up looking like replicas of each other no matter which channel they air on.
Be it the done-to-death re-birth track, the dead magically returning to life, the plastic surgery excuse to replace key actors or the sensational trend of the year which allows women on television to transform into snakes, witches and how can one forget, the iconic 'Simar' turning into a house fly. Irrespective of how hideous this reads on paper, one has to give it to the channel heads and television producers for employing new strategies in order to grab viewership. After all, a television show is a multi-crore property which these individuals have a mandate to maintain and expand.
One such strategy that has made a significant comeback in the last year is show integration - different television shows of the same channel coming together to present a special episode. While the tactic was a straight hit about two decades ago, in the era marked by Colors' social issue-based dramas, it took a back seat and was delegated solely to festive occasions like Diwali and Holi. However, in its revamped version, the scheme comes with a 'business-twist'. "The intent is to ideally ride on a stronger show and provide sampling to a comparatively weaker show which can benefit it and give it necessary momentum to deliver better ratings," shares Manisha Sharma, programming head, Colors.
The ploy has proved to be a hit-machine for the channel which recorder 6-million viewership in its recently concluded 'Jashn - E - Tashan' episode which featured the characters from all Colors' shows. Sharma adds, "Viewers today are so used to lapping up high-intensity drama - these episodes provide an opportunity to create such organic high-drama content that can help either of or both shows."
Earlier, when a new show would debut, actors of that show appeared on established shows on the same channel and explicitly promoted their upcoming show. However, the recent trend not only integrates shows but also seamlessly merges storylines to ensure simultaneous narrative movement of both the shows involved. Sample this, Aarohi from 'Ishq Mein Marjawan', while running away (on foot) from a suspected serial killer (her father-in-law!) reaches Mumbai from Shimla in a jiffy only to receive help from the protagonist of another show, 'Tu Aashiqui'. Another example - Saumya, based in a Punjab village, is a transgender on the show 'Shakti'; interestingly she takes her friend in for a general check-up all the way to 'Savitri Devi College and Hospital' which happens to be in New Delhi. Keeping the logical fallacies aside, channel heads are increasingly finding ways to leverage the goodwill of successful shows to spill over the non-performing ones.
The seamless cross pollination of characters and storylines has not been explored in films or web-series yet and the chances of it happening anytime soon are slim. Daily soaps in India run for several years and also are woven together by similar plot lines, thereby making it convenient for makers to merge plots and present special episodes.
Zee TV's deputy business head, Deepak Rajadhyaksha has also explored this strategy on his channel. "One does look for a positive rub-off of a more popular property on a relatively new or growing property when one plans a 'Mahasangam'. These special episodes are often an effective tool in driving more sampling of a growing show by bringing on board the audiences of a relatively more established show. We had the biggest of all 'Mahasangams', where a single story thread integrated all our primetime shows for over four and a half hours," explains Rajadhyaksha.
In the past one year, Zee TV has integrated plots of 'Kumkum Bhagya' with 'Kundali Bhagya', 'Bhootu' with 'Jeet Gayi Toh Piya Morre', a week-long merger of 'Zindagi ki Mehek' and 'Piyaa Albela', among others. Even Star Plus integrated 'Ishqbaaaz' with 'Dil Boley Oberoi'. However, none of the competing channels utilised this practice the way Colors did; starting in 2015 (Sasural Simar Ka and Swaragini), Colors merged its shows almost every week in the past year. For the record, Colors consistent chart-topper, 'Shakti' was integrated with every other show that is currently running on the channel. Perhaps the integration is not conducted on a random basis. Sharma says, "The merger has to be as organic and realistic as possible. So, depending on the story tracks and the possibility of merging shows without hampering the narration of either of the shows, we identify the shows to be merged."
But doesn't the law of overdoing anything leading to diminishing returns apply to Indian television? Rajadhyaksha states, "While I cannot comment on the strategies of other channels, at Zee TV we limit our 'Mahasangams' and plan only those that lead to a natural integration. That way, the viewers are fascinated and intrigued by the coming together of two shows rather than finding it unnatural or illogical."
Nevertheless, Sharma believes that the strategy has had a "pretty positive response". She adds, "We have seen that these episodes definitely help both the involved shows, though the weaker show is the bigger beneficiary. However, we have noticed that there needs to be a constant endeavour and a larger plan to drive consistent viewership on shows which we are trying to increase sampling and hence, viewership, through these strategic mergers." Rajadhyaksha also swears by the use of the trick, but only occasionally. "When the characters and plots of two properties we integrate blend seamlessly, it certainly creates a spike in the interest levels from audiences of both the shows," he adds.
Apart from the strategic selection of a weaker and an established show, channels have now started integrating shows which are crafted by different production houses. In order to understand the producer's point of view, we spoke to Gurudev Bhalla who is currently high on the success of his shows, 'Udaan' and 'Tu Aashiqui' - both air on Colors and have been integrated incessantly. Bhalla, who in the recent past has negotiated with different production houses to create special episodes ('Udaan' with 'Laado 2', 'Tu Aashiqui' with 'Ishq Mein Marjawan') tells us that the process is hassle-free, devoid of any power struggle. "We loop in the channel, programming team and writers of both the shows. We have a very healthy joint meeting and the channel ensures that it is a well-balanced episode which is clearly demarcated. If it is 44-minute content, then 'Tu Aashiqui' and 'Ishq Mein Marjawan' get 12-minutes solo and the remaining 20-minutes is the comb of both shows. It is done in a balanced way and none of the shows are short-changed," elaborates Bhalla.
But doesn't it bother him that his hit shows are merged with those which are not enjoying the audience's love? Bhalla says, "My loyalty is to my client (Colors) and if they ask me to do it I will happily oblige. Colors has trusted me with a certain time slot and my responsibility is to keep that slot up and running. Not naming any show, but when they tell me to merge with a show that is not doing well, it's my moral responsibility to bail someone out. The channel is looking at a network which has got 12 shows from slots starting at 6 pm till 11 pm. If I can help the GRP (Gross Rating Point) of a channel go up, then I will do so."
Bhalla is all praise for this strategy and the channel: "The audience is like that hound who is following a blood trail and since it is done regularly, they quite enjoy it. Colors' strategy team is outstanding and these strategies have helped shows in a very dramatic way in order to boost the ratings. These episodes are highly promoted and excitement is created within the audience by the channel. Manisha (Sharma) knows the channel like the back of her hand and we go with her gut."