Anirban Roy Choudhury

3000 not out; 'Taraak Mehta' is like Rahul Dravid, holding one end": Neeraj Vyas, Sony SAB 

'Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah' ('TMKOC') that first aired in 2008 became the second Hindi entertainment show to have more than 3000 episodes.

 Recently, 'Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah' ('TMKOC') became the second Hindi show to cross the 3,000 episode mark in India. Produced by Asit Kumarr Modi's Neela Telefilms, the sitcom airs on Sony Pictures Networks (SPN) India's SAB TV. 'Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai' airs on Star Plus and leads the way with 3,210 episodes.

'TMKOC' is a comedy show and experts in the genre feel it (crossing 3,000 episodes) is a record that will be difficult (not impossible) to break. The show came into existence after Modi discovered a weekly column by Gujarati humorist Tarak Mehta in the (Gujarati) magazine 'Chitralekha'. Modi found Mehta's column 'Duniya Ne Oondha Chashma' "immensely interesting" and thought it could be turned into a TV show.

The show is unusual in many ways. While most comedy shows air on a weekly basis, Modi and SAB TV decided to air 'TMKOC' daily. Modi says that when all other shows had a 'haveli', 'TMKOC' went for society. When suited-booted executives were playing lead roles in daily soaps, the characters in 'TMKOC' were simple, smart and relatable. And last, Modi says, when other shows focus on sorrow and conspiracy, 'TMKOC' focuses on making people smile.

Modi says that the script of 'TMKOC' was rejected many times. First Sony rejected it, followed by Zee, Star and later Disney. In 2007, Modi got a call from NP Singh, who was then chief operating officer of Multi Screen Media (MSM). (Singh is now CEO, Sony Pictures Networks India.) When Modi was asked to make a show for SAB TV, he pitched 'TMKOC' to Singh.

SAB TV was launched in April 2000 by Sri Adhikari Brothers as a Hindi general entertainment channel (GEC). In 2003, it was repositioned as a comedy-centric channel. In March 2005, SAB TV was acquired by Sony Entertainment Television. 

In 2008, 'TMKOC' went on air on SAB TV. Modi was told that the show will not work on a new channel with hardly any distribution might, but he said, "Films get people to the cinema halls, the show will get people to the channel." This is how 'TMKOC' started its journey. 

Today, SAB TV is one of the top three entertainment channel in urban India and 'TMKOC' always makes it to the list of top five programmes. The second GEC from Sony's stable, SAB TV maintains that it is the only 'desert' in the crowded 'saas-bahu thali'.

Neeraj Vyas
Neeraj Vyas

In this interview with afaqs!, Neeraj Vyas - senior EVP & head, channel SAB and MAX cluster of channels, Sony Pictures Networks India talks about the role that 'Taraak Mehta' plays today for Sony SAB.

Edited excerpts:

What makes 'TMKOC' so special?

Post new tariff order (NTO), any channel with a marquee show will always have an advantage. Today, the game has changed. It is not only about ad sales. Yes, ad sales remain a very important aspect when it comes to revenues for broadcasters. NTO has brought the choice factor into play.

While channels are bundled and sold in packages, the customers have the choice to pay Rs 15 or Rs 19 and subscribe to a channel, and then in the next month, not pay at all. In such a situation, when you have a marquee show, and when I say marquee show I mean a true marquee show, any brand will have an advantage.

What do you mean when you say a true marquee show?

A true marquee show is a show like 'TMKOC' that has been running for more than 12 years with 3,000-plus episodes and (very importantly) yet keeps engaging the consumers. Simply because the characters have now got woven into the fabric of the Indian television viewing universe. People connect with the characters and the stories that are being told.

Cast of TMKOC
Cast of TMKOC

Is it unique for a comedy show on a comedy channel?

I keep telling people that 'TMKOC' is not a comedy show and SAB TV is not a comedy channel anymore. 'TMKOC' is an emotional show. It is a fun show that tells you about human relationships. Fun is just a by-product of that in the characters, writing, etc.

The show is about integration, togetherness, values and family bonds. It is about unifying and solving an issue. Comedy shows are normally mad and over the top, where situations are fictitious and people are loud. 'TMKOC' does not have any of these virtues, but is actually a slice of life show.

There is a perception that 'TMKOC' is a show that is only popular in Gujarat and other Gujarati settlements across the country…

It has always been a misconception. There is something called PrimaVU (BARC India's product to measure premium homes). It measured families that go for foreign holidays, have car priced above Rs 10 lakh, have at least two ACs at home, and stuff like that. 'TMKOC' has, by far, been the highest-rated show on PrimaVU across the Hindi speaking market. SAB TV is an urban brand and I want it to be an urban brand. We are not a brand for the rural market, and all our shows reflect that.

When you say urban brand, do you compete with all the other GECs in the mix?

We are not a full course meal. I don't have hardcore soaps, hardcore singing, dance reality shows, thrillers, crime shows, etc. These are the various expressions of so-called GECs. I am the 'desert', but I am the only 'desert', and that is what sets SAB TV apart. I would like to be away from the pack, rather than be just another one in the pack. Also, SAB TV does not cater to only the housewives as most GECs do. We cater to the entire family.

A show like 'TMKOC' has stood the test of time, how do the advertisers look at it? Do you rake in a premium?

This is a show that has always sold its slots at a premium rate. Now if it was only popular in Gujarat, then the advertisers would not have bought slots at a premium rate...

When you have a show as strong as 'TMKOC', what happens to the other programmes in the lineup? Does it overshadow other shows?

I look at 'TMKOC' as the guy who holds one end. If we see a test (cricket) match, Rahul Dravid used to do that for India for years. 'TMKOC' is the Dravid of this programming team that holds one end and the other scores around it.

We have embarked on a fresh journey strategically from what it was two-and-a-half years back when SAB TV was just a comedy channel with very similar kind of shows. Comedy is the most difficult genre, as it is impossible to control the writing, casting and quality....